Realm of the Senses

Inspired by science fiction, this year’s instalment of the Lofoten International Art Festival enters into a sensuous pact with the future.

Daisuke Kosugi, Good Name (Bad Phrase), 2017. Photo: Kjell Ove Storvik.

Like many other fields of human endeavour, art too is getting involved in the struggle to pre-empt the future, to seize and conquer what has yet to be imagined: Everywhere we look we see speculative musings on the potential outcomes of a technologically assisted evolution and of network technology’s alteration of humanity’s social habitat. There is a deluge of existentialist reports from our increasingly virtual lives, of identity politics infused by post-humanism, of fantasies about norm-breaking and category-defying ways of upholding life after the ecological collapse. “Science fiction”, the main keyword for this year’s instalment of the Lofoten International Art Festival, curated by Heidi Ballet and Milena Høgsberg, certainly echoes a wider trend. You don’t need to look further than to Moss and this years Momentum biennial Alienation to find an exhibition with a similar theme.

If LIAF 2017, which has been given the title I Taste the Future, nevertheless represents something different from the usual contributions to the ongoing saga of contemporary art envisioning the future, it is by demonstratively avoiding overt genre markers. It is particularly gratifying to be free of the usual parasitical latching on to “new technology”; here you’ll not find a single VR visor dangling from the ceiling. Sondra Perry’s three overturned video projectors and Ann Lislegaard’s computer-animated “self portrait” projected onto the wall on the next floor down, represent the most extravagant uses of technology in this exhibition. Such tempered composure lends credibility to the curator’s stated intentions of using science fiction “to think with”.

Sondra Perry, Eclogue For No Horizon, 2017. Photo: Kjell Ove Storvik.

Out of the seventeen artists and artist duos represented here – not counting Tromsø folkekjøkken and Mondo Books, who are also listed as contributors in the catalogue – no fewer than ten are showing video. Likely, this has to do with the link between science-fiction and narrative form: the initial brief to the artists called for them to imagine the world 150 years from now. Not one of them has done so. It would have been interesting if they had accepted this nudging; it is entirely possible to envision such a consistent marshalling of the artists’ creative processes, particularly in view of the fact that LIAF 2017 can be regarded as a group exhibition with extremely ample room available (a mostly positive trait.). Be that as it may. The curators probably never expected or intended their appeal to be taken literally. And even though all projects distance themselves from this strict what if-premise, many of them are nevertheless narrative in quite traditional ways.

The exhibition is set within three former fish landing facilities and in a football court. There is also a performance programme set largely out of doors. The three fish landing facilities form a gloomy setting, with concrete walls, narrow creaking wooden stairs and dimly lit rooms. Out of the four artists who are not showing time-based works – meaning neither video nor performance – three of them are “gatherers”: Michaela Paludan shows a subtly subdued assemblage combining found photographs with her own, all depicting scenes from the fisheries industry and other subjects typical of the region, spread out across two large desks; Filip Van Dingenen has set up a workshop within the exhibition where simple prints are made by means of seaweed; and Silje Figenschou Thoresen shows a collection of assorted decrepit materials associated with Finnmark and the “waste not, want not” mentality of Sami culture: a bundle of metal wire, a transparent plastic sheet lying on top of an overhead projector, bits of insulation and so on. Figenschou Thoresen’s display has an ad hoc, museum-like quality that is accentuated by a series of offhand drawings of archaeological charts and models.

Filip Van Dingenen, Tidal Migration Pattern of Seaweed Spirit When Moon is Shining, 2016–17. Photo: Kjell Ove Storvik.

At one level LIAF 2017 seems to gainsay the somewhat doom-and-gloom tone that permeated the last instalment of LIAF, Disappearing Acts. On that occasion the curators, Arne Skaug Olsen and Matt Packer, asked their audience the rhetorical question of whether humanity had initiated an irreversible apocalyptic process. With its overtly eco-political programme I Taste the Future also flirts with disaster, but at the same time it demonstratively incites action, an ambition that Disappearing Acts did not express to the same extent. This constructive ambition means that even though LIAF 2017 does not completely neutralise the foreboding sense of disaster triggered by the word “future”, it nevertheless has an inviting and “warm” feel”. It often grips me in ways that contemporary art rarely does. This emotional timbre may well have a lot to do with the presence of the Lofoten landscape in the exhibition and the way in which its sublime nature inescapably reduces one to a state of almost self-effacing receptiveness.

Some of the works hardly need a helping hand from their surroundings to seduce, such as To Gear a Joan, a performance by choreographer Adam Linder made especially for the Norwegian singer Stine Janvin Motland. Motland walks around the exhibition venue wearing a simple suit of armour made from carbon fibres. At specific times she takes off this suit and transforms it into a stool and a music stand. Sitting on this, she intones an indignant protest against the industrial exploitation of natural resources: “Where instruments set forth to defy the scale of limbs / You ask why the future can not be tasted? / Cause to blink in the present has left more wasted”. After her song she transforms the impromptu furniture into a suit of armour again and goes back to haunting the various floors of the building. The combination of Motland’s vocal gifts and the sober, exactly dosed use of visual devices makes To Gear a Joan a mesmerising aesthetic experience. The reference to the historical figure of Joan of Arc casts Motland as a kind of eco-feminist general; at the same time the aura of unearthly beauty and melancholy makes her song more reminiscent of an elegy than a battle cry.

Adam Linder, To Gear a Joan, 2017. Photo: Kjell Ove Storvik.

Ho Tzu Nyen’s energetic Critical Dictionary for South East Asia vol. 3 exposes us to a stream of alphabetically arranged keywords associated with the South East Asian region, each followed by a brief explanation. The voices change at times, but the narration remains rapid and chant-like throughout. Concurrently with the frenetic, polyphonic gushing of words we see a montage of grainy videos taken from the internet, supposedly gathered in real time by an algorithm. The correspondence between text and image is unstable, and the work continually jumps between different levels of abstraction: from political systems to agriculture to the distinctive geological and climatic features of the landscape. This may sound unbearable, but in fact the film is a successful synthesis of seething anarchism and evocative historical analysis, positing the pluralistic political and religious culture of South East Asia as an ideological contrast to the European national state. If anything like an overall alternative vision of society is formulated anywhere I Taste the Future, this is it.

In Fabrizio Terranova’s interview film Donna Haraway: Story Telling for Earthly Survival we meet the famous feminist and theorist Donna Haraway. Most of the scenes show Haraway facing the camera in her own home, speaking in an open, honest and ramblingly associative manner about her childhood and upbringing, love life and family life, her close ties to the ageing dog Cayenne Pepper, and her enthusiasm for science fiction and storytelling in general. We are also given insight into her philosophical work, in which she highlights the need for a radical change in humanity’s own perception of its place in the world and speaks of the necessity of seeking intimacy across species, a practice that she describes as “making kin”. Her use of “kin” refers to a kind of horizontal logic of kinship: not the vertical family ties that are established through biological reproduction, but rather the ones created through an active “becoming-with” other earthbound creatures. The footage is occasionally invaded by animations and green-screen tricks as if to destabilise or contaminate the domestic setting occupied by Haraway. This awkward post-production mannerism add little to the piece. Haraway herself convey a far more compelling picture of the symbiotic when she concludes by reciting a fable about a posthuman creature who grows a beard made out of butterfly antennae.

Fabrizio Terranova, Donna Haraway: Story Telling for Earthly Survival, 2016. Photo: Kjell Ove Storvik.

Haraway’s theories have clearly influenced the thinking behind I Taste the Future. Among the works that most explicitly draw on her thinking we find Lili Reynaud-Dewar’s Teeth, Gums, Machines, Future, Society (TGMFS). The film brings together Haraway’s A Cyborg Manifesto, written in 1984, and African-American hip-hop culture via the medium of so-called “grills”, a kind of dental jewellery that makes teeth look as if they are made of metal. The sanitation workers’ strike in Memphis prompted by the killing of Martin Luther King in 1968 forms the central hub of a montage that also shows cars driving along to the sound of booming hip-hop music and cut-up interviews featuring a number of unnamed persons reflecting on everything from Haraway’s text to the semiotics of dental jewellery and the myth of post-racist USA. Like Terranova, Reynaud-Dewar also uses superimposed animations. This dividing of the image into layers that the observer is then tasked with synthesising, reflects the fundamentally fragmented format of the film. The disjointed proceedings culminate in an extensive session played out on a sterile white stage where the actors engage each other in hectic conversation, but where the sound is a frenetic choir of voices, out of synch with the image, leaving us with only brief snatches of intelligible dialogue. The cacophony is exacerbated by a densely humming DJ set being played from the same stage.

Most interesting in the context of I Taste the Future is Reynaud-Dewar’s focus on the mouth – visually through the recurring close-ups of dental jewellery, and aurally through the focus on the actors’ voices as aesthetic material, particularly in the final scene. The mouth is central to I Taste the Future. Tasting something forges a greater intimacy with the object than seeing it. Or, to put it in a different way: if the sense of sight distances the observer from the matter under inspection and grants overview, traits associated with the human individual who has proclaimed herself ruler of nature, the sense of taste prompts a more immersive form of interaction. Associated with the intake of food and, hence, of other organisms, one could say that eating is a symbiotisation technique. A mouth surrounded by antennae borrowed from another creature, as related in Haraway’s fable, suggestively equips the media of such symbiotisation with a species-transcending sensitivity.

Lili Reynaud-Dewar, Teeth, Gums, Machines, Future, Society (TGMFS), 2016. Photo: Kjell Ove Storvik.

The sensualisation of the interface with nature is infused with comedy in Eglė Budvytytė’s performance Liquid Power has no Shame. Three dancers wearing shiny yellow jackets, hoodies and narrow black Adidas trousers move along the street while performing a choreography that includes a bandy-legged, crab-like gait while they rub their crotch and inside thigh areas. The performance is also shown as a video shot on a rocky shore and including other elements of a more ritual nature, such as spitting in the ocean, drinking out of each other’s navels and lying in a claustrophobic, undulating cluster on the edge of the water. At times a voice can be heard, explaining the intentions behind the various movements – “to ease the conversation between human and nonhuman” – with the intonations of a yoga teacher. Liquid Power models a kind of punk-androgynous search for movements that can intensify the contact between the human body and the environment. The result is in a sense similar to Linder’s choreography: both performances were charismatic events that drew in audiences. During the opening a large group of observers followed Budvytytė’s troupe through the streets as if they were entertainers in a parade.

This carnivalesque session – almost a parodic exaggeration of LIAF’s eco-political project – found its opposite number in Daisuke Kosugi’s performance: In Good Name (Bad Phrase) you are guided around a large football field in Henningsvær by yourself while listening to an audio guide featuring an eclectic selection of brief stories focusing on subjects such as death, egotism, disease, religion, opportunism and other “repressive” matters that govern the human organism’s behaviour. As you listen you are given instructions on where you position yourself. Daisuke lets the field’s rational system of specific distances and lines remind of the social and biological structures that isolates and determine man. At times the guide plays the cheerfully incestuous song I’m My Own Grandpa. The lyrics describe a succession of marriages and births that leads to man becoming his own grandfather, in strictly logical terms. The stunted, solipsistic family tree outlined here is a welcome supplement to the Haraway cult’s trans-species call for making kin.

Good Name (Bad Phrase) may be distanced and polemical, but it does highlight the “position of hope” that dominates LIAF 2017. It is possible to assume that humanity isn’t capable of establishing a morally binding connection with other life on this planet. The answer to the ecological crisis might also be to develop a way of life extensively assisted by technology, which, rather than representing a green communism instead entrenches our dominance over this planet and intensifies the ruthless exploitation. In the end we could form a symbiotic pact with this all-regulating and, eventually, self-perpetuating world machine. If there is anything missing from I Taste the Future it would be speculation on potential futures that packed as much predictive force as such techno-dystopian visions. The future(s) imagined at LIAF 2017 are generally indirectly depicted and too constrained by present-day social and environmental issues to reach beyond their historical moment. Perhaps it is too much to expect an art biennial to offer science fiction that truly expands our horizons, but then again that is what this exhibition expects of itself.

Eglė Budvytytė, Liquid Power Has No Shame, 2017. Photo: Kjell Ove Storvik.