“Is the Internet dead?” Hito Steyerl once asked in an article on e-flux journal. Raising this very question today, she adds, may seem ill-suited at first. More than ever, our daily lives are being regulated and controlled by intricate technologies connecting us on a global scale. The ubiquity of screens and their ever-increasing infiltration into our intimate, personal sphere is no longer a figment of imagination but simply a matter of fact. Not only do we live with our smartphones, we also sleep with them. The superhighways of communication and information have become our biotope, getting us high on the dopamine kicks of supposed productivity and connectivity.
Co-Workers. The Network as Artist is a large-scale exhibition at Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris that looks at how the living presence of networks has modified not only the world around us, but equally how it has rewired our neural architecture – as many authors (such as Nicholas Carr, Matteo Pasquinelli, Tiziana Terranova, Warren Neidich and others) have pointed out. Ultimately, then, the overall curatorial ambition seems to be ecological in the threefold way expressed in Guattari’s essay The Three Ecologies (2008), i.e. as related to our psyche, to our social relations and the environment. In this way we are able to move beyond anthropocentrism, and look at the ways in which human beings are an inextricable part of larger constellations and systems whose complexity transcends their grasp and control.
The thematics of Co-Workers is of course not entirely new, and could be dated back to historical precursors such as Cybernetic Serendipity (ICA London, 1968, curator Jasia Reichardt), Software. Information Technology: Its New Meaning for Art (Jewish Museum New York, 1970, curator Jack Burnham) or Les Immatériaux (Centre Pompidou Paris, 1985, curator Jean Francois Lyotard). The latter, supervised by the godfather of postmodernism, succeeded to connect art and technology in an overtly theatrical dramaturgy.
Lyotard’s spirit certainly is still present in the current show at Musée d´Art Moderne, at least discursively. But the times have clearly changed. Where Les Immatériaux was pointing to developments outside of the museum, to the possibilities opened up by new media, Co-Workers takes those back inside the institution. Or how we progress from the dematerialisation of art to the rematerialisation of the internet. As curator Toke Lykkeberg notes in the catalogue: the former is a finite process, but the latter proves to be an endless quest.
The ecological aspirations of Co-Workers are mostly articulated on an aesthetic rather than an ethical or political level. That is to say, a more hybrid, interdisciplinary approach could also have worked to tackle the subject matter in all its complexity. Instead, everything looks very arty and contemporary: art is the end rather than the starting point.
The curators opted for an “essay exhibition” divided into different chapters while avoiding a narrative overload. In this way, the rather wide scope becomes fragmented and translated into a slick scenography by DIS, the groovy artistic platform for all that is digital.
Ranging from a showroom to a lounge corner, DIS managed to transform the whole exhibition setting into a kind of heterotopian co-working space incorporating the various works of art. Unmistakably, this reflects their way of working, as they are often operating as a kind of catalyst, eclectically negotiating between different people, ideas, aesthetics, languages or cultures. Within the exhibition, these divergent artistic energies converge in an installation titled The Island (KEN), an odd, humorous and compelling blend of a kitchen, a bathroom (complete with horizontal shower) and a stage for performances and talks.
As a kind of institutional tour de force, the organisators decided to appoint three curators for the show in the Musée d’Art Moderne, and another two for a much (much) smaller annex in Béton Salon Centre for Art and Research. The exact extent of their joint collaborative effort remains a bit unclear though. In this ostentatious context the initials of HUO are just lurking around the corner. If Obrist is not being flown in from Dubai, Los Angeles or Hong Kong, at least you will see his name featured on some list. In this case, “89plus”, the initiative Obrist founded together with Simon Castets, is also “participating” (as it is announced) with a self-proclaimed “exhibition within the exhibition”, bringing in an additional two curators. Without having to know how the collaboration came along, this curatorial frenzy runs the risk of undermining the credibility of the show and slightly calling the curators’ input into question.
The extensive list of artists is exciting enough as it is, though a little predictable and safe. With contributors such as Ryan Trecartin, AIDS-3D, Ed Atkins, Bunny Rogers, Hito Steyerl, Timur Si-Qin and others, it becomes immediately clear that a particular generation is being put on show here. Most of them could, with some good will, be characterized as belonging to the “postinternet” generation, however shallow that label sounds. If it has any distinct meaning at all, it is arguably about the way the internet has left its mark on art, both as a subject matter and a distribution tool. The prefix “post-“, then, refers to, again in Steyerl’s words, how the internet “has started moving offline”.
Scenographic starting point is the overwhelming proliferation of images today. Images are far from being innocent renderings, their representative role can hardly be detached from their circulation, dissemination or appropriation. Bourriaud’s idea of post-production is of course not far away here. Pictures have become (and actually always have been) powerful weapons, agents of both truth and deceit; their wars are being fought in our midst. The often-seen clash between armed cops and demonstrators equipped with smartphones tells us so much about the metamodern times we live in. We are as much producers of pictures as we are their consumers, leading on to the notion of the “prosumer”, originally coined by futurist Alvin Toffler in 1980.
This is quite apparent in the work of Parker Ito – or in this case his alter ego Cheeto – who is presenting a large series of painterly images that seem to be composed in a kind of feedback loop. The repetitive, pastiche-like comment on American online culture is undeniably a strong opener for the show, combined with a video piece and sculpture by the great Mark Leckey.
A little further on we see a multiple-screen installation by Cécile B. Evans, the Belgian-American artist and performer who, last year, created Hyperlinks or It Didn’t Happen, a captivating project about the digital double of deceased actor Philip Seymour Hoffman. Working on What the Heart Wants (2015) will be part of a larger installation at the 2016 Berlin Biennale (curated by DIS) and deals with much of the same issues that occupied Evans before. This time she is envisioning a transhumanist society called Hyper Media, which has grown all-powerful due to the accumulation of information about its members. Evans’s prototypical installation looks like an science-fiction symphony for the digital age, and does not come without a touch of melancholy.
The biopolitical topics of life, death and survival beyond the human condition reappear in a compelling and unsettling video piece by Rachel Rose titled Sitting Feeding Sleeping (2013). In a filmic collage, she focuses the notion of “deathfullness”, a zombie-like state in between sleeping and waking, being dead and alive. Cryopreservation, for instance, is in many countries now considered a legal mode of body disposal, next to cremation or burial. Rose is shedding light on this phenomenon from different cultural angles, exploring an uncanny twilight zone.
Hito Steyerl’s recent piece Liquidity Inc. (2014) occupies quite a central position in the show. The wave-like structure of the video installation is of course not only a formal wink to Hokusai. In her typical tongue-in-cheek yet critical style, Steyerl manages to associate a loungy setting with a natural disaster (tsunami), questioning our state of inertia in times of crisis all while deconstructing the false walls between nature and culture.
One of the most humorous works in the show is to be found at the exit, where Ed Atkins’s video Even Pricks (2013) is strategically placed. Atkins uses templates from blockbuster trailers to insert other, subversive messages like “This summer…destroy your life.” The video piece deals with depression, and its impossible expression in a digital realm where it’s only about the hearts and likes.
The Web seems pretty much everywhere today, impossible to locate in one place. It may find itself in a zombie- or vampire-like state that, just like Marx’s description of capital, “only lives by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks”.
Traditional boundaries are being breached at an unprecedented rate and we can only clumsily deal with its consequences. Public and private, intimate and distant, personal and professional, local and global; all of these antonyms are now caught up in a complex dialectical interplay. Rigidity and discipline are being replaced by flexibility, precarity and continuous variation. The old confinements in both time and space are becoming liquid. So how do we ride these new waves and flows?
Co-Workers is a prestigious blockbuster show bursting with talent, both on the curatorial and the artistic side. It offers us a glimpse of the future as seen from the present, carefully negotiating between utopia and dystopia, material and immaterial, online and offline, posthumanism and transhumanism, between ecology and technology. This is a field where speculation and realism meet, where fiction and reality converge. After all, organising an art exhibition about our networked lives seems very well in its place, today and in art history, as another milestone along our information superhighways.