Deep Inside
5th Moscow International Biennale for Young Art, 2016
The old creed of discrete entities and fixed borders stands mortified. Like the unhappy martyr Saint Sebastian it is shot through. No longer self-contained, its human form is invaded by synthetic genes and psychotropic drugs, or recast as a flow of data staked out by alienating economic functions. As a body of state, or ‘local’ domain, it is punctured by extra-territorial currents. If we discard the anthropomorphic lens, it is a Pacific Ocean tide receiving an influx of radioactive particles and petroleum based polymers, or a mountain unsettled by some violent injection of pressurized water and sand. Everything is touched; everything is probed. This is the broken ground upon which our contemporary cultural life treads, beset by all too frequent encounters with yawning chasms – denaturing sinkholes that threaten to swallow not only established values and concepts, but ecosystems, species and perhaps the whole world.1 On the one hand, this ungrounding springs from our increased mastery of the physical elements. We are obsessed by our immersion in their continuum, and the technical applications enabled by a deeper understanding of this condition – from nuclear medicine to nuclear weapons. As our sciences plumb the passages of matter and energy through animal, vegetable, mineral, planet and cosmos as a whole, what was once indivisible becomes fragmented, what was once untouchable is grasped, and was once unseen or unthinkable put on naked display. But there are always further depths. Whereas in 1917 Rutherford split the atom, today’s particle physics dives into the space opened up by this achievement, charting recesses one thousand times smaller than a proton. Whereas before 2001 we lacked a complete picture of the human genome, today we can edit DNA and even write messages into its nucleotides.2There seems no end to the passages that may be carved through what was once considered impenetrable. But every opening, update or trajectory is attended by new enigmas, further mishaps and pollution.

In addition to this increased ability to denature ‘nature’, today’s intense connectivity shakes the foundations of established social institutions – destabilizing them in the blink of an eye.3When we least expect it, insurgent vectors cut into political, social, and economic bodies. Some developments are sinister, others most patently nihilistic or the function of dispassionate algorithms ‘sourcing the nonhuman’ by default.4Meanwhile, desperate elites seek stability through higher walls – green zones, VIP areas, economic protectionism, anti-bacterial sterility and creepy total security – but the tunnels keep being dug. Meanwhile, running parallel to the rhetorical ascendance of ‘disruption’ – pursued by terrorists and captains of new industry alike – we are ever more surveilled and regulated; the gorgon’s stare boring further into our lives.

As the above suggests, ours is the time of fissures, of prying apart, of penetration and cavities. Ours is an abyssal culture. If Modernism sought to strike bedrock– the zero-point of painting; basic structures of human psychology; historical laws and economic science – today we hold no such illusions. We are climbing, or falling, ever deeper into a kind of black hole. As we do, it is perhaps to be expected that our artists should be fascinated by opacities, by occultations, encryptions and conspiracies – the other side of the event horizon. Also, that they should rhapsodize about instability and polydimensionality. When you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you. Strangely enough, however, there is more to the abyss than we once imagined: as the giant flare of X-rays detected around the corona of the black hole Markarian 335 testifies, it can give back.5In the spirit of this lesson, new artistic positions are born from contemporary ungroundings. They are intensive, interior and provisional; they are projections, occupations, infections, hybridizations, and short circuits deep inside. The works featured in this exhibition chart such strategies, along with the aforementioned rhapsodies, dark fascinations, and reflections on destabilizing, subterranean, agencies.

*

As may be expected, artworks that figure the abyssal character of our contemporary condition abound in Deep Inside. Along with falling and uncertainty, the exhibition features a host of reflections on ungrounding.

If falling is a key metaphor for how we navigate abyssal cultural space, various artworks seem to picture the uncertainty that we will ever arrive at a terminus. Julian Charrière’s multi-channel sound installation Countdown (2016) subjects the issue of conclusion to a logic of suspended – but still vigorous – animation. The work is a collage of audio samples taken from various international rocket launches: Authoritative human voices, speaking in various languages, deliver integers in a non-consecutive sequence that is calculated to hypnotize and perhaps disturb. But the track is no mere recording. It is, in fact, triggered by a generative algorithm employing the Fibonacci spiral – and can run indefinitely. Along analogous visual lines, Graham Kelly’s ictal asynchronous progress indicator (2016) is a looped video work that features found footage of a skydiver undergoing an epileptic seizure whilst in free-fall. Carefully edited so as to make any jump in the sequence imperceptible, the helpless body of the man appears to plunge in perpetuity.

Nadja Marcin’s video-performance Zero Gravity (2013) sets a falling condition within a technological frame – specifically, the inside of an aeroplane undertaking a parabolic flight pattern. Performing a monologue for the camera as gravity appears to come in and out of phase, her body bouncing off the cabin’s walls and ceiling, Marcin asks the viewer a series of questions first posed in Nietzsche’s The Gay Science, addressing the – existential – uncertainty associated with the putative death of god: “What were we doing”, the artist entreaties, “when we unchained this earth from its sun? […] Are we not straying as through an infinite nothing?” Her video does not attempt to proffer an answer but reminds us that this philosophical query – written a century ago – still hangs in the air.

Uncertainty is not merely a feeling or emotion, but a core tenet of post-Newtonian physics. Werner Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle implies that there is a fundamental limit to what we can know about the behaviour of quantum particles. Specifically, their absolute position and momentum at any given moment is impossible to determine. As higher order descriptions supervene upon the minute scale of the quantum field, the intellectual significance of this blind spot may be immense. Adam Gibney’s sound-sculpture, Synthesiser 7:(un)Certain (2014), turns this lacuna into a spatial and auditory drama. The work employs a quote by Heisenberg himself, which states “We cannot expect to undercover any fundamental truths about the world merely from the abstract manipulation of words and concepts”. But, without religious revelation, where does this leave us? In the new physics, bodies have a funny way of receding as we approach them: Gibney divides Heisenberg’s statement into linguistic particles that are randomly transported through an 8-channel interactive speaker system. Each is manipulated and transformed by the presence of the viewer. The closer one gets to an output, to discern what ‘hermeneutic value’ its sonic payload contains, the more the signal feeds back into itself: an auditory image of epistemic insecurity.

Other works explore known unknowns through reference to physically unsettled, or unsettling, ground. In a series of photographs conditioned by physical limitations, Alice Miceli’s In Depth (landmines) (2015) documents a safe path through an otherwise deadly minefield. In this work, that which is pictured has been overdetermined by the threat of literal unearthing and bodily destruction: Chthonic shock as a compositional principle. Also touching upon the theme of trauma from below, Florian Goldman’s multimedia Sample II – A Memorial in Miniature takes on one of the worst disasters in recorded history: On Friday the 11th of March, 2011, the earth’s crust shook for approximately six minutes, displacing a portion of the Pacific Ocean’s massive volume onto the Japanese coast. In addition to the 230,000 persons killed by the tsunami, the subsequent meltdown of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant may yet claim more lives – as atomic particles suffuse water, earth, and atmosphere. Beyond the obviously unsettled ground of the Fukushima disaster zone, the words ‘core collapse’ appropriately imply the event’s more general contribution to planetary instability – as invisible radioactive agents undercut the physical viability of human and animal bodies, working their way deep inside them.

As comments on the last works indicate, in ecological terms, the matrix of human impact holds the globe in a python grip. So comprehensive, and transformative, is its clutch that a new geological epoch has been named to take it into account.6 If, for now, this circumstance only applies to planet earth, it is not for want of intention. Martian colonies are in the planning by private entrepreneurs7, and the American congress has recently passed a bill paving the way for future asteroid mining claims.8 Vesna Rohaček’s Extreme Planet Makeover (2015) lightboxes feature appropriated text and imagery from a computer game, hosted on NASA’s website, that symptomatizes the quest for techno-demiurgic agency on a cosmic scale.9In it, starting from a basic model that is based upon the features of planet earth, you can begin to ‘create your own [new] world’ through acts of terraforming or ‘extreme makeover’, and observe how the effects play out. While the game is partly ventured as a way to educate users about the consequences of human action on planetary systems, it emphatically pays tribute to boundless human agency.

It is a paradox of popular ecological thought that heeding demands to conserve planet earth require the application of more aggressive containment and control systems. Rather than leaving ‘nature’ alone, conservation strategies require that we properly digest it, or inter it deep within an archive or administrative cocoon. From captive breeding programs and tagging for endangered species, to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, located far underground on a remote arctic island, contemporary humanity – even at its most eco-minded – sets nature within its own constructions. Alongside Paul Rosero Contreras’ Wave (2014), which employs the movement of live genetically modified silkworms to generate digital visual and aural effects, Verena Friedrich’s The Long Now (2015) seems to figure this dynamic, conserving the lifespan of a floating soap bubble within a kind of artificial support system; the fragility of the bubble – since the baroque period, a paradigmatic symbol of vanitas – standing in contrast to the overtly mechanical look of its atmospherically modulated container. Friedrich’s work sketches even this most ethereal of figures within an overbearing techno-materialist context – one that is not only physical but, qua industry, political.10

*

As information systems converge, it can often seem as though we – not just plants and animals – are caught deep inside an unshakable control matrix. A certain strand of contemporary cultural production explores this perspective, as well as the (in)visibility of its personal and planetary scale infrastructures:

If one were to take the airy rhetoric of The Cloud at face value, it might seem as though contemporary information cultures float above anything so profane as a material substrate. However, as works such Ivar Veermäe’s Center of Doubt (2012- 2015) propose, we must dig into the foundations of the global data order so as to uncover its concrete extent and implications. This is a multi-channel visualization of the worldwide nexus of server farms and data-centres. In such a work, the artist’s dredges telling socio-political and ecological insights from otherwise muddy channels.

Rune Rasmussen’s Man Is The Measure Of All Things 2.0 (2015) is a portrait of the discipline enabled by surveillance technologies. Reflecting on the status of a Google Earth image in a recent court case against an illegal migrant to the US, the work highlights a telling instance of doublethink: Within the corporate-government-surveillance yoke an inhuman gaze – the mechanical eye of the satellite – may serve as a key ‘witness’ for the legal judgment that a person is, in fact, an ‘alien’.

The inhuman gaze of surveillance media – capable of turning people into aliens, stones, or pillars of salt – also features in Addie Wagenknecht’s xxxx.xxx (2013). This is a performing object or technical assemblage whose ‘action’ consists of observing its audience. Comprising a series of integrated circuit boards, it intercepts or ‘sniffs’ packets of data issuing from visitors’ mobile devices and other passing traffic. Partially constituted by a massive jumble of cables – suggestive of a 21st Century Medusa – Wagenknecht’s work indexes and displays our utter entanglement within information streams. In addition, it confronts the visitor’s enquiring gaze with its own programmatic regard – of what they are to it.

The monolithic scale of the techno-power network and its relative illegibility to most of us, understandably, provokes conspiracy theories and speculations about dark or occult forces at work behind everyday appearances. Whether reflecting upon obscure agendas – or intelligences – inside the workings of machines, or suspect powers in general, the profusion of specialized languages and systems that order contemporary Western experience stand as Egyptian hieroglyphs did before the discovery of the Rosetta Stone: as provocative mysteries. If transparency is the hegemonic techno-liberal doxa then engagements with opacity are its cultural return of the repressed.

Pau Pahana’s bookwork is is (2015) takes inspiration from the writings of 19th Century occultist Madame Blavatsky who taught – amongst other things – that the great majority of the human population lives shrouded in veil of ignorance regarding the true nature of the world, but that a hidden cabal of ‘masters’ live among us and possess the most comprehensive wisdom and abilities.11Through a series of visionary collages Pahana’s work combines images from ethnographic and archeological sources – including a book on Egyptian art – to address, in his own words, ‘what has sought our enslavement’ in the current paradigm of ‘object oriented mechanized progress’.

The rhetorical form of DECODING Katy Perry’s Dark Horse (THE WHOLE TRUTH) (2015), by artist Karin Ferrari, is clearly inspired by a rich vein of independent documentaries on YouTube which purport to uncover or correctly analyze the symbolic manifestations of major conspiracies in our public life. Set in Memphis – Egypt – and suffused with hieroglyphic imagery, an ultra light pop-music video by the American star Katy Perry receives a dogged, and deadpan, analysis in a voiceover supplied by the artist. Like the underground media whose idioms it highlights, Ferrari’s argument is by turns weirdly convincing and highly implausible.

Wilf Spiller’s BlkBx.mov (2014) neatly – and powerfully – pinpoints the occult dimension of our commonplace relationship with emerging technologies. It does so through a focus on the constitution of the black box, which the artist defines as ‘any device which performs an intricate function but whose internal mechanism may not be readily inspected or understood’. In a hallucinatory video montage that bridges consumer electronics and religious reliquaries, the young British artist highlights the ‘faith’ structures required by so many of our most indispensible tools.

Jonathan Doweck’s paleosol 80 south (2014) focuses on a partially decommissioned military zone in the Negev desert, close to the site of the biblical Mount Sinai, marked by the remnants of old radar systems, concrete walls and scraps of exploded ordinance. But the function of some of these items is not so clear-cut. Standing strange and inscrutable amid a geography overlaid with otherworldly myths, the artist offers speculations as to their alien identities. If you do not know what something is then it is likely you do not also – at least to a certain degree – know what it is not. This condition is the motor of speculative thought and conspiracy theories in general.

Notwithstanding whatever opaque agencies operate behind the scenes, shadowy security services and anonymous revolutionaries are in agreement: the privilege of conspiracy is not reserved for a power elite.12We may act as occult forces too. Indeed, there are hidden potentials within the control matrix that can be leveraged. Though subject to an architecture designed to elicit particular types of behavior, one might discover a space between a wall, an unexpected basement that can be put alternative use, or else fashion a new tool from the scraps of others. Deep inside today’s Empire the culture of interstices, loopholes, Warez and exploits is at home. As Alvaro Urbano’s Untitled (2015) installation – a crack in one of the walls of the exhibition space that opens into an entirely ‘other’ dimension – seems to suggest, the Situationist slogan ‘under the paving stones: the beach’ might still has some purchase.

Vladislav Brut and Alisa Beketova’s DEEP ART (2016) is a prototype Internet portal for Russian artists, located in the ‘deep web’ that cannot be indexed by standard search engines such as Google. Accessible by the encrypted Tor browser, it offers an anonymous community platform for artists. Against what they see as the growing threat of censorship, invidious data collection and prosecution, the creators maintain the urgency of a hidden – and notionally uncontrollable – agora for artistic expression. Instructions on how to access this portal will be distributed to all biennale visitors by USB key. If one seeks to deny such an enterprise the designation ‘art’ there is, nevertheless, no question of its status as architecture.

Émilie Brout & Maxime Marion’s Nakamoto (The Proof/The Myth) (2014) investigates the mysterious identity of the creator the world’s most widely used crypto-currency. Attributed to one Satoshi Nakamoto, an apparently fictional persona, Bitcoin first rose to prominence on the dark markets of the Tor network where it became a standard payment mechanism for the anonymous purchase of – sometimes illegal – goods and services. Today, after failed attempts to control its use by some national governments, this underground peer-to-peer currency is assuming a degree of mainstream respectability. Who is the architect of this brave new world of payment transactions, of ‘mining’ units of value on Frankenstein servers – a shadowy figure with an estimated fortune of several hundred million euros? How does his myth function in popular culture? Brout and Marion’s project pursues these questions by way of video and multi-media.

Nevo Lee’s Jericho – DIY Weapons (2014) cuts even closer to the point. Recalling shanks – ad hoc knifes or stabbing weapons commonly created in prisons – her objects stand as macabre illustrations of tactical creativity in ‘an arena of strife’. Whether consisting of a sharpened ballpoint pen, a razor set within a half-melted toothbrush, or a shard of glass wrapped in tape, such objects encapsulate the ‘feral’ agencies still possible under the most straightened circumstances.

*

Complementing the 87 artworks’ variety of conceptual and stylistic approaches, Deep Inside’s scenography offers the audience a modulated experience of being – bodily – within the exhibition. Numerous works are installed in dark passages that recall the subterranean realm of caves – though these areas are, in fact, part of the partially crumbling original architecture of the building. The claustrophobic feeling of being enclosed and disoriented here, in the dark, stands in stark contrast to the optic, and haptic, conditions of the modernist white cube – which privileges clarity and openness. Furthermore, the exhibition’s layout is such that the visitor begins on an upper floor, before descending into a completely different atmospheric condition. However, depth does not only obtain on a vertical axis. Accordingly, the rectangular second major gallery is clad floor to ceiling in glass mirrors – setting the viewer and the artworks within an infinity-space. Through this architectural scheme, interiority is reinforced by a different perceptual suggestion – that of being lost, deep inside, space. As an exhibition, through its artworks and its staging, Deep Inside is a cosmological model. Though some of the art on show is unsettling, or comments on a range of contemporary ungroundings; though it may foreground occult forces or behind the scene agencies; the exhibition offers such images in the hope that we may yet feel at home, deep inside the uncertain 21st century.

1 Fears that the operation of Large Hadron Collider at CERN, Geneva, might cause the creation of a black hole that would begin ‘rapidly sucking in surrounding matter faster and faster until it devoured the Earth’ proved unfounded in 2008. But the organization and even NASA found themselves having to pay lip service to these concerns through public statements. See http://science.nasa.gov/science-news/science-at-nasa/2008/10oct_lhc Access 17/02/2016.
2 As did a team of Zurich based scientists in 2015 when they encrypted a single strand with the complete text of Archimedes’ Methods of Mechanical Theorems and the Swiss Federal Charter of 1291
3 Witness the Arab Spring, Occupy, the emergence of Anonymous, Isis, or the mercantile disruptions to markets posed by Uber and AirBnB.
4 Alexander R. Galloway & Eugene Thacker, The Exploit: A Theory of Networks, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007, p.6.
5 See http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/news/news.php?release=2015-331 - - Accessed 19 April, 2016.
6 See http://www.britannica.com/science/Anthropocene-Epoch - Accessed 19 April, 2016.
7 See http://www.businessinsider.com/elon-musk-says-we-could-put-a-million-people-on-mars-within-a-century-2015-6?IR=T - Accessed 19 April, 2016.
8 ‘The US Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act’. See https://www.congress.gov/bill/114th-congress/house-bill/2262/textS - Accessed 19 April, 2016.
9 See http://www.nasa.gov/topics/universe/features/planetquest20110106.html - Accessed 19 April, 2016.
10 The title of the work also alludes to The Long Now Foundation, an initiative headed by futurologists including Stewart Brand – founder of The Whole Earth Catalogue – dedicated to foster ultra long-term thinking across millennia; the veritable abyss of time. For a comprehensive ontology based on the notion of the bubble, see Peter Sloterdijk, Spheres Vol. 1: Bubbles, Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2011.
11 Among the abilities she attributed to such masters are clairvoyance, clairaudience, telepathy, the ability to control the consciousness of others, and to dematerialize and rematerialize physical objects.
12 According to The Invisible Committee, ‘While it’s obvious that those in power scheme to preserve and extend their positions, it’s no less certain that there’s conspiracy everywhere—in building hallways, at the coffee machine, in the back of kebab houses, at parties, in love affairs, in prisons. Through capillary channels and on a global scale, all these connections, all these conversations, all these friendships are forming a historical party in operation.’