The meteoric rise of Ed Atkins in the last couple of years is a testament to the artist’s prodigious talent, but also the contemporaneity of his concerns, both aesthetic and philosophical. The digital existentialism of his trademark CGI avatars offers our reflection through a black mirror which is at once flawless and flaccid, a pathetic hero to encapsulate the psychological texture of a world as isolating and perplexing as it is seductive.
For this year’s Manchester International Festival, Atkins has scaled up his operation. Where past works were charged with the misanthropic intimacy of the lone artist performing to webcam, Performance Capture, turns three rooms of the Manchester Art Gallery into a studio into a factory. The press blurb tells us that Atkins is ‘lifting the veil’ on his high-gloss digital process. Conceived with outgoing festival director Alex Poots and ubiquitous art-person Hans-Ulrich Obrist, the exhibition comprises a vast motion capture studio, a monolith of networked computers, and a screening room. MIF participants are recorded reading from the artist’s poem-script using a 3D camera and the motion capture software Faceshift. The production pipeline leads us on past a cluster of a dozen 3D animators, busily smoothing, sculpting and compositing the footage, turning freshly plotted co-ordinates into a sleek digital avatar. All this gets thrust through the bowels of the render farm, the great enteric machine from which the rushes of the day emerge for visitors to watch in the cinema space. The eventual film will combine these performance captures into a single avatar, a schizoid ambassador for the faces and voices who brought you this year’s festival.
The digital is a cut in the real. The word itself (referring to discrete values; archaically: ‘up to ten fingers’), takes the continuity of the world and renders it into the graveyard of representation. Atkins is a gravedigger of the contemporary, our chief necronaut, to borrow novelist Tom McCarthy’s coinage. Performance Capture evocative not so much of the digital uncanny as the faltering of the real, of language. Bodies and text; bodies of text. Corpus; corpse. ‘And make no bones about, um, it.’ In the artist’s poetic monologues, performed here by a collection of human avatars, flashes of intimate and venereal imagery erupt in greasy mouthfuls of purple prosetry. But for every lexicographic flourish, there is a faltering of the will: Atkins is a masterful writer of insufficiency. The entire work is textually dense and overcoded with semantic conspiracy, ploughing the furrows of the digital field and finding it rich with metonymic potential. There is the persistent motif of the avatar as cadaver, as an indexical figure with a life quite apart from the reality with which it is charged to represent.
The exhibition might have been more aptly titled ‘Render Farm’, not only in reference to the heaving black box running the show, but also to the meatier allusions of that phrase, as flesh, real and virtual, chafe against one another. Performance Capture is the farm, the abattoir and the restaurant. Here we see it all; it’s possible that we see too much. Atkins’ longstanding pre-occupation with simulacra and referent is feels all too explicit, as we watch the actor’s every expressions digitally mirrored in the screen. There is a sense of a technological showcase, reminiscent of a factory tour, which feels at turns both intriguing and banal. On one hand, the audience is privy to the material production of the kind of world that otherwise presents itself as seamlessly virtual; the world of cognitive capitalism, all swipe and no toil. Atkins unveils the sweatshop; the render farm chugs out a few glossy minutes per hour at best. But at the same time, the focus on materiality only highlights the artist’s own position, neither in control of the modes of production nor the final commodity, but caught somewhere in between. At times, Performance Capture feels like a live software demonstration, and one is reminded that Atkins’ entire body of work was made possible only with the release of this little piece of prosumer tech. Meanwhile, amidst the participatory fervour of a performative showcase, the uncanny affect of Atkins’ poetry is betrayed by a creeping sense of digital dualism.
What, if anything, can we learn from contemporary art? Perhaps not much more than what is already in front of us, a world that is perplexing as it is. As Jean Baudrillard wrote in 2004,
>‘Nothing now distinguishes [contemporary art] from the technical, promotional, media, digital operation. There is no transcendence, no divergence any more, nothing of another scene: merely a specular play with the contemporary world as it takes place. It is in this that contemporary art is worthless: between it and the world, there is a zero-sum equation.’
All said and done, Baudrillard was right. Far flung from transcendent aspirations, one might think of contemporary art a synecdoche for the lifeworld of contemporary capitalism, a kind of privately funded think-tank that reflects a reactionary present and a speculative future. After all, few discourses have been as complicit with the economic regime of neoliberalism, nor as fixated with its critique—a strangely functional contradiction made plain on a visit to the ICA bookshop. As the art historian Julian Stallabrass’ notes, contemporary art is ‘bound to the economy as tightly as Ahab to the whale.’ On local and global scales, contemporary art tests the water for our best and worst potentials, before we all take the plunge, regardless. What aspiring metropolis is complete without a Deutsche Bank-funded biennial, or a miniature Guggenheim Bilbao on its mantlepiece? Meanwhile, the artist class, typically low on cash and high on cultural capital (though rapidly turning bourgeois), is the de facto infantry of post-industrial urban gentrification. The art world is, laid bare, an exclusive global machinery of curatorial politics, unfettered market manipulation, and precious institutional validation—and if you look carefully, you’ll find them all the top players partying on Roman Abramovic’s yacht at Venice. The decimation of public funding and the voracious growth of privatisation has produced an art-sphere which increasingly resembles a playground for oligarchs and a finishing school for their children. As Hito Steyerl wrote in her influential text, ‘The Politics of Art: Contemporary Art and the Transition to Post-Democracy’, ‘we cannot dissociate the hype around contemporary art from the shock policies used to defibrillate slowing economies […] If contemporary art is the answer, the question is: How can capitalism be made more beautiful?’
The best of today’s artists resemble a motley international forum of professional dilettantes and amateurs philosophers, media functionaries and affect engineers, a messy hybrid of poets, painters and hackers united by a vague commitment to making sense of ‘the contemporary’. When it comes to cultural and technological change, they are early adopters, always amongst the first to misuse and abuse. Early examples include Experiments in Art and Technology, Rauschenberg and co’s 1967 collaborations with Bell Laboratories engineers, or Nam June Paik and Shuya Abe’s 1969 video synthesiser, which was a dog’s breakfast in engineering terms, but inaugurated a groundbreaking new aesthetic by turning the TV screen into a canvas of live-manipulated analogue abstractions. With the encroachment of new media into the fabric of the everyday, and the transformation of almost every sphere of planetary production by information technology, contemporary art has found itself at the forefront of a discussion about what it means ‘see, feel and filter affect through the digital’. The current surge in media theoretical and archaeological discourses coalesce almost exclusively around art world institutions. Indeed, just the past four months saw the opening of several major exhibitions specifically concerned with the aesthetic, political and affective dimensions of informatic life: namely, Big Bang Data at Somerset House, Information Superhighway at Whitechapel Gallery, and (Edward Snowden’s collaborator) Laura Poitras’ solo show, Astro Noise at the Whitney Museum in New York. As ever, art, technology and capitalism go hand-in-hand.
To take a turning point, 2008 was an interesting year. It was, of course, the year of the global financial crash, which saw the cultural and economic ideology of neoliberalism compounded through the very moment of its breakdown. Financial crash, mortgage meltdown, credit crunch: these volatile metaphors did not describe the total collapse of the neoliberal project, which, as Neil Brenner writes in Afterlives of Neoliberalism, ‘has never displayed such a singular, monolithic character’. But metaphors are important: what did in fact collapse was neoliberalism’s imaginary constitution as an seamless conceptual system. The world ruptured a spleen: people were laid off, the rich and powerful looked worried, lives were ruined. For the first time, notwithstanding some midcourse turbulences, neoliberalism’s legitimising official infrastructure was seen to topple; the American financial system was on life-support and the certainties of its economic models were dispelled, leaving behind a grim capitalist realism of its “zombie” regime. As Brenner et al write, “[its] intellectual project may be practically dead, and its social legitimacy may have been seriously eroded, but as a dogged form of market-oriented governance the project apparently grinds on.”
2008 was also the year the iPhone 3G arrived, the Google Maps app was launched, 6 months after the release of Streetview. It was the year that Facebook hit 300m users, and the world’s biggest social data-farm turned cash-flow positive for the first time. Put together, the events of this year iterate a concretion of an individualised, networked, 24/7 tracked and mapped world, the era of “there’s an app for that” in which we of the Global North live today.
In 2008, artist Marisa Olson wrote an essay called ‘‘Lost Not Found: The Circulation of Images in Digital Visual Culture.’ in which she coined the term ‘post-internet’, which has since found a life of its own as the art world’s favourite buzzword. The slippery phrase is defined by Rhizome’s artistic director Michael Connor as the situation in which ‘it no longer makes sense for artists to attempt to come to terms with "internet culture," because now "internet culture" is increasingly just “culture”, while the artist Artie Vierkant calls it ‘a result of the contemporary moment: inherently informed by ubiquitous authorship, the development of attention as currency, the collapse of physical space in networked culture, and the infinite reproducibility and mutability of digital materials.’ It refers not to a genre but an era: we are all post-internet artists now.
So the world of finance collapsed and the world of consumer tech blossomed; informatics permeated more visibly than ever into our daily lives; precarity took hold on multiple fronts. I want to think about the emergence of the post-internet precisely as the kind of reflective ‘zero sum equation’ that Baudrillard described. It marked a watershed in the aesthetic domain, a tipping point in the affective experience of the early 21st century, an aggregative expression of economic, technological and social changes that took place around that time. As I will suggest through a reading of Liquidity Inc., a pseudo-documentary work by German artist Hito Steyerl which is hinged upon the crash, finance was not the only system to fracture: an untenable “digital dualism” between the real and the virtual was also eroded beyond breaking point. Sometimes, correlations are more interesting that causations. Disparate events are drawn together through the perspectival plane of lived experience, constituting its consistency. With the post-internet turn, contemporary artists like Steyerl became the new realists, attempting to map out the co-ordinates of a rapidly unfurling reality.
Liquidity Inc. (2014), begins with the sound of crashing waves. A screen-capture video shows Cinema 4D rendering an expanse of calm virtual ocean. The voice of Bruce Lee advises us, ‘you must be shapeless, formless, like water’. The film tells the story of Jacob Wood, a Korean-born financial adviser whose career began with the dotcom boom and ended with the Lehman brothers crisis. The same year he is laid off, he took part in his first Mixed Martial Arts fight, and later, he becomes a pundit. We see Wood getting ready in his office—he is a calm, ebullient, solidly built; against the oncoming storm, he is strong, shockproof. A screen behind him displays a cooly rendered ocean surface as he explains the adaptability of a strong portfolio, the hybridity of mixed martial arts and the hybridity of Bruce Lee’s fighting style—‘that’s what makes it exciting, that’s what keeps things liquid, and fluid.’
Interspersing and underlying this biographical narrative is a free-wheeling investigation of water. The philosopher Michel Serres speaks of how in each historical era, the world’s “matter” changes phase, taking on a new master-metaphor for its reality. Steyerl takes water as her patron matter-state, exploiting it in all its manifestations, flooding the language and texture of the film with its semantic and physical logic. The polysemy of water—turbulent, vitalising, slippery—becomes a semantic rhizome through which Steyerl’s narrative threads knot and unfurl. Jacob Wood’s own story, the geographical, biographical and affective trajectory of his emigration to the States as a baby during the Vietnam war, and his movements of his career with the tides of the financial crash, is diagrammed in the performance of a balaclava-clad weather reporter who warns us of trade winds ‘blowing people back to their homes […] blowing their countries back to their assumed origins’.Referencing the 1970s militant-left group The Weather Underground, This terrorist-weatherman stands before a flashing tumblr GIF of Hokusai’s The Great Wave Off Kanagawa, alluding to the torrential circulation of images over the web. Wood recalls when times were good in the 1990s: ’we thought everything would be internet-based and that we were entering into a new world.’ Meanwhile, the voice of water (in the form of some undulating bubble-writing) tells us a far longer story of cosmic time: ‘I am not from here […] I run through your veins, your eyes, your touchscreen and your portfolios…’ Steyerl’s barely coherent montage of filmed, found and computer footage ties the activity of water to themes of virtuality, to global migration, to the origins of life, from the depths of the ocean to the vaporous technological imaginary of ‘the Cloud’. The film’s (non-)structure becomes an shapeshifting organism in which subjects, signs, and soundtracks (a pitch-perfect appearance by Arthur Russell’s Let’s Go Swimming! as an intermezzo) dissolve sporadically into one another. Sweaty rhythms of sparring fighters becomes a metaphor for financial liquidity, the flows and eddies of their choreography brimming with emergent violence.
In Liquidity Inc., terror is in the water. Steyerl’s transubstantiation of history into the elemental figure of H20 pulls disparate fragments of experience into the her lexical whirlpool. Evocations of geophysical movement and visual reference to fluid dynamics (in both scientific and cinematic simulations)—that is, the field of virtually representing, simulating and forecasting those ineffable forces, draw us again and again back to a topology of autopoietic, fluctuating systems. Like sheets of acetate, she overlays the ‘structure’ of the global financial trading, virtual and new technological discourses, the affective sphere of leisure and labour, sign exchange on the internet, mixed martial arts, and indeed, the science of climatology. But to immediately backtrack, ‘structure’ is already the wrong word to use, as it implies network rigidity, an solid system of struts and supports which Liquidity Inc. strictly negates. Steyerl does not impose structural markers but rather suggests fluid isomorphisms, correlations between the shapes of matter and the shapes of history. ‘Weather is water with attitude’, the reporter reminds us. ‘Weather’ is the local manifestation of these hyperobjective systems, the way in which the idiosyncratic interconnections of finance and hydrology affect us all: weather is water plus history. Therein lies also the elemental alignment proposed by Steyerl’s concatenations, the correlation between water and capital along the axis of history, posing both as the material substrate and lubricant of systemic and experiential flow. The terrorist-weatherman’s repeated mantra: ‘Weather is time. Weather is money. Weather is water.’ Terror is in the water here, not only because of the anxiety of the film’s post-crash moment, but more broadly because of the inherent volatility—liquidity—of all the systems to which it alludes. Finance, computers, waves—each come crashing down with a tidal resonance over the system at large.
As ever, metaphors are important: in weaving together these images, Steyerl evinces the structure of reality and experience as a confluence of material and immaterial systems. Liquidity Inc. is not only a film about the financial, the digital, nor the post-internet, although its entire composition is a patchwork of 3D renderings, overlaid desktop windows, shoddy chromakeying and low-budget tumblr aesthetics. It is a web of knotted visuals in which water is a metaphor for metaphor itself, giving shape to the mutability of experience, permeating the metaphysical basis upon which we conventionally talk about reality—a seemingly stable ground turned aqueous. The double-entendre of Liquidity Inc(orporated) draws together not only the cycles of water and of finance capital, but also the metaphors of embodiment that underlie both. The fluid forms that populate the film—from a flood of memes to transpacific emigration—are all skin-volumes vulnerable to ruptures within the system: the crashing of finance, the violence of martial arts, the breakdown of communications, the shattering of water’s surface tension by turbulence.
It is fitting that Steyerl cut her teeth as a documentary maker. The curator Dieter Roelstraeter noted that ‘the reality check forced upon both the world of art and the world at large by the planetary financial meltdown of 2008-2009 has reawakened interest in the topic of realism’ But the realism at stake is speculative by nature, an effort to describe a world in which few evidential artefacts are more suspect than a headline or a photograph. Steyerl’s idiosyncratically montaged narratives emerges, paradoxically, as a documentary strategy, an attempt to give presence to reality in a world whose experiential foundations are rapidly shifting. It is the kind of world that Ballard described, years ago, in which the fictions are all there but the reality needs inventing. This, perhaps, is what contemporary art’s ‘specular play with the contemporary world’ is worth.
Harun Farocki — Parallels I-IV (2012-14) at Whitechapel Gallery
Gary Zhexi Zhang
Standing amidst Parallels I-IV (2012-14), Harun Farocki’s eight-channel video installation at the Whitechapel Gallery, one is reminded of Borges’ famous story about imperial cartographers who create a map of such perfect detail that its scale precisely matches that of the empire. In Borges’ version, the cumbersome drawing is left to disintegrate in the desert. In the essayistic montages that make up Parallels, we find Farocki drifting through the outlands, meditating on the tattered fragments of a future empire.
“Where does the world end?” An impassive female voice asks over gameplay footage recorded from popular video games. Farocki’s virtual camera is found galloping over the American west of Red Dead Redemption, manning a pilot jet over an alpine landscape, or driving through a Grand Theft Auto-style city. The worlds are detailed and beautifully lit; the desert sunsets are almost photorealistic, with a little lens flare and virtual vaseline applied for good measure. As Farocki roams and cuts between these disparate scenes, doing very little other than marvelling at the rich, illusive fabric of the gamespace, seams gradually begin to show up in the simulacra. “This world is is infinite, it is created as I traverse it,” notes our narrator, while travelling over the landscape of Minecraft. The game only sees what we see, and vice versa. In the far distance, we see jagged edges, gaps on the horizon—the game is a truly solipsistic space, its maps being drawn barely a few steps ahead of its territory. As the third-person camera swivels around Farocki’s avatar, zooming up close to the cowboy’s idle breathing, his rendered skin, and back out again to his environment, it traces out the spatial contours of Farocki’s agency in the game’s world. For all their intuitive and naturalistic freedoms, there are boundaries to these sandboxed worlds, spatial and structural constraints, both tangible and conceptual.
It soon emerges that Farocki is not very good at these games. His vehicle crashes headfirst into any number of urban obstacles—traffic lights crumple like twigs in elaborate physics simulations, while hydrants stand as strong and unassailable as a concrete wall. The gunslinger takes a sprint into the side of a mountain but hits an invisible barrier, his elegantly animated legs grinding against the insurmountable scenery like an deranged automaton. The rules of movement, like the rules of representation, are invisibly demarcated. Farocki is preoccupied with transgressing these idiosyncratic boundaries, and through his obtuse efforts he gradually maps out the titular ‘parallels’ between the space and thought of representation. By traversing the geographical boundaries of the playable terrain, breaking through the surface of its topography, testing the limitations of its physical laws, or the constraints of its control interface. In each instance, his efforts to break one set of rules is results in entrapment in the armature of another. At one point, he fires his submachine gun at a granite textured pedestal (why, incidentally, is the texture of granite so invitingly evocative of simulation?) as if expecting it to crumble—it response with a few sympathetic sparks, but no more. Glitching his way into the skin of the map, Farocki’s character escapes the gravity-bound city and falls through into vacuous space situated ‘inside’ or ‘beneath’ the ground, from which juddering fragments of architecture’s two-dimensional surface are visible. The avatar curls up into an melancholy, foetal free-fall.
In one of the Parallels, Farocki breaks free of the game, entering ‘no clip’, the developer mode which allows designers to freely manoeuvre around the world. No longer subject of the laws of diegesis, “The camera can easily penetrate the rocky cliff”, the voice over intones with deadpan relish; Farocki revels in his new freedom. He discovers that “the walls are invisible from inside, and that “the surface of the water is nothing but surface”, its glittering ripples hiding an underbelly of abstract geometric volumes. Even without an avatar, the camera is a virtual protagonist its own gamespace, always in the presence of an observer, a narrator, a representation in search of a referent. Contemplating the history of trees represented in computer games, Farocki notes that in order to make the leaves move, the computer needs to first build its own wind machine. The game world emerges as it is: a series of encasements, finely detailed Russian dolls each contained within the other—and in the final reveal, a vacuum.
Parallels I-IV emerges as a work of media archeology of the recent past. The media theorist Friedrich Kittler once noted that the computer could be considered a post-medium, in that it was the first technological form not to merely remediate its predecessor, but begin to ‘mediate metaphysics itself’. Parallels maps such a metaphysics through a potted history of digital representation, littered with boundaries, layers, encasements, skins—screens. Made over the very last years of Farocki’s life, these playfully meditative films are obsessed with touching the contours of finitude.