© Tania Bruguera, Photo © Tate (Ben Fisher Photography)
How three different artists use experimental media to critique and celebrate the many possibilities of our shared future.
10,142,926: The string of digits which served as the title of Tania Bruguera’s Hyundai Commission in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, a daily tally of total migrations in 2017 and migrant deaths recorded as of January 1, 2018, climbed ever upwards. In the midst of what is being described as Europe’s biggest refugee crisis since WWII, the numbers remind us that fleeing war and climate apocalypse variously makes you a migrant or a refugee. Many visitors found themselves moved to tears. Real tears. As it so happened, an organic compound was piped into one room at the museum to induce what the artist calls “false empathy,” a salty rejoinder to the kind of emoji flag and crying faces that stand in for solidarity online.
In the far end of the Turbine Hall was a large swathe of black, heat-sensitive paint. By working together, visitors could leverage their collective body heat to reveal an image of Yousef, a Syrian man resettled in London, in a kind of thermal crowdsourcing. We can equally see it as a decentralized p2p network that functions precisely because of collective decision making and working together. Other interventions included collaborating with the institution’s neighbors to consider the civic duty of the museum, and renaming a building after local activist Natalie Bell.
Courtesy of the artist and Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York / Los Angeles
There’s a tendency to posit a digital divide between the virtual and the real even as people in our world today exist seamlessly in both spaces at once. Digital networks provide clear examples for alternative modes of being that can be hard to envisage offline. And artists, in turn, use a hybrid mix of technology and more traditional media to make visible the ways that digital capitalism is changing how we live and work.
Agnieszka Kurant’s Artificial Artificial Intelligence illustrates a different kind of network, the client-server architecture that limits the agency of individual users. Also called a distributed system, it suggests the kind of extractive, distributed labor outsourcing of platforms like Upwork, Fiverr, or even rideshare apps that are increasingly prevalent today. Here, she harvests the data of (consenting) participants from around the world, runs it through a neural network, and enlists an army of termites to create textured, ever-morphing mounds of fluorescent, colored sand that are neither entirely “natural” or AI-generated but something in between, like so many of us whose identities are a bricolaged amalgamation of inputs and manipulation by systems.
Image courtesy of the artist
Meanwhile, Doreen Chan’s HalfDream platform, a web portal in the logic of the early 1990s internet, extends the Platonic idea of each person having a missing half—a soulmate—somewhere in the world, and forges connections between users based on their remembered dreams. When inputting the dream, you are asked to create a relational, affective map of the characters and objects featured in it. I remember a recent nightmare, in which I travelled to Moscow and a local art magazine made me murder two people; when I returned to Dubai, they began blackmailing me with couriered photo evidence. Later, I see a map of the most common dreams around the world: teeth falling out in the West, snakes in the Global South. I wonder if there is someone else out there dreaming the same dreams.