‘In times of environmental and political turmoil, networks have lost their mass appeal and are the subject of widespread backlash: blackouts, propaganda, hate speech, addiction, and a human desire to disintermediate from platforms of platform capitalism.’
—Kristoffer Gansing, artistic director
Gansing’s curatorial statement, printed on the wall at Berlin’s Haus der Kulturen der Welt, offers serious buzzkill for any starry-eyed techno-optimists who might still walk the earth, but I didn’t even make it to the end before beginning to ask whether it was true. Networks have lost their mass appeal? Really? Granted, connectivity has its discontents: the mire of trolls, harassment campaigns and mass state surveillance of online behaviour, not to mention the increasingly inescapable corporate power systems underwritten by digitally enabled networks. But for every one of these good reasons to log off, the world’s most popular social network continues to grow at a rate that should bring an untroubled, if somewhat eerie, smile to the countenance of Global Data Emperor Zuckerberg.
Necessarily, art has always had an ambivalent relationship to the idea of the network. The critic David Joselit has written about the role of networked relations towards an even avowedly analogue media like painting. Pablo Larios, however, wrote of ‘network fatigue’ as ‘the image’s prior admission of its own defeat before the matrix of connectivity’ way back in 2014. Caveats and all, Larios’ distinction between a network and the network is already more discriminating than Gansing’s curatorial broadside. In considering the network articulated by the Fluxus artists Robert Filiou and Georges Brecht through mail art and other emerging means of global communication (this show takes its name from their Eternal Network), the ‘network’ is more a matter of awareness than of conscious creation:
‘there is always somebody asleep and someone awake someone eating and someone hungry… someone indifferent someone starting someone stopping THE NETWORK IS EVERLASTING.’
Expressed in 1967, this sentiment is very much of its time, though the use of ALL CAPS impressively prefigures the comment thread manifestos of today. The network may be eternal, but social conceptions change as time passes. This is, ultimately, a much more pervasive theme of Gansing’s exhibition than some sort of ‘god that failed’ narrative about the network as a discrete concept.
The shift in perspective regarding the value of connectivity is well documented in Gansing’s survey. Works like ‘The Next 5 Minutes—A Political Poetics for the Media Age’ records the febrile atmosphere of early 1990s in Amsterdam and Rotterdam and leaves the viewer querying the value of digital nostalgia. The images and personalities featured in the video works and publications that comprise the ‘Political Poetics for the Media Age’ exemplify the contradictory impulses that were always present in digital cultures—tech-optimism intertwined with a wariness about corporate prerogatives inscribed within the cultures from which the network(s) emerged. ‘The Next Five Minutes’ was assembled by David Garcia and Eric Kluitenberg, collectively known as Tactical Media Files, a name that gestures towards the notion of resistance culture and counter-narrative that underpinned a great deal of early techno-utopian thinking.
Optimism is a virtue until it is a pathology: a useful corrective to naive belief in connectivity as a remedy for social ills can be found in the C & Center of Unfinished Business’ mini-library containing 3000 books by and about Black cultural topics. Some offer a similarly hopeful vision comparable to the idealism of the early days shine of ‘The Next 5 Minutes’, while others depict the intellectual lineage of dehumanisation that produced, sustained and reinterpreted colonial mentalities. The library is a reminder that ‘connection’ is often a neutral term. The whip connects with the flesh of the subaltern just as surely as isolated, oppressed communities can connect to each other via the vagaries of networked relations. Digital oppressions inscribed in contemporary networks, the library makes clear, are built on forms of brutality that long preceded the computer age. The evolution of connectivity has been both unjust and uneven, as Bahar Noorizadeh’s video work ‘After Scarcity’ considers. The work achieves an evocative digital melancholia with its fractured recounting of the history of a Soviet-era cybernetic programme called Ogas, an ancestor of the internet that collapsed under the weight of its own connectivity.
Internet pioneers frequently drew a distinction between information and knowledge, a dynamic at the heart of Tega Brain, Julian Oliver and Bengt Sjolen’s work ‘Asunder’, which makes a game attempt at highlighting the cleft between information and knowledge. Their installation features three projection screens showing global regions facing environmental threats from climate breakdown and the extractive industries behind it. The work purports to analyse data in order to produce optimised solutions for the challenges these areas face. With solutions like ‘move Shenzhen to Vienna’—as one remedy for resource depletion and excessive population density—the inherent absurdities of relying on data and technology alone become bleakly apparent. Limits are a key topic in Solveig Seuss’ ‘AAA Cargo’, a work that focuses on the tensions between financial and logistical network systems, and climatic and geological systems. The film reflects on parallels between the historic Silk Road and the current Belt-and-Road initiative of the Chinese government which aims to create networks of exchange that span the globe, penetrating previously unreached loci for value extraction.
Efficiencies are unsurprisingly lionised by planners and officials, but the earth itself often has other ideas.
Professional plan-makers’ best-laid plans may hold obvious hubristic qualities when viewed critically, but often The Eternal Network is beset by the kind of quotidian discontents that underwrite Berlin’s uneven relationship with advanced technology. Despite Germany’s status as a leader in global technology, the capital can feel like a connectivity desert. The city’s ropey wi-fi is notorious among residents and this too featured as a subplot in the exhibition: the network is willing but the connection is weak.
A number of works directly use digital connectivity as media to varying effect (and functionality). At least three involve technological or wi-fi components that malfunctioned on the day I visited. Kyriaki Goni’s ‘Networks of Trust’ had a very untrustworthy router signal. One of the headsets of Timur Si-Qin’s ‘A New Protocol VR (v 1.2)’ was broken, and the tailback of visitors left me spectating the spectators. The increasingly desperate efforts to persuade Guo Cheng’s ‘The Net Wanderer—A Tour of Suspended Handshakes’ to work properly over the course of the two hours I was in the exhibition took on performative dimensions and lent an absurdly condign literalism to the work’s title.
In other cases, the tech worked fine but left viewers with more questions than answers. For example, I successfully logged on to the digital platform that accompanies Jelena Viskovic’s installation ‘Forum’ and found that I could send a digital crystal to other members of a network. I duly tested out the function and sent two crystals to members, Bubikopf and Gretel. I sincerely hope my correspondents enjoy their digital crystal (I haven’t heard), but looking back at the experience it is difficult to regard my gesture and the platform itself as having significantly more value than an app that generates a digital hand you can use to pat yourself on the back.
The Eternal Network was an uneven experience. To some degree this is very fitting; with only vague understanding of its workings, humanity is caught inside a project which is advancing rapidly with its own logics and imperatives. Humans are increasingly becoming an afterthought. While one might smile at the glitches and moments of hubris in this self-consciously cutting edge exhibition, there are other deeper, less amusing flaws built into the networks of data and connectivity that define contemporary life.
We find ourselves in the network, but only a very few of us are of the network: the consequences of this emergent form of inequality are only just creeping into our collective consciousness. It’s apparent then that the artists assembled by Gansing offer only part of the story. The bigger, perhaps sinister question is, ‘What is left out. By the time it is understood what we’ve missed during the telling, the story may already be over.
William Kherbek is the writer of the novels Ecology of Secrets, Ultralife and the forthcoming novels New Adventures and Best Practices. He has also published the poetry collections 26 Ideologies for Aspiring Ideologists, retrodiction and Everyday Luxuries.
transmediale 2020 End to End Jan 28 — 01 Mar 2020