Fictional exhibition proposal: A Flock of Birds
By: Doreen A. Rios
“a single bird flies across the silver sky other birds take flight the flock flocking darkens the sky”
Back in 2013, The Telegraph released the results of a research regarding mass surveillance and thrown the conclusion that the United Kingdom is one of the countries with the largest numbers of CCTV surveillance systems. With an approximate of one surveillance camera for every 11 people London is the city with the most surveillance cameras in the world. Adding to this fact, at the end of November 2016, the Investigatory Powers Act was passed and with it the legalization of a whole new range of technological tools that enable the UK intelligence agencies and police the power to deeply investigate and hack every single UK citizen. As a reaction to this, activist Edward Snowden tweeted “The UK has just legalised the most extreme surveillance in the history of western democracy. It goes further than many autocracies.” Making it clear that the situation is alarming, yet it is also clear that most British citizens don’t even know what this means in terms of interfering with their privacy and daily life.
Hito Steyerl, in her essay Too Much World: Is the Internet Dead? (2014), proposes that the concept of internet died when technological systems, such as CCTV surveillance, crawled out of the screen and transitioned into real consequences that affect our private life. She talks about some of the situations that started happening once the internet moved offline, this events took the form of production, organization, interaction and surveillance. Complementing this idea, Dorothée Richter and Rein Wolfs point out that “Although institutional critique is articulated in the exhibition situation and as criticism of specific representation formats, it also emphasises social conditions.” In this sense one could argue that talking about institutional critique also applies to governmental institutions since they directly condition not only certain art production but also the interaction surrounding them.
Mass surveillance is certainly one of the most controversial topics nowadays and it has been approached inside the contemporary art circuit, especially inside those practices within the World Wide Web where there has been a lot of emphasis on how to disrupt, transgress and hack these systems through art. Therefore, it is important to generate a place that aims for the audience to engage deeply with this themes and hopefully raise awareness to the current situation regarding surveillance. It is precisely in this kind of situations that art represents a powerful tool that actively encourages the debate surrounding the implications of mass surveillance, the ownership of our image and our privacy rights regarding our data.
A Flock of Birds
A Flock of Birds is the name of an exhibition that gathers digital contemporary artwork that confronts the audience with the severe consequences of the loss of privacy and how to disrupt this surveillance systems. The exhibition will be complemented with a series of events that aim to create a closer dialogue with the citizens of London.
The name of the exhibition is a metaphor of the CCTV surveillance systems that capture our image in public and private spaces, like a flock of birds they seem to work together and move from one place to another watching everything below them. Taking into account Ralph Rugoff’s conclusions on group exhibitions – where he firmly states that using a theme for a group exhibition will most likely lead to a disengagement between the show and the audience and reinforce the idea of the curator as a dictator – I decided to curate this show in a more poetic way. I truly do believe that the name of an exhibition should be both: intriguing and approachable, since I’m not interested in perpetuating an art circuit that only revolves around itself but in creating new dialogues with those who indirectly surround it.
This exhibition takes after three specific shows of new media art: Cybernetic Serendipity, curated by Jasia Reichardt and held at ICA London in 1969; Database Imaginary, curated by Sarah Cook, Steve Dietz and Anthony Kiendl and held at Blackwood Gallery in Toronto 2005; and The Art Formerly Known as New Media, curated by Steve Dietz and Sara Cook and held at The Banff Centre in 2005. These shows share in common the need to explore new representations inside the exhibition space as well as to create firm debates within the artwork exhibited. They set a common ground for the critical thinking of technological tools both inside art and inside our daily life.
In curatorial terms, Cybernetic Serendipity (see Figure 1) pioneered the idea of distributing the artworks in plinths of diverse heights so that people could approach easily those pieces that need human interaction to be activated. Also, the artworks of large measurements are merged into the space freely in a way of playing with the scale of the exhibition space, this allows the audience to discover bit by bit the whole content of the exhibition instead of being confronted with the whole magnitude of the space straight away. This last decision helps the viewer to spend enough time watching each piece inside the show instead of feeling pressure for getting it over with.
As for Database Imaginary (see Figure 2), the arranging of video artworks works perfectly inside large retro-projection screens, which helps clean up the space and allows the audience to get closer to the screens without interfering with the video itself. Moreover, the navigation inside the gallery was shaped in a way that every piece communicates with each other and keeps a visual narrative for the audience to discover.
One of the most difficult parts of curating a show that has interactive pieces, especially when it is held inside a gallery or museum, is for people to approach the artwork and interact with it. However, the curators behind the show The Art Formerly Known as New Media (see Figure 3), Steve Dietz and Sara Cook, proposed a clever way for people to actually get in contact with the pieces by using plinths and shelves that resembled home furniture so that the audience could feel a certain familiarity with them. This solution was successful and despite the fact that the arranging of the exhibition was quite traditional, the design work behind every plinth, shelf, table, case and vitrine was unique and innovative in terms of representation.
A Flock of Birds will put together the work of Zach Blas, Constant Dullaart, Metahaven, Jon Rafman, Morehshin Allahyari and Hito Steyerl, artists and thinkers who have joined an increasing data base of people concerned with privacy and the usage of facial-recognition systems, CCTV surveillance and social media settings that tend to enslave and control almost every kind of manifestation against the agencies behind them. The list of artworks will go as follows:
- Face cages, Zach Blas (2013-16) in the words of the creator “this is a dramatization of the abstract violence of the biometric diagrams used in facial-recognition systems”, and it consists on a video installation and performance work where four queer artists – micha cárdenas, Elle Mehrmand, Paul Mpagi Sepuya and Zach Blas– wear metal masks generated with biometric diagrams of their faces.
This piece evokes the punishment masks worn during the Medieval era to point out these biometric systems, commonly used hand in hand with CCTV surveillance, have created “a cage of information, a form of policing, surveillance, and structural violence that is ableist, classist, homophobic, racist, sexist, and transphobic.” (Amielle Magnet, 2012).
- Future Army (Se7en), Constant Dullaart (2016) this installation is made out of 666 inactivated LEBARA sim cards that hang subtly from the ceiling of the exhibition space. This artwork chooses one of the most famous sim cards in Europe to ironically show an honest way of remaining private. By displaying the inactivated sim cards, Dullaart creates a safe space for communication, since the only way to remain unnoticed is by not trusting any telecommunication devices.
- The Sprawl (Propaganda about propaganda), Metahaven (2016), it is clear that the mass media is the most powerful way of shaping the ideas that civilians have about mass surveillance and other similar topics. TV news, newspapers and internet information platforms configure the way we, citizens, engage with the world. However, we also know that nowadays is hard to tell the difference between what is real and what is fake, this multi-channel video installation aims to break this illusion between what we see and read and what is actually happening around us by showing the audience the “ways in which fantasy can be designed so as to seem or feel like a truth” (van der Velden, 2016).
- 9 eyes, Jon Rafman (2010-ongoing) Google Street view has become an important tool in our daily life. From allowing us to look for a good restaurant to lurking into the places we frequent to see if we can find anyone we know, this tool has allowed us to have a deep look into almost any city in the world. With this photographic series, Canadian artist Jon Rafman, looks for unusual, often dangerous and/or illegal, situations that got captured by the 9-eyed Google car that roams around the streets. This image research puts us face to face with the double moral of such tools because on one hand we seem to find anything we are looking for, in terms of urban space and services, but in the other hand we are also confronted with indifference regarding other people’s problems as well as not caring for their privacy.
- VIDEO INSTRUCTIONS: TIPS ON CENSORSHIP, Morehshin Allahyari (2010) this video performance targets the idea of freedom as a contemporary utopia. Iranian artist Morehshin Allahyari presents us how she managed to step outside of the boundaries of censorship by understanding how it works. Coming from a country that deeply appreciates to live by their most traditional ideology, she was frequently confronted with images that have been edited with black squares to erase everything that shouldn’t be seen. However, she points out that moving to the USA showed her a different face of censorship, a more clever and dangerous one: the kind of censorship where the population still thinks that they are free to express their ideas but deep down they are being carefully monitored by agencies like the NSA. This performance perfectly applies to every single Occidental country where freedom of speech seems to be the common law, but it isn’t.
- How Not to be Seen. A Fucking Didactic Educational .MOV File, Hito Steyerl (2013) according to the artist this instructional video uses dark humour as a way to make the audience engage with the bigger conversation: the mass surveillance. This satirical video shows us various ways to remain invisible to the surveillance systems that surround us, but it also approaches the fact that technological tools aren’t as ethereal as they seem since these tools are the ones spreading war and destruction. It is a serious critique to the contemporary necropolitics – term coined by Achille Mbembe which explores the idea of how those in power – socially, economically and/or politically– dictate which people should die according to their personal interests.
This exhibition will be complemented with a public program that aims to approach a large quantity of London citizens who might not be profoundly interested in arts but who are clearly affected by the topic in question. The public program will be composed by three lectures and one public performance and will go as follows:
- Lecture: “Discussing balconism with Constant Dullaart”
Back in 2014, the Dutch artist Constant Dullaart wrote a brief text on a new -ism he created: balconism.
This term refers to all those activities we perform inside social media that tend to feel impersonal because we seem to be staring at them from our balcony, as if we could not be reached by those who watch our online feed from afar. This lecture aims to open up the dialogue on how should we be looking at social interactions inside the internet and why we should be taking precautions when it comes to our private life.
- Performance: “Facial weaponization suite” by Zach Blas
This project protests against the facial-recognition systems used in CCTV surveillance and the inequalities that this tools propitiate.
Having made live performances in France, this project seems incredibly adequate for London. The performance will take the shape of a peaceful protest where the artist and audience will walk from the ICA headquarters, located at The Mall in central London, all the way to Buckingham Palace wearing bright pink masks created by Blas. This event aims to attract people surrounding it by inviting them to take join the performance.
- Lecture: “On how acts of war are shaped by digital tools” by Hito Steyerl
This lecture points out to one of the most explored themes of Steyerl: the materialization of the internet. The lecture targets all those activities that are taking place nowadays regarding the usage of digital tools as weapons of mass destruction and aims to raise awareness on how this events start inside our own homes. From not knowing our rights against mass surveillance to the consequences of perpetuating a political system that doesn’t act with the transparency it should, Hito will address the contemporary issues and responsibilities we have as users of the internet and citizens of the world.
- Lecture: “Censorship and privacy” by Morehshin Allahyari
Complementing her piece inside the show, this lecture will address the idea of censorship and how not to become a victim of it. In the words of the artist “To fight censorship, every one of us is responsible to act; to question; to educate; to take part; to be responsible” (Allahyari, 2010) therefore, it is important to create a profound dialogue not only within the arts but within ourselves as civilians. Also, it is a great opportunity to critically analyse terms like post-truth – by which I mean the act of backing up personal beliefs by selecting non-objective arguments that can help shape any conclusion one might desire – and how it influences entire countries to tolerate hate speech when it comes to race, gender and sexual orientation.
The lecture will raise various questions on how we can disrupt an oppressing system through dialogue and art and it will eventually break the fourth wall and become an open discussion to give the audience a chance to debate about these themes.
The proposed venue for this exhibition is the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London. This exhibition space has a long story of developing controversial events, such as the symposium Taking Liberties: AIDS and Cultural Politics (1988) organised by Erica Carter and Simon Watney or hosting the digital film festival Onedotzero in 1996, as well as deeply committing with the research and display of digital art.
With exhibitions such as About Time: Video, Performance and Installation by 21 Women Artists (1980), curated by Catherine Elwes, Rose Garrard and Sandy Nairne and Cybernetic Serendipity (1969), curated by Jasia Reichardt, altogether with the opening of the first Cybercafe in ICA’s theatre in 1994, this institution became a pioneer in exhibiting new media art at the same time that it set the ground for the research of digital art as well as the possible social interactions within the web, which are main topics for A flock of birds.
The ICA headquarters have an adequate architectural space for a medium-sized exhibition of digital artworks and video installations by providing sufficiently dark spaces that unfold inside a neoclassic building. The exhibition area can be divided into three: a large entry hall that leads into the canteen, a lobby between the canteen and the exhibition rooms and two small-sized exhibition rooms, the architectural plan suits perfectly the idea of creating an almost cinematographic tension between the artworks and represents a non-traditional space that can be navigated freely without feeling heavy. Adding up to this, the space also has a theatre that can be used to host the lectures without having to move far from the exhibition itself.
The headquarters are strategically located in a privileged place in central London, incredibly near to the Buckingham Palace and Trafalgar Square, which represent focal points while talking about mass surveillance due to their nature. Moreover, the fact that the ICA is close to these locations makes it possible to engage with a large number of people since it is a constantly crowded area.
Without a doubt talking about mass surveillance and our rights in terms of privacy seems very pertinent taking into account the new legislations surrounding them, especially in the United Kingdom. I believe that art has the power of generating interesting debates about themes that are hard to understand on an everyday language because art grants us the opportunity to use our own personal experiences to understand its content and critically think about topics that we might not approach any other way.
I’m personally very passionate about curating as a method of putting together exciting minds, just as Radiohead gracefully puts it “we are accidents waiting to happen” I believe that curators should act as the moving vessel that helps develop interesting debates regarding contemporary issues by getting together key elements that can make that happen through art.
I am aware that A flock of birds is an ambitious project but I believe that it is a very pertinent exhibition to take place in London. Perhaps the initial approach to this exhibition might be submitting the proposal for a formal review and delimiting the possible issues it might raise. However, I don’t think it is possible for me to make it happen in the near future but I’d like to start by generating open debates regarding this themes, I think this can result in a very powerful manifesto, especially because Winchester School of Art has an amazing diversity inside its classrooms and this can lead to a very profound discussion.
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Rhizome (no date) Constant Dullaart on the upcoming performance “terms of service.” Available at: http://rhizome.org/editorial/2012/may/21/two-questions-constant-dullaart-appearing-rhizome-/ (Accessed: 2 January 2017).
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Cover image: Metahaven (2016), The Sprawl, poster, viewed December 2016
< http://www.lighthouse.org.uk/news/the-sprawl-at-the-international-film-festival-rotterdam >
Figure 1: ICASEA blog (2009), Cybernetic Serendipity exhibition view, photograph, viewed December 2016
Figure 2: Blackwood gallery (2005), Database Imaginary exhibition view, photograph, viewed December 2016
< http://www.blackwoodgallery.ca/exhibitions/2005/database.html >
Figure 3: Y Productions (2005), The Art Formerly Known as New Media exhibition view, photograph, viewed December 2016
< http://www.yproductions.com/projects/archives/the_art_formerly_known_as_new.html >
Face cages, Zach Blas: O’Leary, Christopher (2013), Face cages, Zach Blas, photograph, viewed December 2016
< http://www.zachblas.info/works/face-cages/html >
Future Army (Se7en), Constant Dullaart: Future Gallery, (2015), Future Army (Se7en), Constant Dullaart, photograph, viewed December 2016
The Sprawl (Propaganda about propaganda), Metahaven: A million keys, (2015), The Sprawl (Propaganda about propaganda), Metahaven, photograph, viewed December 2016
9 eyes, Jon Rafman: Jon Rafman, (2012), 9 eyes, photograph, viewed December 2016
< http://9-eyes.com/ > 12
VIDEO INSTRUCTIONS: TIPS ON CENSORSHIP, Morehshin Allahyari: Allahyari, Morehshin (2010), VIDEO INSTRUCTIONS: TIPS ON CENSORSHIP, still-frame, viewed December 2016
< http://www.morehshin.com/ >
How Not to be Seen. A Fucking Didactic Educational .MOV File, Hito Steyerl: Steyerl, Hito (2013), How Not to be Seen. A Fucking Didactic Educational .MOV File, still-frame, viewed December 2016
< http://www.neromagazine.it/n/?p=15819 >