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Jenifa Taught Me – Constant Dullaart Review

JENIFA TAUGHT ME
CONSTANT Dullaart’s solo show Stringendo. Vanishing Mediators, Caroll/Fletcher.

INTRO

Occupying both floors of the ultimate O’Doherty white cube of Carroll/Fletcher, Dullaart’s first solo UK survey show Stringendo, Vanishing Mediators consists of 27 works – many of them newly commissioned. The works have in common Dullaart’s pervasive aspirational tactic of queering and laying bare the architecture – both physical and virtual – of our networked yet doggedly analogue broadcast lives. Retaining a sense of sepia-tinted nostalgia for the Pong era Internet, many of the works in the show pay tongue-in-cheek homage to the revolutionary and democratic aspirations placed on the web at the beginning of its popular adoption – albeit primarily by white, male middle class Americans. Throughout the exhibition, Dullaart forensically tracks, seeds and traces remnants of our digital past and places them in direct dialogue with the power relations embedded in the terms and conditions of how these technologies have remediated the way we encounter and interpret our world now. This unveiling and excavating of the digital gesture – whether personal or brand mediated – and the freezing of the smoke and mirrors affect of software semantics isolated on the plinth of the gallery. It will be familiar ground for many of us in the business of the aestheticization of our precarious position as prosumers in surveillance society. However, as Dullaart lays bare the soft terrorism of the interface and the slowly encroaching disillusion of the clunky binary “digital” and the “physical”, he points towards a new way of visualising the architecture of our messy public/private, social/political pathological states of disarray by introducing The Balcony as a newly envisaged site of resistance and broadcast.

JENNIFER

Jennifer in Paradise
Jennifer in Paradise, courtesy of Caroll/Fletcher gallery

Stepping off the street and into Constant Dullaart’s recent solo show Stringendo, Vanishing Mediators at Carroll/ Fletcher on a sweltering summer afternoon I am immediately transported into a trippy AC’d noughties Snappy Snaps.

Installation shot, Stringendo, Vanishing Mediators, Caroll/Fletcher
Installation shot, Stringendo, Vanishing Mediators, Caroll/Fletcher

Dullaart’s signature, and now Guardian-famous, eponymous series Jennifer in Paradise acts as the hero image for the immersive world of blissfully glossy software-mediated wallpaper and slickly produced lenticular prints hanging in the entrance gallery. A Miami-hued display of software’s extensive lexicon of brushstrokes, filters and masks is flamboyantly demonstrated on the lonely yet aspirational image of a beautiful woman sitting on the beach looking out onto the tropical horizon. The promiscuous past of this image is well rehearsed; from its origins as a 1987 holiday snap – taken by co-creator of Photoshop John Knoll – to its use as crash test dummy for his ground-breaking popular software and its voracious adoption by the newly indoctrinated Photoshop masses as a subject of visual vivisection frames the staging of this exhibition. Dullaart’s archeological impulse to sniff out the rare software artefact of Jennifer points towards a general fetishization of the magic tipping point of the analogue/digital past –conjuring up a time when photography’s authenticity was still a battle to be fought. In a conversation with the artist at the appropriately ambiguous location of The Photographers Gallery shortly before his show opened, Dullaart emphasises the enduring pull of the image in his own practice. Describing the logic of the exhibition’s strategy, he sees the pasting of the Jennifer wallpaper as a “doubling” [1], or colonisation of his ongoing Jennifer experiment.

Dullaart’s Jennifer journey through the lexicon of data manipulation started when he embedded a secret stenographic message in the first re-appropriated images of Jennifer as a kind of “prize” for his growing online viral public. The first iteration(s) of Jennifer in Paradise explored the Internet’s opacity, highlighting the extent to which onscreen data is manipulated and controlled, enhanced or deformed. By celebrating and transporting the cyber-famous Jennifer into the gallery context in the form of selective editions, copies, or “abbreviations” of the digital, networked manipulation of the image, these artefacts act as both signifiers of the artists’ practice and as tempting photographic editions in their own right. A fact the artist is well aware of. However, the overarching social commentary implied in the freezing of this signifier of mass viral circulation is that the image became a coded Trojan horse for the prosumers’ 2.0 hypermarket as it was seeded, tracked mediated, remediated and mimetically distributed through the newly democratised digital commons.

AUTHORSHIP

It is in this mimetic gesture of versioning – a trope embedded in the very DNA of software development – that the artist does not just reference and make visible software’s surface gestures, but actually performs software’s versioning impulse, exposing it as a form of corporate cultural imperialism and spotlighting the newly negotiated role of authorship in the process. The artist’s persistent and persuasive disruption of the role of authorship is a common and recurring obsession running through his practice – from objects, to online queering of domain names, to his performances. A personal/impersonal example of this is played out in the exhibition by a row of seemingly innocuous family photographs. The series of family pictures from the 1980s are, according to Dullaart, the cleanest example of performative authorship. The photos were simply sent to Apple co-founder Steve Wozinak  for him to sign and send back to the artist – resulting in the  “re-authoring”  of Dullaart’s  childhood memories. This simple performance of capital control and authorship of so-called private identity is mainlined into Dullaart’s practice, and speaks to the artist’s core impulse: “this is exactly what I do – I take what isn’t public and I re-posses and reprocess these artefacts and re author them into a different spectrum”. [2]

RETRO-MANIA

In another act of ambiguous reverie of the commercial canon of software are the three pieces entitled Bill Atkinson demonstation drawing, (no.5, 12 and 18) hanging on the other side of the gallery, positioned against the Jennifer-tiled wallpaper. These drawings from the 23 stages of the first drawing made by Macpaint creator Bill Atkinson are printed in monochromatic hues sandwiched between photopolymer plates. These meticulously restored physical gestures of one of the first drawings executed by commercial software are particularly important for the artist. He sees this attempt at drawing made in the  “strong consumer software” of Macpaint as a kind of totem or signifier of the emerging lexicon of the new canon in art history.


Beautiful fetishistic rubbery objects in themselves, the physicality of these works demonstrates the materially-dependent, performative intent in Dullaart’s practice. As these monochromatic objects react and change to UV light – hardening and cracking – any collector of his work needs to embrace the precarious temporality of the objects themselves. This is true of all of his work – including domain names, websites, his own online identity etc. and Dullaart emphasises that the conscious situating and staging of his works in the framework of time is one of the most vital components of his practice.

THE “CUTE” ECONOMY 

This animated relationship to instability and time- dependency is clearly demonstared in his player paino piece Feedback with Midi Piano Player at the heart of the exhibition. An algorithm interpreting polymorphic songs is played out through the grand piano in the gallery in an apparent circus-like celebration of the computer’s magical powers. However,as the recital unfolds, it is full of little mistakes – the songs are too complex for the computer to relay in a coherent feedback loop. For Dullaart, the inaccuracy and amateur quality of the computer/piano recital delivers a quasi -human quality of cuteness – an increasingly desirable quality in our  popular technology, and an indication of the drive towards the synthetic anthropomorphism of digital objects and structures in general. This inevitably recalls Marx’s highly questionable use of anthropomorphizing comparisons of the commodity to children and women to underscore the “fetish character” [3] of commodities – the phantasmatic displacement of the sociality of human labour onto its products, as they appear to confront each other as if operating independent social lives of their own. In this sense, the “cuteness” in Dullaart’s piece might be seen as an intensification of commodity fetishism’s logic redoubled (like Jennifer) – as the viewer is connected to the unavoidable fantasy of fetishism, itself already an effort to find an imaginary solution to the irresolvable “contradiction between phenomenon and fungibility” [4] in the commodity form.

However, if this “cuteness” maintains fetishism’s overarching illusion of the object’s animate qualities  – in this case the clumsy performance- at the same time it wants to deny what, in Marxian terms, these animated commodities articulate as “Our use-value may interest men, but is no part of us as objects…We relate to each other merely as exchange values.” [5]

BALCONISATION

Dullaart then shifts his attention to the main focus of the exhibition – the conscious construction and showcasing of his proposition of a new way of entering into a contract with our networked, hyper-published -selves: the balcony. The two physical balconies presented in Stringendo, Vanishing Mediators (one of which is accompanied by a digital ticker-tape text of his Balconism manifesto) are both visual prompts and, in a sense, demos, of Dullaart’s concept of balconisation. In direct acknowledgment of the hyper- mediated image of Julian Assange standing on the balcony of the Ecuadorian Embassy in London – Dullaart starkly illustrates this liminal, politically charged space where we bear witness to a clear slippage between UK and Ecuadorian territory. To Dullaart, the balcony represents a ‘space outside society’ [6], and this new space of public address marks a shift in responsibility in self-broadcast/publication in the digital commons and the social media sphere. According to Dullaart, we all need to recognise our position on the balcony in our hybrid public/private pathology and modus operandi of quasi-addictive self-broadcast.

On the balcony we should be ready to escape the warm enclosure of the social web, to address people outside our algorithm bubble.  In the context of the show, the balcony is positioned as a higher order theory for how we should respond to the process of digitalisation as a whole, to how corporations and programmes structure our understanding of the world. We need to stand on our particular balcony ‘and choose to be out in public and we have to define cultural codes of how to do that’. [7]

What Dullaart’s exhibition Stringendo, Vanishing Mediators offers anew is an alternative proposition of spatial code through which to understand our steadily (re) negotiated locations of private and public space and the possibility of somewhere inbetween from which to enact a certain kind of everyday De Certeauian [8] tactic – the Balcony.

Dullaart’s solo exhibition ended at Carroll / Fletcher on 19th July 2014.

Time & Motion at FACT: Punchcard Protocol and Creative Capital in our “Modern Times”

Featured image: Sam Meech, Punchcard Economy, 2013. Photo courtesy of FACT.

The new exhibition “Time & Motion” at FACT in Liverpool, UK, takes the pulse of punchcard protocol and creative capital in our own “Modern Times”.

The exhibition Time & Motion: Redefining Working Life at FACT Liverpool is a collaboration between FACT and the Creative Exchange at the Royal College of Art – an initiative which looks at how arts and humanities researchers can work with industry to effect digital innovation. Rachel Falconer reviews the exhibition in the context of the paradoxical dynamics of cognitive capital and the changing landscape of the labour market.

Now self-employed,
Concerned (but powerless),
An empowered and informed member of society
(Pragmatism not idealism),
Will not cry in public,
Less chance of illness,
Tires that grip in the wet
(Shot of baby strapped in back seat),
A good memory,
Still cries at a good film,
Still kisses with saliva,
No longer empty and frantic like a cat tied to a stick,
That’s driven into frozen winter shit
(The ability to laugh at weakness),
Calm,
Fitter,
Healthier and more productive
A pig in a cage on antibiotics.

Fitter Happier, Radiohead.

The frantic quest for the elusive Shangri-La of work/life balance is a neurotic luxury afforded only to the always-on, hyper-connected generation of precariously unstable home office workers[1] in our hypercapitalist society. The working rhythms of this emergent class of “precariat” [2] are far removed from the forensically prescribed scientific management resulting from the time and motion studies associated with Taylorism at the beginning of the last century. This shift in working patterns generated by the digital revolution is the primary focus of the exhibition Time and Motion, Redefining Working Life currently at FACT, Liverpool. From an archival, filmic view of the automated, (Western) industrial factory labourer to contemporary portraits of the global information worker’s state of perpetual imbalance and non-stop, hyper-connectedness [3] the participating artists expose the – often contradictory – ecologies of labour, consumption, and the conditions in which they operate. The exhibition also marks the collaboration between FACT and Creative Exchange at the Royal College of Art – an initiative which looks at how arts and humanities researchers can work with industry to effect digital innovation and confront contemporary modes of production.

Taking the archival stimulus of time and motion measurement as its title and industrial work patterns as a starting point, the exhibition Time & Motion is the latest in a series of exhibitions and symposia addressing immaterial labour and new working patterns in the age of globalisation and creative capital.[4] Rather than following the well-trodden path of casting the figure of the artist as digital labourer, or attempting to portray an expansive, post-colonial view of nomadic, labouring diasporas, Time and Motion reflects a more subversive and fragmented approach to the politics of work, rest and play in the global information economy.

Sam Meech’s Punchcard Economy is at once a homage to the textile industry and a recognition of the contemporary precariat. With more than a symbolic nod to northern England’s textile heritage, Punchcard Economy consists of a machine-knitted reinterpretation of the Robert Owen’s 8-8-8 ideal work/life balance.[5] The piece was produced on a domestic knitting machine using a combination of digital imaging tools and traditional punchcard systems. During a residency at FACT last year, Meech collected punchcards from visitors detailing their working hours. This data was then translated into a knitting pattern which was used to generate the final work – a banner depicting the contemporary working day. Any hours worked outside the eight-hour day appear as a glitch within the fabric. This banner – historically a symbol of the working class and trade unions – also denotes the fragmentation and blurring of national class structures in the era of globalisation.

The move towards a flexible, open labour market has not eroded the class system completely, but a more fragmented global class struggle has emerged. The “working class”, “workers”, “proletariat” are terms that have been embedded in our (Western) culture for centuries, and used as badges of honour by some, and terms of derision by others. By incorporating a large cross-section of working society under one banner, Meech has literally – in stitching different socio-economic groups together into the very fabric of the working day – rendered the once potent archaic class signifiers as little more than evocative labels.[6]

75 Watt, Cohen Balen and Alexander Whitley, 2013
75 Watt, Cohen Balen and Alexander Whitley, 2013

“75 Watt” by artist Cohen Van Balen and choreographer Alexander Whitley also riffs on the trope of the long fought for 8 hour working day. Deriving its title from a quote from Marks’ Standard Handbook for Mechanical Engineers: “A labourer over the course of an 8-hour day can sustain an average output of about 75 watts”, the film is a subversive ballet of the complex and often skewed relationships between production, consumption and distribution in the post-industrial age. The film features a group of Chinese labourers working an assembly line, (playing on the stereotypical “Made in China” trope). The object they produce, however, has no logical use. The purpose of the exercise is simply to choreograph the combined movements performed by the labourers in the manufacturing process. The work examines the nature of mass-manufacturing on differnt levels; from the geo-political context of hyper-fragmented labour to the bio-political condition of the human body on the assembly line. Echoing the Taylorist ideal, here we see engineering logic taken to its conceptual extreme; through the scientific management of every single movement we witness the passage of factory labourer to a man-machine.

By shifting the purpose of the labourer’s actions from the efficient production of objects to the performance of choreographed acts, mechanical movement is reinterpreted into dance. The artists ask: “What is the value of this artefact that only exists to support the performance of its own creation? And as the product dictates the movement, does it become the subject, rendering the worker the object”?

This operatic construction line also points towards the ultimate failure of scientific management. Taylorism was always dictated by the needs of capitalist exploitation, but in its pure form it proved to be inefficient in drawing on workers’ talent and potential. In time the bourgeoisie recognised the inadequacies in Taylorism, and Taylorist methodology was mostly withdrawn by the 1930s. However, this was not the end of time and motion measurement. More recent management theories include Theory X and Theory Y introduced by Douglas McGregor in the 1960s.[7] Contemporary Taylorism takes the form of the Lean practices introduced into major departments of the British civil service (including HMRC, DWP, MOJ, and MOD). Workers incorporate “efficiency savings” as an integral part of their job, and work priorities are monitored by the soft panoptic gaze of non-hierarchical “collaborative practice”. Here,workers time their work processes, identify forms of waste, and propose changes in work practices. This “bottom-up” approach goes hand in hand with the new language of management – as managers morph into “leaders”. As efficiency savings are made from workers’ suggestions, the “leaders” try to enforce impossible targets, and decide whose post is next to be eliminated – hence the creation of the precariat. As part of the precariousness of employment, workers not only worry about losing their jobs, but also have to propose measures which, in the name of efficiency, might put them out of work. Added to this the increasing automation of work and the burgeoning AI scene, where does human cognition stand in all of this?

Banana Multiplier, Inari Wishiki, 2013.
Banana Multiplier, Inari Wishiki, 2013.

Inari Wishiki’s set of ludicrious alternative employment models (such as Banana Multiplier), are in reminiscent of the subversive, performative models of the Fluxus movement. Inari’s online work Recruit Agency for People Who Don’t Want To Work dramatizes this staging of an alternative labour market. The website includes documentation of a series of performances by the artist exploring the premise that with the proliferation and development of technology, we as humans have lost our place in the world of work, and yet still need to appear to be “useful” in order to earn a living.

Recruit Agency For People Who Don’t Want To Work is a set of systems which allow people to engage in the act of commerce while abandoning “all the meaningless rituals of having to be useful in order to earn money”. In INARI TRADING CARD, the artist documents the way in which “essential” workers function as a social infrastructure. He observes that “money was naturally following those workers according to their essential motions, unlike that of workers who seek after money”. These set of performances are an ironic counterpoint to the hyper-efficiency promoted by neo-Taylorism, and point towards the informal norms that are in tension with the industrial time norms still permeating social analysis, legislation and policymaking in the globalization era.

In his text “The Value of Time Spent” in the accompanying catalogue to the exhibition, Mike Stubbs supports this strategy of “design for disassembly” and novel values of exchange. Stubbs maintains that these alternative ecologies of exchange are necessary in order to allow us to question how we spend our time, and for us to lay bare the new patterns of professional fulfilment and social relations inherent to our hyper-mediated society.

Recruit Agency For People Who Don’t Want To Work, Inari Wishiki, 2013. FACT install shot (RF).
Recruit Agency For People Who Don’t Want To Work, Inari Wishiki, 2013. FACT install shot (RF).

The classic distinction between the workplace and the home was forged in the industrial age, and when today’s labour market regulations, labour law and social security systems were constructed, the norm was a fixed workplace. This model has now fragmented and crumbled and the term social factory, popularized by Tiziana Terranova and others, is applied to describe this shift “from a society where production takes place predominantly in the closed site of the factory to one where it is the whole of society that it is turned into a factory – a productive site”.[8] The production is one of value, where the collective efforts of intelligence and creativity are networked, controlled and exploited. Labour takes place everywhere, and the discipline or control over labour is universally exercised. But policies are still based on a presumption that it makes sense to draw sharp distinctions between the workplace and home – and between workplace and public space. In a tertiary market society, this model is obsolete, leaving the information worker increasingly pressurized and isolated.

New Product, Harun Faroki, 2012. FACT Install shot (RF).
New Product, Harun Faroki, 2012. FACT Install shot (RF).

One of the recurring themes in Time & Motion is this hybrid and compromised locus and infrastructure of the work place. Harun Faroki’s moving image work A New Product presents an insider’s view of the paradoxical construction of so called “fluid” working environments. He describes his new film as: “Scenes from meetings within a company which advises corporations how to design their offices — and the work done there. The film shows that words are not just tools, they have become an object of speculation.” In this work, he stages the brainstorming sessions of a business consultancy specialising in the design of workspaces, offices and new concepts for mobile work hubs. The resulting seductive imagery of the ideal workspace is an exercise in brand development pastiche rendered as pseudo video game.

New Product, Harun Faroki, 2012. FACT Install shot (RF).
New Product, Harun Faroki, 2012. FACT Install shot (RF).

Time & Motion also stages a co-working space, developed by the RCA CX team, which weaves together venue, audience, workspace and digital space – presenting the entrance space of the gallery space into a live research ‘lab’. Visitors are encouraged to participate in the research, interaction and interventions, and workshops, salon discussions, and hacking and making sessions are woven into the experimental fabric of the exhibition.

The ‘CX Co-Working Space’ features three design interventions. The first, Hybrid Lives, features video work by Karen Ingham and an interactive installation responding to data traffic, dressed with ‘co-working furniture’. Where Do You Go To? is a wall-mounted moving freize showing the output from an app, co-designed with a group from the BBC, with the mission to connect remote workers through exchanging, Snap-chat-like (pre-hack) images of desks and workspaces. According to Ben Dalton, one of the main developers, this sharing of ‘desk context’ helps form a synergy of ‘headspace’ between remote workers.

Where Do You Go To?, CX Project Partners: Ben Dalton- RCA, Bridget Hardy – Integrans Consulting, Ltd, Claire McAndrew – The Bartlett, UCL, 2013.
Where Do You Go To?, CX Project Partners: Ben Dalton- RCA, Bridget Hardy – Integrans Consulting, Ltd, Claire McAndrew – The Bartlett, UCL, 2013.

Taking its cue from Frances Cairncross’s 1995 “The Death of Distance”, where the compelling vision that, over time, the communications revolution would release us from geographic locations, the project illustrates how digital space has redefined our working lives. However, for all its good intentions, this gesture towards remote solidarity seems to be muddying the new principles and rhythms of work with Taylorist and later Fordist ideals of panoptic surveillance and somehow stands in direct opposition to the emancipatory rhetoric of convergence culture.

Time and Motion focuses primarily on a particular demographic of labourer (generally the global information worker), and paints the picture of a tertiary lifestyle which involves multitasking without control over a narrative of time use, and habitual fractured thinking – where non-stop interactivity (a digital version of Taylorist motion) is crack cocaine for the drones. For this category of workers, the workplace is everyplace – diffuse, unfamiliar, a zone of insecurity. We are left with a “thin democracy” in which people are disengaged from political activity except when jolted into consciousness by a shocking event or celebrity meltdown witnessed virally on Youtube during office hours. As more work and labour takes place outside the pre-determined workplace – in the hybrid environments of cafes, trains and across the domestic landscape – the very idea of a work/life balance seems like an alien ideal to aspire to.In an open tertiary society, the industrial model of time, and the bureaucratic time management of factories and office blocks, breaks down. There is no stable time structure and we are increasingly losing our grip on our own time. Time and Motion at FACT interrogates the impact of this fragmentation on the aesthetic forms of contemporary art, and contemplates how artists might offer a critique of our neo-Taylorist predicament.

Read and learn how to solve a Rubiks Cube with the layer-by-layer method. It can be learned in an hour.

Liquid Surveillance, the soft power of UBERMORGEN

Featured image: UBERMORGEN, CCTV, A Parallel Universe, (2013)

Rachel Falconer’s article is written in response to an interview conducted with lizvlx and Hans Bernhard from Ubermorgen. ‘userunfriendly’ is their first solo exhibition in London and presents a performative study of creeping paranoia. It is on show at Caroll/Fletcher Gallery through October until 16th November 2013.

“You one of those right wing nut outfits?” inquired the diplomatic Metzger.   Fallopian twinkled. “They accuse us of being paranoids.” “They?” inquired Metzger, twinkling also. “Us?” asked Oedipa. The Crying of Lot 49 [1]

The Edward Snowden soap opera is far from over as the media and social commentators continue to perform a one-way polylogue with the absconded, muted Snowden. The furore and essentialist reactions directed towards Snowden, the latest in a burgeoning breed of leaky information gatekeepers, has resulted in a pervading sense of neuroses creeping across the digital commons. One of the many media stunts to emerge from this backdrop of encroaching paranoia was Kevin Poulsen’s encrypted open letter to Snowden on the Wired website [2] . With the theatrical opening gambit of: “Don’t read this if you aren’t him”, this mimetic conceptual poke served only to simulate a tunnel vision debate about the authenticity of the encryption, and several bravado attempts to crack the PGP key.

The Snowden case is symptomatic of our current condition of post-panoptic surveillance, whereby practices of data and behavior tracking have led to an extension of Foucault’s panoptic theories beyond the notion of hierarchical surveillance. Recent debates about post-panoptic practices indicate a shift from direct, embodied surveillance, to distributed, mobile surveillance manifested in the likes of PRISM, XKeystore and Tempra. The normalization of the “need to watch and be watched” generated by our information society is ruptured in this instance by Snowden.

The combination of public outcry – exemplified by the recent anti-surveillance march in Washington – and the intensified interest in the phenomenon of mass surveillance on the hype cycle, has resulted in a number of workshops and art exhibitions dedicated to “giving the power back to the people”. Eyebeam recently hosted PRISM Breakup [3], a three-day event programme of workshops and talks which sought to offset the publically perceived imbalance in our mutual surveillance society by making the tools of the anti-surveillance trade accessible to everyone. This strategy of using the ecology of the art institution as an alternative site of knowledge production, and a locus of retreat and pedagogical resistance, is well rehearsed in the history of contemporary art. However, by concentrating on providing the tools of counteraction against the omnipresent, invisible, panoptic enemy of surveillance, perhaps the bigger picture of the phenomena of neurotic binarisms and shifting psychological territories are in danger of being overlooked.

In contrast to these oppositional tactics, the artists and digital actionists, UBERMORGEN, approach phenomena such as Snowden, and other symptoms of perceived hyper-capitalism from a fuzzier, more ambiguous subjectivity. In their quest for knowledge production and social dialogue, the artists present and re-present the conditions of our global socio-political situation as physical and ephemeral catalysts of open-ended investigation. Through their encounter with the digital, they craft physical manifestations of data, acting as a mobile research unit producing knowledge about real life conditions that spike their interest. Their widely questioned claim to neutrality is defended in their Manifesto; they are very specific about their position as actionists as opposed to activists, and place the physicality of the human body and neurological system at the core of their practice: “we are not activists. we are actionists in the communicative and experimental tradition of viennese actionism – performing in the global media, communication and technological networks, our body is the ultimate sensor and the immediate medium”.[4]

UBERMORGEN, Vladimir (2013) . Image courtesy of Caroll Fletcher gallery.
UBERMORGEN, Vladimir (2013) . Image courtesy of Caroll Fletcher gallery.

This position of political evasion hinges on a willful abstraction, and distancing from, their chosen subject matter. They activate this abstraction through their instinctive aesthetic strategy, creating a distance from the negative connotations popularly attributed to their subject matter by the media. The work Vladimir (2013) is a clear example of this obfuscating, poetic tactic the duo employ.  Here, a CCTV monitor is split into four separate screens and located on the first floor of the gallery space. One screen shows the actual painting of Putin, (located in the lower gallery space). This takes the form of a pixelated painted canvas of Putin onto which an animated GIF is projected. Another screen from the CCTV plays footage of Putin at a press conference. On the remaining screens, there are images displaying alternative subjectivities of how Putin sees himself: heroic of the leader with a naked torso whilst partaking in the popular macho pursuits of fishing and shooting. These images are set up to relate to the animated canvas located and distanced in the lower gallery space. The relational dynamics between the works create a fragmented picture of the subject’s identity, and, as lizvlx suggests, this sense of abstraction and distancing through the aesthetics employed, neutralizes any characteristic of evil popularly associated with the subject himself. The viewer is left to come to an independent conclusion.

UBERMORGEN, Vladimir (2013) . Image courtesy of Caroll Fletcher gallery.
UBERMORGEN, Vladimir (2013) . Image courtesy of Caroll Fletcher gallery.

In fact, the entire show is a tightly choreographed relational synthesis. As I experience Hans and lizvlx’s all-encompassing Gesamtkunstwerk , I get the distinct, and unnerving impression that I am being watched. Call me paranoid if you will, but as I navigate through the show, I can’t help but notice that the familiar white cube space is punctuated and peppered by an abundance of CCTV cameras, staged situations of observation, identity –skewing overblown pixels, Crime Watch images and performative interrogation environments, placing the user cum visitor in an uncanny feedback loop of reactionary surveillance.

UBERMORGEN, Net.Art(2013). Image Courtesy of Caroll/Fletcher gallery.
UBERMORGEN, Net.Art(2013). Image Courtesy of Caroll/Fletcher gallery.

UBERMORGEN’s collaboration with Aram Bartholl, Net.Art (2013), is the first work I encounter as I enter the gallery. Bartholl’s OFFLINE ART [5] curatorial strategy takes the form of five wall mounted routers locally broadcasting a selection of UBERMORGEN’s net.art pieces disconnected from the Internet. These hermetically-sealed works make the visitor aware that they are being choreographed and controlled from the off – initiating the uninitiated and reminding those familiar with their work that it is never a comfortable ride. Bartholl’s new model of exhibition format is a subtle method of instilling a sense of self-awareness in the viewer. Throughout the show, UBERMORGEN continue to stimulate a gradual awareness, and partially expose, the systems of coercion, control mechanisms and surveillance techniques employed by institutions of public authority. As the tectonically-shifting position between fact and fiction continues to play out throughout the show, UBERMORGEN’s empirical probing of corporate and governmental control mechanisms becomes increasingly apparent.

(V)ote-Auction(2000)
UBERMORGEN,(V)ote-Auction, (2000). Image courtesy of Caroll/Fletcher gallery.

The historic work [V]ote-Auction(2000)- whose virtual subversion resulted in RL FBI intervention- is presented here as an impotent, dormant archive, its stacks of legal documents masquerading as a minimalist sculpture. However, the two new works CCTV(A parallel universe)(2013) and Do You Think That’s Funny? – The Snowden Files (2013) directly implicate the viewer in the act of surveillance. Both pieces are staged situations of observation and temptation. Do You Think That’s Funny is accompanied by a piece of pseudo fan fiction cum interview between UBERMORGEN and Edward Snowden available in the gallery catalogue. The installation itself is a contemplative, yet menacing frieze of control. According to the artists, they are in receipt of an encrypted data package from Snowden. The staged scenario tantalises the viewer/user by offering up Snowden’s dark data on wall-mounted Ethernet cables. A bench is provided for the viewer directly in front of the cables to contemplate the magnitude of their content. This meditative state is rudely interrupted by a looming white CCTV camera fixed to the parallel wall, levelled at the spectator. I am already aware of the presence of this electronic eye having encountered CCTV (A Parallel Universe) (2013), in the previous room. In this piece, the glaringly crisp images on the TV monitor clearly depict the panoptic gaze of the CCTV cameras installed in every part of the gallery, creating an infinite visual feedback loop.

Snowden Files
UBERMORGEN, Do You Think That’s Funny? – The Snowden Files (2013). Image courtesy of Caroll/Fletcher gallery.

Call me paranoid, but as I navigate the exhibition, I become increasingly self-conscious. White cube galleries usually have the feel of surveyed environments, with their incumbent aura of silent contemplation, lurking invigilators and clearly posed CCTV cameras, but this is a different kind of watching. The fact that the work itself is not the main focus of the all-seeing eye of protection slowly dawns on me, and I feel that I am in fact the star of the show. As I crawl along the tunnel to reach the work Superenhanced (2013), I am aware of the fact that I am enacting a part, and white mice, hamster wheels and men in white coats come to my mind as I glimpse the two chairs and the hand cuffs ahead of me. As I look up and see that my confession can be clearly observed by visitors above me through the upper gallery stairwell, the picture is completed and I take my position in this physical simulation of a video game environment.

UBERMORGEN, Superenhanced (A Parallel Universe), (2013). Image courtesy of Caroll/Fletcher gallery.
UBERMORGEN, Superenhanced (A Parallel Universe), (2013). Image courtesy of Caroll/Fletcher gallery.

UBERMORGEN’s work implicitly involves and implicates both the visitor and themselves in a complex, and increasingly distorted feedback loop of knowledge production and surveillance. It is not, however, the surveillance of the Weiwei-esque, ever-present CCTV camera that starts to destabilise me, but the internal, cognitive surveillance prompted by the ambiguous narrative of the works. As the camera becomes assimilated and internalised, I am compelled to survey myself.

The Body Politic of subRosa

“None but those who have experienced them can conceive of the enticements of science.” Mary Shelley, Frankenstein.

Rachel Falconer writes about the cyberfeminist art collective subRosa, a group using science, technology, and social activism to explore and critique the political traction of information and bio technologies on women’s bodies, lives and work.

Following a recent interview with the founding members of the collective, Hyla Willis and Faith Wilding, this article presents subRosa’s trans-disciplinary, performative practice and questions what it means to claim a feminist position in the mutating economies of biotechnology and techno-science.

Cyberfeminism Interrogates Biotechnology: subRosa's Participatory Information Pe
Cyberfeminism Interrogates Biotechnology: subRosa’s Participatory Information Performances video.

The technological redesigning and reconfiguration of bodies and environments, enacted through the economies of the biotech industry, is an emerging feature of contemporary life. As these new ‘bits of life’ enter the biotech network, there is a slippage in our mental model of what constitutes the body, and more specifically, ‘life’ itself. As radically new biological entities are generated through the processes of molecular genetic engineering, stem cell cultivation, cloning, and transgenics, bio-artists and bio-hackers co-opt the laboratory as a site of critical cultural practice and knowledge exchange. Human embryos, trans-species and plants are constructed, commodified, and distributed across the biotech industry, forming the raw materials for bio-art, DIY biologists and open science culture.[1] These corporeal products and practices exist within new and alien categories, transgressing the physical and cognitive boundaries set by biopunk science fiction and edging towards the possibility of a destiny driven by genetics and life sciences. With the eternal rhetoric of a high-tech humanity, and the threat of Michel Foucault’s[2] biopolitics constantly on the horizon, today Harraway’s[3] myth of the cyborg exists in the form of corporeal commodities travelling through the global biotech industry. Scientific research centres stock, farm, and redistribute biological resources, (often harvested from the female scientists themselves). Cells, seeds, sperm, eggs, organs and tissues float on the biotech market like pork belly and gold. Seeds are patented, and other agro-industrial elements are remediated and distributed as bits of operational data across the biotech network. We/cyborgs[4], are manifested as a set of technologies and scientific protocols, and, as a result, the female body in particular, is reconfigured into a global mash-up of cultural, political and ethical codes.

The increasingly pragmatic realisation of the biotech revolution has provoked a ‘cultural turn’ in science and technology studies in general, and feminist science studies in particular. Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev’s dOCUMENTA (13) proposed an interdisciplinary approach to the role of science for ‘culture at large’. Certainly, by foregrounding the heavy hitters in the field such as Donna Haraway and Vandana Shiva, dOCUMENTA (13) laid claim to addressing the global conflicts of biotechnology. However, the feminist agenda was not specifically addressed, and the key issues of the impact of biotechnologies on feminist subjectivities were only paid minimal lip service. With the exception of Shiva[5], the tone of dOCUMENTA (13) hinted at a positivist, emancipatory take on biotechnology and technoscience without assuming a critical position. There was very little public debate or critical analysis engaging the philosophical, ethical, and political issues of feminism and female subjectivities within the realm of biotechnology.

Notably absent from last year’s dOCUMENTA (13), the activist feminist collective subRosa’s performative, interdisciplinary projects are channelled towards embodying feminist content, practices, and agency, and laying bare the impact of new technologies on women’s sexuality and subjectivities – with a particular emphasis on the conditions of production and reproduction. Through their research-led practice and pedagogical mission, the collective analyse the implications and conditions of the constantly surveyed female body, whilst mapping new possibilities for feminist praxis. subRosa interrogate the conditions of surveillance, private property rights, and other control mechanisms the female body is subjected to by ART(Assisted Reproductive Technologies). The collective’s hybrid, interdisciplinary practice navigates the multiple identities the female body has taken on through techno-scientific development, including: the distributed body, the socially networked body, the cyborg body, the medical body, the citizen body, the soldier body and the gestating body. In contrast to the overarching and pervasive illustration of the technoscientific cultural landscape painted by dOCUMENTA(13), the current members and founders of the collective, Hyla Willis and Faith Wilding, are very clear in their critical intent. The collective choreograph and place themselves within globalized bio-scenarios in order to question the potential for resistance and activism within these constructs.

Cell Track: Mapping the Appropriation of Life Materials, subRosa, Chicago 2004
Cell Track: Mapping the Appropriation of Life Materials, subRosa, Chicago 2004.

subRosa’s overarching vision to create discursive frameworks where feminist interdisciplinary conversations and experiments can take place, is research-led and takes its cue from the canon of radical feminist art practices. Cell Track: Mapping the Appropriation of Life Materials has featured in a number of exhibitions, most recently in Soft Power. Art and Technologies in the Biopolitical Age, Vitoria-Gasteiz, Spain. This project consists of an installation and website examining the privatization and patenting of human, animal and plant genomes in the context of the history of eugenics. Cell Track highlights the disparity between the bodies that produce stem cells and the corporations that control the products generated from them. Bringing together scientists, cultural practitioners and wider publics in the construct of the gallery space, subRosa generate discourse around the patenting and licensing of DNA sequences, engineered genes, stem cell lines and transgenic organisms. The project’s participatory aim is to set up an activist, feminist embryonic stem cell research lab in order to produce non-patented stem cell lines for distribution to citizen scientists, artists and independent biotechnologists. This environment of shared knowledge production and speculative, alternative, research activity is at the heart of subRosa’s social practice.

Smart Mom, website, subRosa, 2009
Smart Mom, website, subRosa, 2009

Due to the pedagogical nature of subRosa’s activities, the collective’s critical stance towards IVF and ART has proven to be particularly provocative, and their scepticism towards the emancipatory language of ‘choice’ co-opted by ART, has been met with some resistance by other feminist practitioners. However, it is in this very agonism[6] that subRosa wish to become more visible, and they welcome criticism and debate in the public discursive spaces that they create.  In a recent interview, Faith Wilding and Hyla Willis both expressed their desire to generate an expanded, and deeper discussion about the wider issues involved in ART in particular and biotechnology’s effect on female identity in general. subRosa’s potential to reach wider publics and audiences is partially determined by the socio-political context of the communities in which they operate. Perhaps in reaction to this, subRosa’s focus is now shifting towards embracing the aforementioned ‘cultural turn’ in science as they address the position of feminist scientists themselves.

The imperative to reclaim feminist discourses and narratives in science is of growing concern to subRosa, as they believe that feminist agency lies in the practice of science itself. By relocating lab-work from the dominant scientific institutions to the public environment of the gallery, subRosa provide the critical space in which new feminist scientific praxis can operate,[7] and new dialogues and discourses can be created. Their conviction that political and critical traction lies in practice as discourse, and the potential of face to face encounters, is demonstrated in their recent project for the Pittsburgh Bienal: Feminist Matter(s): Propositions and Undoings (2011). In this installation, SubRosa take Virginia Woolf’s[8] assertion that ‘tea-table thinking’ provides an effective antidote to the male-driven ‘war-mentality brewed in boardrooms and command centers’ as their main conceit.  Redeploying Woolf’s idea toward the rethinking of the traditionally male-dominated discipline of science, Wilding and Willis’ installation brings traces of the science laboratory to the intimacy and hospitality of the kitchen table, and in turn, also situates what is normally a private, feminized space in a more public domain.

Feminist Matter(s): Propositions and Undoings, opening reception, subRosa, 2011.
Feminist Matter(s): Propositions and Undoings, opening reception, subRosa, 2011. Photo: Tom Little, Miller Gallery.

These tables stage a dialogue between one or two visitors in response to the presentation of female figures in science, both the popularly acknowledged and the underexposed. subRosa foreground women scientists past and present and reimagine an alternative, feminized history of science and technology. The installation explores feminism and participatory practices as modes of scientific research, with the aim of generating dialogue and discourse around the questioning of the dominant historical narrative of science. Specially tailored installations reside on each table, evoking lab work while celebrating the history of the women protagonists they play host to – from anarchist painter Remedios Varo to geneticist Barbara McClintock.

Feminist Matter(s): Propositions and Undoings, opening reception, subRosa, 2011.
Feminist Matter(s): Propositions and Undoings, opening reception, subRosa, 2011. Photo: Tom Little, Miller Gallery.

subRosa’s pedagogical imperative is at once inclusive and provocative, and their role as facilitators of a discursive space outside the traditional institutions and control structures of science, is where their radical aspirations lie. Pedagogical art practices often teeter on the brink of propaganda, and subRosa are quite comfortable with the propagandistic label. Considering the economic and cultural climate in the USA with regard to the politics of reproduction, their work has been particularly well received in the context of European cultural institutions, whereas in the USA there is greater interest for the work in academic institutional settings. Perhaps this could be symptomatic of the general privileging of discourses around intersex, transgender and queer subjectivities. The dominant bias of the gatekeepers of the artworld to showcase queer practices is evident in the promotion of artists such as Ryan Trecartin and Carlos Motta on the international circuit. Curators have tended to position artists addressing the gendered ‘Other’ within a contemporary queer framework, whilst keeping feminist art practices on the peripheries of 1960s/1970s retrospective nostalgia. This tendency presents a muddying of the waters for contemporary feminist art practices such as subRosa.

This may also be part of a more general tendency to demonize and move away from feminist identities and discourses in wider society. The academic shape shifting from ‘women’s studies’ to ‘gender studies’ to ‘queer studies’ has diminished the feminist conversation and, therefore, the impact and receivership of feminist art practices. This has rendered the popular conception of  ‘Queer’ as acceptable and non-aggressive. Furthermore, the term ‘Queer’ and the subsequent morphing into the verb ‘queering’, has been co-opted by transdisciplinary academic discourse, and is now an expansive, all embracing cultural term – a phenomenon that has met with a certain amount of scepticism from the queer community.

This privileging of the expansive ‘othering’ of queer rhetoric has often resulted in feminism being rejected as a radical and out-dated political identity by art practitioners themselves. This ambivalent attitude is perhaps also indicative of the wider feminist debate, in which post-feminism has splintered into fragmented, diluted groups, each policing their own identity politics with little sense of a bigger struggle. However, the collaborative, interdisciplinary environments orchestrated by subRosa signal a return to the indisputably material actuality of the female body. Through their insistence on the possibilities of feminist bench-side practices, and the forensic unpicking of the power/control structures inherent in biotechnology, subRosa expands the feminist lexicon through the empirically re-appropriated organic materiality of the body.