Pin It
ARS17: Hello World!
Ed Atkins, “Ribbons” (2014)Courtesy of the artist, Galerie Bortolozzi, Berlin and Cabinet Gallery, London

How digital worlds have altered the human condition

This year’s ARS17 exhibition at Kiasma features artists such as Ed Atkins, Amalia Ulman, and LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner

The binaries of technology have never been more profound. The digital realm can enable us to form more connections than we could ever do in the real world – through social media, live feeds, and gaming temporalities – but, it can also create anxiety, loneliness, and stress. The current exhibition ARS17: Hello World! at Kiasma in Helsinki is invested in these concerns, focusing on the intersection between the human condition and the digital, and how myriad forms of technology affect how we engage with and navigate interpersonal relationships. The exhibition has two sides: some of the work is dark and dystopian, whereas other artists have created personal or provocative utopias. Leevi Haapala, director of the museum and curator, expressed: “Finland is a very pragmatic tech-driven country, but I wanted to bring in a human level – examining how our desires and affections are mediated, how they bring us close to certain people and communities, and the digital as a cultural watershed of intense emotional energies.”

ARS17 brings together the work of artists from 13 countries, representing “the children of the 1960s and the millennials born in the 1980s.” “The post-internet movement and digital revolution happened everywhere at the same time. It’s important to show those links,” explains Haapala. “I want to promote a new generation of artists, such as Katja Novitskova, but to bring them into dialogue with the older generation, such as Hito Steyerl or Juha van Ingen.” Along with the exhibition, the Kiasma curatorial and collection team have also created the ARS17+ online platform. This is a compendium of topical online works by fifteen contemporary artists, including Amalia Ulman, Ed Fornieles, and Rachel Maclean.

There are multiple new artwork commissions, ranging from video games, to a nightclub/bar, and a 1000-year-long GIF-animation – the latter which Kiasma intends to keep running for as long as possible. In opposition to this emblem of preservation, other artists – like Julia Varela and Nina Canell – have created sculptural works that undermine these tokens of technology by rendering them useless or anachronistic. Varela has folded and smashed a series of black plasma screens, whereas Canell’s sculptures are composed of sliced electricity and communication cables.

French-born Aude Pariset is another artist who is engaged with counter-productive labour, capitalism, and the contrast of clinical images with organic matter. In her installation Greenhouses (2016) – previously shown in London and Berlin – two bed-shaped vitrines are filled with mealworms. These worms have the bacterial make-up to slowly eat away and biodegrade Styrofoam. Pariset has also created works printed on bio-plastic that she creates herself using a recipe she found on the Internet; “the ingredients are water, agar agar, vinegar, and taipoca starch.” The prints depict elements removed from advertising campaigns. “I like these particular images because I am fascinated with the relationship between time and consumption,” Pariset explains. “Advertising is like a painting of time – you need the new phone, the new whatever, and then next year it will be obsolete, and it continues again”.

“These engagements have been at times inspiring, moving, difficult, disturbing, and often extremely problematic – but then, it’s not art’s task to be easy” – LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner

German filmmaker Hito Steyerl’s Factory of the Sun (2015) and How Not to be Seen: A Fucking Didactic Educational .MOV File (2013) are exhibited in separate viewing environments on the top floor. Both films explore the complex relationship between analogue and digital, didactic and discursive. Gaming temporalities, surveillance culture, and critiques on bodily and political autonomy are carefully weaved into Steyerl’s expansive vision of data, image production, and social networks in the age of the Internet. Similarly, Cécile B. Evans’ What the Heart Wants (2016) asks serious and probing questions about the relationship between surveillance and transparency in society, particularly in relation to contemporary politics. The main protagonist of the film – HYPER – embodies affective computing – she is a machine with human consciousness. The narrative of What the Heart Wants is interjected by surreal talk shows and advertising montages – an interruptive element that also appears in Ed Atkins’ Ribbons (2014) – shown on three large screens in three successive interconnected spaces, all on slightly different timers.

An artist and prolific writer, Atkins subverts and exploits the conventions of high-definition moving image and text. Referred to as “part musical, part horror, and part melodrama,” the protagonist of Ribbons is a white male avatar called Dave, who moans, monologues, sings, smokes and drinks profusely. Montages analogous to Hollywood blockbuster trailers often interrupt Dave’s self-conscious soliloquies. Atkins explains that the aesthetic of these subtitles operate “predominantly as a cipher for elements of cinema or TV or film”. He goes further, “I liked the idea of text becoming spectacular but, like the rest of the video, saying very banal or incoherent or trite things. Advertising is a big part of this – specifically the blockbuster trailer. How to cue emotional response or excitement or whatever – not by the words, not by normal meaning making, but by the typeface, movement, rush, or music.” Atkins’ work is often described as ‘hyperreal’, but it is, in fact, the lack of realism within the ‘hyperreal’ which draws him to it; “It's proximity to veracity makes it realistic, but quite how insufficient it is as any kind of convincing representation is what I always find thrilling.” “CGI realism is, I suppose, hyper, insofar as it’s kind of predicated on excess in order to find its analogue,” he continues, “I think of this stuff as close to a kind of caricature. To cartoon grotesquery and satire abutting discomforting realism that moves – or kind of oscillates – between being convincing enough to intoxicate, to suspend disbelief – and convincing enough to repulse.” Ultimately for Atkins, virtual space is liberating; “you can treat it as a surrogate world – a fantasy, or a hell, or more likely a purgatory”.

For an artist like Jacolby Satterwhite, who is exhibiting En Plein Air: Music of Objective Romance: Track #1 Healing in My House (2016), virtual space has been a particularly liberating arena in which to celebrate and perform queerness. The hybridised and imagined environments open up possibilities beyond the heteronormative and cisgendered present. The oscillation between fantasy and hell also occurs in Jon Rafman’s film Open Heart Warrior (2016), in which peaceful scenes of woodland forests are suddenly cut with grotesque and disturbing images drawn from video games. Ryan Trecartin and Lizzie Fitch’s film Temple Time (2016) also takes on the gaming temporality as a means to explore human agency. The use of multiple screens, fast pace and constant motion saturates the viewer in an excitable critique of short attention spans and short fuses.

Kiasma also commissioned their own video game from the emerging Helsinki-based contemporary artist Reija Meriläinen. Titled Survivor (2017), and inspired by the TV reality show of the same name, the game takes you on an adventure through the museum galleries. Throughout the game, the player is forced to make decisions based on social politics and group dynamics. “Survivor functions as a model of real society – the social situations and structures that are in place,” Meriläinen explained. She was also inspired by the way Survivor intersected with how hierarchies and social cliques function in everyday encounters, such as at school. “The Survivor TV show resonated with me due to my experiences at school – being put into a group of random people that you have to find a place in,” she continued. “Some people fit into cliques so easily, whereas others don’t. I feel like this work is my attempt to try and understand those structures.” Jaakko Pallasvuo – whose own ARS17 installation takes a tongue-in-cheek look at contemporary art fads through the style of DIY ‘how to’ videos and slogans – interpreted Meriläinen’s work as a guide to how to survive in the art world. Although there is the potential to critique how one can ‘survive’, or even thrive, in mainstream institutions, Meriläinen would be happy to see the game unfurl in another space; “I would love to see it in a school, or someone’s home. The reading of the work might change through that.”

Another new commission is LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner’s #ALONETOGETHER, which began today. The themes of the human condition, social interactions, and relationships have been key to their practice – which is always public and encompasses participation both on and offline. As they vocalised, “these projects often function as a microcosm or heightened version of our everyday lives and interactions in our hyper-connected world”. “Our works speak of what is lost or gained in these relations. For this reason, they usually have one aspect or sense removed or held back from any one platform, be it the live stream or the physical installation, accentuating the strangeness of what is left.” Not only has the language of social media in their work, such as the use of hashtags, resulted in an incredible level of visibility, it “actually facilitates both the method of mass participation and the means of generating the ever-evolving content of the work itself”. They continued, “This breadth of exposure often allows participation by people who might not otherwise engage with projects like this.

This has been especially evident with HEWILLNOTDIVIDE.US, which has definitely been one of our most participated in works to date. And this participation isn't necessarily always easy or comfortable to experience. These engagements have been at times inspiring, moving, difficult, disturbing, and often extremely problematic – but then, it’s not art's task to be easy.” The notion of art not being easy is pertinent, as today marks the beginning of each of them spending one month alone in an isolated cabin in Lapland. “Viewers online are able only to see a stream of the gallery, with the inside of the cabin and what is being played out inside remaining hidden, with just our text communications overlaid as subtitles as a continuous one-sided monologue,” they explained. “Only those that enter the cabin in person will be able to see and communicate with us, acting as our singular lifeline to the outside world. The gallery video link and the online stream thus present two distinct, but interconnected forms of immediacy. (The project) is a meditation on the concurrent themes of isolation and hyper-connectedness in the digital age, simultaneously extremely intimate and distant.”

In recent years, there has been a big artistic and theoretical emphasis on empathy, love, and care as radical forms of resistance. LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner describe their work as “a romantic response to crisis, with a sort of utopian yearning at its core.” These converging ideas of intimacy, distance and hyper-connectedness are crucial to the themes of ARS17 at large. The exhibition may be focused on the digital, but as opposed to concentrating on the drier side of technology, it seeks to look specifically at the human condition – and how our connections, desires, fears, and decisions are mediated through these apps or machines. One thing is certain, love it or hate it, utopian or dystopian, this is the future.