With work in general becoming more and more “creative”, artists – conversely – are turning to the mundane. Focusing upon bureaucracy, datafication, supply chains and the factory (a pre-post-Fordist place), the terms and conditions of technology, media and economics have become the object of artistic practice. I get that. But how do these interests materialise artistically, as artworks?
l say mundane because the artists in question are “interested in working with subjects and fields which are considered uncreative”. 1 Expanding their scope beyond solely analysing the working conditions in the creative field (currently a common trope in contemporary art), these artists dive deeper into the very legal, economic and technological underpinnings of social configurations. I say materialise and I say artwork tentatively, because a current running through Sandberg Instituut’s 2019 graduation show is that of networks, interfaces, software, data and digital infrastructures; all terms that have no object-form as such and materialise only by conversion. How to present entities that are, by their essence, not visual?
From the 1960s onwards, conceptual art made both moves as well, albeit with entirely different motives.(2) The first parallel is that it also tried to assault traditional paradigms of visuality, aiming to overcome the retinal conventions of painting and sculpture. Taking a leap to present-day practices, the material manifestation of the artwork is now challenged for different reasons: its subject – the regulation of the flow of people, things and data, which I regroup under the term “interfaces” – simply does not have a distinct material form.(3) A second similarity with conceptual art bears on the preoccupation with the structures of administration and legal organisation. It employed an administrative style and a legalistic language to resist traditional aesthetic criteria (mostly that of artistic competence and taste). Today, administrative and legal processes are again in focus, but now as the object of research, not as the final form of the work. The stakes are now different, as there simply is no single accurate representation possible of the underlying networked mechanisations and broader implications of the interfaces we encounter.
The graduation works of Miquel Hervás Gómez, Sascha Krischock and Agustina Woodgate (assembled in VPN, Virtual PUB Network), and of Juhee Hahm, David Haack Monberg, Wyatt Niehaus, Luke Rideout, and Karina Zavidova, all seem to riddle the hegemony of the visual. They foreground an interest in legal, economic and technological processes. This puts the possible materialisation of their engagement with abstract systems – they attempt to present this interest in the form of artworks – under pressure.
For instance, the rather voluptuous work Icons Made Without Hands by David Haack Monberg addresses the material effects of datafication on history, memory and identity. It consists of a video, two sculptures and four wall objects. The piece departs from the resurrection on Trafalgar Square of the Arch of Triumph of Palmyra, which had been destroyed one year before by ISIS in Syria. A copy of the Roman monument was unveiled by then Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, as a reproduction from digital scans. The wall objects are the result of glitches that appear in the scanning process and I read the sculptures, wrapped in plastic foil, as an expression of the aesthetics of transportation and its alleged transparency. The sculptures, shrouded in the same satin cloth used in Trafalgar Square, contain several dead chameleons (they turn grey when dead). These have the same shifting skin as the scanned monuments. One sculpture also contains the last known scan of a packing slip of one of his artworks, that was lost in transit – alluding to the conditions of the international transport of data and objects, and its implications for his own work. In his thesis, Monberg further elaborates on what happens when archaeology becomes virtual: “What does the term virtual archaeology mean here? The key concept is virtual, an allusion to a model, a replica, the notion that something can act as a surrogate or replacement for an original.” (4) His work examines the fate of collective memory when it becomes based on datasets instead of original material.
Pointing to the infrastructure and functioning of archives, Wyatt Niehaus’ abstraction does not operate on the level of the photographs he presents, but in the absence of any further descriptions. As Walter Benjamin mused in the final lines of A Short History of Photography, “Will not the caption become the most important component of the shot?” (5) Niehaus engages with urban developments from within an institute for social history, in the form of the exhibition Related term (RT). He installed various photographs and placed archive containers in three empty display cases at the International Institute of Social History in Amsterdam, which houses archive collections of the radical left. His photographs link to the collection’s content and the institute’s history. Niehaus traces the transformation of various spaces (such as a former sugar factory west of Amsterdam) into new economies that include yoga studios, coworking spaces and tech offices. The presentation of these pictures, in turn, accentuates the boundaries of the public and private staff areas of the institute.
Juhee Hahm and Luke Rideout explore something as vast and supposedly abstract as a supply chain – in this case that of coffee – by collaborating on a research journey in Amsterdam and Kenya. They follow the different stages in the process of coffee production, from farm through auction house, warehouse, roasting house, port and coffee company, to cafés in Amsterdam. This has led to season one of the Supply Chain Broadcast, (6) a “digital audiovisual station” which shares the stories of disconnected global communities from the same supply chain. In a sense reclaiming the lost promise of globalism, it aims to empower the different groups in understanding their position in this global system.
Rideout tries to approach all the actors in the supply chain equally, with as little bias as possible. He aims to investigate “whether the global supply chain can be used as a platform for learning, trust and empathy between communities around the globe.” (7) Against naive or malevolent tentatives to advance creative capitalism, Rideout tries to reclaim labour as a fundamental cultural expression. Asking questions such as “How much time do you have for breaks?”, “What would you say to another member of the supply chain?” and “When do you feel fulfilment in your work?”, Rideout takes up the deadpan role of a consultant, but now expanded to the scale of an entire value chain.
In her work, Juhee Hahm connects coffee culture to the cult of productivity, and to “bullshit jobs” in particular. In the installation I Wanted to Like My Work, Hahm creates a coffee fuelled waiting room that lets participants experience the infrastructure of what David Graeber called “bullshit jobs”. These are pointless administrative positions that have appeared in the wake of increasing bureaucracy in modern society. Hahm links the precarity of her own position as a creative worker to the disenchantment of bureaucratic jobs – two sides of the same coin. Both situations beg the question: if work is no longer about production, then what is the value of human labour?
Karina Zavidova tackles the abstraction of bureaucracy by drawing a suggestive parallel between two value systems: the creative field and immigration policy. As a non-EU student, she faces triple tuition fees along with looming expatriation if her value to the Dutch society as a “creative” is not ascertained. The resulting work is primarily the self-published book Untitled – Practice within the Limitations of Citizenship (with a Smile), which can also be consulted in an installation by walking on a treadmill. The book lays out the aesthetics and the legal framework of “ambition” as a criterion for immigration and creative practice. Interestingly, Zavidova relies explicitly on the automation of processes and the use of templates and default software. Apart from the cover, the book is coded and printed entirely as an exported HTML file. In her encounter with immigration policy as an interface, she opts for an artistic creation that dodges the use of an interface (typically being InDesign).
Miquel Hervás Gómez, Sascha Krischock and Agustina Woodgate have gone as far as not proposing any physical objects. They assembled from different departments to create VPN, Virtual PUB Network. “This virtual network,” they write, “explores the possibilities of autonomous infrastructures by building a zone of trust and situated knowledge opposing itself to the platformisation of the institute. By building a local network and designing its architecture, VPN aims to link all the distributed departments and generate space in between.” The three creators each present one-third of the project’s description in the publication of this year’s graduation. In order to read the full statement about the work, the reader must browse through the pages just as they have to with the network itself, which cannot be fully accessed at once. The work thus does not propose a form, but creates an infrastructure. Enabling users to access data by connecting directly to a private network, the VPN was installed physically at four exhibition venues during the graduation show. The network and the archive it hosted were thus only accessible to visitors on site via the wi-fi settings of their smartphone. “But are you also showing a work?”, I naïvely asked one of the creators. Case in point, the network is the work.
In these cases, artists’ and designers’ increasing encounters with precarity have not led to navel-gazing but to starker attention to systems that determine social configurations in general. I allow myself to quote Karina Zavidova at length: “I have been having conversations with people who are developing their entire projects around their own elephant in the (class)room, such as affordable housing, [ ... ] affordable meals, being paid for your work ... This is not the problem. The problem is that these kind of works are seen as contributing to the image of the school as ‘woke’ simply because they exist. They are well-made, well-articulated, made public in corridors and on our Instagram channels, while the legal ground on which the school exists remains invisible.” (8) Against the temptation to focus on issues that are hiding in plain sight – the precarity faced by a student at an art school – there is the desire to dig deeper into underlying legal, but also economic and technological, frameworks.
When speaking of these infrastructures, the lingering question is how these “abstractions become flesh”. (9) To quote Sascha Krischok’s essay Deep Learning from Las Vegas, “Information, at once both graphical and spatial, has become the main mediator in urban space, overcoming physical and moral limits to shape and automate human behaviour and emotion.” (10) Objects can hardly be singled out, because they are entangled in complex infrastructures. If an object cannot represent the network on which it depends, it does however undeniably bear the mark of the networks in which it is immersed. The answer to the question “How to present entities that are, by their essence, not visual?” is thus twofold: on the one hand there is a zooming out from concrete cases to analyse their broader legal, economic or technological framework 11, on the other a zooming in on the tangible ramifications of those governing spheres. Rather than the graduation works being an aestheticisation of a networked reality, they act as a seismograph, measuring the material effects of abstract interfaces.
1. This is quoted from the biography of Karina Zavidova. I am consciously applying this singular phrase to all the artists mentioned, regardless of their apparent differences.
2. For an exhaustive historicisation of conceptual art, see: Benjamin Buchloh, Conceptual Art 1962 – 1969: From the Aesthetic of Administration to the Critique of Institutions, October vol. 55. (winter 1990), pp. 105 – 143.
3. Miquel Hervás Gómez goes so far as thanking each platform he used in his thesis essay, acknowledging amongst others the influence of aaaaarg.fail, WeTransfer, PayPal and FlixBus for his work. Miquel Hervás Gómez, Last_Last_Final_Final.PDF, Design Department Issue #4, 2019 (no page number).
4. Paul Reilly, Towards a Virtual Archaeology, (CAA ’90. BAR Intern.s. vol. 565, 1991), p. 133. Cited in David Haack Monberg, Viscosity, 2019, p. 20.
5. Walter Benjamin, One-Way Street and Other Writings. Trans. Edmund Jephcott and Kingsley Shorter. London: New Left Books, 1979.
6. See: https://www.supplychainbroadcast.net/.
7. Luke George Hardy Rideout, Exploring Forms of Cultural Stewardship – An investigation into the cultural landscape of global trade, with focus on documenting opportunities for enhanced socioeconomic relations, 2019.
8. Karina Zavidova, Untitled – Practice within the Limitations of Citizenship (with a Smile), 2019, p. 41.
9. Karina Zavidova, The Argumentation Machine, Design Department issue #4, 2019 (no page number).
10. Sascha Krischok, Deep Learning From Las Vegas, Design Department issue #4, 2019 (no page number).
11. It is not about a destroyed monument but its resurrection as data; not only about urban developments but also the organisation of social history; not about precarity but underlying legal structures; it is about labour conditions to the level of entire supply chains; and lastly, VPN, Virtual PUB Network is itself an infrastructure.
Laurens Otto is a writer and curator. He is the editor-in-chief of RESOLUTION, a magazine that focusses on the circulation of digital images. He serves as the associate curator of the Institute for Human Activities (DR Congo, Netherlands).