At the end of last year, a red flag flew over Manchester Cathedral. The artist Pavel Buchler projected a red beam of light from the seat in Chetham’s Library where Marx and Engels had studied the conditions of the Mancunian working class. Now, near to the bombed out buildings of 1990s Manchester, they might be imagined looking up at the English flag and seeing some sort of aesthetic fulfilment of their schemes. The Church seemed to have joined the Revolution, if only for one night.
Of course, as Micz Flor makes clear, even if the priesthood were suddenly converted to the Marxist cause, there is no Revolution to join — just another fashion statement for an irony-laden consumer class. Bringing together those two old adversaries, Church and Communism, in one single corporate logo emphasises the absurdity. Buchler plays with the idea of revolution, with its history and its contemporary aestheticisation to remind us of our current heterogeneity. We have no single cause around which to rally, and his Red Flag stands as a marker of what can and cannot be expected. Although pre-dating the exhibitions and events of revolution98, it seems to me to act as a augury of the project, a sign of the times and the possibilities.
As far as master narratives go, you cannot get much more authoritative than revolution. In our departing Marxist century, revolution has seen the culmination of history, the inevitable outcome of processes begun centuries before. And yet, look around England in 1998. Billboards tell us to “Join the Cable Revolution”, we can celebrate England’s rare World Cup victories in a bar called “Revolution” and wear “Red or Dead” shoes. So, let’s be realistic, the exhibitions and events in revolution98 are not going to provoke civil unrest. The programme aims simply to ask some pertinent questions about the relationship between artistic practice and technological development. The legacy of the term revolution leaves it in play for us to invest with other meanings. In reference to art, it might be used to reinforce the value of a critical artistic practice that seeks to comment on the social and political objectives of technological or structural change.
As soon as the term ‘the digital revolution’ was coined, it begged its own questions. Not least of these was what sort of revolution it was and how we, as a society, might respond. Without doubt, politics and social analysis will provide many of the possible answers but some more oblique responses can be found in the work of artists and other cultural producers. Indeed, in a decade marked by the demise of organised party political ideologies, the cultural sphere is being asked to take on those very responsibilities which have previously been the task of political journalists and intellectuals. As the American cultural philosopher Bruce Robbins has written: “(P)articipation in the making, exchanging and mobilising of public opinion…has to some extent been reinvented or relocated…(It) is now discoverable to an unprecedented extent in the domain of culture” *)
With this in view, the works in revolution98 — be they installations, social actions, communication projects or process-based workshops — ask for a particular interrogation. They want to be questioned for their content and their application to social issues rather than their technical innovation. Their relationship to technology is complex, only occasionally pushing at the frontiers of computing capability and more usually concerned with the social and political consequences of the mass adoption of silicon. Many are new commissions and therefore still in development at the time of writing, however it is clear that certain strands or affinities of approach are emerging across the programme.
The legacy of science fiction and its frequent preoccupation with the struggle for individual recognition against technological determinism is explored in a number of projects. Keith Piper’s Robot Bodies remarks on the extraordinary absence of non-white androids or robots in popular science fiction. As a black artist, he sees his presence being written out of the future of artificial
lifeforms. He interprets this as a fundamental denial of blackness, where the conjunction of cyborg and black is simply too removed from the assumption of white human centrality to serve as a meaningful exploration of difference. Gina Czarnecki also examines the ‘technological body’ and genetic engineering through digitally manipulated photographs. Suzanne Treister and Andrea Zapp both adapt the established model of the time traveller from H. G. Wells, Virginia Woolf and many science fiction writers to relate personal histories to world events. Treister’s No Other Symptoms — Time Travelling with Rosalind Brodsky leads her alter ego on a journey from the Russian revolution of 1917 to the Institute of Millitronics and Time Interventionality in 2057 Zapp’s Orlando-inspired CD-ROM bends time, geography, ethnicity and gender to create a contemporary psychological collage. Imanol Atorrasagasti and Yan Duyvendak enter this territory from the point of view of personal fantasy, depicting the disintegration of the body as conjured up in the virtual world of dreams. In their different ways, all these works seek in some way to resist a system where heterogeneity and imagination are restricted in favour of the functional processing of information.
Satirising such mundane functionalism is the starting point for two US artists, Perry Hoberman and Kristin Lucas. Both these new commissions reflect the pointlessness of much human-technology exchange. Hoberman recreates in model and computer form the physical arrangement of furniture and other objects in a gallery space. The audience is free to move any element of real, model or computer versions, but each action requires the attendant operators to copy the change in the other versions. Thus, the seemingly insignificant movement of a chair icon from one corner of the screen to another carries the responsibility of commanding real operators standing in the same space to carry out exhausting and pointless tasks. Accountability for these virtual actions is therefore instantly thrown back on the user who has to decide how far to proceed. In contrast, Lucas’s new installation creates a virtual window onto the real, adopting the role of a work-from-home security guard whose expectations never quite correspond to reality.
The questionable influence of the media re-occurs throughout the programme as both a subject and source of the work. Elizia Volkmann’s Phat Media Blast charts the media’s almost apoplectic response to her deliberate weight gain of 25 kgs, while Johan Grimonprez’s now famous Dial H-l-S-T-O-R-Y extracts television reports from the last 30 years of aircraft hijackings to comment on the changes in media aesthetics and the increasing de-sensitisation of its audience. Willie Doherty’s extensive exhibition documents his work over the past twelve years dealing with the constructions the media place on certain events, locations or people. His reference point is always his home town of Derry and the North of Ireland, but his considerations extend far beyond the local, to embrace global situations which are regularly reduced by the media to the same two minute soundbite. Nedko Solakov looks more specifically at the role of the art world in the construction of an artistic career and the manipulation of the viewer’s expectations. The media as a constant recording presence is the subject of Nina Fischer and Maroan El-Sani’s /V1Senniumania. Every time zone in the world is accounted for on the 360 degree screen, as a constant stream of pedestrians, recorded and monitored without obvious reason, strive to complete their cyclical journeys.
The mimetic authority of technology and the possible repercussions for genuine political and social changes are significant subjects for the programme. Lucia Grossberger-Morales documents the Zapatista uprising in Mexico on interactive CD-ROM, combining animated reconstructions with psychedelic graphics and sound. Luchezar Boyadjiev’s Revolution for All invites us to share the exhilaration engendered by revolutionary zeal as faces from visitors are scanned and located within the famous image of Lenin addressing the St.Petersburg crowds in 1917. Grossberger-Morales and Boyadjiev ask related questions about the nature of participation in their interactive scenarios. Is this a form of displacement activity which relieves us of certain personal responsibilities or does it mirror the familiar response to ‘actual’ television coverage of conflicts? In a contrasting piece by Chinese artist-in-residence Feng Mengbo, the ‘virtual reality’ game Doom is used as the inspiration for a series of prints and an installation which combine symbols of the Cultural Revolution with Japanese computer culture and Western commerce. His references to the misunderstandings still possible in the apparent global currency of computer graphics is taken up rather differently by Tonebalone who also uses the questionably neutral territory of the computer game as a device to visualise the reality of racial hatred and xenophobia.
The encounter between new technology and tradition is the subject of work by Nelia Justo, John Fairclough and Maureen Lander, who draw parallels between the cultural and economic exchange of the past and current internet based communications. Fairclough and Lander’s work originates in childhood games played with a ball of string while Justo interweaves the development of the silk trade with the growth of electronic commercial exchange between Asia and Europe. Cornford and Cross look critically at another form of trade, in human lives, with their outdoor installation Cosmopolitan. Taking the growing phenomenon of women in the former Soviet Union offering themselves as potentially docile wives to American and Western European men, the work projects the women’s video interviews/sales pitches onto a container sited near Liverpool’s docks. In itself, this work documents the effects of the unheralded ‘revolution’ or deterioration in women’s status and economic circumstances, which followed the ideological collapse of communism. Turning towards a critique of capitalism, Tapio Makela and Susanna Paasonen use shop window sites as interactive zones where the mythologies about cleanliness and whiteness instigated by mid-century advertising agencies are tested against the responses of today’s multi-cultural shoppers.
Within the metaphor of Revolution, the content of the work is not the only concern. The programme also seeks to provide the possibility of radically different encounters with art from those established by the many recent new technology exhibitions. The inadequate display of websites and CD-ROMs on monitors lining gallery walls has been avoided and, in their place, visitors are invited either to access the work in their own time or engage with a number of process-based initiatives around the Revolting temporary media lab. Revolting builds upon new modes of collaborative and process-oriented work in culture, politics, art and media activism. It attempts to extend the social space of the workshop into the digital realm of the internet and vice versa, concentrating the free floating nature of networked technologies within a social environment. As part of the project, Virtual Revolutions has invited more than 50 artists to participate in workshops in Bulgaria, England, Finland and the Netherlands which will culminate in a CD-ROM and a series of artists’ talks presented in Manchester. Mercurial States is a similar process or socially-constructed project run with, and by, the black community in Liverpool. More publicly accessible for the casual visitor are one night events in Liverpool nightclub Cream featuring Granular Synthesis and Sub.merge, which seek to adapt the rules of the club night without losing the essential sensuality of the experience. Finally, Illuminations Television’s Out Of This World will create a unique virtual gameshow where the audience controls the competitive performance of teams of computer-created avatars struggling in an alien environment. revolution98 is designed to bring into focus those artists whose work takes a look at humanistic responses to the observable spread of technology. It tries, ultimately, to seek possible answers to two questions above all others. How much has technology changed the rules and how far are we willing to let it?
*) Bruce Robbins, ‘Introduction: The Phantom Public Sphere’, in Bruce Robbins (ed.), The Phantom Public Sphere. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1993, p.xix. Quoted Peter Osborne (ed.) A Critical Sense, Routledge, London and New York, 1996 p.ix.
- Charles Esche Lead Curator