‘Art in the age of Anxiety’ in the UAE investigates our digitised life

Omar Kholeif, the curator for Art In The Age of Anxiety at Sharjah Art Foundation, speaks with STIR about the show that lies at the intersection of humans and technology.

by Shailaja Tripathi Published on : Aug 19, 2020

We have a complicated relationship with technology. Art In The Age of Anxiety, which is currently on at Sharjah Art Foundation, UAE, shines light on this engagement through 60 works. Sculpture, prints, video, virtual reality, robotics and algorithmic programmes by 30 artists from across the world look at the ways and means digital has altered the world. Bombardment of information, misinformation, data mining, surveillance, identity theft and many more grave challenges that technology has thrown at us, are dealt with in the show curated by Omar Kholeif. Kholeif, who is also the Sharjah Art Foundation Director of Collections, has often curated exhibitions on the subject such as I Was Raised on the Internet (MCA Chicago, 2018) and Electronic Superhighway (Whitechapel Gallery, 2016). The senior curator has also written and edited several books on the subject, including You Are Here: Art After the Internet and Goodbye, World! Looking at Art in the Digital Age. The exhibition has been designed by Todd Reisz.

Kholeif speaks with STIR about the works, internet culture, his interest in ‘post-digital’ condition and the meeting ground between art and technology.

Edited excerpts...

Shailaja Tripathi (ST): As we remain confined to our homes, the exhibition Art in the Age of Anxiety assumes even more significance. Right now, it is only technology that is connecting us with the outside world.

Omar Kholeif ​(OK): Thank you for picking up on this fact. It is indeed very true. I have consistently observed over the last decade the thickening of the digital sphere - how technologies and their attendant platforms have for a long time been playing a dual role of creating a self-induced form of social distancing, while also connecting us to each other. However, it creates an unusual form of connection - one that is distanced, one that is not necessarily tactile, which shifts the different learned mechanisms that we as humans may traditionally have been engendered to believe were normal forms of human contact. The works in the exhibition are very much about this notion of 'distancing' that begets an over-reliance on day-to-day technologies. Here, artists are making people's innate complicity visible, but also revealing the hidden formal, aesthetic and human connections with technology, narrating a diverse history of art in the age of the internet—one that has come to become an increasingly anxious one. 

A digital video (looped) Homo Sacer 2014, by James Bridle | Danko Stjepanovic| STIRworld
A digital video (looped) Homo Sacer 2014, by James Bridle Image: Danko Stjepanovic, Courtesy of Sharjah Art Foundation

ST: Could you talk about the ‘post-digital’ condition you are interested in and how art speaks to it? How do these two worlds that seem different come together? 

OK: I do not believe them to be different. The 'post-digital' is a term that has been used and debated for some time and one whose definition I have aimed to broaden in many of my writings. It was indeed artists who made me aware that we are living in a post-digital condition. James Bridle, who features in the exhibition and I met in 2014 on the rooftop of a carpark in Peckham, where he had created a giant installation that revealed the ways that new aesthetics merged with civil surveillance and visual mapping. It was eye opening and I quickly took to the pages of Mousse Magazine in an article called Notes on the Post-Digital Condition and followed it up over the years on this line of questioning, including in one of my recent books, Goodbye, World! Looking at Art in the Digital Age. My belief is that everything we do is implicitly connected to a universe where aesthetic forms, relationships, communication, business and industry have all shifted to a new imagination that is inherent in digital and beyond. Artists live and work within this context and the works within the exhibition are very much informed by this. 

A Convention of Tiny Movements: Spinneys Supermarket, Ashrafieh, 2015–ongoing, a digital print by Lawrence Abu Hamadan  | Danko Stjepanovic| STIRworld
A Convention of Tiny Movements: Spinneys Supermarket, Ashrafieh, 2015–ongoing, a digital print by Lawrence Abu Hamadan Image: Danko Stjepanovic, Courtesy of Sharjah Art Foundation

ST: The design of the exhibition is pivotal to show. Could you shed light on its engagement with the artworks? 

OK: It was an honour and a privilege to have had the opportunity to work with writer and architect Todd Reisz who took some of my cursory ideas and developed them into a proposed universe unlike one I have ever been able to imagine within an exhibition. A curated exhibition like this is very much about storytelling and architecture; design is integral to that process. Todd and I discussed the idea of creating a space that literally 'feels' like navigating the internet. Thus, the viewer is intended to be immersed and disorientated and then relieved and lost—all the diverse feelings that emerge from using the internet on a day to day basis, going down the rabbit hole as it were. One metaphor that we used was to make the viewer feel as if they were being tunnelled down a fibre optic cable. Todd ended up becoming my closest interlocutor in the final stages of the exhibit planning—sensitive and patient. After many years working with different architects on projects, I finally understood the full capacity of what they can do that curators cannot; he has created a whole new field of imagination for the artwork. Pictures do not do justice to the experience; it really has to be seen! 

Trevor Paglen’s work They Took the Faces from the Accused and the Dead..., 2019, a set of 14 pigment prints | Sharjah Art Foundation| STIRworld
Trevor Paglen’s work They Took the Faces from the Accused and the Dead..., 2019, a set of 14 pigment prints Image: Courtesy of Sharjah Art Foundation, the artist and Pace Gallery, New York

ST: Could you talk about a few artworks from the show?

OK: My starting point was Cao Fei's body of work, RMB City ​(2007-2011), which is a major project that was created in Second Life—a virtual environment which foreshadowed the overwhelming use and reliance on human avatars and the internet as a space for identity creation and re-animation. Another important figure whose work threads throughout the exhibit is Trevor Paglen, whose suite of works such as 'de Beauvoir (even the dead are not safe) (2019)' engage with what he has dubbed as Machine Vision - a form of sight invented and devised by algorithms that decode and reveal how we will be seen in the future by our devices; it is a decoding of what lies beneath our social media platforms and their attendant software. Elsewhere, Jeremy Bailey uses augmented reality software to imagine a museum on our fingertips and TV programmes on our faces; Jenna Sutela creates an immersive film that is absolutely stunning, which links historical music to algorithmic vision and the future of humanity and the potential that we might have to live outside of the core of the earth. Lynn Hershman Leeson debuts in the Middle East with her major work Shadow Stalker (2019), an incredible film that informs us of the future of identity policing by zip codes through machines. Tabor Robak's Drinking Bird Universe (2018) is a stunning screen that resembles an iPhone culling some of the most anxiety inducing headlines using a bespoke algorithm. Those headlines subsequently create animated painterly forms that enrapture us—and that is just a snapshot. We have works made using Amazon Turk by Simon Denny; robotic emojis by Antoine Catala and virtual reality to name a few more. 

Eva & Franco Mattes’ work What Has Been Seen, 2017, Taxidermy cat, microwave oven, hard drives | Sharjah Art Foundation| STIRworld
Eva & Franco Mattes’ work What Has Been Seen, 2017, Taxidermy cat, microwave oven, hard drives Image: Danko Stjepanovic

ST: The title suggests a heightened sense of anxiety. Are there any artworks that bring about a sense of calm? 

OK: The title explicitly makes the argument that anxiety is intrinsically connected to the current integration of technology in our lives. Most devices in this day and age and their attendant software are commercially directed products and projects (historically that was not always the case). The endless consumerist structure that is engendered by this context literally creates constant anxiety as that is what capitalism does—it makes you feel that you need more. To update. To keep up. That said, an exhibition is meant, in my opinion, to explore and expound a broad field of emotions. The exhibition has been designed to create moments of silence and quiet for audiences to sit down and reflect on. For example, Trevor Paglen's beautiful algorithmically produced 'cloud' photographs or the magnificent colours, music and imagination of Jenna Sutela's multiverse or the playful interactivity of Thomson and Craighead's More Songs of Innocence and of Experience (2013), which is an interactive karaoke room using spam and scam emails to conjure the lyrics. I am not a digital dystopian and nor is this exhibition; rather it simply aims to make visible the structures behind technology and to be aware and informed citizens. I stand firmly in the centre—waiting to see the possibilities of technology and constantly hoping that technology will make our world a better place.

(The exhibition is on till September 26, 2020. A reservation is required to visit the show at Al Mureijah Square.)

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