BY Tom Jeffreys in Reviews | 10 AUG 19
Featured in
Issue 205

‘Are We Choreographing Machines, Or Are They Choreographing Us?’

Considering our scripted future at Helsinki Contemporary 

BY Tom Jeffreys in Reviews | 10 AUG 19

‘Are humans choreographing a future integrated with machines?’, asks ‘Future Delay’ curator Amanda Schmitt, ‘or are the machines choreographing us?’ Schmitt’s exhibition statement trembles with anxious fascination over a future of transhuman immortality in which technology takes care of our ‘biological needs and desires’ in all their messy mundanity. The exhibition’s three works each call for bodily interaction but within prescribed limits. Pearla Pigao’s installation RD2 – 5DXA – 4DXF (2019) consists of three large-scale textile pieces hanging from the gallery ceiling. Made from steel wire and cotton woven together on a digital jacquard loom, each tapestry shimmers in the daylight like mackerel skin or moiré interference. Up close, the work reveals more: the steel wires react to electric currents to form a musical instrument which, like the theremin, can be played without direct contact. As I map my hand above the surface of the fabric, waves of sound undulate through the gallery.

The body in motion is also central to Madeline Hollander’s Future Delay (2019) in which three wall-mounted fans mimic the winds on the three runways at Helsinki airport. The fans provide the setting for a series of performances featuring dancers Karin Bergman, Nadja Pärssinen and Kärdo Shiwan, and a score by composer Jonathan Mandabach. Wearing navy gym shorts and white plimsolls, the performers reproduce a preprogrammed sequence of manoeuvres translated into choreography from data that Hollander has taken from Helsinki’s air traffic control.

Pearla Pigao, RD2 – 5DXA – 4DXF, 2019, handwoven on a digital jacquard loom in cotton and steel wire. Courtesy: the artist and Helsinki Contemporary

The two-hour performance, which integrates complex, interlocking patterns with everyday movement, combines the stiffly mechanistic with an organic flow. It is both rhythmically hypnotic and at times entertainingly absurd. The dancers recalibrate the relationship between the audience’s bodies and the gallery space as we continually move to see them or simply to get out of their way. However, Hollander seems to be using these dancers more as material than as artists with their own agency. In so doing, Future Delay blurs reaction (which is, here, biological or algorithmic) with response (without which there is perhaps no agency, or ethics). This distinction between reaction and response is philosophically fraught and it’s unclear if Hollander’s muddying of the waters is deliberate. (There is an apt, if unintentional, irony when the music system briefly breaks and the dance stops altogether. Those who fetishize the power of technology – either as a threat or a solution – tend to forget how frequently it fails.)

Hans Rosenström, Suusta suuhun, 2019, sound installation. Courtesy: the artist and Helsinki Contemporary

Hans Rosenström’s sound installation unpicks rather than blurs enduring distinctions. I sit on a chair with headphones on: a sedentary body, senses blocked from the world, an embodiment of alienated late-capitalist individualism. This individualism is precisely the conception of self that Rosenström challenges. Using binaural recording techniques, Rosenström creates an illusion of a three-dimensional sound-space. I hear footsteps behind me and turn around, but there’s nobody there. Every voice, indeed every breath, enacts a breaching of bodily borders between inside and outside. ‘I am composed of millions of molecules, cells and neurons,’ he whispers. ‘Bacteria.’ And it feels like his voice starts right inside my head.

Rosenström, who has previously worked in English and Swedish, chooses to employ Finnish. His script accentuates the inflected language’s distinctive qualities: its melodiously repeated endings and its long vowels and plosive consonants created by practised movements of air through a moving mouth. The work’s Finnish title is Suusta suuhun (Mouth to Mouth, 2019). ‘The words I use are not mine, but learned from others,’ says Rosenström, but it is only later, sitting at home with a translation of the text, that I begin to understand. In choosing one language over another, Rosenström opens the whole panoply of politics so often erased in species-wide discussions of ‘the human’. ‘We live on the precipice of total simulation,’ writes Schmitt. But who does ‘we’ actually include – and who gets to decide?

‘Future Delay’ was on view at Helsinki Contemporary from 6 June until 7 July 2019.

Main image: Madeline Hollander, Future Delay, 2019, performance and installation, continuously looping movement sequences. Courtesy: the artist and Helsinki Contemporary

Tom Jeffreys is a writer based in Edinburgh. He is the author of two books: The White Birch: A Russian Reflection (Little, Brown, 2021) and Signal Failure: London to Birmingham, HS2 on foot (Influx Press, 2017).