2013 will likely be remembered as the year in which global surveillance disclosures dented the confidence and quietude of a Western monoculture previously blithe and blasé to the potentially deleterious effects of total surveillance. This ongoing issue was concurrent to a parallel development that year, the Europe-wide meat adulteration scandal, in which advertized beef was found to contain undeclared animal meats such as horse or pork. Collective awareness often operates contrapuntally, so that a story meriting mass attention (Snowden) is echoed and inverted in a comparatively minor phenomenon (a lack of faith in food distribution oversight), which at times gains even more attention than the ‘larger’ phenomenon that serves as its backdrop. This process wherein attention is both focused and displaced – akin to Freud’s transference and Hegel’s sublation – partly accounts for what can otherwise seem like collective blindness or evasion in the face of the obvious. The writing of collective memory – what was once simply called ‘history’ – is not simply a case of retracing the superficial fixations of a ‘mainstream’ media, but of reconciling this with the buried points that it conceals. Crucially, we need both, the surface chatter and the facts that endure a communal meme culture. In 2013, both the NSA revelations and the horse meat scandal rocked confidence in mechanisms of supply and distribution, while confirming the eerie proximity between the agents of outrage and the agents of enforcement – the double-bind of a ‘prosumer’ economy, in which the witness is the former surveillant (Snowden), and participation is equivalent to ‘disruption’.
An observer of the current landscape of institutional exhibitions in Europe from 2013 to the present will have doubtless identified a recurring breed of show, in which a seemingly uniform cast of young artists has been sold, in bulk, to the unwitting consumer as standardized processed meat. Correctively, and largely correctly, institutions have generally begun eschewing labels (such as ‘Post-Internet’) with which no artist really identifies; although this has generated a desperate kind of micro-labelling which belies comically disparate groupings. Many of the same artists who comprised what seemed like a seminar on the recent philosophical movement of Speculative Realism (Speculations on Anonymous Materials, Fridericianum, Kassel, 2013) were also shown contributing to the relationship of politics and recent technology (Smart New World, Kunsthalle Düsseldorf, 2014), balancing conflicts of publicity and privacy (Private Settings, MoMA Warsaw, 2014), and trumpeting issues of European geopolitics and the future of the EU (Europe, Europe, Astrup Fearnley Museet, Oslo, 2014). Only one of these exhibitions, Smart New World, dealt head-on with the crucial political implications that undergird recent technological ‘advancement’ (the show included singular and admirable figures as Laura Poitras and Trevor Paglen). With this exhibition at the Kunsthalle Wien, curated by Nicolaus Schafhausen, we are dealt a new heading under which to package these artists – that of collective memory and forgetting.
This theme itself is not unpropitious; the premise of this exhibition is that human memory has been altered by recent technological innovation. Technological progress framed, or queried, as historical forgetting is promising – the dialectical intertwining of history-as-forgetting and history-as-repetition is itself a familiar Frankfurt school touchstone. This notion is demonstrated, slightly tongue-in-cheek, by Simon Denny’s work Startup Case Mod: Snapchat (2014). Taking the app Snapchat – which allows users to share an image or video clip for a limited span of time, after which it (ostensibly) disappears – the PC tower modification housing (‘mod’) incorporates a Snapchat ghost logo itself ‘ghosted’ in a translucent Plexi cube. As well as the expiry of images the transparency of the (otherwise yellow) Snapchat ghost suggests the expiry of that company altogether, tying in with the artist’s concern with technological obsolescence, and casting doubt on technological optimism altogether. The comic intelligence of such a work is not matched, however, by Schafhausen’s numbered series of clichés in the ebook serving as the show’s catalogue – such as how ‘the images we are inundated with today do not correlate with our actual experience’, ‘Google makes you stupid’ and how ‘memory becomes more social’.
What’s clear is the psychologized version of technological advancement as cognitive or bodily extension is a deceptive one; technology ought not to be seen as a static ‘product’ to be democratically consumed for cognitive or bodily advancement, but as an interface and an instrument in largely invisible networks of power which often disguise much more than they expose. This ostensible visibility is where the logic of psychologized connectivity perpetuates – through camouflage – the missed connections, power lapses and invisible networks that are as physical as they are real, and which can no longer be taken as naive play things or ‘neutral’ materials. Since 2013 in particular, no use of technology is neutral. One possible way to redress this lies in identifying and classifying the tangible results of communal activity. As with Aleksandra Domanović’s Turbo Sculpture (2010–13), a video essay examining the new kind of kitsch public art of ex-Yugoslavian republics. To my mind, this was the best work in the show, in that it frames and clearly demonstrates the results of collective thinking, while tying them back to ‘real’ results – aesthetic kitsch, political complications.
If we are to take seriously the exhibition’s claims about the future of memory, and the paradoxes of data and forgetting, would we not look to real modes of expiry? It’s likely that the forms of art-making today that focus in a productive way on memory or forgetting deal with their own expiration: whether incorporating ephemerality, resisting distribution; whether using performance, fashion, or even the indexical exercises of Warburgian image typology. In restricting itself to a technological answer to a question whose implications are only partly attributable to gadgetry, this show has not only self-expired but has made itself a victim of the very aphasia and amnesia it apparently seeks to circumvent. This in itself renders the show forgettable.