Gordian Conviviality, an eight-person group show curated by Max Schreier at Berlin’s Import Projects, takes the first word of its title from the mythical Gordian Knot, an unsolvable, infinitely looping problem. According to Greek legend, Alexander the Great ‘solved’ the knot by hacking through it with his sword, bypassing logical entanglement in favour of brute pragmatism.
Gordian Conviviality likewise cuts to the heart of one of our most pressing contemporary conundrums: our inextricable relationship with technology. In a time when physical
and virtual lives are increasingly one, does total reliance on digital technology offset its practical applications? Are we helplessly tangled in a co-dependent relationship, and is technology the knot or the solution?
Oliver Laric’s work considers the use of digital technology as an extension of (re-)appropriation practices throughout history. Laric’s piece Maria Justitia (2012) is therefore a fitting centerpiece of the first exhibition room. The glossy inkjet print is a digitally-rendered image of a medieval Virgin Mary statue that was turned into a symbol of justice in 1608 after Protestant reformers smashed her Christ baby and replaced him with a set of scales. The image’s symbolism was re-assigned via one simple, violent gesture. In digitally re-building a life-size image of the statue, Laric suggests that today, meaning continues to be reassigned via digital replication or modification – either obscuring or adding another layer to an object’s past (or both).
According to Schreier, the second half of the exhibition’s title comes from Ivan Illich’s 1973 book Tools for Conviviality. Illich defines conviviality as ‘the opposite of industrial productivity’ – an ‘autonomous and creative intercourse among persons’ that depends on a qualified use of tools. In a convivial society, says Illich, technology creates new kinds of creative work rather than doing all the work for us. Illich’s semi-utopic proposal was written on the brink of the digital age, before daily life had gained a virtual dimension. A fact he did not anticipate was that many of today’s tools wouldn’t be physical ones.
Adjacent to Laric’s piece, Frieda-Raye Greene’s Mesh Chair Extrapolation (2013) included six zoomed-in digital photos of a black mesh office chair. Below each frame hangs a (real) mesh bath loofah. This juxtaposition reads as a meditation on the texture of basic everyday tools (chair, sponge) and leads us to ask whether an image can transmit tactile experience comparable to the real thing. How does the feel of mesh relate to the feeling of looking at it in a picture, or on a screen? Mesh itself becomes an metaphor for thin layers of removal from the real through digital representation, or the permeability of these divisions.
Lindsay Lawson’s work similarly questions how technology alters quotidian and personal experience. Her four untitled, numbered MDF-mounted photographs (2013) depict fragments of unrecognizable people – friends? – who are obscured by arms and hands, fuzzily reflected in a reading glasses lens, or zoomed beyond recognition. The lush, perspectival partial-portraits transmit
a sense of distance from the material self, identity fragmented through the layering of representation. Juliette Bonneviot showed Minimal Jeune Fille Fused plastic bag paintings, translucent plastic bags stretched over a pair of canvases, and Minimal Jeune Fille Trash Tiles (both 2013), a strip of tiles made from plastic waste, bio resin, and bio cement. Lying on the floor, these everyday fragments conjured the recyclable, ephemeral nature of banal objects, reused again and again like versions of the same JPEG.
These works by Bonneviot are a crucial inclusion – her formal references to both painting and sculpture take an oblique approach to the history of objecthood, tying the exhibition’s many strands together. Schreier has combined works whose interaction with materiality is complex, without designing a didactic catalogue of ways to materialize digital art in a gallery. The show
is also refreshingly free of the anxiety often haunting shows ‘about’ technology, which can result in a muted wash of Internet (or worse, ‘post-Internet’) aesthetics. Instead their grouping enhances subtle differences in approach, facilitating something that could be called convivial interaction. The goal here may not be to dissect the existing knot, but to learn to tie new ones.