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Issue 235

Josh Kline and Anicka Yi Imagine Dystopian Futures

How the artists’ solo works confront difficult realities in the wake of their collaborative venture, Circular File

BY Brian Droitcour in Features , Opinion | 02 MAY 23

When did you know you were living in a dystopia? It can be hard to see how bad a system is from the inside. The apparatus of oppression recedes and is obscured by everyday concerns. You get into the habit of living with or around it. It takes a jolt – a recession, an uprising, an election gone wrong – to dispel the haze, to wake you up to reality. ‘Every utopia contains a dystopia; every dystopia contains a utopia,’ wrote Ursula K. Le Guin. Not just in fiction but in reality the two coexist – different faces of a single society – concealing and revealing themselves in habits of speech and behaviour.  

Josh Kline, Freedom, 2015, installation view. Courtesy: Modern Art Oxford, UK; photograph: Ben Westoby

That duality can be identified in many social environments in our unequal world. The art world is one. From a position of privilege, it appears to be a glamorous place of beautiful objects and challenging ideas. Otherwise it’s a morass of precarity, rejection, and exploitation. Perhaps more than in other milieus, one’s experience can flicker between those poles. Circular File, a collaboration of Josh Kline, Jon Santos and Anicka Yi, produced a handful of projects from 2007 to 2009 exploring these dynamics, leveraging their proximity to institutions through entry-level jobs and personal connections to act as parasites, inhabiting places of power and turning them inside out. Unspa (2008) transformed a plush Soho apartment that doubled as a private gallery into a pop-up spa for a day. Invited guests could enjoy two whirlpool tubs (one in the gallery director’s office), snack on cut fruit, don a bathroom and lie on the floor in the ‘boredom room,’ or sit in the waiting room and peruse Semiotext(e)’s reader Hatred of Capitalism (2001). Some were treated to a ‘flattery bath,’ where they complimented with incessant obsequiousness as they received a massage – a commentary on affective labor in the art world, where the powerful are treated to displays of charm that strain the physical and emotional stamina of those putting them on.  

The group’s ‘Circular File Channel’ (2009) video series, commissioned for Performa 09, includes a few improv sketches titled ‘Intern Promises’ that invert the situation of Unspa. Respondents to an ad on Craigslist seeking interns were put in front of a green screen and asked humiliating questions. In this parody of the rituals young people endure to secure often-demeaning, poorly paid (or unpaid) work, the artists become bosses, hamming up the role of hiring manager. The choppy edits and shaky footage convey the disorientation that the applicants surely felt. Rendered helpless, they’re increasingly uncomfortable to be the butt of a joke. It’s hard to imagine an institution commissioning something like it now: an artwork that doesn’t mournfully document exploitative labour practices but reproduces them for satire’s sake.

Josh Kline, Technological Innovation (detail), 2019. Courtesy: the artist and 47 CANAL; photograph: Joerg Lohse

Both Unspa and ‘Intern Promises’ use exaggeration to defamiliarize the banality of dystopia. Circular File’s work never dealt in Orwellian severity, and only drew on science fiction for humour (there’s a memorable episode of ‘Circular File Channel’ that restages a scene from Star Trek: The Next Generation [1987–1994] in a bank branch, with the alien signing up for a checking account) but it nevertheless sharpens the grit of life, heightens its bleakness and leaves you with a sickly feeling about what you put up with. Let’s not forget that the term ‘circular file’ is synonymous with trash can. The collective’s anarchic, outsider jokes about labour and inequality later evolved into more serious examinations of those topics, on a more sweeping scale, in the work of Kline and Yi, the two members who went on to have solo careers. But their paths of enquiry drastically diverged.

Today, Kline is perhaps the art world’s most prominent purveyor of dystopia. For the last decade, he has methodically worked at a cycle of installations that narrate a history of the 21st century, both anticipating future events and reimagining recent ones. The first was Freedom (2014–16), a reconstruction of the 2011 occupation of Zuccotti Park in Manhattan, with Teletubbies-style riot cops whose bellies screened interviews with protestors – their faces distorted with deepfakes – detailing the process and outcomes of their action. The most recent is Climate Change (2019–ongoing), featuring scale models of cities encased in Plexiglass terrariums, submerged with liquid, housed in ramshackle shantytowns of interconnected galleries. Realized on a grand scale with a large team of assistants and specialists, these works have a sense of gravity. But some of the slyness of Circular File remains, as does the tendency to locate banality in the strange.

Josh Kline and Anicka Yi, ‘Loveless Marriages’, 2010, exhibition view. Courtesy: the artists and 47 Canal © 179 Canal

Kline often gives glimpses of utopia in his dystopian landscapes – whether that means acknowledging the attractive promises that oppressive systems make as they take shape or representing the pockets of solace that people carve out for themselves. Some iterations of Freedom juxtaposed the Zuccotti scenes with deepfakes that put former US president George W. Bush and his secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, in prison, begging forgiveness for their war crimes. The exhibition ‘Adaptation’ at LAXART in 2022 included a 16mm film of his underwater cities (Adaptation, 2019–22) showing a group of lithe, young relief workers gathering on a deck on a sweltering day, the heat around them visible in the rippling air and smog-yellow skies. The film’s grain enhances the scorching texture and suits a Gen Z nostalgia for antiquated media. Adaptation peeks at how people continue to live through inexorable collapse. Kline’s work often seems a snug fit for the definition of the ‘critical dystopia’ developed by cultural critics in the 1980s to designate works that offer a positive political vision to offset the more dire aspects of their environments. He practices that in operating his studio: checklists of his exhibitions come with extensive credits, in part reflecting his cinematic ambition, but also working against the art world’s cult of singular genius to acknowledge the collective input behind his art. In other words, he’s doing what he can to support more equitable alternatives to the scenarios lambasted in Circular File’s works.

Kline and Yi’s shared interest in social commentary suffused their early collaborations, as well as the solo projects that followed. Their 2010 exhibition ‘Loveless Marriages’ 179 Canal (later 47 Canal) announced the end of their partnership: the gallery was split down the middle, a solo presentation by each artist on either side. Kline showed Graphic Design Office 2000 (2010), a working desk with a big, rectangular iMac, smeared with aquamarine toothpaste to haunt it with the bulging, colourful computers of the same brand from the previous decade. Photocollages evinced a similar slippage, with celebrity portraits morphed into each other, to yield generic faces of aspirational fame. Whereas Kline’s works dealt in the tools and products of creative labour (e.g. Photoshop, Apple, Hollywood), Yi installed a billowing tent of olive parachute fabric, evoking a military encampment. Inside was a video about the smuggling of Fujianese immigrants into New York’s Chinatown; on a low plinth beside it, aluminium bowls held tripe and other comestibles, mingling with various inorganic viscous substances. Kline’s work was about tech, the way it bends people and ideas, through its incremental product updates, announcing an interest in intellectual labour and the anxieties around it that he would continue to explore over the next few years. Yi connects social instability to instability at the microbial level. Much of her work around that time involved materials like tempura, tofu and kombucha, ciphers of ‘exotic’ otherness that decayed over time, pungent and rotting. She located anti-Asian racism in the foodstuffs that, as she explained in a 2017 interview with Art in America, led her classmates to identify her home as ‘stinky’.

Anicka Yi, 'You Can Call Me F', 2019, installation view. Courtesy: the artist, 47 CANAL and The Kitchen © Anicka Yi; photograph: Jason Mandella

Yi’s breakout exhibitions of the mid-2010s pushed these associations further and dramatized them in spookily threatening installations. ‘You Can Call Me F’ at The Kitchen, New York, in 2015 arrayed quarantine tents with biohazard warnings; inside them, vitrines hosted a living culture Yi made from swabs of vaginal and buccal bacteria provided by a hundred women employed in the art world. Yi’s response to the discrimination she encountered was to isolate the disgust at the root, to take life from the cavities of women’s bodies and grow it, like a mad scientist, turning the gallery into a haunted house to show the results. In its sardonic yet earnest confrontation with the art world’s power dynamics, ‘You Can Call Me F’ recalled the spirit of Circular File. In 2016, Yi was awarded the Hugo Boss Prize, which included a solo exhibition the following year at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. Again foregrounding odour, ‘Life Is Cheap’ presented an intimidating pair of steel canisters diffusing a fragrance made from the pheromones of ants and bacterial samples from Asian American women. The exhibition’s entrance looked like a metal detector, an artifact of the surveillance state and border enforcement. As in ‘You Can Call Me F’, the scents in ‘Life Is Cheap’ were impossible to identify without recourse to the accompanying literature. But they communicate in a visceral way, as reminders that the air can carry unknown substances: invisible but palpable, possibly dangerous presences.

What are the ends of such critique? Commentary on inequality in museums that frequently run on its spoils can leave artists and audiences alike feeling somewhat beleaguered and fatigued. In 2013, EXPO 1, the first (and only) edition of a planned biennial about climate and the future at MoMA PS1, included ‘ProBio’ – a group show curated by Kline. Its offerings alternated fleshy, vulnerable devices and glossy surfaces, a sickly vision of a barely coping future. Meanwhile, the theme of EXPO 1’s futurological talks programme, organized by the online magazine Triple Canopy, was heralded by tote bags that read ‘dark optimism’ on one side and ‘bright pessimism’ on the other. For some, these totes emblematized the defeatist energy of post-Occupy leftism, a resignation that nothing will ever be straightforwardly good. Kline still works in that vein. Yi seems to have abandoned it. Now, she regales TED audiences about the post-human future. At the April 2022 edition of the high-profile tech and ideas conference, she introduced her ‘aerobe friend’, which mooned over the stage, a glistening balloon that propelled itself through the air with flexing tentacles. Equipped with high-frequency radio waves that enable them to perceive and respond to the world around them, these creatures were first shown as part of In Love With The World (2021) – the artist’s commission for the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern, London. ‘Why do our technologies instil so much fear in us?’ Yi intones during her TED Talk. ‘Why do our lives today feel so alienated when our technologies are supposed to improve our lives? And why do we feel so disconnected when our inventions are meant to connect each and every one of us?’ Technology is designed to be cold and flat, she says; her inventions aim to create a more holistic, living machine.

Anicka Yi, In Love With The World, 2021, installation view. Courtesy: © Tate; photograph: Will Burrard-Lucas

Reviewing Yi’s subsequent solo show at New York’s Gladstone Gallery this past autumn for 4Columns, Johanna Fateman tried to align the antagonist bent of Yi’s early work with her TED persona. She suspected a rigorous critique ‘lurks beneath’ the surfaces of Yi’s recent paintings, with their jewel-coloured abstract forms reminiscent of microscopic organisms, but couldn’t locate it. Yi’s sensibility, it seems, has drifted in tandem with her subject matter. If, at one point, she drew on biology to identify the fears and aversions behind social conflicts, now she’s using it to transcend social strife, to leave behind interpersonal human concerns and address a bigger post-human future. In June 2020, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, she spoke to Artnet about how the virus is ‘actually good for the planet, even if it’s not optimal for humans’.

Yi has always located sources of fear and discomfort and staged confrontations with them for the viewer. In her Circular File days this meant probing the unsavoury aspects of the art world and attacking them from the margins. As her work has matured it has expanded in scale, to the barely apprehensible timelines of evolutionary biology. Kline took a somewhat similar trajectory. His parodies of precarity shifted into a more serious study of the creative class and the material effects of its immaterial labour, then zoomed out to broader social issues: political strife, climate collapse, the automation of middle-class jobs. For Kline, the human is a relatively stable category; he’s thinking about how people will adapt – are already adapting – as nature and technology escape the control of man-made systems. But Yi sees humanity as something mutable, vulnerable. This can be an uncomfortable idea for many, which may be why her visionary, almost delirious view on future change can seem laced with danger, leaving viewers wondering whether her ideas are challenging the most extreme ones coming out of Silicon Valley or are in fact aligned with them.

Anicka Yi, Force Majeure (detail), 2017, plexiglass, aluminum, agar, bacteria, refrigeration system, LED lights, glass, epoxy resin, powder coated stainless steel, light bulbs, digital clocks, silicone, and silk flowers, dimensions variable. Courtesy: © Anicka Yi, 47 Canal and Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; photograph: Joerg Lohse

How do you handle living in a dystopia? The most common solution is to retreat from social responsibility, from the collective, to secure comfort for yourself and those closest to you, to weather the trouble in a corner you hope you have made safe. This is the American way, the solution of individualist, atomizing capitalism. Perhaps it is this very mindset that makes life now dystopian. Another response is to commit to working for social betterment within available means – to build an enclave of support not just for yourself and your family, but for colleagues, neighbours, acquaintances. This could be said of Kline’s approach, in the messaging of his art and the solidarity it tries to stoke in the face of coming crises. A third response to dystopia is to plough into it headfirst, taking up ambition and risk to enlist existing power structures to make some kind of change, for better or worse. This is where Yi is headed. She and Kline make art that engages our own reality, not a fictional one, augmenting it so that we might better see what it is and where it’s going.

This article appeared in frieze issue 235 with the headline ‘Decline and Decline Again’

Main image: Josh Kline, Adaptation, 2022, video still. Courtesy: the artist and 47 CANAL

Brian Droitcour is a writer, translator, curator and editor-in-chief of Outland.