Art that seeks to critique power must ultimately face its own authorship and authority: a claim ‘against’ authority gains legitimacy only through it. This double bind has long influenced how resistance organizes, operates and visualizes itself. In our neo-conservative complex of surveillance and digitization, we seem to suffer the weight of this old paradox ever more. The resistant power of the whistleblower arises from his or her access to a corporate or government interior. In recent political philosophy, so-called accelerationism seeks to dissolve capitalism by hyperbolizing and exhausting its processes from within. And in the jargon of tech leadership – a world that opportunistically brands itself as both mainstream and renegade – ‘disruption’ has become shorthand for innovation through industry-wide negation and exceptionalism (or destruction). ‘Progress’ has become not only self-negating but self-antagonizing – which might explain how easily it takes on the pitch and reality of terror. From the perspective of the artist it is nearly impossible to distinguish resistance from collusion.
If this set of issues is dark, sticky and contradictory, then so was ‘Smart New World’, an ambitious group exhibition curated by Elodie Evers and Magdalena Holzhey at the Kunsthalle Düsseldorf. The show presented work by 13 artists and artist groups working mainly in the US and Germany. Topically replete with works about surveillance, the NSA, drones, big data, smart gadgetry and Silicon Valley, the show claimed to be about ‘digitalization’. But that term is fuzzy: the ‘cloud’ that promised to dematerialize the transfer of information has become its own apt metaphor for technological, juridical and political nebulousness. Despite this, the show was thematically and tonally consistent – even if, in reality, the cluster of processes involved in this complex is too variegated, and we are too proximate to its devices, to tease out cause from effect, critique from compliance. Technology is the very mode by which we can express our distrust of technology. In her slow, darkly comic video Anhedonia (2007), Aleksandra Domanovic´ replaced the visuals from Woody Allen’s Annie Hall (1977) with banal stock footage culled from keyword searches from the film’s script, exemplifying the artist’s common position of both subscribing to and critiquing her own medium.
In the exhibition pamphlet Evers and Holzhey declare that ‘an information society is always a surveillance society’. Taking this one step further, if we understand surveillance as the systematization and dematerialization of vision, then this makes the realm of images inseparable from that of power. Hence the acuteness of the simple, stark vision of Laura Poitras (famous and commendable for her role in the Edward Snowden case). In Mission Data Repository, USA (2014) she filmed the construction of an NSA site in Utah, in a move that is both documentary and conceptual: here, art becomes both evidence and historical record.
The somewhat sweeping topicality of the exhibition – covering interrogation and drone operations (Omer Fast’s 5000 Feet is the Best, 2011) to intellectual property in a post-Aaron Swartz world (Kenneth Goldsmith’s Papers from Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, 2014) – would seem to create more convolution than clarity, more stacks of questions than answers. So be it. There are few moments in which the task of art is as politically decisive as it is today, given our situation of stealthy, invisible power. Considering the aptly cold, steely tone of much of the exhibition, it’s interesting that its most conclusive phrase came from its most personal work: Christoph Faulhaber’s excellent Every Picture is an Empty Picture (2014). The 68-minute film, which documents the Austrian artist’s cheeky, often-adolescent anti-authoritative actions in the 2000s (establishing a fake private security company called ‘Mr. Security’ to ‘protect public space’; setting up a ladder to peer into the construction site of the German secret service headquarters) is narrated largely through the digitally rendered environments of the video game Grand Theft Auto (GTA). Faulhaber employed GTA’s real-life video renderer to depict his artistic biography, a decision which adds a weight that’s both farcical and deathly serious (what are drone operations but real video games?). As the video recounts the artist’s actions over the past decade – all of them benign – which led to his investigation by the FBI and subsequent deportation from New York, he suggests, with remarkable clarity and sense, that ‘the image of the political artist is deceptive – it’s exactly the other way around. Politics are part of the regime of images.’ Though in truth, the two are now inseparable.