Our visual attention is increasingly directed towards two-dimensional surfaces. Since the first iPhone hit the market in 2007 this tendency has grown exponentially. We do not treat data, but act on and within data. And we obviously respond to such visual simulation: the flow of data creates a body image and self-image that serve identity-forming functions. This summer, I myself took on a graceful archaic quality when my partner swapped my face with that of Hera, queen of the ancient Greek gods. Whereas the technology of cosmetics changed individual visages in ancient Egypt, in our present-day techno-social society our opportunities for similar gestures have been vastly expanded. We are embedded and superimposed (deliberately and unknowingly) by our new body-born computers.
This overwhelming change and vast increase in visual stimuli has, of course, also clearly left its mark on the currency of contemporary art. Many works explore this new (social) communication and technology as new “content”: critical inquiries are made into the technological back-ends – the dismal working conditions and brutal mineral extraction that underpin the production of our tablets. Similarly, the glossy front end – the screen and its commodification of our interactions, desires and attention – is attracting critical scrutiny.
Concurrently with this move, the more traditional modes of artistic expression – installations, sculptures and paintings – are reinvented in order to be able to seduce us in 2D, via photo documentation. Art is bought and sold without physical encounters. In April 2015 the online sales portal Artsy, which many commercial galleries use to circulate and distribute their commodities, reported that more than 50% of all collectors who use Instagram have bought a work by an artist they originally discovered via pictures shared on that app.
Even entire exhibitions seem primarily made for and distributed via online circulation. They become “known” in the art world via platforms such as Contemporary Art Daily – an eight year old online platform that gives countless exhibitions a second life and, in turn, has even received its distinct response via the critical forum: Contemporary Art Writing Daily. This means that an exhibition on the geographical periphery of the art world can potentially be “viewed” by a much larger audiences than the foot traffic actually passing through the institution itself: there are more visitors online than IRL. Symptomatically for this struggle of our current attention’s economy, works which exude a strong presence online do not necessarily dazzle as a physical function in the exhibition space.
A flagrant example of such friction between the two-dimensional and the three-dimensional is provided by this summer’s biennial in Berlin, closing on 19 September. The biennial was curated by DIS – an art and design collective based in New York, which in recent years has operated a much talked-about and successful web portal of the same name, offering an online journal of criticism, an image bank, and a fashion and edition shop. In many ways, DIS’s Berlin Biennial is a direct continuation of their online institution. As Berlin-based critic Ana Teixeira Pinto noted in her critique of the biennial in WdW Review, the exhibition displaces “the fetishism for high art with a fetishization of high definition.” Doing so does, however, entail a problem: our digital visual tropes work less well in the three-dimensional context of an exhibition. No matter how much media technology the curators and artists threw into this exhibition, it became obvious that gravity’s far more grubby, messy, constraining and difficult pull constituted and continuously constitutes a significant challenge for the largely screen-focused works or discussions. As if someone had summoned Michael Fried’s milestone essay Art & Objecthood from 1967 for yet another round of critical bashing, it became clear that works and bodies in rooms give rise to an uncontrollable, complex, mobile and extended kind of attention that may even be a complete contrast to the more uniform, distracted and brief attention that we accord to our daily (simulated and streamlined) online visual stimulation.
DIS’s web platform has grown in importance thanks to their direct involvement in the struggle for dominion of our (pop) cultural images and the many issues of personal performance and identity politics embedded in such pictures – what gets instagrammed and tweeted? Their efforts been aimed at not only creating debate, but at gaining an actual agency and generating friction within the circulation, consumption, production, and censoring of our pictures. Which bodies get seen – how naked, how strong, how dark and how fragile are they? However, when transposed into the exhibition space several of these messages are pulled out of their original media discussion. Briefly put: #bb9 (dis)placed digital and social media – including their critical potential – in a museum. And it seems almost cute when – having passed by many relatively traditional video productions disguised in well-produced seating areas – you had to queue for a long time in order to experience one of the highlights of the biennial: the new user-friendly 3D-simulator Oculus Rift, for which the American artist Jon Rafman created a relatively classic sci-fi film of dystopian war images and cyborg choreography. Installed on the fourth floor of Akademie der Künste, Rafman’s augmented reality or visualisation of our (negatively) accelerated epistéme is hidden away deep within the art institution.
Hence, if this summer was to be measured out in exhausting technological shifts of reality and the discussions this engenders, the Berlin Biennial was vastly outgunned by the smartphone game Pokémon Go, launched in July. Whereas DIS’s visual tropes and new media were limited to sporadic encounters with visitors, the Japanese smartphone game renamed German Holocaust monuments by turning them into Poké-stops, generated flashmobs of Snorlax or Vaporon hunters from Taipei to New York and (unwittingly) caused one of its disciples to stumble upon a body in a small Danish town. Pokémon embedded itself in our (on-screen) reality.
At the same time it became clear that DIS’s endeavour to do the same – to (actively) infiltrate our social (media) interaction – was at its most efficient as re-presentation, i.e. in the exhibition trailers, on the biennial website and, of course, especially in the re-circulation of 2D documentation of the exhibition on various social media.
This became crystallised on a sightseeing boat, decorated by Korakrit Arunanondchai and Alex Gvojic, which took a relatively small number of paying visitors (supplemented by a guest list) on an exclusive weekly tour; a performative “ark” on which the art world’s powerful friendships and networks – the social dimension that might be termed the 4D aspect of the art scene – became visible against the backdrop of the city. Slightly claustrophobic IRL, but looking good at #Biennaleglam.
Viewed through this lens, the biennial’s success can be measured in terms of those photo-op moments where the exhibition show was foregrounded by acting as backdrop to visitors. Especially, of course, if that visitor is Rihanna. And according to massive social media reporting, she dropped in on the 18th of August. Rihanna took a (2D) selfie in front of a huge (and hideous) photostat by Juan Sebastián Peláez created in Riri’s own image. Surely, off this moment, more people experienced (a bit of) the Berlin Biennial than ever before (at the time of writing the image has attracted approximately 707,000 ’likes’ and more than 6,600 comments). Thus, the battle to see who produces, performs and distributes our images was won when DIS got their moneyshot and the exhibition transcended out of the complex exhibition setting and into the wet dream of distribution – the very real and very powerful (financially as well as politically) virtual world of shares and likes.