Carsten Nicolai, “Pionier 1”, 2011
With the operation of Carsten Nicolai’s “Pionier 1”, a huge parachute swings and floats in the roar of wind turbines and the whistling of air convection, making anyone present feel surreal. The exhibition “Real Topology: Media Art Shenzhen 2023” presented by the Museum of Contemporary Art and Urban Planning in Shenzhen (MOCAUP) starts with this seemingly effortless work of aerodynamic engineering, revealing the context and prospects of multimedia and digital art in China, from mechanical art, video art, computer art to AI-generated art, which are less familiar to the public.
In the vast and spacious exhibition space, what makes the audience experience a meditative flow in exploration is not only the rhythmic and subtle low hum of mechanical equipment and sound works intertwined and echoing, not only the confusion of defining the ontology of art when viewing non-traditional media works and the sensory impact of technical aesthetics, but also the overlapping and nesting of multiple layers of physical and spiritual space in the “presence” and “immediacy”.
The scene photo of the chess game between Marcel Duchamp and John Cage, taken by artist Kudo Natsuko in 1986, is presented in this exhibition as a document and a physical object, restoring this milestone performance.
This exhibition, which takes the relationship between art and technology as its theme, is destined to take place in Shenzhen and resonate with the first scene that witnessed the development of China’s science and technology. The China Silicon Valley, built by Huaqiangbei, Huawei, ZTE, Tencent, DJI and other technology giants, is a microcosm of China’s transformation from a labor-intensive electronic industry to a technology-driven economy in the past 45 years. As we enter the digital age at “Shenzhen speed,” it becomes increasingly urgent and critical to address issues such as the relationship between humans and machines, and the relationship between individuals and power structures in a technology-dominated environment. These issues are rarely systematically sorted out in the homogenized consumer landscape and overloaded information flow.
The curator of “Real Topology: Media Art Shenzhen 2023,” Zhang Ga, introduces the method of topology, connecting most of the multimedia art practices that still appear as independent and scattered points in Chinese communication, and responding to the above-mentioned issues from concrete to abstract, layer by layer. The exhibition presents nearly 200 works and documents by representative artists of early experimentalists since the late 19th century, modern art pioneers, and contemporary art, forming three chapters: “Reality Interrupted,” “Art Question: Real Return,” and “Multiple Universes: No Natural Ecology.” It also parallelly exhibits the first part of the exhibition “Art in Motion: A Journey through Media Art Masterpieces” curated by ZKM | Center for Art and Media Karlsruhe, which outlines the evolution from analog technology to digital technology in the context of the hundred-year history of media art in a deep and meticulous way.
The works in different chapters are exhibited in a mixed and intertwined manner in space, just like describing the nonlinear chaotic system of the real world. If we broaden our perspective from physical space to metaphysical dimensions, the rich experimental art of different periods in the exhibition constitutes a “field investigation” in the “byte” and “bit” space, exploring the expansion and evolution of the essence and meaning of “what is real” in the virtual new reality that combines digital algorithms and intelligent technology. As Zhang Ga stated in the curatorial statement, “Examining the trajectory of the concept of reality being constantly challenged and rewritten by artistic imagination under the obvious acceleration of technology construction in time and space, and the dilemma and potential of the flattened and synchronous digital contemporary it reveals.”
*How does technology change our perception of “reality”?*
*Revisiting the beginning of device-based media art*
The study of the topology of “reality” is based on the beginning of device-based media art in the history of the invention of photography. Moving machines such as cameras and video recorders, as media, have given birth to a large number of experimental works that expand the new nonlinear spatiotemporal views. The judgment of what is “real” and what exists has been challenged by the development of technologies such as video recording, satellite broadcasting, and editing. Dynamic machines, as media, form the “membrane of the machine” with lenses and screens, and shutters and films make it possible to reconstruct time and space editing. Machines thus become an extension beyond the bodily senses such as the retina, and also become a new way of cognitive world.
The first chapter of the exhibition, “Reality Interrupted,” and ZKM’s “Art in Motion” showcase groundbreaking works in art history, including Peter Weibel’s “Endless Sandwich” (1969), Marcel Duchamp’s “Anemic Cinema” (1926), and the documentation of the non-profit organization Experiments in Arts and Technology (E.A.T.) spanning many years. These works demonstrate how avant-garde art experiments at the time initiated criticism of visual aesthetics, machines as industrial technology, and related institutional conditions.
Works such as Paul Sermon’s “Telematic Vision” (1993), Buky Schwartz’s “Yellow Triangle” (1979), and Jim Campbell’s “Shadow for Heisenberg” (1993-1994), which are rarely seen in China, reveal how interactive multimedia art, which we now take for granted, has changed the way we participate in and view art again with the development of computer technology and feedback loop systems of cybernetics.
The audience is both an external viewer of artistic creation and an internal observer and participant in the work or media space. Our understanding of “reality” is a superposition of two phases in the cycle between physical space and media space.
When the virtual penetrates reality,
the essence of reality is reproduced from the generic space of data.
Jon Kessler’s “Blue Period” (2007/2011) is an immersive blue space filled with movable surveillance cameras, video monitors, and life-size cardboard cutouts of models from product catalogs. In the center of the room is a miniature replica model, and as the audience moves through the space, real-time surveillance footage of the cardboard cutouts, images from miniature cameras inside the replica model, and blue characters from popular TV shows and movies are mixed and played back on the closed-circuit televisions scattered throughout the space. The audience is trapped in an endless cycle of passivity and voyeurism, saturated with the accumulation of electronic images from mass media and consumerism.
Using the blended images of physical space, screen surfaces, and nested “spaces within spaces” in Jon Kessler’s “Blue Period” as a bridge, the exhibition gradually delves deeper into the question of “reality”: as our life experiences increasingly rely on the virtual media space composed of TV, mobile phones, and computer screens, reality may no longer be based on physical perception and embodiment, but on the virtual power of the underlying binary space composed of 0s and 1s within the “membrane of the machine” – a new “reality” logic.
The second part of the exhibition, “Art Question: The Return of Reality,” explores a new perception space in the world of the internet and the information age. In the virtual space, how do we define the subjectivity of emotions and cognition? Is “nature” still the standard for judging “reality”? New economics, ethics, and politics are gradually changing the power structure of reality.
As Zhang Ga stated, “the standard of ‘reality’ no longer exists solely in the ‘physical body and social space as a form of pain'” – which is also the main subject of contemporary experience and artistic exploration – it also implies who will be the owner of this new reality constructed by the materiality of bits and bytes, as well as the digital algorithmic power.”
Evan Roth’s “Landscapes” (2016-2020) is a set of dynamic images depicting the landscape where undersea cables meet the land, recorded by cameras modified to shoot in infrared mode and transmitted through the frequency of the cables. When the image is opened on a mobile phone or laptop, the viewer establishes a physical connection with the landscape depicted.
“Reality” in the Future Ecology:
Not an Unattainable Multiverse
Xu Wenkai, “Limited Infinite Landscape, Wave 3” (2015). Xu Wenkai’s work continues his exploration between algorithms and reality, visualizing computer algorithms as constantly changing landscapes, showcasing the infinite changes in topography that traditional art forms cannot capture or imagine. This series includes video shorts, computer-rendered pixelated landscape photography, and topographical sculptures suspended in mid-air using maglev technology.
The third part of the exhibition, “Multiverse: No Natural Ecology,” explores current art practices mediated by emerging technologies. As described in the previous two exhibition sections, artists have been contemplating whether technology will dissolve the subjectivity of art, criticizing the power of technology, and intervening in various social issues brought about by technological development throughout the history of human civilization driven by technology. Now, encouraging diversity in ecology, multidimensional reality, and symbiosis has become an urgent call to address the various crises of the Anthropocene. In this stage where machines and artificial intelligence algorithms are gradually showing their subjectivity, the key to media art creation is no longer visual presentation, but rather as an extension of ideas, as a method of exploring the essence of the world, nature, and reality.
Xu Wenkai, “Water Test – Petroleum” (2017). The work uses black as a metaphor for resources, translating the repetitive data in algorithm-driven high-frequency trading into binary code of 0s and 1s to control the code, presenting the process of measuring the financial economy as “digital capital.” Interestingly, this interactive hourglass installation does not intentionally prompt the audience.
The collaboration between Zhou Xiaohu and Zhejiang Taishun Marionette Troupe resulted in the performances of “Paradise on Earth” (2016) and “The Ship of Fools” (2018) in the southern landscapes and old industrial scenery of Zhejiang. The performances were recorded on video and accompanied by quotes from Zhuangzi, combining folk myths and traditional customs to create a surreal paradise of surplus production. “The Ship of Fools,” which features marionettes driven by mechanical devices, is also a metaphorical imagining of survivors in the new era of high-tech development.
Zhang Ga pointed out that technological development has progressed from the “movement” of mechanics to the “interaction” of cybernetics, and finally to the “agency” of the subject. As technology constantly evolves and progresses, the relationship between art and technology does not have to follow a linear spatiotemporal binary overlay and iteration. Instead, it can be extended by topology, as the exhibition’s title “Topologies of the Real” suggests, to create a more diverse, organic, and symbiotic “multiverse of reality.”