An Exploration of Diminishing 'Hope' & its Correlation to 'Constructive Alienation'
Published 22 February 2016
What Hope Looks Like After Hope (On Constructive Alienation) is an exhibition conceived by Alexandrian curator Bassam El Baroni as part of Ashkal Alwan’s international cultural forum, Home Works 7. Run by the Lebanese Association for Plastic Arts, Ashkal Alwan is a non-profit organization based in Beirut, Lebanon. The exhibition opened on November 12th and ran until the 10th of December 2015. Drawing from philosophical concepts revolving around the drowning of the contemporary human consciousness and free will, the show is an elaborate discussion of how we are coping with the decline of a future that used to be in our hands. Bassam El Baroni in union with the artists involved raise questions as to how we can mediate and engage with solutions for creating (or disintegrating) prospects of a more ‘hopeful’ future.
The omnipresence of our reliance on technology echoes throughout the large space with the persistent humming of numerous projectors utilised in the exhibition. A correlation is directly created between the open space and the idea of alienation, as the reverberating sound becomes the only contributing factor that disrupts the isolation of each work. What used to be an old furniture factory building was the host for considerations regarding the repercussions of the current world’s most celebrated yet paradoxical phenomena. Perceptions of technology are relentlessly conflicting as there is an inherent drive advocating that we may either perceive the phenomena as good or bad. However, it must be understood that technology cannot be subtracted from human social, political or economic life; today, the two coexist. What Hope Looks Like After Hope (On Constructive Alienation) is divided into sections that are devoted to facilitating each artist’s work and touching upon these separate ideas.
Curated to represent a hotel room, Leonardo Cremonini’s digitally reproduced paintings are coupled with Yuri Pattison’s video 1014 listed in the exhibition guide as “shot in Edward Snowden’s hotel room hideout”. In the format of a hotel room, the piece also involved a bed and two nightstands with lamps, along with Pattinson’s 1014 being looped on a large TV monitor opposite the installed bed. Hotel rooms are standardised, fixed and homogenous in every single way. Cremonini's paintings are reproductions both in terms of their digital print format and in the context of the general hotel room, where each room has replicated decors. Considering the idea of standardisation, Pattinson’s video appears to be the inception of a paradox as the space is curated to represent a hotel room, whilst a video about a hotel room plays in the background - but this is not any hotel room, it is Edward Snowden’s hotel room.
Snowden’s outing of the NSA’s and Five Eyes’ global surveillance programs to the popular media was readily perceived as a public civil act as it revealed a huge breach of privacy for citizens worldwide. Closely linked to ideas of ubiquitous surveillance versus freedom and civic liberty, Pattinson’s video utters phrases such as ‘I am only just me, I am a passer-by’, ‘Life is so arduous’ and ‘I am too tired to love’. The camera pans throughout the room to expose translucent glass spaces whilst untagged maps are being graphed when the camera pans to the city-landscape outside the window. Pattinson’s video is a survey of a hotel room, metaphorically standing for transitory spaces that can lead to a certain, self-perpetuated superficiality. We are consumers of desires, trapped within the hotel room metaphor.
Desire is an element in need of a risk assessment, and according to Nelmarie du Preez, such a risk assessment can be measured through a set of computerised algorithms. Two performances are displayed on two screens facing each other, du Preez’s to stab and to rely, from her ‘Loops of Relation’ series – both jesting with risk. Thoroughly reminiscent of Abramović’s and Ulay’s The Other: Rest Energy, du Preez positions herself in a certain degree of danger. to rely features du Preez facing a machine with an extended bow and arrow as she holds the tip of the arrow. to stab features du Preez sitting on a table with her hand stretched as a programmed machine repeatedly performs a five finger fillet (FFF); a popular knife-game embedded into American culture as a popular pastime as featured in the movie Aliens where Sigourney Weaver realises that the character Bishop meticulously performing the FFF is an android. Comparable to Aliens and Rest Energy’s notion of unveiling the full potentiality of the body’s endurance and trust over emotions and nerves, du Preez’s reliance on the machine is inherently vital.
She is performing a trust exercise with her programmed piece of technology and promoting a delicate balance between trust and danger. However, the problem in her actions innately exists when considering the core of the AI’s function; a machine does not possess the same sentiments as Ulay did towards Abramovic. A machine owes no responsibility or emotion towards du Preez, and in some sense, the roles have been flipped. Where du Preez is the possessor and programmer of this machine, she is now inflicting herself as the target. She relinquishes herself as the master, challenging the notion of possessing selfhood and allowing her own free will to be diminished. The metaphor of the bow and arrow pits du Preez and the machine as equals; the tension represents the idea that both entities are needed in order for the piece to have significance. Simultaneously, the interplay between du Preez and the machine uncovers a subtle warning of our insentient confidence towards the inescapable technology; du Preez can only stop herself from being in danger if she pulls the plug.
In very close proximity to du Preez’s work and upholding the same ideals of technology contributing to human activities is Salemy’s The Artist is Hyperpresent. The work is a three-headed screen structure overrun by the artist’s own personal social media feeds. Of course, the immediate reaction of any millennial would be to attempt a ‘scroll down’ function on the screens only to be disappointed that the machine did not respond to the command. The Artist is Hyperpresent is an undeviating allegory of the structure wanting a ‘digital life’.
On the other hand, Katia Barrett’s Limiting Metaphors, Enabling Constraint is an interesting take on the self through what appears to be an interrogation or courtroom procedure of a crime. Two large projector screens hang in the middle of the room whilst switching between them, introducing an individual of uncertain sex with blonde hair. The over-the shoulder shot is utilised evidently in preserving the mystery of the individual and the case itself. Someone asks ‘Why are you following me?’ whilst it sounds as though the conversation is happening from the other side of a glass window. Several retorts such as ‘I don’t think he was the victim here’ and ‘I’m the last person, you don’t know how I feel’ are followed by more questions such as ‘Who is watching you?’
The protagonist cannot address the questions because there is a certain degree of perplexity surrounding not only the timing of the event, but also the very core of what took place. The video becomes an act of displacement, as there is ambivalent confusion in the idea of the self being mingled with objects separate from the body. The character’s present environment, sitting in a dark empty room, is ambiguous and in this way begins to evoke Andy Clark’s idea of ‘active externalism’.
Clark is a neuro-philosopher whose concept of active externalism is described in the exhibition guide as ‘a description of subjectivity in which he renders the active role of the environment in driving cognitive processes’. For Clark, ways of perceiving ourselves and those around us are increasingly experiential and dependent on our environment - a notion that extends to Thomas Metzinger’s metaphor of the ‘ego-tunnel,’ which in Metzinger’s book, The Ego Tunnel: The Science of the Mind and the Myth of the Self, refers to the experience of our own consciousness. He states that ‘conscious experience is like a tunnel’ and that ‘the content of our conscious experience is not only an internal construct but also an extremely selective way of representing information’. If in any case Metzinger’s claims that our ‘sensory organs are limited’ and that we are ‘unable to experience and introspectively recognise our self-models as models’ are even remotely true, then Barrett’s work closely relates. It raises questions of how we experience society - is it a conscious exertion or is it partly constructed by our surroundings? It is more commonly believed that we are solely responsible for constituting the meaning of things, but what if we’re not? What if we are limited beings? What if this finitude is a ramification of our unaware reliance on several advancements that were at their pinnacle within our lifetime?
Walid Sadek also explores this thought in his piece The Conversion of St. Paul. The installation is placed in two separate but identical square rooms at very close proximity to each other. Each room is fitted with an overhead projector displaying the inside of a VHS tape. Between the two rooms is a narrow corridor opening up to a larger but empty peripheral area. By standing between these two rooms and focusing your vision straight ahead, an entirely new image forms in the void ahead. In the exhibition guide, Sadek explains that ‘what could allow for the making of an openness in which living is possible even without the promise of a coming eruptive event’. In this sense, the act of looking straight ahead onto the devised new image can be perceived as looking into or towards the future. By creating an allegory of the ‘image-encounter’ (or visual illusion), he allows our mind to utilise aspects from two environments and claims the result as a speculative future and existence.
Speculative existence is also examined in Matthew Poole’s collaboration with Bassam El Baroni titled Société Phantome - two separate projections on the wall presenting what could be the commandments of the ‘new’ world. The poem itself is suggestive of explosive and fiery liturgy sung in religious hymns. It retorts phrases such as ‘We cannot decline’ ‘Our walls are without fervour. Our doors are without zeal’, and resonates Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle both in execution and impression. Just as the Society of the Spectacle frames itself as the manifesto of the Situationist movement in the 1960s, perhaps Société Phantome can be in this light too.
Debord’s Society of the Spectacle focuses on the ‘negation of life’ due to the ‘loss of quality’ because of the instant commodification that occurred during the rise of mass media. In this context, we may associate an evolved spectacle that has arisen from our passive unification with technology. Debord’s claims such as ‘Everything that was directly lived has receded into a representation’, and ‘The images detached from every aspect of life merge into a common stream in which the unity of life can no longer be recovered’ are intrinsically concurrent with the alleged futility by which the human dwells in the face of an ever rising technological contemporary society.
Amanda Beech’s Covenant Transport, Move or Die, vocalises a different dimension to What Hope Looks Like After Hope (On Constructive Alienation) - the abstract socio-politics of post-capitalist culture. Beech’s room was curated distinctly with bright green walls, two benches, fitted carpet and two screens; one facing you as you walk in and one to the left of the room. The video is the loudest in the entire exhibition and perhaps the most extravagant of all as it interplays with the concept of the ‘green-room’ where images are being superficially created. The video spits words such as ‘EFFICIENT’, ‘EFFECTIVE’, ‘VOTE’, ‘REPORT’ and titling the excerpts from the front screen as: ‘Round 1’, ‘Round 2’). Covenant Transport, Move or Die comments on the ‘psyche of Capitalism’ as the video’s intentionally unpolished feel adds a new rawness and immediacy to the exhibition’s concept, touching upon the politics of Accelerationism. If Debord’s Society of the Spectacle was the founding awareness of socio-capitalist consequence, then ‘Accelerationism’ is the current age’s pinnacle of consciousness. It comes as no surprise that Debord’s views are being progressed into a condition far more intricate as we ‘accelerate’ through our daily lives.
Accelerationism is defined in the book #accelerate, as ‘a political heresy: the insistence that the only radical political response to capitalism is not to protest, disrupt or critique, nor await its demise at the hands of its own contradictions, but to accelerate its uprooting, alienating, decoding, abstractive tendencies’. There are two potential paths to consider when taking into account our current world state (economically, socially, politically etc.). One path would be to embrace the fear of becoming a world of a politique du pire, expecting and expending the worst, and as a result relinquishing all hope. The second path would be to simply hope that capitalism would subside (or die, preferably) of its own internal contradictions. Nevertheless, neither of these choices undertaken, by left-wing or right-wing variants of Accelerationism, are perceived as helpful or realistic in combatting the situation. To the contrary, there must be a future-orientated realist philosophy as ‘extremist caricatures obstruct the consideration of a diverse set of ideas united in the claim of truly progressive political thought’. We are not at the end of the ‘world’ (as we know it) but at the very beginning of an interesting political experiment that is not as bleak as it appears. Such optimism was found during Patricia Reed’s lecture titled ‘Synthesis and Constructive Alienation’, as part of a lecture-series facilitated by Bassam El Baroni to complement the exhibition.
Reed’s lecture makes claims for our ‘social plasticity’ and ‘the need for constant redefinition in light of changing contexts’ revolving around ‘fanaticizing our downfall’. Her assertions opened up a considerably fiery debate at the end of her lecture as she questioned the notion of ‘inexistence’ as a non-being who plays no part in the reasoning of a system. Conclusively, her lecture ruptured the so-called Accelerationist dispute between idealism and realism whilst simultaneously uncovering the inconspicuous anomaly of attempting to guarantee the future when human nature is increasingly malleable.
Furthermore, Reed’s piece Volatile Prophecies was, I personally believe, the most captivating and meditative piece in the show. Placed in the furthest left corner of the exhibition space, Volatile Prophecies was displayed on a giant screen, showing an infinite amount of computer rendered and programmed floating coins moving through the screen in various directions and currents with a soundtrack intentionally (or unintentionally) following the flow of the coins.
The video-installation is described as pinpointing the economy ‘as a global architecture of human relations’. According to an excerpt from the exhibition guide, ‘financial engineers are our contemporary soothsayers and Volatile Prophesies is deploying some of their techniques’. Structures created by these ‘financial engineers’ have the possibility to allow or disallow limitless opportunities of relation, of function, and of structure therefore making them volatile. Floating exists when space becomes abstract, and where space is abstract, time could also be considered as abstract. As a result, the piece appears to be rejecting a harmony to a linear structure of economy and social relations.
Parallel aesthetics can be found in Hisham Awad’s commissioned video named Untitled whose mise-en-scène is prodigious. Awad combines the archetype of Delleuze’s ‘time-image’ and applies it to an allegorical narrative. Tackling techniques such a ‘slippage’ and methods of diegetic and non-diegetic sound, his use of particles applied over a post-produced image, invites the viewer to receive it as a form of film essay, stated to be ‘thinking with and against Deleuze’. Awad’s inclusion in What Hope Looks Like After Hope (On Constructive Alienation) is an interesting addition. Through connecting the ‘Deleuzian’ thought to modalities of motivation and logic, Awad may be reconstructing the impulse of freedom, undeniably connected to the tussling against unrealistic expectations of our current socio-political (non) human condition.
Drawing from these unrealistic expectations, Martti Kalliala’s Exostead installation unearths a vital disparity between ‘idealistic’ and ‘utopian’. Exostead is an installation of constructed aluminium steps with various de-potted plants scattered and broken throughout all levels. It seems to take the shape of an island, or a sovereign ‘seastead’. The concept of a ‘seasted’ hopes to form a utopian civilisation drifting in solitude and untouched at sea. However, Kalliala’s Exostead does not seem to be advocating for a utopian state, but rather for the possibility of one if time and human beings were free from their surroundings.
‘Exo’ is Greek for ‘outside’ or ‘out of’ implying that the ‘seastead’ is a way to ‘get out’, but towards and away from what? Instead, should we not be problematized by the seasted and its unmediated future in solitude and sovereignty? Would such a place not be promoting or accelerating the problems faced by contemporary society if it happened to be inhabited by the wrong type of people? Where does the hope of a seastead begin to be probable and where would it end?
What Hopes Looks Like After Hope (On Constructive Alienation) tends to the elusiveness of a concept such as ‘hope’ as a kind of sine qua non in a world where human desires, actions and thoughts are passively governed by cognitive capitalism. (Constructive Alienation) as stated in the title’s parenthesis, finds itself in the anticipatory readiness of desiring to predict the future, not because it is precarious, but because it needs mending to a certain degree. In an age where post-capitalist economic and social organising is at its most glorious foothold, Bassam El Baroni indexes the finitude of the human condition. Yet, we could be in the middle of capitalism, instead of in a state of post-capitalism, and if it is as such, our anxieties for the future will only intensify. As a result, the exhibition does not supply the answers to hope. What it does provide however are the potential outcomes of the imminent contingency enveloping itself in front of our eyes, only to raise more questions as you exit the space.
Image courtesy: Bilal Jawiche, Ashkal Alwan & the artists