‘Surround Audience,’ as the third New Museum triennial is titled, reads and sounds like a catchword from the entertainment technology consumer market. While it may or may not be a play on the industry’s well-researched, ultimately profit-driven advertising vocabulary, it does imply a concern with the experience of saturation and immersion, both in contemporary art and the subjects it explores.
Like its two predecessors, ‘Surround Audience’ showcases the work of emerging artists, collecting together the works of fifty-one practitioners from over two dozen countries with the purpose of investigating the relationship(s) between human beings, media, and art within an increasingly globalised and technologically-advanced world – specifically how the forms and aesthetics of art, and how the experience of being human, are informed and influenced by the processes that drive the contemporary present.
Appropriately, the large-scale exhibition, which occupies nearly every available exhibition space within the New Museum, is curated by Lauren Cornell, a former head of Rhizome (the well-known art and technology initiatives non-profit organization), and Ryan Trecartin, the notably emergent-minded Internet video artist who has continued to build a reputation in the art world since attracting considerable notice with his early work and being featured at such exhibitions as the 2009 ‘Younger Than Jesus’ Triennial.
Defying expectations, Cornell and Trecartin have foregone the temptations of producing a new media/digital/Internet/post-Internet-centric exhibition, instead allowing a focus on art itself (as the product of making or labour, with its associated traditional or modern theoretical and conceptual concerns), and on the more traditional subject of the self (as representative and indicative of the human condition). This isn’t to say that new media or digital arts lack a presence here, they are just alluded to less directly. While most of the works selected or produced by commission do not overtly ‘fit’ the category, many of the artists have worked and continue to do so in such media.
While consistency can tend to elude such large-scale exhibitions, on the whole, ‘Surround Audience’ addresses its own thematic objectives, but also allows for a number of related sub-themes to arise. The aforementioned globalized, technologically-advanced setting into which this exhibition’s concerns come into play, is one dominated by mass digital media saturation, where the virtual and immaterial assume unsurpassed agency and influence. It is in light of this phenomenon that subjects such as language, media, identity, futurism, and the inorganic are considered.
Although ‘Surround Audience’ is introduced by an imposing and lengthy wall text promising special attention to language, particularly through poetry as a medium and theme, it becomes lost among more prominent tangents as the exhibition progresses.
One of the exhibition’s main entry points leads to a series of multimedia works by Lisa Holzer, who combines layers of paper and glass as her ‘canvas,’ and fascinatingly addresses the language of poetry as well as that of advertising for beauty products through the direct utilization of manipulated texts. Relegated to the basement floor space directly below, the Internet video poet Steve Roggenbuck, who has an aesthetic reminiscent of Trecartin’s work, wanders streets and vacant public spaces while ‘reciting.’ Both Roggenbuck and Holzer prefigure later video works found within the exhibition by Peter Wächtler and Lisa Tan, the former setting intensely personal and satiric poetic narration to stop motion animation, and the latter using such narration in an attempt to document the immaterial threads tying together people, thoughts, feelings, objects, and more.
Language and text may hold a certain importance especially within a so-called post-Internet age, but ultimately it is one of several types of media propagated, and perhaps fittingly, media itself is a more prominent concern among the artists involved.
The painter Njideka Akunyili Crosby inundates her subjects – the everyday domestic and private moments shared by human beings – with media in the form of family photographs, advertisements, and other content, such that walls, furniture, and people themselves become recognizable only in silhouette. The effect is equal parts serene, melancholic, and unsettling, as in her 2012 painting ‘Thread,’ in which a private moment with her husband is charged with media obscuring or manifesting her figure. Akunyili Crosby’s curious intertwining of media, the human subject and intimate environment is echoed in ‘Sponsors,’ a 2014 embroidery by the craft-inspired Verena Dengler, in which corporate text, logos, and designs inundate a scene of a young woman playing with a violin and effects pedals. If both Akunyili Crosby and Dengler suggest a relationship between media and biological, organic life, Antoine Catala takes a different but equally revealing approach. He hired an advertising agency to come up with a symbol or logo for the concept of empathy, and then manifested that logo as a living thing, a growth of coral within a very artificially and attractively illuminated aquarium.
However, more than any other theme or subject of interest, it is that of the inorganic, the world of things and objects, with which the larger portion of the artists in ‘Surround Audience’ are concerned. Playing on anthropologist Arjun Appadurai’s seminal essay ‘The Social Life of Things,’ Shadi Habib Allah’s short film focuses upon the circulation of objects, specifically among the stateless Bedouin, while the attribution of life-like agency to non-living things and their interactions with human beings in a Deleuze-by-way-of-De Landa assemblage approach, is taken by several other artists.
Sascha Braunig captures something akin to digital effects through the freely interpretive but traditional oil painting of still-lives, Tania Pérez Córdova and Aslı Çavuşoğlu disrupt and question the political and historical auras of objects, and Geumhyung Jeong captures performances in which objects become extensions of the people using them on video. Meanwhile, Jose Leon Cerillo’s minimalist sculpture installations and Firenze Lai’s paintings focus on the spaces created between humans and objects, and how they affect cognition. Arguably, the most comprehensive contribution to the issue is provided by Eva Koťátková, whose assortment of creative but presumably useless objects that resemble familiar products of rationality, become players in a performance with human actors, pondering relationships and interactions, cognition and identity, space and the immaterial.
The human condition, the subject of the self as constitutive of identity, and how this condition and subject is affected is affected and transformed by the reality of an overwhelming preponderance of virtual media, is perhaps the main subject of investigation for ‘Surround Audience.’ What it hints at and proposes – without certainty – in rendering what it means to be human in such a time, is a frustratingly contradictory mixture of acute familiarity and alienation. Disturbingly, it reminds us of how vulnerable and malleable the definition of humanity can be, such that the state of being human itself becomes uncomfortable to contemplate.
 Manuel De Landa, a professor of philosophy and science at the European Graduate School and a scholar on Deleuze, has interpreted and emphasised the attribution of agency to the realms of objects, the inanimate, and the inorganic within the latter’s writings on assemblage theory, specifically in his text ‘A Thousand Plateaus.’