10 December 2020 - ongoing

Review by Dan Commons and Rina Arya

‘HEIST’ is one of a kind: a show about ‘stolen’ artworks presented in a hacker chatroom. Curated by MOOGZ of Mytetra, the exhibition opened on Thursday 10th December and lasted three days, documented at HEISTart.com. Fourteen digital artists from London, Berlin and Cambridge participated, having been invited to submit an original artwork that involved some sort of forgery or counterfeiting.

The exhibition adopted the conventions of a face-to-face exhibition via a live browser-based chatroom, giving the audience the opportunity to mingle and chat with the artists. This was bemusing given the type of exhibition in question and yet intriguing. Interestingly, the messages exchanged became part of the artwork, creating a strong sense of interactivity between the artist and the participant. This sense of connectivity, of participation, was further conveyed by the disruption (through deletion and addition) of text as participants variously joined or left the virtual event. But then again, glitches are part of the game.

On entering the exhibition, you are confronted with the ‘classic’ hacker green and black colours that are characteristic of a Linux terminal, a scheme that popularised by the Matrix films. Here guests are invited to change their profile names and to interact with the logo graphics. Texts begin to scroll across and down the screen as more guests enter and interact with each other. The exhibition is then introduced by MOOGZ, presenting each artist and their artwork one at a time. As the artwork is entered at the terminal, the screen becomes overwhelmed with the green code text, its elements meshing to create appearance and shape, replicating depth and the shadowing of its original counterpart. A Disco’s crisp packet is particularly well done and humorous, true to scale - including the 39p price tag – as is the interpretation of a Supreme branded money gun. It’s hard to attribute the relevant artists to particular artworks as the screen rolls continuously, wiping previous information and cropping the coded artwork.

The exhibition itself comprised unique artworks that appeared one-by-one, transcribed and pasted in the chatroom in ASCII text (American Standard Code for electronic communication) after which the audience was able to comment on them and share their thoughts with each another and the artists for twenty minutes. Work using this form is not novel, as in the last few decades digital artists have been employing ASCII codes for conceptual and aesthetic reasons. What is notable here is the emulation of the hacker environment: the standard green-on-black hacker text, designed to create the ambience of illicit viewing and the thrills of unintelligible text scrambling before our very eyes.

This text-based, internet aesthetic from the perspective of an authentic hacker was inspired but, sadly, only in concept. The idea behind the show was innovative, the build-up and preceding publicity was exciting, but when it came time for the actual exhibition, the results were a little lacklustre and anticlimactic. Perhaps the online aspect of delivery was its failing, maybe inevitable during these Covid times, However, the openness of the exchange between artists and audience, who were even given the opportunity to exhibit and share their own work at the end, contributed to a general sense of relationality and situatedness. In fact, after the show, the stream of ASCII art and hacker chat lasted for a further four hours.

The format of this exhibition may have had a different impact as a cinematic experience, emphasising the sublime brilliance of the hacker text that surrounded the visual field. Nonetheless, the event raised interesting questions when it comes to the status of digital art in the contemporary era and how these works can be experienced digitally. With the rise of the camera phone, and similar devices, seeing or experiencing a work of art has become less a meditation on its appearance than a participation in the spectacularising of its form, which continues its commodification.

Throughout the history of Western art, forgeries have always been a source of intrigue. From an intellectual perspective they raise questions about the intangible qualities of the ‘real’ and authentic, the boundaries of which are blurred in the digital era. What, for instance, is the difference between a real digital file and a copy in terms of content and display? In spite of its intention to provoke, ‘HEIST’ has an honesty and defensibility about it. Here, the original is distanced and disrupted as it is translated into code. This, in fact, mirrors the experience for many of viewing an original artwork which, because of the nature and means of visual reproduction, is perhaps disconnected from itself, distorted by various dimensions of form, existing in multiple times and parallel locations. The arrangement of the ACSII code determines the appearance of the digital work, but never disguises its original elements, so we see how the individual characters make up the whole piece. This creates a transparency of material and intent that an original work of art, and its governing institutions, usually seeks to obscure through mythologising and mystification. While useful tools in the advertising world, these equally reference the choices artists make in deciding what to reinterpret.

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