The technological revolution was meant to liberate us, but it has flooded society with endless torrents of information, cataracts of algorithms and a deluge of uncertainty. James Bridle has written fervent polemics warning us of our perilous fate should we not develop a new “systemic literacy” to navigate these unknown waters. Responding to his call, ‘Digital Citizen’ unites the work of ten artists to inspire conversations on citizenship, democracy, identity and reality in a digital world.
In ‘Citizen Ex’ (2015), Bridle reinterprets citizenship within the architectural framework of a global network. Functioning as a computer programme, which can also be downloaded at home, visitors are invited to browse the web on a laptop as an overhanging screen tracks the geographical location of the sites they visit. The mapping system follows your digital proxy with military precision, tracking it as it seamlessly traverses international borders and enters new, and often surprising, areas of jurisdiction. The programme assimilates your data to compute your “algorithmic citizenship”, replicas of which hang from the ceiling as fragmented, statistical flags. Bridle captures the complexity and shrouded fluidity of a transnational, networked society by asking us to reconsider citizenship in an age of capitalist surveillance and Big Data. He shifts citizenship away from notions of lineage or “nativeness” and instead aligns our allegiance through the digital realms that we occupy, and the personal data that we pledge to gain our digital passport.
Bridle’s other work in the exhibition, ‘Flag for No Nations’ (2016), is a video of a flag, made from a foil emergency blanket, that the artist planted on the shoreline of Athens in response to the European refugee crisis. There is a glimmer of hope in this strikingly simple standard that questions the permeable nature of borders and territories, and the inevitable movement of people, but its lonely isolation also speaks to the frequent exclusion of migrants.
This discussion is evocatively continued by Daniela Ortiz and the art collective They Are Here. Ortiz, an artist of Peruvian descent living in Spain, delivers a powerful and emotional monologue on privilege and discrimination in ‘Jus Sangunis’ (2016), Latin for the “right of blood”. In the short video, the then pregnant artist decries Spanish laws that deny citizenship to the children of immigrants, dismantling the myth that “native” blood is superior to that of immigrants’ by receiving a blood transfusion for her and her unborn baby while on stage. They Are Here’s ‘We Help Each Other Grow’ (2017) uses a thermal imaging camera to film Thiru Seelan, a Tamil refugee who fled Sri Lanka in 2010, performing a mesmerising and hypnotic dance on an East London rooftop. The surveillance technology, which is used to detect and prevent border crossings, creates a stark contrast between the vibrant hues and spirited movements of Seelan and the homogenous, apathetic skyline of the Canary Wharf financial district. As the entrancing music repeats the refrain from which the artwork takes its name, we are reminded of where our true loyalties should lie.
Laura Grace Ford’s roaming essay ‘Ordnance Arms, Canning Town, November 2018’ (2018) provides an intimately analogue, off-the-grid account of micro-communities, togetherness and political assembly; her photography work gives a visual form to the spatial and temporal echoes that resonate through her writing. Jonas Staal approaches political action on a more macro-scale, his ‘New Unions (Third Draft)’ (2018) mapping the nascence of progressive and emancipatory movements across Europe. Set against an inverted map of the continent, it challenges historical notions of nationalism to promote pan-European solidarity and a new geography of transdemocracy.
‘Digital Citizen’ also focuses much of its thematic structure on simulation and immersive environments. Of particular note is Alan Butler’s ‘On Exactitude in Science’ (2017): a shot-for-shot remake of Godfrey Reggio’s seminal film ‘KOYAANISQATSI’ (1982), recreated using the game engine of Grand Theft Auto V. Butler manages the impressive feat of reproducing sweeping, natural vistas and the frenetic chaos of humanity all within the fictional state of San Andreas. Presented as a side-by-side two-screen installation, the films play synchronously with a haunting score by Philip Glass. The original film utilised the dominant medium of the twentieth-century to crystallise the growing imbalance between humanity and the wider world; Butler’s version manages to replicate the same unease, but with the meme-like-quality of his doppelgänger, it feels more profound than ever.
Several works promote conversations on the fluidity of identity within digital environments. Petra Szemán overlays reality with animation and gaming to explore liberating modes of expression that unfurl across virtual worlds, pondering whether this multiplicity of fiction negates the possibility of “a singular reality” or “an authentic self”. Alan Warburton uses cultural iconography in his retro-esque, 3D-modelled lenticular print ‘Trollololologram’ (2018/2019) to unmask the keyboard warriors, trolls and bots that lurk in the shadows of the web. The questions it raises about alt-right masculinity and the moral panic surrounding state-sponsored PSYOPS is examined further in Kate Stonehill’s ‘Fake News Fairy Tale’ (2018). A fantastical fable fit for a post-truth society, it conflates fact and fiction to tell the (partially) true story of ‘Sashko’, a fake news writer from Veles, North Macedonia. It incorporates whimsical storytelling to uncover a fake news ecosystem in all its banal glory, which makes it all the more disconcerting.
k that initially seems out of place in the group show is Peter Hanmer’s ‘Plato’s Lair’ (2017). The huge installation houses a miniature despotic world – which can only be peered into via several viewing holes – and is complete with authoritarian dictator and subservient denizens. The overtures to a denigrating democracy may seem most striking, but it is its allusions to Plato’s allegory on the nature of reality that are most sapient. In a time when the omnipotent cloud looms over us all, and the invisible network streams across the world, it reminds us that we must question what we see, and don’t see, more than ever.