Langlands & Bell: Internet Giants: Masters of the Universe
21 March - 10 June, 2018
Review by Jack Welsh
The recent Facebook data scandal lingers over Langlands & Bell’s new exhibition like a cloud of noxious gas. A few days after it opened, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg took out full-page adverts in major US and UK newspapers. His signed mea culpa ended uneasily with, “Thank you for believing in this community. I promise to do better for you.” While Zuckerberg’s closing line smacked of arrogance – undoubtedly fuelled by Facebook’s 2.2 billion monthly users – it also sparked intensive debates about our relationship with colossal ‘Big Data’ companies.
‘Internet Giants: Masters of the Universe’ is a timely mediation on how dominant technology behemoths, like Facebook, have completely reshaped our cultural and social landscape. Teasing out these complexities through new sculptural and digital works, Langlands & Bell question if the opulent mega campuses of Apple and Google will define our age. ‘Google, Charleston East’ (2018) is an imposing wall carving replicating floor-plans for its future 595,000 square foot Californian campus. Looming over us, the carving – derived from plans easily accessible online – is stripped of all non-essential detail. This translation, from functional document to aesthetic work, is characterised by a detached criticality.
Throughout their forty-year partnership Langlands & Bell have used architecture, the physical manifestation of power, as a vehicle to decode human relationships. The ultramodern glass palaces of global technology companies, such as Norman Foster’s iconic $5 billion Apple Park ‘Spaceship’, are represented here as a series of framed sculptural reliefs. Painstakingly rendered in white card and obliquely angled, the models hover within their frames. The impossible contours of each building are accentuated against popping synthetic coloured backgrounds; all discernible detail and context has been eliminated.
The campus model, appropriated by AT&T from academia in 1942, represents pastoral capitalism; multi-million dollar private suburban developments designed to isolate corporations from their local communities. As citadels of intangible digital commodities – data – these campuses are profoundly influencing human interactions, both physically and digitally. We are familiar with Google’s ‘work-hard, play-hard’ culture of indoor basketball courts and jungle-themed meeting rooms, an approach that has bled into wider working culture. But by eradicating such hyperbolic minutiae, Langlands & Bell’s sculptures challenge us to look harder. For me, these ethereal forms recall Apple’s troubling re-branding of its stores as ‘Town Squares’; a nefarious indicator of their ideological ambitions beyond the campus.
The ‘Masters of the Universe’ – tech founders and CEOs – command personality cults built on endless piles of cash and the utopian promise of technology. The ‘Icon’ (2018) series presents pixelated diptychs of these leaders, from Sergey Brin to Elon Musk, alongside verbatim quotes. Zuckerberg’s proclamation is particularly unsettling, “I’M TRYING TO MAKE THE WORLD A MORE OPEN PLACE”. When isolated, these aspirational quotes, harvested from product launches and press conferences, highlight the tension between capitalist intent and utopian progressiveness; a discord between ambition and reality – and that’s even before acknowledging the vast gender imbalance at the top of these firms.
‘Internet Giants: Masters of the Universe’ is a powerful critique of data capitalism executed using a minimal aesthetic framework. As the Facebook scandal demonstrates, our passive submission of data via networked technologies has vast social, political and economic ramifications. The odds are heavily weighted towards these internet giants. In systematically peeling back the layers of these quasi-mythical corporations, Langlands & Bell pointedly ask us to consider: what is at stake?