For their first UK-based solo exhibition, the design-collective Metahaven have turned to film as their main medium. Founded in 2007 by Dutch designers Vinca Kruk and Daniel van der Velden, Metahaven’s work has ranged from designing a graphic identity for WikiLeaks to writing books on the social-force of memes. It’s fair to say that Metahaven are fairly attuned to the messy connections between digital media, technology and politics. For ‘Version History’, their current exhibition at the ICA in London, the collective have brought together three recent films and a digital essay to reflect on the loss of truth that arises from our collective immersion in digital technologies.
Instead of seeking to make visible the hidden infrastructures behind our digital devices, the films in the exhibition focus on the ways in which our sense of reality changes through daily interactions with smart phones, algorithms and online platforms. In ‘Information Skies’ (2016), the twenty-four minute sequel to their previous film ‘The Sprawl’ (2015), the voiceover of a young woman recounts her immersion in virtual reality with her boyfriend, in a world where ‘facts began raining from the ceiling’. The film skips between shots of a darkened forest; anime of void-filled landscapes and faces; and digital graphics resembling a cracked iPhone screen. The ability to neatly distinguish between the ‘real’ and ‘virtual’ world breaks down, with mirrors, water reflections and the night-sky becoming further screens in the dystopian forest.
In the accompanying essay to the exhibition, curator Richard Birkett notes the influence of Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky on Metahaven’s films, also explored in the digital essay ‘Digital Tarkovsky’ (2018) featured as a rolling feed in the ICA café. In addition to juxtaposing the slowness of Tarkovsky’s films with the speed with which we consume digital information, Metahaven’s films pay homage to the surreal spaces in Tarkovsky’s work where the boundaries between reality and fantasy break down. The unruly space of ‘The Zone from Stalker’ (1979) is evoked in the post-industrial landscapes of ‘Information Skies and Hometown’ (2018), whilst the rippling surface of the planet in ‘Solaris’ (1972), an animate entity which creates apparitions of orbiting astronauts’ desires, is figured in digital animations that also recall the liquid crystal displays of laptop and smart phone screens.
Although they rarely appear in their own right, digital technologies and platforms shape the structure and narratives of the films, as well as the viewers’ experience of the worlds they present. The result is a sense of fragmentation that undercuts any clear narrative and location in historical time. ‘Hometown’ (2018), is a two-screen installation that was first created for the Sharjah Biennial 13. The work follows two young women, Lera and Ghina, as they move separately through two different fictional cities, filmed in Beirut and Kiev. The women’s appearance and actions parallel each other as they wander the cities alone, overlaid with the monologue of an absurd poem filled with contradictions that recounts the murder of a caterpillar. Unlike the ancient epic poetry of Homer or Ovid, where a universe and moral code is given directly to the reader through verse, this self-described ‘epic’ creates a sense of ethical uncertainty, riddled with contradiction.
The impacts digital networks have on global politics are most explicitly explored in Metahaven’s latest film,’ Eurasia: Questions on Happiness’ (2018), which was commissioned by the ICA for the exhibition. Looped on a 16-monitor screen in the main gallery space, the film acts as an endless feed in the exhibition, evocative of the grids and scrolls of online platforms such as Instagram and Twitter. As the narrative of the film unfolds, we witness a near-future of right-wing nationalism, conflict and the loss of truth across the landmass of Europe, Asia and Russia. Just as YouTube videos auto-skip between seemingly disparate clips, governed by an unfathomable algorithm, the film juxtaposes clips on the rise of fake pro-Trump sites in Macedonia with drone cinematography of the border between Europe and Asia. This collage of found and new footage creates a sense of disorientation and uncertainty, in which our trust in the truth of the imagery before us is shaken.
All the films in the exhibition present near-future scenarios that are both familiar through the forms of images they explore and estranged by the weird logics that govern them. Whereas the design of most online platforms and content, with their grids and catchy headlines, aims for immediate gratification and understanding, in Metahaven’s work these forms become obscure and unsettling. If there is one directive to take away from this exhibition, it is to pay attention to the often hidden ways in which digital platforms and devices restructure our experience in the service of others. And to recognise that, even when switched-off, we remain fully immersed within them.