Formerly located in Hackney Wick, arebyte Gallery is now based in London City Island, a 12-acre peninsula in London Docklands. Described by its developers as Canary Wharf’s “cooler sibling”, the site is a pseudo-creative, wannabe mini-Manhattan just as stiff as its aspirational architectural renderings. Walking to arebyte Gallery through what feels like a property developer’s simulation of a ‘creative hub’ is a fitting introduction to ‘RE-FIGURE-GROUND’, which calls into question many of the elements that somewhere like London City Island embodies, with its contrived and homogenising offerings of housing, labour, leisure and existence.
‘RE-FIGURE-GROUND’ asks us to re-examine our current positions and proposes alternative futures that go beyond the boundaries of race, gender and sex. In their VR and 3-channel video installation ‘the bliss of metamorphosing collapse’, digital media artist duo Pussykrew challenge the typically male aesthetics of science fiction and futurism. They explore the symbolic possibilities of fluidity in relation to identity, technology, the body and gender. The audio-visual experience begins in a hazy purple landscape, inhabited with crystalline waterfalls and shimmering biomorphic cyborgs that slowly wade through a thick film of liquid coating the ground. As the title suggests, the scene sits somewhere between utopia and dystopia – a serene, post-Armageddon panorama in which everything is fluid, flowing gently and freely, accompanied by what sounds like a soothing combination of white noise and ocean waves.
Morehshin Allahyari uses a similar approach of presenting other possible versions of the future, in her case through mining historical material. The artist and activist researches overlooked mythological female figures to create a previously non-existent archive of powerful and sinister goddesses and jinn from the Middle East and North Africa. She calls this feminist and de-colonialist practice ‘re-figuring’, a term that the exhibition’s overarching title refers to. In the video installation, ‘She who Sees the Unknown: Aisha Qandisha’, the artist appropriates the myth of the female jinn, Aisha Qandisha, one of the most fearsome in Moroccan folklore, who possesses men by opening (or cracking) them, making them vulnerable to incoming jinn and demons. The lustrous, two-faced female figure with camel legs defies conventions of the feminine; celebrated for her formidable powers of causing “physical emasculation” and “castration anxiety”, as the narrator tells us, her refigured body is a site of female rage to be harnessed against oppression.
Alan Warburton also plays with traditional constructions of gender in his three-channel video ‘Homo Economicus’, for which he interviewed men working in the City of London’s financial district, to explore how their corporate jobs demand physical discipline and competitive attitudes. Displayed at differing levels on the walls and ground, each of the three screens shows a 3D character portrayed as a businessman – Michael, Ray and Kumar – dressed in a suit and situated within a virtual corporate space. The characters comically inflate and deflate like balloons, while the narration, grounded in Warburton’s interviews, describes their daily routines, which are peppered with a combination of profit-driven mantras “If someone else is making money, you’re losing it”, and physical anxieties “I’d like to be a foot taller”. The work presents a caricature of the male aesthetics of success and power, while also highlighting the conflation of self-worth and net worth at a time when capitalist efficiency is prized above all.
As many tech humanists have argued, there is a danger in reducing self-worth to a number, which is also true of the data logging associated with health apps. Eva Papamargariti touches on this in the opening scene of her video ‘BUT FOR NOW ALL I CAN PROMISE IS THAT THINGS WILL BECOME WEIRDER’, in which the narrator explains the rush of deceiving a daily step counter through dancing. Papamargariti explores and blurs the boundaries between the digital and physical, addressing the potential consequences of their symbiosis.
The works in ‘RE-FIGURE-GROUND’ exercise a form of digital storytelling, questioning history and the present day to hypothesise alternative futures. It seems clear that our continuous co-evolution with technology and machines is inevitable, yet the way in which it unfolds is not. The artists within ‘RE-FIGURE-GROUND’ claim agency and ownership of technology and of the future, resisting the daunting authority of Silicon Valley. Who knows how the future will look: ‘BUT FOR NOW ALL I CAN PROMISE IS THAT THINGS WILL BECOME WEIRDER’.