UBERMORGEN: u s e r u n f r i e n d l y
Carroll / Fletcher, London
11 October - 16 November 2013
Review by Nick Warner
The quasi-anarchistic efforts of anti-capitalist groups such as Occupy and Anonymous have faced much criticism in the media since their respective inceptions, unsurprising given the totality with which the media is invested in the system these groups attack. A common criticism thrown at the extremist left pertains to the apparent lack of direction or clear goals on the part of those enacting public disobedience. This is a disparagement pointed at Russell Brand, too, in his recent dress-down of current political, social and corporate elites.
While the alleged aimlessness and incoherence of today’s emerging protest culture is utilised by its opposition as a signifier of incompetency and naivety, Swiss-Austrian-American artist duo Ubermorgen, whose work is at first glance potently hyper-political, use a sort of deliberately unresolved hacktivist ideology to open up a space for the development of progressive arguments on the subjects of data politics, piracy and privacy. Their practice, active since they came together in 1999, is a string of performative ‘media hacks’, an expression they explain in their 2009 manifesto as ‘the intrusion into mass media with lo-tech means and a good story.’ The same manifesto laboriously reiterates the duo’s lack of agenda, lack of political leaning, lack of ideology, etc. The media hacks that comprise their practice, it is explained, are produced merely to satiate their own ongoing curiosity. A curiosity which admittedly makes for some excellently intriguing political farces and narrative trajectories that hold universal interest, comparable to the fascinating miscellany present in pseudo news websites such as The Huffington Post or Upworthy; sometimes trivial, sometimes profound, always entertaining.
The resulting works, half simple documentation of a media hack’s resulting ephemera and half heavily aestheticised pieces that parody the assimilation of such technological experimentation into the white cube, make up Ubermorgen’s first UK ‘solo’ show, ‘Userunfriendly’, at Carroll / Fletcher. Given the duo’s mandate only to explore their curiosity, this rigorously installed exhibition of disparate works, with multiple addresses to these open-ended research-based projects in both site-specific and technologically avant-garde ways, takes on some sizeable subject matters.
The enigmatic ‘V
ote-Auction’ (2000) - for which the duo established a website where US citizens could sell their political inclination to bidding corporations and campaigners - is an apt example. The installation consists of a looping projection of political commentators discussing the website’s controversy on CNN, a wall of framed legal paperwork, a large, framed emblem for the website (‘In Money We Trust’), and a sculpture made up of peripheral paperwork, stacked to waist height. The sincerity with which CNN’s best and brightest discuss this clearly antagonistic satire is instantly gratifying. The assertion the artists are making about the parameters of the political system is obvious, but the commitment with which the project is executed (made explicit by sculptural masses of legal paperwork detailing various actions taken against the artists as a result of website’s illegality) is most impressive.
Equally titillating is ‘Userunfriendly’s show-stopper, ‘Superenhanced (A Parallel Universe)’, 2013. Located in the cavity of Carroll / Fletcher’s stairwell to the basement, a mocked-up space of torture and inquisition is accessible via a narrow tunnel, the entrance to which is in the basement gallery space. Inside are two chairs, a black bag for the interrogatee’s head, some handcuffs and an iPad running interrogation software. The interface, designed in classic hacker’s low-fi aesthetic, leads the interrogators through a series of questions, some repeated over and over, so as to apply pressure to the exercise’s victim. While the hands-on interactivity of crawling through a tunnel and squeezing past total strangers on hands and knees is exciting in a show which is otherwise only technologically interactive (quite heavily so), the interrogation space smacks of gimmickry, the theatricality of its reproduction of torture and interrogation perhaps a little insensitive.
Perhaps the most problematic piece in the exhibition, though definitely the most stimulating, is ‘Net.Art’ (2013) in the gallery’s entrance space. Five individual Ubermorgen works, curated by Aram Bartholl, are presented on five individual internet routers, which are mounted on the wall at a sort of painterly height. Gallery-goers can log on to any of the five networks using their smartphone, iPad, etc. and view the works whilst moving around the gallery space. This piece, it seems, is the latest in an increasingly abandoned line of enquiry as to how works of art conceived to be viewed online can be most sensitively transposed into the white cube. While as a general rule such transposition is, I believe, a fool’s errand, the most successful and dynamic attempt so far was undeniably Bartholl’s ‘Speed Show’ exhibition format, where computer terminals in dedicated web-use spaces such as cyber-cafes are given over to the exhibition of net art for one-off events. However, here ‘Net.Art’ becomes summative of the failings of putting internet art in the gallery. The spectacle is dragged away from the works and the technology itself (the routers) becomes highly aestheticised, installed symmetrically, beautifully, pristinely.
‘Userunfriendly’ presents multiple problematics in respect to working with digital technologies and web-based art in the gallery environment. While the content is consistently intriguing and, because of Ubermorgen’s enjoyable flippancy towards their own political ambitions (or lack thereof), light-heartedly and amicably introduced, some of the ways digital technologies are implicated as immersive and interactive seem questionable, if very productive. This is definitively a show that anyone interested in the web/gallery paradigm would regret missing. Ironically, this hall of mirrors is so apt in its appraisal of transposing works from the virtual to the real and vice versa, that it will be as difficult to view posthumously online as any work of net art could be difficult to view in the white cube.