'We are the people. Who are you?' in Art Monthly

'We are the people. Who are you?' by David Barrett

‘We are the people. Who are you?’ installation view


27 February 2019 It seems impossible, but it’s real. The TV on the wall is emitting white light, but when you look through a glass disk positioned in front of the screen, it is revealed to be playing the 2010 WikiLeaks video of US airstrikes in Iraq, Collateral Murder. This piece, Emmanuel van der Auwera’s White Noise, 2018, exploits LCD TVs’ reliance on polarising filters to make their images visible. Van der Auwera has removed the TV’s surface filter and instead applied one to the glass disk, hence the seemingly magical efect. The work refers to state control of imagery (see Francis Frascina’s feature ‘Gaza’ in AM325) and the idea that the viewer who consumes broadcast media is no longer passive; it is the most concise piece in this compelling show of international political work.


The exhibition’s opening couple of works, being fragments of larger projects, are less immediately engaging. Ann Jermolaewa’s Political Extras, 2015, is presented as a video documenting the original action at the Moscow Biennale when the artist recruited ‘protesters’ to take part in demonstrations for and against the biennale. While the video reveals additional details – soon-to-be protesters ask what a biennale is – it obviously lacks the tension of the original performance. Similarly, Victoria Lomasko’s epic Other Russias, 2008-17, is represented only by a dozen textless drawings. Lomasko is a graphic artist and activist, and her extraordinary work of ‘graphic journalism’ documenting Russia’s varied social strata more properly exists in the form of a 300-page book (perusable at the gallery desk). These two works do, however, introduce themes of populism and political agency, the central tenets of the exhibition.


Things start to get real with Nikita Kadan’s Tiger’s Leap, 2018, a 2 metre metal spike that simultaneously suggests flagpoles, bayonets and lightning rods; apt, perhaps, considering the form is derived from weapons made from agricultural equipment during the Russian revolution. Specifically, this piece is based on artefacts in Gorlovka, a Ukranian town that in 2014 was seized by pro-Russian separatists. The sculpture is a ploughshares-into-swords object that highlights just how rapidly society descends into violence in a volatile environment fostered by agitating media and given legitimacy by nationalist politicians. 


We may worry about the democratic process being undermined today, but in the wake of the US civil rights movement the ruling elite were concerned about democracy for other reasons. In his 1981 book Radical Priorities, Noam Chomsky detailed, through a skewering of the powerful Trilateral Commission’s 1975 report The Crisis of Democracy, how even so-called liberal thinkers sought to suppress this new ‘excess of democracy’ when it became clear that previously disenfranchised groups would no longer remain passive: ‘the maintenance of order’, the Commission argued, ‘requires a lowering of newly acquired aspirations and levels of political activity’. The subsequent role of the media in manufacturing consent – a phrase coined by Walter Lippmann in his 1922 book Public Opinion, and examined in detail by Edward S Herman and Chomsky in their seminal 1988 study Manufacturing Consent – cannot be underestimated, whether through internalised market-driven world views or sensationalist distraction, the latter represented here by Farley Aguilar’s Leon Golub-esque Bat Boy, 2018, a deliberately wretched painting of a redneck relaxing with the Weekly World News tabloid newspaper which, from 1992, ran fake news stories about a fictional Bat Boy.


Beyond the media, there are more straightforward methods to suppress democracy, as alluded to in Kennedy King Kennedy, 2015, by Jamal Cyrus. This triptych appears to present three yellowing, faded newspapers. In fact, the material is Egyptian papyrus and the texts have been surgically removed by laser, delineating the obscured stories with hairline burns. Specifically, these three front pages are from the pro-civil rights African-American newspaper the Chicago Daily Defender on the days immediately following the John F Kennedy, Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy assassinations – headlines may persist but detail is interred beneath the sands of time.


A similar allusion to history is evident in Karl Haendel’s Hillary, 2016, a large diptych portrait of Hillary Clinton, the left panel black, the right a drawing of the former first lady and presidential candidate. The appeal of the depiction chimes with a disarming soundtrack from an adjacent speaker: a pre-schooler giggling her way through a series of male names. Concluding ‘Ron, George, Bill, George, Barry, Donald’, the list runs through the colloquial first names of every US president. The diptych format, common to wedding portraits throughout history (women were usually depicted on the left, the distaff or ‘devil’s side’), yokes Hillary to the absent men who have defined her image. No wonder her lips are pursed in perpetual frustration.


The power to define is also central to Rachel Maclean’s phantasmagorical film It’s What’s Inside That Counts. At this point, the whole show takes a darker turn as newer technologies are unleashed. Maclean depicts the life of a social-media star as a pathological cycle of afirmation and abuse that, in the artist’s infantilising style, leaves your stomach turning and your brain in a state of submission. It’s a 30-minute loop, so you can watch it again and again, like an auto-refreshing infinite scroll. Such compulsive information flows bring a new threat to democracy, one that was weaponised by political campaigns in 2016 – the year Maclean made her film – for the UK’s EU referendum and the US presidential election when social media were employed not to manufacture consent but to sow political disinformation (Editorial AM421). This is the realm of big data and dark motives, where facts and expertise are challenged by sophisticated propaganda bots masquerading as trusted sources.


Whereas Maclean’s video ofers a human playing at being data, in Zach Blas and Jemima Wyman’s work, data is playing at being human. The 2017 video im here to learn so :)))))) is a reanimation of Tay, Microsof’s ill-fated 2016 attempt to create an AI chatbot on Twitter. Programmed to mimic the language of a teenage American girl, the bot was immediately gamed by internet trolls into making abusive comments and terminated by Microsof afer only 16 hours. Here, Tay is given mangled 3D form and flanked by videos showing the kind of pattern-recognition and anomaly-detection sofware that underpins current machine-learning eforts. The background, an evolving pattern created by Google’s DeepDream sofware, is a queasy Bosch-like quilt of uncanny organic forms receding into Mandelbrot fractal infinities. Half the West’s tech giants are implicated in this disheartening work, the most disturbing piece in the show, which is given additional resonance by the gallery’s close proximity to Facebook’s London HQ.


Inhabiting the darkness at the back of the basement is Funda Gül Özcan’s It Happened as Expected, 2017, a ramshackle stage-set bar that features gaming imagery and TV footage alongside a weird projection of the artist playing Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (who in 2014 sent a hologram of himself to a political meeting). Here, Erdoğan repeatedly laments, ‘I’m so sorry’. The show’s title, ‘We are the people. Who are you?’, is a phrase Erdoğan uses against domestic critics, painting them as Eurocentric elites, exnationalising them. So here we have an arch populist – one who brandishes ‘the people’ to suppress opposition voices, stifle democracy and dismantle civil society – brought low as a sideshow in a fake dive bar. It is a bleak view of a miserable future and, right now, seemingly the best we can hope for.

27 February 2019
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