I was in London for a little over a week recently, managing a zine library and zine making space I’d curated for Now Play This!, an annual festival of experimental games and play (which I have super enjoyed in the past, and this year also had a great selection). Another commission for the festival was sok-stories, a simple interactive doodle tool by the sokpop collective that allowed visitors to the festival to draw and share their own games. A lot of them are cute or funny but the one that left a deep impression on me was called “skyline.” There are buildings, bridges, a crane, and one tall, glass, corporate obelisk when the story begins. As you drag and drop the objects, touching regular buildings to the crane results in rubble, then touching the rubble to the crane again makes the skyscraper. The skyscrapers can also be turned into rubble with the crane, but that rubble will only generate more skyscrapers. Eventually you are only left with a mass of continuously renewing buildings that serve no practical purpose more adeptly than their own ostentatiousness as a symbol/signal of processes of wealth extraction.
Obviously, since I played the game, I have been thinking about it nonstop, being in London.
To get to both Serpentine galleries you have to walk through Kensington Gardens, a large public park. If you come in via public transport, most likely the central line tube, you will walk past an area labelled “The Italian Garden” and also acceleratingly rare and unique types of tulip, multicolored, frilled, distinctly different from the simple reds and yellows that occasionally appeared in the flowerboxes and back gardens I’d walked by elsewhere in London. The cream-colored tulips lashed with a deep wine streak down the center of their petals made me think of their role as an object of financial speculation in 1600s Europe, a sort of pointless object that had no particular use function and yet, through artificial scarcity and bizarre regimes of taxonomical and technical knowledge, became a repository of enormous speculative value, much like art, or bitcoin, or money in general. I thought about this as I walked through the park, and then saw a heron(!) and an exotic duck(!!) both sitting in front of a large modernist sculpture and was like, damn, even the birds are more swish in this part of town.
Hito Steyerl’s show is in the Serpentine Sackler Gallery, one of the two Serpentine Gallery buildings, and the only one named after the Sackler family who are the pharmaceutical equivalent to Raytheon in terms of how bluntly they capitalize on human agony. The funding situation in this case is typical for capitalists trying to outrun their guilty conscience, attribution is not subtle. Their name is over the door. Steyerl, to her credit, described the situation at the gallery opening as essentially ridiculous, because no one would blame you for getting divorced and changing your name if you found out you were married to a serial killer. And it’s not a hyperbolic comparison, so why does there seem to be no standard course of action if enough staff and artists fundamentally object to a celebrated donor? (Maybe something to unionize about?)
The portion of the exhibition which is an AR app also apparently removes the Sackler’s name from the front of the building. I was excited to try this but quickly ran into an error text from the app store: the app requires OS 11 or later. Updating my device to be able(allowed) to run the app, an action which cannot be reversed, would be to condemn my phone’s ability to run Flappy Bird to death. The shadow of technology as a complex system of power hangs heavy over this show, and is also explicitly addressed in the gallery texts. Updating my phone would be giving up a small space I feel I’ve pushed back against Apple’s regime of continuous updating and advancing DRM, and I couldn’t even consider it for a moment. Which was kind of a bummer. Disappointed, I just stood by the gallery text at the entrance, skimming the longest list of supporters and donors I think I’d ever seen acknowledged at the beginning of an exhibition, with many allowed to receive grateful thanks anonymously.
In a way, this represents the core conflict of critical media art. You can make interesting stuff that draws attention to or is a commentary on how power manifests and is exerted through technology, but you also almost inevitably become implicated in these systems of power by purchasing, developing for, or seeking funding or in-kind technical support from said gatekeepers of tech power and capital. Though maybe this is only especially blatant in the field of media art because of its relative novelty; avant-garde painting and sculpture, while critical and radical in its own turns also required both the historical knowledge and critical ability to appreciate painting, forms of knowledge which are primarily taught and cultivated within a specific class… In another sense, iPads hanging from the ceiling in metal security cocoons can also make a gallery space feel radically vulgar. What’s less art world than “kid-friendly” “interactives,” “smart classrooms,” or those McDonalds where you can just order at a smeary touch screen?
The wobbly, dangling iPads are part of what I feel is a surprisingly (if not totally) successful element of the show: it also attempts to centralize and materialize the AR app-ness of the majority of the work featured. It would have been perfectly unfriendly-art-world to keep the material gallery content to the austere sigils and pulsing abstract LED boards of the procedurally generated plants, but the iPad tendrils, in addition to giving me a taste of how the AR app projects text into the space around the scanned sigils, give the space a sense of affordance, the feeling that I can do something beyond receiving the art as the walking eyes and brain white gallery spaces often see visitors as. I gently poked at a screen and it gave a bit, the long security chain creaking up towards the ceiling above me. Moving it around to see more of the AR elements felt a little like operating a strange machine in the alien temple.
In the center hallway of the gallery space, there is also an attempt to make the “power walks,” a series of guided tours of the area around the Serpentine galleries, at least partly possible to experience if you’re not at the gallery during the times they are run. Further LED boards, which give the videos on them a super-pixelated effect like the deep fried memes and other mobile pix of Steyerl’s “poor images,” follow the speakers of the power walks from a videogame-like third person view of their backs as they chart a course through Kensington Gardens. Each of the walks focuses on the testimonies of a different group of people affected by London’s out of control real estate market. Migrant domestic workers talk about being “hidden in plain sight,” often having to look the part of being well-off and put together in the bizarre culture of a terminally posh part of town, while actually being overworked and abused by their employers while cleaning their homes or caring for their children, and often having to worry about securing a place to stay and affording food to eat themselves. Similarly, disabled people discuss the cumulative effects of austerity and budget cuts on their living situations, and the effects of the lack of accommodations on their ability to fulfil their own needs and live a normal social life. Constantine Gras and the group Architects for Social Housing also discuss the effects of privatization and legislation on who lives in the city and who is displaced, and strategies of resistance. Again and again the theme appears that a significant portion of London housing is left empty simply to accrue value while homelessness and evictions increase, an especially brutal symptom of a human need like shelter becoming the new tulip bulbs of the stupidly wealthy. These “walk recordings” are very rich in details and visually presented well, though (not to bang on about seating again) the small grey crates you are expected to sit on as you watch them look A) too much like the AR enabled sigil platforms and B) too uncomfortable for many people to really believe you were supposed to sit on them. Potentially “thematically rich” that the improvised solution for many people was to sit on a small outcropping of bricks around the base of the room instead, but this was strictly forbidden: it’s a listed building.
Within the gallery space, the provided iPads, LED displays and free publication offer a decent triangulation strategy to present an exhibition where the primary conceptual content is tucked away in an AR app to a gallery audience who may not have their own most up-to-date mobile phones. The publication is free, visually appealing, and extra useful in that it explicates some of the textual or thematic elements that float around, potentially half-hidden, depending on how you’re pointing the AR devices or at what point in the looping video and audio sections you enter the gallery. But this multi-pronged strategy still overlooks a few things. I couldn’t, for example, access the three sigils placed in pedestals around the building. They’re mysterious and cool as inert objects but I couldn’t activate the AR elements built into them. It would have been interesting to see what Steyerl had tucked into the curves of the chic café attached to the gallery, for example, a gigantic terrarium for daydrinking posh people. The architect of this space was Zaha Hadid, who Steyerl previously called upon to construct special practice targets for a precariat insurrection/audition in one of her best and most quotable lectures.
The conceptual content I could access returned to Steyerl’s playfully speculative work that most explicitly appears in Factory of The Sun. This time, instead of the labor of motion capture dancers, the exhibition imagines future manifestations of scientific discoveries related to climate change and the resulting ecological and social uphevals. These discoveries are, quite gratifyingly, credited to women whose names are slightly-fudged and feminized versions of the typical boys’ club of western science, like Johanna Goethe and Ricarda Deakin. It imagines a future based on a different historical conception of science as understanding and collaboration with other forms of life, rather than vivisection and extraction.
The way this material is presented is beautiful (to my potentially miscalibrated sense of aesthetics, at least, haha), rather than being overly gallery-restrained or precious, perhaps because of the odd touchpoints they evoke to me. Building on the point I made earlier about how the third-person viewpoint the power walks are condensed into specifically refer to the visual vocabulary of videogames, I think Steyerl is continuing to draw from videogame aesthetics, and even digging deeper this time. A frieze of sigils on the otherwise dark walls make the space feel most like, out of anything, a sort of primitive 3D game “temple.” The ghostly, throbbing images of plants “growing” according to predictive procedural generation algorithms analyzing plants from the park surrounding the gallery also evoke the slimy textures of current videogames drawing from that technological era, like Lilith of the Maze’s work. And the soundtrack commissioned for the exhibition space, an atmospheric piece of music arranged by Kojey Radical, combines garbled, halting voice samples with the chill tones that suck you back to half-remembering watching your friend’s brother play Ocarina of Time at their house. It’s lush, contemplative, and like Lilith’s work as well as the audio design of David Kanaga’s OikOS (another pseudo-operating system), something that feels finally new and contemporary while you experience it despite also having visible historical roots.
The floating inserted texts in the AR app hover jankily, sometimes swirling around themselves or seeming to disintegrate, and the audio elements occasionally are pierced through with an (intentional? Unintentional?) ASMR crackle that highlights that the power which the gallery text argues that all digital technology is based on, is, compared to the steady vitality of the ruderal plants Steyerl shifts focus to, a surprisingly brittle and fallible type of power, a massive fortress oftentimes with sand for a foundation. Steyerl’s past work, like How Not to Be Seen especially, rather than sinking into nihilism, tech determinism, or simply despair, is always looking towards the cracks in technological power, how surveillance can be evaded, the impetus towards efficiency subverted and turned to humor or delight, and networks enable new and old forms of small and large scale resistance.
If it’s not obvious from my obsessive citing of her earlier film and lecture-based work in the above paragraphs, I’m a big fan of Hito Steyerl’s work, going so far that I guess you could say she’s my “art mom,” in the style of obsessive internet-enabled one way mentor relationships. Perhaps because I was bringing this level of admiration, and because of the difficulties and contradictions that are unavoidable when working with technology, and in the gallery system, specifically a high profile gallery, in the speculation capital of the world, in a building named after highly profitable speculators on raw human pain, it was inevitable I’d come away with highly ambivalent feelings. Almost every element of the exhibition is self-consciously oriented around herding these multiple elephants-in-room, and yet it always feels like there are several obvious cases of a something more which could be done. Despite all the social practice contortions, which, admittedly, are much better than what has passed for social practice in general, doubts still clouded my appreciation of every angle of the exhibition. Does it look too good for this type of work? Does the overwhelming amount of information and perspectives here only manage to be interesting? But being driven to ask these questions can be productive in its own way.
I, alternately, did not have ambivalent feelings at all about the exhibition in the other Serpentine gallery building, the one that is not named after any particular societal blight. This exhibition presented the work of Emma Kunz, work which was not exhibited during her life, but done as a sort of private mystic/predictive practice, using pendulums. Her work is not as prescient or as interesting as the similarly mysticism-imbued work of Hilma af Klint, whose major retrospective at the Guggenheim this exhibition seems to be riding on the thematic coattails of. While the visitor assistants at the Hito Steyerl show seemed appropriately a bit uncertain and awkward at explaining the work and helping people to actually use it, the ones at this exhibition gushed about the work with the proficiency of your friend from high school trying to get you into an essential oils or leggings-related mlm scam.
Did you know, for example, that after doing this drawing she called her friend and said she thought the Americans were making a weapon which could destroy the world? And such and such years later they tested the atomic bomb? Isn’t that just crazy? When I asked one of them how the work came to be exhibited at the Serpentine Gallery, since it seemed like she didn’t really have those type of art world ambitions during her life, they gave me an entertaining anecdote about how she was some actually-famous male artist’s housekeeper! So cute! Another thing she did to pay the bills was discover an apparent restorative and mystical property of blocks of fossilized rock only available in a certain quarry, as you do. “She believed they recharged energy.” The benches in the gallery are given their own wall texts and are apparently made of this material, so sitting down gives you the subtle unease of being enclosed in an orgone chamber, that you may be unwittingly participating in someone else’s “sex thing.” You can also buy a powder made of these rocks in the gift shop, which on the package claims to ease rheumatism and so on. The most contemporary thing about this exhibition is that the medicinal soap brochure has more and nicer prints of her work than the official Serpentine Gallery pamphlet you have to pay £1 for anyways. Scam on!
After leaving both of these exhibitions, which are each very contemporary in their own ways, I aimlessly wandered south of Kensington Gardens, vaguely desiring something else “interesting.” London is one of the biggest cities on earth, so it’s not too much to ask, right? I walked past private apartment blocks, all white and clad with garish flourishes like wedding cakes, horrible cobblestone streets, those profoundly stupid areas where the pavement is on the same level as the street, and lots of expensive black cars with tinted windows. Then I was in a horde of milling children and parents outside the science museum. I oriented myself at the same Pret I had escaped to from the exorbitant V&A cafeteria the last time I was in London, and, helplessly, ordered a cup of soup, a bar of dark chocolate and their tropical green tea. Nothing else to be done. My friend Mark wisely said on Mastodon later that London is typically tube and Pret and then you die. Maybe it’s hellish to do anything in London at this point, and yet it’s perversely where everything has and will happen.
…And that’s the magic of speculation, baby!!!!!!! AwooooooooooooOOOO