The latest exhibition at K11 in Shanghai asks what we can learn from Avatars.
Curated by Lauren Cornell with Baoyang Chen, “After Us” runs until 31 May 2017 at chi K11 art museum, and marks the first major exhibition co-presented in China by K11 Art Foundation and the New Museum, New York.
The pioneering K11 Art Foundation willfully blurs barriers: on the whole, this is between the seductions of a retail experience and a museum environment, as chi K11 art museum is in the basement of Adrian Cheng’s upmarket shopping mall in central Shanghai. However, in “After Us”, staged as a first collaborative venture with New York’s New Museum, the seduction of online gaming pervades the gallery too.
There is much untidy slippage between different ideas on the post-human spectrum – between augmented bodies, robots and avatars. The cultural vision is of a future where gaming characters seep into the world and humans integrate, adopt their habits and their outlooks. It is a lonely world of discrete interfaces, without empathy, where choice and values are written into the computer code that underpins an illusion of reality.
The Turing Test
The Turing Test was designed to prove machine intelligence. It involves two participants, a real person and a computer, and a judge’s job is to decide which is the human. The implications of the Test have fuelled a whole popular genre and the themes of “After Us” connect with recent movies such as Her (Spike Jonze, 2013) and Ex Machina (Alex Garland, 2014) where AI is humanised, but the relationship between human and machine is flawed. Android efficiency and self preservation triumph over people’s fallibility and compassion.
On entering the exhibition the visitor is greeted by a row of people absorbed in an onscreen game. Occasionally without taking their eyes from the screen they joke with one another but otherwise they stay put. You could be mistaken for thinking that these are visitors monopolising an interactive exhibit until you notice they are equipped with bottled water for a long session.
The work is a performance entitled Unwinnable Game (2017) by Li Liao. The game is in-fact the pervasive League of Legends (Tom Cadwell for Riot Games 2009). However, a strict set of parametres to the play environment makes winning and so ending the game session impossible. These players are locked in place for the duration, a life sentence in a gaming environment. As the exhibition unfolds it becomes apparent that curator Lauren Cornell’s proposition that extended immersion in a virtual, game-like environment is a common state, is already creeping up.
However, many of the works show the flaws of this concept, rather than getting carried away with it. For example, Dora Budor’s Mental Parasite Retreat 1 and 2 (both 2014) is two worn looking cinema seats that reveal prosthetic-like costume breastplates through their ripped upholstery, as if these were exposed fossils in stone. The scenario has a tacky and fake quality. These are theatrical props inferring that the malevolent humanoid android is really just a popular cultural trope, from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) to Janes Cameron’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991).
Real life robots are more attuned to endless repetitive interaction with components on the production line than to acting in films, falling in love and doing stunts. Writing in Leap Jacob Dreyer commented on the work:
If the fear of the 1980s was of the biological enemy lying within the body, of the virus and the visceral other, the protrusion of sharp axles of machinery from underneath a boring grey sheen is a more contemporary anxiety.
Love and Virtual Reality
Dominating the exhibition at least by measure of the length of time needed to engage with them are two cinematic video works, Cécile B. Evans’ What the Heart Wants (2016, 40 minutes) and Chen Zhou’s Life Imitation (2016, 82 minutes). The former, produced for last year’s Berlin Biennale, includes a cast of characters including a memory from 1972 that has outlived the humans who would have remembered it and HYPER, a narrator who has attained a state of corporate personhood, a sort of enlightenment for virtual systems.
The video has impressive scope realised with both live action children, tended by a robot voice, dislocated avatars and a workers’ collective of disembodied ears. Writing for Samizdat Katharina Weinstock points out:
Her many-voiced narrative threads remain loose as if modelled in accordance with a mode of reception brought about by years and years of excessive Internet exposure.
Commissioned for the “After Us” exhibition, Chen Zhou’s video claims to be a documentary of Shanghai street life, but what you get confuses the virtual and real world, so this Shanghai has more than a touch of Grand Theft Auto. In one section, a woman with a gun marches determinedly down dark streets while others calmly go about their business, meanwhile real life characters sit around talking about relationship slipping between emotional and sexual perspectives. The work won the NEW:VISION award at the 2017 Copenhagen International Documentary Film Festival, who described the film as creating
an intimate portrait of the performance of the self in a hypermediated world, calmly casting an insistent gaze on shifting experiences of sociality, gender, and technology.
Other exhibits evoke the companionship and hybridisation of humans and online surrogates. Lin Ke’s witty videos show himself reflected in the screen, his glasses occasionally catching the light, absorbed in exploring a virtual landscape or tormenting an homunculus avatar by threatening to deposit him in the sea of Second Life (Linden Lab, 2003).
Six extravagant busts, New Age Demanded (2011) by John Rafman, are presented like statesmen on pedestals. This is a gallery of future leaders who have been fused with artificial elements. The effect is compounded by an exotic range of materials, particularly silicone.
Stuart Uoo also represents figures as a part of Life is Juicy (2011-17). Here, they appear as larger than life idealised females, scraped together from diverse materials. They look as if they have been exuded from a screen complete with the sense of their being hollow shells. Screen glitches are represented as missing sections revealing that there is nothing inside.
Drawing on another quality of the creatures found in computer games Yu Honglei presents two pairs of ostrich like creatures in Green Sister Down the Hill (2016). Iridescent green and metallic silver, on a single slender leg, their bodies are like the closed shells of clams – they portray an aspect of curiosity but give nothing away. These are a species that may understand humans, but we cannot make the imaginative leap needed to conceive of their world view.
In the exhibition both real and virtual subjects are linked by the sense that their cognition is incomplete, as if the humans have picked up from their avatars the anxiety of being inchoate, the child of numerous heterogeneous researchers and programmes rather than of an intimate couple. In the end, despite its pretentions to explore the implications of cutting-edge technology, “After Us” reminds the visitor that a step on the path to understanding others is integrity, to know ourselves.
- Millennials and New Media Art in the Conceptual Age: Hong Kong’s K11 and Videotage co-present “One World Exposition 2.1: #like4like” – April 2017 – “#like4like” explores art and technology under the theme of “Me: Millennials”
- Art in the Digital Era: MoMA PS1 and K11 Art Foundation (KAF) co-present “.com/.cn” in Hong Kong – April 2017 – “.com/.cn” at K11 showcases artistic practices in China and the West that respond to, or are affected by, our digital ecosystem
- “If You Throw Enough Mud at the Wall, None of It Will Stick”: Chinese artist Lin Aojie at A+ Contemporary, Shanghai – April 2017 – Guangzhou-based artist Lin Aojie transforms the art of keeping a diary into an artwork at A+ Contemporary in Shanghai
- Taiwanese artist Wu Tien-chang at festival of new media art MADATAC 08, Madrid – January 2017 – Art Radar takes a look at some of they key themes in Taiwanese artist Wu Tien-chang’s work, on show at Spain’s contemporary festival of new media arts MADATAC 08
- “Metamorphosis”: Chinese new media artist Miao Xiaochun at Klein Sun Gallery – in pictures – September 2016 – Klein Sun Gallery in New York showcases Chinese new media artist Miao Xiaochun’s recent painting and animation
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