Panoptic Spreadsheets & Political Art

Exit (exhibition)

published in Real Time No.131, Sydney, 2016

Paris, France. The Palais de Tokyo—an ostentatious ground zero for Contemporary Art. You enter a darkened circular room, about five metres in diameter. No seats, so you plonk yourself down on the black carpet. A loud sub-harmonic drone will continue for 45 minutes while you move your head around to watch a 360º computer animation, continually evolving from left to right, projected from a metre off the floor rising up to a low ceiling. The animation is in six sections, each being a dramatic data-scape of global activity. Time and again, the screen rolls out a wire-frame style global map in what looks like the standard Gall Stereographic design. Reams of data stream across the inverted screenic cylinder in which you are interred. The point conjectured continually is that the fluxive state of the world’s territories are defined not by geography or even borders, but the movement between those zones by migrants and refugees, be they welcomed, employed, displaced, terrorised, interred, settled or expelled. Their shifting presence is charted by a suite of markers which manifest their transient occupancy in those six sections: (i) Population Shifts: Cities; (ii) Remittances: Sending Money Home; (iii) Political Refugees and Forced Migration; (vi) Natural Catastrophes; (v) Rising Seas, Sinking Cities; (vi) Speechless and Deforestation.

Titled Exit and based on quotes from Paul Virilio’s Stop Eject (2008), it’s a prestigious immersive data visualization of the frightening momentum of transmigratory changes in ‘the world’. The result is a mix of futurologist trend-casting, statistical white paper reporting to agitate government policy, theoretical discoursing on the rootless identity resulting from such flux and indeterminacy, and a good dose of Cold War-era spookery for those who get scared just by the mention of the word ‘future’. Each of the animation’s six sections has been precisely mapped and motioned in accordance with data which has been statistically recorded, encoded, analysed, translated and extrapolated into the near future utilising to a variety of motion effects which literally remap a panoramic image of the global map.

The production itself is formidable, wrangling not only the data but the crew assembled for its materialization: philosophical ‘urbanist’ Paul Virilio, artists/architects Diller Scofidio + Renfro, architect-artist Laura Kurgan and statistician-artist Mark Hansen, plus additional input from even more scientists and geographers. Exit’s six parts builds upon the first four, initially exhibited as Stop Eject in 2008 at the Fondation Cartier in Paris. With its big concepts writ large, Exit ultimately smacks of grandstanding, intimidation, and the type of passive-aggressive address to which so much politically committed art succumbs despite its often laudable concerns. Reviewing the installation within a Contemporary Art space—and considering that so many of its producers insist on hyphenating their role with the word ‘artist’—warrants an assessment of what art is occurring here if at all, and why it can or cannot be detected.

Feeling like a child seated in the dark at a High School hi-tech geoscience presentation, I am not at all impressed by the avalanches, tsunamis and volcanic eruptions of numbingly symbolic data which drive Exit’s data simulation. Firstly, it plays the cheap trick that Contemporary Art continues to fall for due to its infatuation with being contemporary above all else: verifiable statistics are presented to determine outcomes in form, tone and visualisation, as if nothing is being ‘interpreted’. The implication detourned through Foucault is that ‘the artist is dead’ and is now merely the conduit for passing along data researched from the world. This reality effect rarely escapes its own semiotic limitations. In Exit’s dour anti-aesthetic visualization, we get throbbing red for patches of burning forests (plus the sound of crackling); wavy numerical data for cities’ rising sea levels (plus the sound of glooping); national flags being eaten into due to their currency being propped by external exchanges (plus the sound of crumbling); and so on. It’s not much different from watching the news on TV. Secondly, Exit attempts a harshly ahistorical revision of centuries of artistic interpretation born of egocentric drive, by concocting an artsy take on McLuhan’s notions of mediation to present data ‘inartistically’ in order to let the facts speak for themselves. Its evocation of rollercoaster New York Stock Exchange data-porn is as vulgar and delusional as U2 concert video banks. Plus its solitary bass drone is the work’s most tacky manipulation, using the same spook-sfx of PlayStation shoot-em-ups, Hollywood dystopian sci-fi and ominous theatre sound design for International Arts Festivals. Symbolically, it here bluntly declares its absence of music to be the reality of our current dehumanising world. Peddling ‘hard’ statistics in an art context—while claiming to be creating art as if one is a newborn Duchamp—borders on insulting in the way the art hides behind statistics for fear of being rejected on purely personal, emotional, persuasive and anxious grounds.

The salient issue here is Exit’s data visualization implicitly escaping visual linguistics and semiotics. Undoubtedly, the current hyper-vector fx-atomisation meta-algorithmic software for digital effects of today achieves its reality effect not by artists' manipulation of renderable veneers, but by sheer complexity of pixel actioning and motioning which can be programmed to behave according to physical properties, modulations and simulations. However, this face-off between computer simulation and data visualization unexpectedly echoes 19th century debates. Back then, the arguments were over Academic art (think Bouguereau, Cabanel, Makart, Gerôme) which strove to perfectly render and replicate the ideal essence of form, and Realist art (think Goya, Courbet, Millet, Corinth) which opposed art looking at its own techniques and surfaces rather than acknowledging the outside world and forging a way to depict its actuality. Paris is full of amazing museum collections which include both these politicised arguments in image-making. Hindsight allows one to be less fierce with judgment: Academic art is full of allusions to critical textuality and medium-based problematics, while Realist art can be utterly pompous and deluded in its grasp of the real.

Hindsight is absent in Exit: it has its eyes fixed so firmly on a frightful future, its persuasive data-visualization borders on a digital recoding of Stalinist social realism. Paul Virilio is undoubtedly eloquent with his long-standing notions of speed being a material which shapes contemporary life, and is now angsting (just like Courbet et al) over how he best can represent the world outside as it flashes by. But like politicians painting landscapes on Sunday afternoons, Exit is as interesting and as audiovisually engaging as an Excel spreadsheet. Before one enters the darkened 19th century panopticon-cum-zoetrope theatre to be regaled by the statistical apparitions of Exit, one views a short vertical flat-screen of Virilio (dressed, like all male intellectuals, as if they’re going fly-fishing somewhere in nature) walking along a cobble-stone boardwalk next to some idyllic Mediterranean seascape, waxing lyrical about crises, citizens, nomads, sedentaires, geopolitics and ultracities. As I listened to his ambling feet on pavement stones next to lapping waves, a phrase from another era came to mind: “Sous les paves, la plage!” (“Under the stones, the beach!”) Rethinking May ‘68 here with Exit, I wondered how much he and the Exit team thought about the ground under their very feet.

Text © Philip Brophy. Images © Cartier Foundation & Paul Virlio