This the way the world ends…or not

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David Blandy – installation view of The End of the World, 2017

David Blandy returns to his musings on apocalyptic endings in his latest works now showing at Seventeen Gallery until 16 December and generates intriguing questions about our interactions with the emergent online universe. Will our online identity replace our IRL one? Will the line between human consciousness and the digital world become increasingly blurred? As usual with Blandy, the works manage to be both gripping and meditative while dramatising the competing rational and emotional approaches to tackling the “big problems”.

In his surround screen work, The End of the World (2017), pictured above, we feel we are on the observation platform of an interplanetary spaceship as the Earth, Moon and Saturn rotate beneath us. But these are not re-runs of Kubrick’s 2001. Blandy’s animations are slightly skewed stylised versions which ramp up their aesthetic impact. The earth’s human activity on the dark side is picked out by light zones emitted from its urbanised regions. The unseen Sun  makes its presence felt by illuminating surfaces with a ghostly glow.  As the commentary  morphs from lecture to poetry we get a sense of  our rational selves grappling with the emotional ramifications of our own demise. Personal deaths are not refered but we get a rundown of the solar system’s history and its inevitable dissolution in the Sun’s supernova meltdown. This is followed by an abrupt change in tone as a our narrator relays a tale of social annihilation resulting from the shutdown of a longstanding online role-playing gaming community. On termination day its avatars gather together to share their grief  before they are consigned to the digital hereafter. This is the converse of the dilemma in Ruth Waters’ equally thought-provoking video Redsky66  (accessible through her website, ruthwaters.co.uk) where her interviewee is haunted by his immortal digital existence.

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David Blandy- installation view of HD Lifestyle, 2017

On first sight, HD Lifestyle, 2017, is an installation inspired by mobile phone shops but on closer inspection its display case is more like a science museum exhibit tracing the development of screen technology from the early “dimphones” to the current day. The early Nokias have blank screens while the video plays across the more advanced technology to mark the moving image Rubicon that we have crossed. Over visuals of crystals and animated desolate landscapes, Blandy’s commentary draws a neat parallel between human and environmental sacrifice. Technological “innovation”  requires vast areas of landscape to be sacrificed in the poorest regions of the world to placate our consumer anxiety for the latest, hippest Apple product. The Ancient Greek ritual of casting out an individual scapegoat at year’s end to restore social and agricultural equilibrium was an earlier incarnation of this tendency to concentrate our atavistic and inchoate fears onto narrow target populations.  The concept of “sacrifice zones” is a fertile one.

Also included is The Archive, 2017 a video and VR examination of one 94 year old woman’s vast personal collection of newspaper cuttings that have taken over her house, provoking speculation on the definition of  accumulated knowledge as the digital record supplants print.

You come away from this show filled with thoughts of how far our online existence will change human nature. All DB’s signature strengths are on show: the astute thinking on contemporary issues, the hypnotic quality of his carefully choreographed visuals, music and narration, the unsettling undertow this creates and the humane emotional engagement with the content incorporating little touches of humour confirms for me his appeal as one of my favourite MI artists.

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Ruth Waters explores fears of eternity and digital immortality

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Ruth Waters. Redsky66 (2017) video installation featuring still from  Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventures (1989)

Ruth Waters first impressed me at the Goldsmiths MFA Degree show last year and so it was a  major treat to see her recent video installation last month at Peer Gallery in Hoxton. It is a carefully crafted cautionary tale for the internet generation that can turn to a supportive global community of sufferers of the same phobia, no matter how obscure. The bulk of the film consists of a skype interview with the film’s increasingly distraught protagonist, known to us only as REDSKY66. This is intercut with clips of  different types of vortices swirling into a vanishing point which provide a visual commentary as he struggles with his obsession with infinity and his acute fear of the eternity he will endure in the afterlife.  This includes a hilarious clip from Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventures  film of 1989 showing the heroes being sucked into deep space. I had never encountered apeirophobia before and Ruth astutely pinions the reason why digital natives might be particularly prone to this form of anxiety. REDSKY66 reaches a tipping point in his attempts to control his phobia when he becomes the epicentre of a twitterstorm triggered by his rash tweet trolling the teenage rape victim of a celebrity footballer which he later regrets.

He explains that his breakdown was triggered by the realisation that our digital lives have an immortality that our bodily lives do not possess. Eternity is a terrifying prospect if it means ruminating on our life’s bleakest moments as if on a continuous excruciating  loop and this horror is amplified by the indelible nature of the internet record preserving our crass mistakes. Ruth makes an astute choice of collaborator as the performance of REDSKY66 is entirely credible and you are left wondering whether this is acting, role play or a real interview. Whatever it is, you are moved by his plight.

This concise, gripping and original narrative goes beyond the ubiquitous concerns over social media’s impact on personal reputations and instant celebrity and hints at the more murky, emerging uncertainties of our digital era. Having seen much incoherent and self-indulgent MI work recently this was a refreshingly simple yet profound experience having much in common with David Blandy’s excellent new video, The End of the World, which I will be reviewing in my next blogpost.