Chaos as Usual

Curated by Hanne Mugaas

The exhibition Chaos as Usual explores how we construct and experience everyday life in a reality increasingly mediated via the computer screen. In 2011, our experience of the world is to a great extent based on the endless copying, layering, circulation, and decontextualization of digital imagery; with the Internet, appropriation seems to have reached its peak. The artists in this show make works that question image construction and manipulation, the leveling of high and low, and new forms of representation—all derived from a contemporary culture where global branding mingles with popular expression, cartoons with haute couture, and traditional media with spambot-generated content.

Olia Lialina and Dragan Espenschied
More than twenty years have passed since the Internet first entered mainstream society. In the seven-monitor video piece Olia’s and Dragan’s Comparative History of Classic Animated GIFs and Glitter Graphics, 2007, Olia Lialina and Dragan Espenschied follow the history of online user-generated moving images since the 1990s, providing examples of how “homemade” GIFs (short for Graphics Interchange Format, a type of bitmap image) shifted from basic forms to shimmering shapes over a short period of time. Animated GIFs were copied and pasted repeatedly on websites, and their intention and meaning changed from one context to the next. For example, a GIF of Felix the Cat walking back and forth has been used to illustrate diverse states such as depression, frustration, anticipation, and “thinking hard”; on the other hand, sometimes it is employed simply to represent a cat. Begun as a website, Lialina and Espenschied’s project looks at different popular genres of GIFs: familiar figures (such as that Felix the Cat image), signs (“Under Construction”), phenomena (rainbows), animals (eagles), and flowers (flower bouquets), among others. This work is an important reminder of the early days of the Internet, before the influx of professional web design, commercial templates, and interfaces such as Facebook and YouTube forced creative expression into stricter formats. In tandem with the original website as well as a book (Digital Folklore, published in 2010), Olia’s and Dragan’s Comparative History of Classic Animated GIFs and Glitter Graphics is a celebration of the endless creativity and open sharing that comes with new technologies—but also a cautious reminder that these technologies always come with, or end up with, restrictions, especially when corporate interests are involved.

Liz Deschenes
Green Screen #4, 2001, by Liz Deschenes is a large-scale inkjet print that extends from the wall onto the floor. Invented in the 1930s, blue and green screens are used for creating motion-picture special effects: The actor performs in front of a colored screen, and different background visuals are later added. Today, green screens are increasingly employed to alter reality by amateurs making online videos. As a photograph that can be turned into anything else, Deschenes’s work holds the promise that here, anything could happen—the responsibility for the content lies with the viewer. The image is an invitation to look beyond the surface, to explore the history and function of photography as well as its possibilities in a digital world overflowing with images. Green Screen #4 is on a human scale—as opposed to the small proportions of the computer or the oversize expanse of the cinema—instantly constructing a physical relationship to the viewer. The photograph becomes sculpture as it curves from wall to floor, entering the third dimension captured onscreen.

Philip Kwame Apagya
Philip Kwame Apagya creates a kind of handmade green screen in his photographs, in which people in his hometown of Shama, Ghana, pose in front of painted backdrops: They appear about to embark on an airplane (Come on Board!, 2000) or standing in a living room filled with a TV, stereo, and VHS tapes (Akwaba, 1996). An intermediate step between painted and photographic portraits, the series presents its subjects as they wish to be seen: as someone who “has it all.” Apagya’s practice builds upon a localized history of photography. By 1900, photo studios existed in all major African cities, contributing to the development of African modernity. These photographers specialized in creating portraits in which the subject was shown with Western commodities, against backdrops such as the New York City skyline—images that supposedly spoke of success and cosmopolitanism.

Seth Price
In Seth Price’s video Folk Music & Documentary, 2004, a young man with long hair, in beaded necklaces and a flannel shirt—standard “activist” wear—stands in front of a blue screen, talking about politics, globalization, and protest. But instead of convincingly arguing his cause, he seems reluctant and confused—an impression that is reinforced upon hearing the artist’s voice instructing him in the background. The actor says that he hates hippies and punks because “it’s just all about fashion,” but this recitation of post-1989 protest history is itself theater rather than politics. The video seems to communicate that in the 2000s, even protest has become surface and style, just another genre like folk music and documentary, the popular media of protest for the political left. In strong contrast to Kwame’s subjects—who embrace commerce and seem invigorated by it—this young man is disengaged and exhausted from keeping up appearances.

Antek Walczak’s nearly hour-long video Dynasty, 1998, speculates on the relationships between fashion, capitalism, globalization, and the many other surfaces on which commercial images grow. The opening credits begin with logos for Louis Vuitton and Moët Hennessy, then announce a television program to celebrate the centennial of fashion images. What follows instead is a series of scenes and fragments, united by a film noir – style voiceover and lush soundtrack (including snippets from Mozart, Beethoven, Bach, and Michael Jackson, to name just a few extracts); several video clips are leftovers from works by the artist collective Bernadette Corporation (of which Walczak is a member). The artist writes, “Another title for this entire ensemble could be ‘Beginnings That Never End,’ a joyful celebration of the richness of the first ten minutes of any film, when structures are unfurled, far-fetched schemes laid out on the table, and the exit doors kept thoughtlessly wide open—where it’s possible to enjoy some fresh air before the guiding relentless hand of fictional responsibility takes control and squashes the party.”

Takeshi Murata’s hyperreal, computer-rendered still lifes assemble the “crumbs” of everyday life—VHS cassette tapes, fruit, cracked iPhones, animal skulls, and beer cans—blending the organic with the surreal. Created as 3-D scenes and presented as 2-D images, they represent how we currently experience objects, including art: on our computer screens. Their combinations exemplify the decontextualization produced by the Internet, the movement from fringe to forefront, while also exploring digital technology tools in the process. Experiencing contemporary sculpture as 2D images on his computer screen (he lives in the countryside outside New York) became one of Murata’s starting points for this series of works – the presentation of 3D through 2D makes the work part print, part sculpture. Depicting perishable and obsolete objects, Murata’s prints balance unease with familiarity and emphasize stillness, tension, and pictorial illusion.

Ann Craven constantly repeats herself, in an exploration of the process of painting that is strongly related to the appropriation and seriality of our current image-based culture. She works on several canvases at once, painting the same brushstroke on one after another. For her, this repetition is more about the differences between the paintings than the similarities: The handmade technique of the work ensures that no two versions will be exactly identical. As in most of Craven’s paintings, the diptych I’m Sorry (Blue), 2011, portrays flora and adorable fauna, combining elements from different sources such as the Internet, books, magazines, calendars, and personal photos. Craven uses popular imagery of kitsch subjects—often considered the domain of “amateur” art—to explore how we visualize nature. Cuteness also happens to be in-demand content on the Internet; it seems that in our image-saturated everyday, a kitten can still make viewers stop and look.

For 1600 Mistakes, 2008/2011, Craven has been working with a printing school in Reims, France. She collected the students’ discarded prints, printed her own motifs over them (such as animals, moons, and stripes), and shipped them to Bergen Kunsthall to be displayed in the gallery space for visitors to take for free; the production of the prints will run parallel to the exhibition. This work is not only about sharing and redistributing but also about value and context, asking what an image gains (or loses) when it is added to and what changes when it moves from one realm to another.

Process and repetition are also important elements in Thomas Julier’s work. Through the display of art-historical and pop-cultural motifs as well as the urban and commercial architecture of public space, he explores the possibilities of digital cameras, image and graphics programs, and computer-aided production. The form, time, and processes of artistic production gain a particular role; some series of works use the possibilities of digital production and machine finishing, while others involve traditional artistic techniques such as linocut. Three Different Leaves of a Monstera Deliciosa, 2011, comprises water-cut resin leaves of the cultivated houseplant of the title, produced true to scale and scattered on the gallery floor as if recently fallen from their stem. The shape of the leaves is adapted from a vector-based drawing that Julier drew of a picture found online. Despite the industrial material and production, the leaves end up with slight differences, attaining an “organic” layer. Unlike the soft brushstrokes of Craven’s work, these sculptures have crisp edges; even in color and texture and completely synthetic, they resemble the simulated natural objects in Murata’s still lives. These nearly perfect forms resemble not so much leaves as the idea of a leaf.

Untitled, 2010, is taken from Julier and Kaspar Müller’s linocut series “Characters,” which depicts cartoon figures. The drawing of a Native American making smoke signals—one of the oldest forms of communication in recorded history—was found online, as were all the characters in the series (including Garfield, the mascots featured on boxes of Kellogg’s Smacks and Froot Loops cereals, Mickey Mouse, and Krang from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles). Analog creations now become digital, their status is reversed again as they are snatched from cyberspace and reproduced on archival paper. “Characters” also comments on what should be considered art history, presenting icons of popular culture as framed artworks; at the same time, this act removes the figures from public circulation.

The two-channel video Copy of Reconstruction of the Pergamon Altar, 2010, made by Julier in collaboration with Cédric Eisenring, depicts two fragments from the ancient monument at the Pergamon Museum in Berlin. The altar was erected between 175 and 159 BC and destroyed in Late Antiquity; in 1878, thousands of pieces were discovered built into a Byzantine fortification wall, and the altar was subsequently reassembled. The frieze, which features more than a hundred figures, depicts the battle of the Olympian gods against the giants. Repeating the fragmentation of the altar, the video is split into two screens; the shots are still, frozen in time like the immortal figures. The work can be seen as a reflection on the way information and history travel—not only through time but also through space—while the use of video rather than photography upends our expectations of certain media.

Today we are bombarded with images and information from television and film, advertising, and increasingly the Internet. This is the chaos as usual that we have learned to navigate—and that artists now find such fertile ground. In the midst of this maelstrom, the artists in the present exhibition have identified two major strategies: repetition and replacement. Appropriation has become a commonplace tactic as images travel across contexts and continents in the blink of an eye, easily adapted and reconstructed, then as rapidly reabsorbed and assimilated. Whether using new media or old—or, often, some combination of the two—these artists investigate how circulation and substitution affects our interpretation of history, our view of the world, and our understanding of ourselves.

Hanne Mugaas lives and works in New York, where she is among other things a Curatorial Associate at the Guggenheim Museum, and runs the gallery Art Since the Summer of 69. She has curated exhibitions and projects at places including MoMA, New York; New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York; Art in General, New York; Moving Image Archive of Contemporary Art (MIACA), Tokyo; Vilma Gold, London; and Ooga Booga, Los Angeles. She holds an MFA in Curating from Goldsmiths College in London.

Top image:
Cyborg, 2011. Courtesy the artist (Takeshi Murata), Salon 94, and Ratio 3.

Philip Kwame Apagya, Ann Craven, Liz Deschenes, Thomas Julier (in collaboration with Cédric Eisenring and Kaspar Mueller), Olia Lialina and Dragan Espenschied, Takeshi Murata, Seth Price, Antek Walczak, among others.