In Screen We Trust

November 16, 2018
Author Helen Merila
Published in Review from Estonia
Photo: Stanislav Stepaško

Photo: Stanislav Stepaško

The exhibition ‘Archaeology of the Screen’ took place recently at the Estonian art museum KUMU. The title of the show allows for multiple interpretations, so it was difficult to predict what the main theme of the exhibition would be. Today, different kinds of blinking screens are a natural part of almost everybody’s life, and we are witnessing the first generation growing up that has not experienced a pre-screen life. It is quite intriguing, and no less scary, that everything we see on screens seems to be true, or at least some kind of truth. Even so, when we recognise the basic filters of a flawless Instagram or a Snapchat shot, we cannot help but admire the beauty of the image.

‘I saw it on television, so it must be true,’ has been quite a common statement ever since the emergence and spread of television in the 1950s. Somehow, anything that appears on the blinking screen seems to be more credible than just a rumour. Of course, anybody with common sense constantly questions the information that attacks us today from several screens and platforms. But still … how is it possible that hundreds of years of scientific research and evolution can be questioned today by somebody who just has a screen and a desire for attention? I was listening to a podcast the other day on which young and successful Youtubers claimed they did not need a university degree in today’s rapidly changing world, as all the information they ever need is merely a click away, and studying just one subject for three years seems pointless and a total waste of time. This made me wonder how they can differentiate between true and untrue information if they do not have any thorough background information? Are we again at a point where everything shown on the screen is automatically believed to be right? So, in other words, if you cannot google something, does it even exist?

Of course, this question is not just one-sided, and should not be summed up so easily. There are still, no doubt, many youngsters who value deeper knowledge and a sound education. But we cannot deny that the digital era has made more social and cultural changes, both positive and negative, than anybody could ever have predicted. In the art world too, multimedia means have changed a lot, so that today the possibilities for making art and leaving our mark are more immediate and almost limitless.

Photo: Stanislav Stepaško

Photo: Stanislav Stepaško

While navigating through the exhibition, I found myself thinking what an impact almost all the pieces had. Of course, for some it was more, and for some less, but they all required some knowledge of the cultural context. So again, this made me wonder how the Google generation relates to these works. Do they google immediately if something attracts their attention? But in that case, they would probably just walk past some of the works that did not catch their attention at that very moment and did not seem worth further exploration. For example, quite a lot of visitors just went quickly past David Claerbout’s 3D animation KING (after Alfred Wertheimer’s 1956 picture of a young man called Elvis Presley), and thus missed a complex approach, which used different means of working with a picture and a camera. At first, it seemed to be just a static old black-and-white photograph of a family gathering; but if you took your time and started looking, you went on a very intimate and unexpected trip around Presley’s body, and you realised that the photograph was not a static image at all.

Sigrid Viir´s singular white cloud in her Waiting Room Improvisation also asked the viewer to stop for a moment and let the brain rest from the noisy mess that the screens in our pockets or around us were making.

Another piece that toyed with the viewer’s senses was Paul Kuimet’s 2060, which projected the 1968 work Three Dimensional Image I by the Estonian sculptor Edgar Viies. In the video, the Mobius-leaf form object was moved continuously and silently around the permanent exhibition floors of KUMU. It is tricky how in real life a three-dimensional sculpture becomes flat when relating unexpectedly with the steady camera movement.

Rosalind Nashashibi and Lucy Skaer took the viewer to Tahiti, following in the footsteps of Paul Gaugin and the women he once admired. The artists came intimately close with their camera to the women, who seemed indifferent to its presence. As a result, it created a deep feeling of trust, and yet with a sense of being left out. Here, the screen functioned as a medium demystifying the stories and the paintings by Gaugin.

The video by the Lithuanian artist Deimantas Narkevičius observed the monuments on the Green Bridge in Vilnius, and how their meaning changed in time. The statues were removed because they were transformed by time and had become quite dangerous. The viewer can follow the camera’s eye right up to the very top of the statues. Seeing the facial characteristics and expressions of the statues with 3D glasses makes the experience feel even more real. It was indescribably sad to see the departure of these massive sculptures, which were once part of the widespread ideology.

The work Memopol III by Timo Toots was probably the most pretentious. Visitors had to scan their ID before being allowed to enter through a photobooth or X-ray gate. By entering the Memopol’s area and its network with your telephone, you had to give permission to the Memopol system to scan through and save all the data on the telephone. My first thought was that in no way would I do that! But then again, don’t we all give permission to different apps and devices to access our very private data? So I let the artwork-machine go through my personal information, and I also let the robots make a generalisaton based on this information, including my possible date of death. It was quite unpleasant, I must admit, and even today I keep wondering if they kept to their promise to delete the information after I left the room, although I know they did. The low mechanical voice of the machine shouting out the names of visitors entering the examining room, and which I still remember vividly, was not too soothing either. A work of art that can make you feel so uncomfortable undeniably has a huge impact.

After this unmasking by the almighty Memopol, the sweetest kitten in Kitty AI: Artificial Intelligence for Governance by the Turkish artist Pinar Yolda at first glance seemed really relaxing. But actually, that sweet little kitty with a soft voice was describing the dystopia of the year 2039, when artificial intelligence takes over cities as rulers of the megapolis, after politicians have failed to solve climate change, the flow of refugees, and other questions. Kitty lives in people’s mobile devices, not controlling them, as it emphasised, but capable of loving up to three million people. Sweet surveillance, isn’t it?

A preface to the artificial ruler Kitty AI could be Artur Żmijewski’s Glimpse, which captured the tough life in several European refugee camps. The silent film was provocative, and asked unpleasant questions about the hopeless situation of refugees.

The Estonian artist Marge Monko’s WOW (Women of the World), showed in a suggestive and beautiful voice, supported by glamorous images, how desire and social norms are carefully designed in a capitalist world, quoting the example of the advertising campaign by the diamond production company De Beers.

The Third Man by the Swedish artist Erik Bünger also explored the subconcious mind, based on how we perceive music, and how it can haunt us, like an infection that spreads from one body to another. The artist expressed the theory that music is the first technology that individuals encounter in life, and thus has a very underestimated impact on history, culture, and even science.

Landscapes and Portraits by Taavi Suisalu was a beautiful collection of cosmic field recordings and distant photographs. The sound that accompanied the images was a cacophony of noises from broken satellites which had come to life again unintentionally, and are now transmitting unpredictable improvisations. The huge screen in this work is on the cover of the exhibition brochure, and is probably the most instagrammed piece in the whole exhibition.

The powerful images in Tõnis Vint’s documentary Lielvarde Belt. Tõnis Vint´s Hypothesis searched for parallels between decoration from the Baltic countries and that of other cultures, which all seem to deal with the symmetry and harmony of the universe.

The work by the young Estonian artist Ivar Veeremäe also explored meanings that change in context and time, as he played with copies of famous objects, asking what happens to them if they are removed from their original environment.

All the screens in the exhibition were demanding, and required the full attention of viewers. They left behind a wish to google the works and the stories that the artists created, in order to find out more about them. These were windows on a new reality, as the introduction to the exhibition referred to the approach of Lev Manovich.

The exhibition ‘Archaeology of the Screen’ ran in the Estonian art museum KUMU until 14 October 2018. The curators Eha Komissarov and Triin Tulgiste were continuing the curatorial project exhibition ‘Archaeology of the Screen. The Estonian Example’, which was held in the Bozar Centre for Fine Arts in Brussels in the autumn of 2017. The KUMU exhibition involved the artists Erik Bünger, David Claerbout, Paul Kuimet, Marge Monko, Deimantas Narkevičius, Rosalind Nashashibi, Lucy Skaer, Taavi Suisalu, Artur Żmijewski, Timo Toots, Ivar Veeremäe, Sigrid Viir, Tõnis Vint and Pinar Yoldas. The exhibition design was created by Jaana Jüris and Neeme Külm, and the graphic design by Aadam Kaarma and Sandra Kossorotova.

Photo: Stanislav Stepaško

Photo: Stanislav Stepaško

Photo: Stanislav Stepaško

Photo: Stanislav Stepaško