Some Universe: Internet Spaces in a Postdigital World

Curated by Erandy Vergara and Tina Sauerlaender

Link to online exhibition: sightandsound.online/

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Curatorial Statement

<intro>

“Imagine you are falling. But there is no ground,” wrote Hito Steyerl in The Wretched of the Screen (2012). I often dream about that. I’ve also daydreamed that I would love to experience an artwork defying Cartesian space, linear perspective and figurativism – where I experience a free fall and the support system I take for granted is simply absent. I think in particular about such an experience of space: how would it be to move around and what would this look like? This is the overall premise of this 11th edition of Sight+Sound Festival.

<been there, done that>

When the Covid-19 pandemic hit, artists and institutions had to move online, and tried to recreate the experience of art and the gallery experience through computers, pads, and cellphone screens. Overnight, artists were encouraged to perform or show their work online, and galleries rushed to hire programmers to create a vast array of virtual spaces. At the same time, there was an increased interest in art created specifically for the internet, and many curators and institutions discovered or remembered the artists who had been there and done that (net artists). For the most part, however, this shift of attention to the internet as an exhibition space lacked the actual experience of net art in its own time and internet speed; it also lacked the experimental quality of net art forerunners and their unique explorations of a space like no other – a space where gravity is irrelevant, and references such as vertical/horizontal, bidimentional and three-dimensional are outdated. As I checked out online shows, I wondered why I was an arrow, why I was seeing doors, windows, and moving through rooms that looked like the “real thing”, witnessing the privileged linear perspective and many of the references Renaissance artists embraced and modern artists rebelled against so long ago.

That is why I kept wondering what kind of online spaces would emerge if the premise was a body falling where there is no ground, or the vast referents that net artists used or created from scratch. Indeed, net art pioneers such as Heath Bunting, Jodi.org, Olia Lialina, Brian Mackern, and Eva & Franco Mattes pushed the envelope by opening the multi-dimensions of the internet decades ago. But we are here and now, in 2021, a little more than a year from the start of the Covid-19 pandemic and the burning question is: what have we learned from net artists and the pandemic, and where do we go from here?

This year’s marks the 11th edition of Sight + Sound Festival, which reimagines what space means in a postdigital and post-pandemic world. The curated selection comprises the work of contemporary Canadian and international artists creating web art, videos and other forms of synthetic worlds beyond Cartesian space, linear perspective and realism, or engage with these referents critically. The selection, however, is not about aesthetics, as much as it is about exploring the notion of space creatively and politically.

Henri Lefebvre’s The Production of Space (1974) and recent theories of space within geography sustain that space is produced through social relations and material practices. This conceptualization enables a reflection on how the actual interactions of people in any given space form part of its production. Thinking about internet culture, pulsing as millions of online users create and remix content, the idea of the internet as a space that is produced through interactions and practices is all the more relevant. This online exhibition explores the kind of spaces produced in a specific context: the Covid-19 pandemic inspired new sensibilities, including a global reality check and an increased sense of vulnerability of the human-self – and in the art world it has produced a frantic move online. The exhibition invites online users to delve into the worlds produced by contemporary artists who have been touched by the pandemic in some way or another, and encourages us to think what kind of spaces we want to inhabit in the years to come.

<title>

The title of the 11th edition of Sight + Sound Festival paraphrases Olia Lialina’s Some Universe (2002), a link-free site inspired by the popular star backgrounds on the early web. Like many of Lialina’s works, this net art piece functions as an archive of the aesthetics and vernacular roots of the internet. I like the vagueness and unpretentiousness implied in the title of Lialina’s piece. But I admire it even more for its archival impulse: to create it the artist extracted as many outer space backgrounds she could find on the web in 2002. The evocation of the infinite universe and the stars, which often stand for the future also resonates with this curatorship.

<the online experience>

In the face of the challenges the pandemic has created for many artists and institutions alike, SIGHT + SOUND Festival partnered with World Creation Studio to create the web experience and visual identity for this entirely online edition of the festival. Working together closely to create an exposition that simultaneously defies the limits of our traditionally “flat” web experiences, and the mimetics of novel 3D online exhibition rooms, the SIGHT + SOUND Festival has been designed with each of the artists’ works in mind, showcasing a range of video, interactive, and net art pieces.

We are aware that in the context of pandemic fatigue, screen-attention is in high demand, and for this reason we invite visitors to take time with the exhibition, viewing artworks one at a time, distributing viewings over the course of the summer months. Throughout the exhibition call-to-actions and instructions will appear for certain pieces that offer additional information on how to navigate the artworks. We invite you to discover each of these works and explore how emerging and established artists of multiple generations are tracing different coordinates on the internet.

<artists/artworks>

AAA is a software art collective based in Berlin, with members from countries including Australia, Argentina, Russia, Germany, USA and France. This edition of Sight +Sound Festival presents Utopias: Navigating Without Coordinates (2020), a videogame network of nine worlds—each one a personal utopia developed by a member of AAA collective. For the artists, the process of creating Utopias was a collective deep dive into things like group decision-making, the economics of care (for oneself and others), the sharing of resources and information, the generating and maintaining of sustainable momentum and examining personal wounds left from living in a hyper-individualized economy of scarcity. The work becomes a reflection on the process of creating a collective work and a reflection upon the ethics and politics of such an endeavour. Ultimately the work asks: is a collective utopia possible?

Banz & Bowinkel’s Engine Idle (2016-2020) is a computer generated HD video exploring a 3D interior where two virtual “entities” talk about a digital space into which they have arrived though they don’t know how. The conversation turns into an absurd reflection of the peculiarities of the digital sphere, including the room, furniture, decoration, accessories, the 280 materials used and 327 objects arranged in this virtual world, as well as the camera movements, effects to navigate the virtual world and the 339 243 kilobytes memory needed to run the show. The virtual entities go on and on, and it quickly becomes apparent that their little chat is describing the logic of the technology that makes this digital space possible (in this specific case, the Archinteriors for C4D vol. 37 collection by Evermotion).

The 11th edition of SIGHT + SOUND Festival launches with Ronnie Clarke’s Figure Eights (2021), a live, web-based group performance on June 29th. Hosted over Zoom, participants are invited to perform different sets of actions like walking in circles alongside chosen objects. During the performance the distinction between object, camera, and audience is blurred by continuous, synchronized motion.

Mara Eagle’s That the Earth is the Middle of the World (2020) is a two-channel animation that incorporates excerpts from Pliny’s Naturalis Historia (79 CE). This work is one of the first of its kind in its formulation of an encyclopedic approach towards natural phenomena, and therefore a historical precedent of the production of knowledge of nature in the West. Each channel of the video is projected onto free-standing, billboard-like structures. On the left, a submerged humanoid narrator recites chapter headings from the table of contents of Naturalis Historia, while on the right we bear witness to a baroque and hallucinatory ecosystem seething with organic and digital life forms. The video is a collage of over 500 elements and presents an exhaustive list of natural phenomena exploring both creation and extinction. In this world, humans are imagined as a residual or vestigial structure of the landscape.

Anna Eyler and Nicolas Lapointe’s h3ll (2021) is an interactive web project inspired on the mythological story of the River Styx. In classical mythology, the river forms the boundary between the earthly and infernal realms; for this work, the Styx acts as a liminal space between the digital and the physical. The project features a fictional dialogue with the ferryman of souls, Charon. Often presented as a sullen character throughout history, Charon takes on a more convivial attitude in his digital state, waxing poetic on digital death and virtual space with an equal dose of pathos and humour. h3ll’s text is generated using a random dialogue generator, and it engages with 90s video game aesthetics and internet folklore like memes, gifs, and SMS language.

Jiwon Ham‘s Transient Home (2020) is an experimental documentary tracking the continuous experience of displacement shared by many young people. Their voices bear witness to their semi-nomadic lives, while their experience takes the shape of some random spaces formed by volumetric 3D capture techniques. When one’s most personal spaces are detached from one’s most personal effects, places become something neither significant nor permanent, that cannot provide identity, affinity or any sense of belonging. The interviewees’ sense of “home” is thus far from any physical place. Instead, houses, apartments, and rooms become transient places, encouraging people to remain anonymous and solitary.

Jakyung Lee’s Exodus (2020) extracts images of bodies enjoying seemingly private moments like lying on a beach. Using these fragmented figures, the artist forms a defective but endless synthetic environment, composed of random human bodies, whose whereabouts cannot be tracked; they are estranged from their location and lost in the immensity of the internet. No matter how far we move along the traces of cached photographs, everything we/our controller can reach is the receding horizon, and we can hear the sound of waves, but there is no water in sight.

In Olia Lialina’s animated piece Summer (2013) we see the artist swinging back and forth, infinitely looped, basking in bright sunlight. Cut out against a gradient background of blue and white, the swing is hung from the browser’s location bar. The animation’s eighteen still images are located on twenty-six different websites, with each site redirecting the browser from one server to the next, displaying the images in sequence and thus creating a cross-domain animation. The work is literally scattered across the internet, making it impossible to watch offline. The speed and rhythm of the image sequence, the animation itself, depends on internet infrastructure. It is the most fragile GIF on the internet; just one node down will result in breaking the work. 

Howe Are You, Island? (2020-21) by Frances Adair Mckenzie and Alisha Piercy is a web iteration of a trilogy of experimental animated shorts. In this work, a melodic voice-over travels through a landscape of interspecies relations, an ecology both real and digital. Inspired by Saidiya Hartman’s notion of a critical fabulation, Howe Are You Island? wonders over the troubles of our living ways, to prefigure: which future connection with the environment and other species is possible?

AuMe – Audio Metaphor (2021), by Philippe Pasquier and Miles Thorogood is an interactive site that functions as an Internet search engine equipped to produce the soundscape of a non-existent nature. Users are invited to enter a sentence or an expression and the generative system will search for words that are linked (or not) to that word, and will play a soundscape of that “natural” space. At the technical level, it involves state of the art algorithms for sound files retrieval, soundscape emotion recognition and classification, background and foreground sound segmentation, as well as automatic multitrack mixing. At the experiential level, it is a powerful sonic search engine that enables the user to browse an infinite repository of imaginary soundscapes.

Amery Sandford’s AMERBAR (2021) consists of a series of video animations situated in a karaoke bar: a popular social destination in Montréal where Anglophones and Francophones convene. Commissioned by SIGHT + SOUND Festival, this online work explores the idea of “Canadianness” that is projected onto artists who get recognition outside of their cultural region, and how this contributes to the deceptively benevolent national imagery of Canada.

Fallon Simard’s 99 Gallons of Rum (2021) is an experimental video dissecting the Toronto Purchase known as Treaty No. 13 to highlight the corrupt colonial practice of land theft and occupation. The video illustrates animated Google Map images of the boundaries of the Toronto Purchase map from 1787 and overlays the animations with hand drawn images of the Toronto Purchase map and Barrels. The soundtrack of the video includes a text to speech automation reading the articles within the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, with the song 99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall and distorted sounds of Lake Ontario. The barrels and the song offer direct critique of what Canada calls a “negotiation” process, whereas, they paid the Mississaugas for the land in 1787 and provided them with gifts, which included 2,000 gun flints, 24 brass kettles, 120 mirrors, 24 laced hats, and 96 gallons of rum.

Timothy Thomasson’s Slow Track (2021), is a computer generated video which restrains the unlimited field of visual possibilities found in current computer animation technologies. With the intention of questioning the structural and aesthetic nature of the digital image, Slow Track forgoes the excess, speed, surrealism, sci-fi, and fantasy associated with computer generated imagery. The work deploys a hyper-realistic, slow, gentle, and possibly mundane  image which is wary of its maker (CGI software). The sleek, spotless digital spaces commonly rendered in architectural visualizations are replaced here by spaces with dust, dirt, and clutter.