MISTAKE ROOM | JULY 8 – AUGUST 26, 2017
Oversize pixels flash on the screen, rearranging shapes to resemble faces. John Houck’s Portrait Landscape (2017) applies custom facial-recognition software to Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1966 classic Blow-Up, in which a fashion photographer examines the grainy exposures on his contact sheet only to notice he has inadvertently recorded a murder. In an era that predated the internet and the digital camera, it was the printed, tangible photograph that rendered the film’s protagonist an involuntary witness. In Houck’s video, the dash of a mouth and the dots of eyes appear in all sorts of uncanny places: crumpled sheets, neatly combed hair, a textured brick wall, a lawn. Scanning for human physiognomy, Houck’s software gets it all wrong on purpose.
The video, part of Analog Currency at Los Angeles’s The Mistake Room, applies technologies of contemporary digital surveillance—with its pervasive and hidden systems and tendency toward error—onto a classic film to wholly unsettling effect. Placing these pixels within our lines of site, the artist alludes to state actors like the military and police as well as data-based companies like Facebook, dwelling on issues of opacity, control, and bureaucracy.
In Hito Steyerl’s 2013 essay “Too Much World: Is the Internet Dead” the artist notes, “In the past few years many people—basically everybody—have noticed that the internet feels awkward, too. It is obviously completely surveilled, monopolized, and sanitized by common sense, copyright, control, and conformism.” Analog Currency upholds a similar critique of the digital turn, considering the ways it both defines and haunts us today. However, by invoking the analog, that is, the notion of the physical or material, the show delves further into these questions from an even more nuanced point of departure. Implicating the analog as an idea challenges both its obsolescence and the reign of the digital more broadly.
Miguel Monroy’s gripping conceptual work Equivalent (2005) unfolds over 91 framed bank receipts, each depicting a currency exchange transaction between Mexican pesos and US dollars. Switching one thousand pesos to dollars and back again, the dwindling numbers on these receipts function as material evidence of a system of capitalist exchange that ultimately runs him dry. Where does the money go? Coin by coin, it slips between the cracks, becoming the forgotten fees and hidden tributes to governments, bureaucracies, and other abstract systems of domination.
Other works, such as Jimena Sarno’s sound and text based video do not listen to this message (2010) likewise engages the conceptual strata of money and finance, presenting a witty edit of confidential messages left by bank and debt collection agency employees on the artist’s personal voicemail. Reciting from scripts, the operators emphasize the private nature of their messages. Sarno transcribes these voicemails, intended to both confirm her identity and absolve the collection agency from potential legal responsibility, onto the screen. The viewer reads the text on screen as the operator speaks: “This is a confidential / and important message / meant solely for you / Jimena Sarno.” Presenting these recordings to the public, however, Sarno subverts their objective. Further, by playing and writing out a voicemail like “To listen to this message / you acknowledge that you are / Jimena Sarno” to her audience, Sarno diffuses her own identity across a network (if these messages are intended for Sarno exclusively, the audience, in a sense, becomes her by listening to them). Do not listen to this message publicizes the shadowy structures of debt collection, undermining a private, hidden capitalist agenda.
Johannesburg-based Tabita Rezaire’s incisive video Deep Down Tidal (2017) points most directly to forms of violence enabled by the digital age. Turning her lens toward the underwater cable infrastructures of the internet, Rezaire’s narrator describes a theory of “electronic colonialism”—a system of “domination and control of digital technologies by the west to maintain and explain their hegemony and power over the rest of the world.” Using pop signifiers of digital culture—CGI animated clouds, globes, laptops, cords, and wifi logos—the artist defines technological advancement as a brutal mode of control inflicted by the west onto the global south. Rezaire’s matter of fact narrator implicates ostensibly benign technological innovations in disturbing racist and colonialist histories, exposing sites where the trauma of seemingly bygone histories endures. Even fiber optic cable networks are laid out over routes similar to those of the transatlantic slave trade.
Posing cogent questions about the role of technology in the visualization of bodies, geographies, capital, and war today, Analog Currency emphasizes our current moment as an age defined by access to and manipulation of vast expanses of data. These artists propose discourses wary of its empty rhetoric and unfettered growth. Here, it is clear that so many promises of the technological age have faltered and failed.