September 5, 2019 – January 5, 2020
Walking into Age of You, a group exhibition spanning two floors at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) in Toronto, one might fairly mistake the abundance of PVC board infographics for a slick elementary school science fair or leaked storyboards for a future season of Black Mirror. Numerous rectangular panels are suspended in rows and printed with words and images that address relationships between the digital self and techno-politics. Prominently displayed didactics explain that the exhibition’s contents reflect an upcoming book, The Extreme Self, by curators Shumon Basar, Douglas Coupland, and Hans Ulrich Obrist.
According to the curatorial statement, Age of You considers human experiences of digital augmentation, alienation, and exploitation. It’s a timely, if popular, premise, and exploring a wide cross-section of contemporary artists’ responses to data harvesting and information exchange seems a promising approach. It is disappointing, then, that Basar, Coupland, and Obrist do little to clarify a specific thematic purview—what exactly characterizes the notion of an “extreme self” is left unanswered. The exhibition’s linear structure largely fails to draw out nuanced links between vast topics: the Digital Age, big data, consumption, the 0.001%, haptic experience, democracy, automation, leisure, pleasure, nihilism, and identity swirl in an imprecise rendering of relationships between the self and online experience. Despite the curatorial claim that Age of You features “over 70 visual contributors from the worlds of art, design, filmmaking, photography, performance and electronic music,” the show is essentially a preview of The Extreme Self presented as enlarged galley pages.
Inside the galleries, arrows guide visitors through sequences of pages-cum-panels that reflect chapters from Basar, Coupland, and Obrist’s book. A white panel with black serif font near the entrance shows a table of contents. The list begins with a “Prelude” that is followed by chapters including “Am I?,” “Fame and The Face,” “Intimacy Industrial Complex,” “Post-Work,” “Virtue Power,” and “The End of Democracy.” The panels are mostly greyscale, printed with texts and images from existing works by Anne Imhof, Jürgen Klauke, Miranda July, Yaeji, and Wang Haiyang, among others. An image from British fashion designer Craig Green’s SS18 collection is featured on one panel, and a semi-mobile puffy coat sculpture, or a “[fusion] of menswear, machine and habitat” as MOCA describes in language echoing the Craig Green x Moncler’s ad campaign, is also installed. On other panels, queries like “Could the expression of empathy be our new Turing Test?” and “Is a benevolent dictator better than a bad democracy?” are undeniably exigent, but questionably sincere. Seen in such dense concentration, and without wider context concerning the individual artworks, the effect of viewing the panels surpasses the laissez-faire pleasure of perusing a coffee table book and more closely mimics the numbing sensation of deep scrolling a Twitter hashtag.
The panels’ muted hues create tonal consistency, but this seems partly at the expense of showcasing individual artworks. Printed stills from Tabita Rezaire’s Peaceful Warrior (2015) and Stephanie Comilang’s Lumapit Sa Akin, Paraiso (Come to Me, Paradise) (2016) don’t evoke the richness of the videos’ lush visuals. That Age of You seems to prioritize curatorial framework over allowing the original artworks to communicate more directly isn’t necessarily a problem, yet the vague curatorial thesis leaves little space for the works to interact compellingly. Further, the book-style installation of Age of You casts the handful of videos and sculptures on view alongside the panels almost as appendices. Many of these works (including Sara Cwynar’s captivating Red Film (2018); Victoria Sin’s sensuously trolling Tell me everything you saw, and what you think it means (2018)”; and Agnieszka Kurant’s termite-built towers in A.A.I. (2014–17) don’t relate to specific chapters from The Extreme Self, but instead provide bridges between topics.
For an exhibition about digital connectivity (and disconnection), Sophia Al-Maria’s Mirror Cookie (2018) is surprisingly the only work that invites selfies or explicit immersion. Comprised of clips from Chinese actor Bai Ling’s Instagram, Mirror Cookie features a large screen with glitchy edits of Ling reciting positive affirmations while looking directly out at the viewer. Ling’s voice is distorted at times, and the text beside the installation explains that she has often been the target of “the media’s racism, sexism, and homophobia.” The screen is situated above a low mirrored table and a cushioned stool, recalling a woman’s boudoir. The silvery furniture is surrounded by floor-length mirrors installed in a semi-circle, so the viewer is inevitably distracted by their own reflection while listening to Ling’s instructions, including “Do not doubt yourself,” “Trust me,” and “Let it go.” Watching Mirror Cookie, one is reminded that Ling herself is a talented performer: though her inspirational words come off as sincere, can we trust them? Social media is a performative space, and Mirror Cookie potently queries the ways in which global celebrities and regular folks embody vulnerability and empowerment. Al-Maria’s canny presentation of the potential dissonance between sincerity, public engagement, and identity is echoed in drag artist Sin’s Tell me everything you saw, in which they cajole the viewer with leading questions about their luxuriant appearance and setting, while also noting the discomfort of Sin's sustained, Olympia-esque repose.
The most obvious limits of the book-as-exhibition format are revealed when the subject shifts beyond visuality. In the chapter “The End of Democracy” one panel reads: “Democracy needs morning after pills.” This text appears in a white handwritten-style font on a black background, with “Brexit could have been stopped with one simple revote. Why didn’t that happen?” printed in a much smaller serif font below. On a neighboring panel, two lines read: “We’re now deep into the terminal phase of democracy” and “This phase involves voting in leaders whose primary goal is to dismantle democracy.” Says who? Many of the panels include artist accreditation in small font at a corner, so one assumes that the panels lacking citations are those composed by the celebrity curators. And while I’m personally interested, at least to a degree, in Basar’s, Coupland’s, and Obrist’s perspectives on democratic end days, I’m confused by the echo chamber approach to the questions and answers they’ve presented. Considering the panoply of earnest takes on digital culture in 2019 (Jia Tolentino’s recent essay collection, Trick Mirror (2019) comes to mind), it’s disappointing to see so many of Age of You’s fine voices distilled into clickbait.