The social media explosion is a remarkably recent phenomena, yet most of us could simply not imagine life without Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter, YouTube, BuzzFeed, Instagram, or Flickr. Thus, in recent years, contemporary artists have been preoccupied by 21st century communication and how social media is changing the way we relate to each other and the world around us. Is there a conflict between our private and public identities? How has technology changed our sense of place and self in the world?
London-based art duo Thomson and Craighead celebrate their 20th anniversary as an artistic unit through an exhibition in Dundee, the city where they met as students of Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art. Maps, DNA, and Spam is a both a technological celebration and a display of the horrors of global internet culture. The show mixes sound, video, sculpture and installation in a brilliantly coherent manner and space. The artists describe this exhibition, their largest to date, as a “collaborative poem” which considers “the idiosyncrasies of global mass media and social networks”.
Upon entrance, visitors are greeted by the artists’ local homage Dundee Wall (2014), which samples Facebook and Twitter status updates gathered from within a 20 mile radius of the city. The entire wall is coated in printed slogans, offering a cultural snapshot of Tayside living through local language, slang and issues of the day. The artists themselves describe the work as “[visualising] this invisible flow of information that is happening around us all the time and [narrating] it physically in the space”.
The first gallery features two narrative documentary artworks, A Short Film About War (2009/10) and Belief (2012). The former, as the title suggests, concerns warfare, a theme which in an artistic setting offers profound considerations of the heights and depths of humanity. The film uses images from Flickr and dialogue provided by a variety of military and civilian bloggers in war zones, including Sudan, Palestine, Syria and Iraq. Simultaneously, a parallel screen prints the provenance of the images, including URLs and GPS locations. Through this combination of text form and dramatised, visual form, the documentary communicates to the viewer how information changes as it is gathered, edited and mediated through networks and broadcast media.
The latter was my personal highlight of the exhibition, and I can admit that it moved me emotionally. Belief circumnavigates the globe through a series of fragmented broadcasts, all from YouTube, concerning the topic of faith. Videos included: a two year old Muslim girl spouting horrendous comments about Jews and Christians, as incited by an elder, a US evangelist teenager discussing how the Japanese earthquake (of 2011) was a manifestation of God’s wrath towards the “atheists” of Japan, and a young man attempting to break a thick wooden board over his head to prove his faith in God.
On the floor, a compass projection interacts with the montage, displaying the geographical location in relation to each clip. The viewer is here placed at the centre of a cinematic data visualisation, which suggests that despite the divisions, ignorance, hatred and extremism in the world, we as humans remain connected geographically.
My final highlight of the exhibition, Corruption (2013), was a series of lenticular light-boxes, consisting of illuminated images taken from a video file infected with an online virus. As the viewer walks by, they play with the space of the gallery, shining an ever changing a rainbow of colours. I suppose here we find beauty in something destructive, reminding us that the act of looking itself distorts our perception of reality.
For the eagle-eyed, the exhibition’s title is also a palindrome, furthering the overall concept of language, systems, and how the show is based around instruction-based art. Maps, DNA, and Spam is an fantastic exhibition; it is interactive, thought-provoking and, for me, particularly special due to its cohesive concept. Technology and social media are forces for both good and evil in our fast moving times, and here we can observe that, while shifting through the ugly, shocking and mundane, we can still find humanity.
Maps, DNA, and Spam is on now at the Dundee Contemporary Arts centre until 16 March.