EXIT 2008–2015, Diller Scofidio + Renfro, Mark Hansen, Laura Kurgan and Ben Rubin in collaboration with Robert Gerard Pietrusko and Stewart Smith. From an idea by Paul Virilio. Collection Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain, Paris. Photo: Luc Boegly

EXIT 2008-2015: Exhibiting global crisis

EXIT 2008-2015
EXIT 2008–2015. Photo: Luc Boegly

Unashamedly corporate in its visual language, EXIT 2008–2015 is an ambitious assemblage of data sets aimed at informing and mobilising an active global citizenry. With core themes of mass human displacement, refugees, loss of native lands and culture, remittances, and the relative economic ability of the world’s nations to mitigate the effects of global warming, rising sea levels, deforestation and conflict zones, EXIT has migrated the information architecture of the world’s stock market exchanges into the spheres of contemporary art and activism. 

Developed in conjunction with French philosopher and urbanist Paul Virilio, EXIT is a collaborative project that draws on a large interdisciplinary team from the realms of art, architecture, design and research in order to process and visualise data from more than a hundred global organisations including NGOs and the World Bank. As such EXIT doesn’t pull back in scale or scope. Clearly, within its set parameters, its aim is to encompass and collate the available world data sets of its chosen fields. 

Architects Diller Scofidio + Renfo have collaborated with statistician-artist Mark Hansen, architect-artist Laura Kurgans and architect-designer Ben Rubin to create the information architecture. With clockwork precision, a rotating bank of projectors simultaneously beams the complex data arrays across a broad black semi-circular map of the world’s continents. Periodically, in order to underscore the point of a planet in crisis, the Earth rolls across the map, as if through deep space, wiping each dataset clean. 

Time is a core factor. Arrows fly refugee numbers from one continent to another. Bean counters click, keeping track of the figures. Activity is predictably high in the world’s conflict zones simultaneously plotted on all continents, as is the loss of native languages and the rise in global temperatures. In every data set a clock ticks through the years.

Though the numbers might be alarming, EXIT’s visual language is cool and impersonal. Swarms of people are in evident flight and the sea levels are undoubtedly rising. Much of the bio-diversity of the world’s rainforest is under threat. But EXIT’s intent is to rationally inform, to let the data sets of well respected institutions speak for themselves. EXIT is therefore careful not to look like art – even though paradoxically it is on exhibition in an art gallery environment and was commissioned by Paris’s Cartier Foundation for contemporary art.

EXIT 2008–2015. Photo: Luc Boegly
EXIT 2008–2015. Photo: Luc Boegly

In many respects EXIT performs the journalistic function of imparting information that would otherwise not be available at this scale in visualisation form. The breadth and depth of the information is on display in a medium that exceeds the capacity of journalism’s statements of fact. The inclusion of a time-based dimension is cinematically absorbing, and at times exhausting, as the audience attempts to simultaneously absorb information across every continent on the planet. To counter the profusion of detail, header statements organise the information with simple clarity.

Originally commissioned by the Cartier Foundation for a show called Native Land (2008), it was re-commissioned and updated by the Cartier Foundation for exhibition at the Palais de Tokyo during the Paris climate change talks in 2016. As Cartier Foundation curator Thomas Delamarre confirms, this was a major commitment from the foundation, an act of civic duty.

The original Native Land was likewise developed with urbanist philosopher Paul Virilio and reflected on the speed of displacement of people from their traditional homelands. In the intervening years the displacement of people has further accelerated with loss of land, culture and language. EXIT encompasses a broad range of the factors responsible, including economic migration to places like Dubai, where ninety per cent of the population are temporary migrant workers.

The dataset on remittances – money sent home by immigrant workers – demonstrated the scale of the displacement, with the amount of money sent home now a significant chunk of the world’s economy.  According to World Bank data the total of remittances now exceeds the total of the world’s aid programs.

This dataset was one of the more absorbing. The curve of deep space transformed into two bands of rotating drums, moving at different speeds. The row of large flags across the top drum represented the countries hosting immigrant workers. As the drums turned to the ker-chink sound of an old‑fashioned cash register, money fell from the host company into the flags representing the receiver countries below.

EXIT 2008-2015 (an alternative view). Photo: Luc Boegly
EXIT 2008–2015. Photo: Luc Boegly

Again, it was near impossible to absorb the detail of the information, but the overall pattern of the money flows was certainly apparent, as were the relative sums. Through the remittances of immigrant workers, places like Emirates, the USA and the UK/Europe are clearly providing grass roots fiscal support – family to family – in countries like the Philippines, Mexico, India, Iran and those of former Eastern bloc Europe. EXIT was well able to visualise the scale.

The dataset on rising sea levels was equally effective. Not only did it visually represent the 9,000 cities that would be adversely affected, it also accommodated each city’s capacity to mitigate its circumstances, with those situated in the better‑resourced north of the planet’s economic north–south divide. Many of the 9,000 cities were places I’d never heard of. EXIT admirably tracked the growth of population across the world’s cities, including the world’s newest cities. This underscored the forces of economic flux and changing land use that is driving migration and population flows. Already, you could imagine future lines of flight from poorly resourced, low-lying cities.

At 45 minutes duration, EXIT is a daunting, absorbing experience, a call to civic action

Special thanks to Felicity Fenner, Director, UNSW Galleries, and Thomas Delamarre, Curator, Cartier Foundation.

Ann Finegan is an educator and writer. She is also a co‑director of Cementa17 Contemporary Arts Festival, Kandos NSW, 6–9 April 2017.

EXIT 2008–2015 is on exhibition at UNSW Galleries, Sydney (7 January – 25 March 2017) and the Ian Potter Museum of Art, University of Melbourne (14 April – 16 July 2017).