2019: The year of our cyberpunk future

Bettina von Arnim, Verkehrswesen, 1971, oil on canvas. © Arnim, Bettina Von Arnim/VG Bild‐Kunst. Copyright Agency, 2020
Bettina von Arnim, Verkehrswesen, 1971, oil on canvas. © Arnim, Bettina Von Arnim/VG Bild‐Kunst. Copyright Agency, 2020

Three of the great science fiction films of the twentieth century, Akira (1988), Blade Runner (1982) and The Running Man (1987) were set in 2019. Their sprawling, neon-lit streetscapes have proved to be not so unlike the futures they predicted, with extremes of technology, power and wealth concentrating in the mega-cities of today. In each film there are heroes and anti‑heroes who contest this hi‑tech power, from the escapee android in Blade Runner to the policeman in The Running Man who refuses orders to open fire on an innocent crowd. Security cameras and police are a notable presence in these films, driving early fantasies of a society of surveillance.

Science fiction films released in 2019 have blown up to the scale of the solar system: an astronaut finds his father and saves the world in Ad Astra, while in the even more ridiculous Wandering Earth, Qi saves the Earth as it is being propelled by giant rockets away from a dying sun. Science fictional exhibitions of 2019 also play out the fantasies and fears of a world under threat. In Phantom Plane: Cyberpunk in the Year of the Future at Tai Kwun Contemporary, Hong Kong, Shinro Ohtake’s MON CHERI: A Self‑Portrait as a Scrapped Shed (2012) is a cluttered caravan and shed equipped with everything you might need to survive a collapse of the twenty-first century, from collaged magazines to fur-lined gas bottles. This exhibition also featured older work, the standout being Bettina Von Arnim’s psychedelic cyborg-robot paintings from the early 1970s. Set in a virtual world of wingless airliners and gridded landscapes they appeared bizarrely contemporary, as giant machines looming over squares of colour become metaphors for the powers of control that underscore the digital landscape.

Yuri Pattison, False Memory, 2019. Installation view, Tai Kwun Contemporary, Hong Kong
Yuri Pattison, False Memory, 2019. Installation view, Tai Kwun Contemporary, Hong Kong

Taking the city of Hong Kong as its subject, Yuri Pattison documented the do-it-yourself technologists of the waterways, who install their houseboats with antennae and fluorescent tubes. Such works illuminate the way computing technology has become the stuff of survival in our cyberpunk modern cities that are designed to accommodate digital infrastructure, dominated by solar panels and satellite dishes bristling at odd angles. To see Pattison’s video, exhibition visitors must step inside the chassis of a giant PC, as if to actualise the way society is increasingly driven from inside the virtual realm. This digitisation of the world is the stuff of nightmares for those suspicious of the rise of an industrial scale data complex.

In her book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism Shoshana Zuboff describes the transformation of early hopes for the internet and wireless technologies into a regime of control, while in New Dark Age (2019) artist James Bridle accelerates an older, Marxist argument that capitalism has taken away our ability to imagine the future to claim that we are no longer capable of thinking time itself. Bridle is cynical about this future we cannot imagine, drawing his examples from children’s YouTube videos, military research and flight paths in an argument that machine learning has enabled a world that nobody can truly grasp.

Cory Doctorow also released a pessimistic futurology in 2019, his story collection Radicalized following the fate of the poor trapped in webs of deceit by governments, health insurance companies and appliance manufacturers. For these three authors we are locked into systems of behavioural prediction and data gaming. Algorithms dominate the mediascape, endlessly learning from the movement of bodies and cursors. Technological progress is the province of machine learning that relies on increasing surveillance to improve its performance in modelling consumers and terrorists alike. Advances in technology have come to express human dysfunction rather than ambition.

Artists living within this increasingly narrow horizon work within a data-rich but imagination-poor world. Australian artist Guy Louden illustrates this point in two exhibitions in 2019, making work from the other side of the apocalypse. Network Archaeology at Cool Change Contemporary, Perth, featured a broken-down artificial intelligence, and in the recent Preppers exhibition at Fremantle Arts Centre a downloaded version of Wikipedia is stored in a hardened suitcase computer designed to withstand an aircraft crash. There is an immediacy to Louden’s works that describe a world that has stopped at the present moment, symptomatic of the way in which time itself has been circumscribed by our anxiety about the sustainability of the present.

Guy Louden, Ark (II), 2019, Wikipedia backup, custom computer, gold leaf, hard case, custom fabric, rolling plinth. Courtesy the artist and Fremantle Arts Centre
Guy Louden, Ark (II), 2019, Wikipedia backup, custom computer, gold leaf, hard case, custom fabric, rolling plinth. Courtesy the artist and Fremantle Arts Centre

Preppers is the latest in a series of shows by a group of artists interested in the doomsday preppers phenomenon, as people prepare to survive disasters by building hideaways and learning unfamiliar skills to be self-sufficient. The artists became preppers themselves to make this exhibition, Louden rebuilds computers while McCabe shows off some serious fabrication skills with a Compound welded together and decorated with carbon fibre camouflage. They model the experience of those who have come of age in a gig economy, already primed to draw on such lateral survival strategies. But Louden now wonders whether prepping is the most responsible theme to explore. Since 2016 when Louden, Dan McCabe and Loren Kronemyer first conceived of doing preppers shows, the climate emergency that has prompted school strikes and Extinction Rebellion has gone mainstream.

Louden’s attention to current events, and to #hashtag trends, like preppers itself, is symptomatic of the generational experience of Web 3.0, and the mood swings and virtual spotfires that drive these radical shifts between the poles of pessimism and optimism and the latest cause to drive the algorithms of online attention. The Preppers exhibition and prepping itself is an attempt to devirtualise data populism into actual phenomenon. The virtual environment has become what in another context Hegel called a “bad infinity”, relying on a repetition of the same informational world, the mediocrity of cyberspace without end.

More violent in its suggestion, Kronemyer’s work for Preppers consists of an archery bow, arrows, targets and traps on location as a feminist or femme fatale survival fantasy (taken literally), dotting the walls with arrows bearing tips made from sharpened knives and forks, and man traps with boy scout handbooks for living in the wild. The gendered war she imagines suggests that the real problem lies much deeper than data manipulation and a takeover by machines. It is still possible to see the digital at work here, as a target drawn into the shape of an infinity symbol stands as a metaphor for the spiralling movement of online cultures in which members affirm each other’s obsessions and paranoias, just as social media in more general terms turns us into cybertribes.

Loren Kronemyer, Wounded Amazon of the Capitalocene 1, 2019, lie detector, compound bow, targets, hay bales, accessories. Courtesy the artist and Fremantle Arts Centre
Loren Kronemyer, Wounded Amazon of the Capitalocene 1, 2019, lie detector, compound bow, targets, hay bales, accessories. Courtesy the artist and Fremantle Arts Centre

The recent protests in Hong Kong suggest that it is not archery or metal welding that is going to help us when the world as we know it breaks down. For many activists, civil society has already come to an end as they look upon the face of a monster state built upon the power of surveillance. They are using alfoil, laser pointers, spray paint and umbrellas to avoid camera and digital surveillance while tracking police. Their encrypted messages build what Doctorow calls “transitive trust”, a term he uses to describe a group of teenagers who drift from downloading pirated video games to evading police. As Apple and Google remove the protestors’ apps and tear gas wafts through shopping centres and facial recognition technologies lurk behind street cameras, Hong Kong once again realises the dystopian fears of the cyberpunk imaginary. And yet these protestors prove that technologies can also be used to disrupt the panopticon, arriving like a flash mob to burn down a bank only to disappear again into the labyrinthine metropolitan railway system.

Alex Chan, Our Present and our Future, 2019, digital painting. Courtesy the artist and NSW Hongkongers
Alex Chan, Our Present and our Future, 2019, digital painting. Courtesy the artist and NSW Hongkongers

It is all too easy to judge other countries, but Australia is not far behind China in deploying its own system of facial recognition software, now at work in police stations, schools and football stadiums, as well as legislating to create a digital time machine that records the online and phone histories of its own citizens. It is as if the Australian government saw what Edward Snowden had revealed in the Stellar Wind program in the US and thought it was a good idea, rather than the shocking invasion of privacy most of us took it to be. Watching the rise of the surveillance state, Australian art collective PVI anticipated the umbrellas of Hong Kong in their 2004 performance Panopticon Sydney, in which they covered a person in umbrellas and attempted to walk him across Circular Quay avoiding the security cameras but were themselves intercepted by security guards, never completing the journey. Today another art collective are attempting to elude surveillance cameras in London, but with face paint. The colourful, angular designs of Dazzle Club are reminiscent of the New York cyberpunk classic, Liquid Sky (1982), with its fashion show of junkies and nightclubbers. The walks these artists perform are not outright protest, as in the PVI performance; but, rather, designed to function as a form of camouflage within the urban landscape.

When it comes to imaging this dystopian future in China, artists are among the first to experience the state’s pervasive apparatus of surveillance and control. In 2019 artist Zhang Xiaotao had his science-fictional retrospective at the Yinchuan Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) cancelled by local authorities.

Zhang Xiaotao, Rear Window, 2006. © Zhang Xiaotao Chek
Zhang Xiaotao, Rear Window, 2006. © Zhang Xiaotao Chek

This was ostensibly because his show was not deemed happy enough, a negative influence in a booming, positivist China. Some quick political manoeuvring put the opening back on schedule, although with some of the video works taken off the walls. No wonder Zhang’s work is melancholic. His paintings of rotting food, abandoned piles of hospital equipment, crashed cars and the drowning lights of a bus are metaphors for the way Chinese modernity has failed to meet the aspirations for freedom and opportunity; instead, leaving its citizens marooned in a bureaucratic, polluted haze. The Chongqing power station is a recurrent image in his paintings and animations, remembered from his childhood. In reimagining this neighbourhood monstrosity, Zhang turns a national tradition that balances line and tonality into a garish illumination of artistic isolation and psychological disturbance in response to the vast political and industrial machine that dominates urban life.

Yinchuan MOCA is itself a symbol of these contradictions. Its gleaming white exterior rises from a vast grassy steppe in the cold north of the country as the sentinel of a future that has not yet arrived. It was built for four-hundred million dollars by a real estate company as part of a deal with the local government, and conceived as part of the modernisation of the city of Yinchuan that lies an hour’s drive away. But the increasingly conservative and restrictive Chinese state has left the Museum and its aspirations in something of a hiatus. Such is the emerging paradox of the twenty‑first century, in which increasing regulatory control has coincided with a boom in data and communications technologies. Yinchuan MOCA has become retro‑futuristic although it is only a handful of years old.

Entry to MOCA Yinchuan, China Photo: Darren Jorgensen
Entry to MOCA Yinchuan, China Photo: Darren Jorgensen

The Chinese dystopia is a symbol of how modernity has come to a crashing halt in the twenty‑first century; rather than driving freedom and technological progress, this surveillance‑rich world is instead defined by a retreat into highly politicised, militarised and stifled systems of governance and control. It is no longer possible to imagine immense, systemic changes; instead we live in an era of incremental and multiple small changes. Instead of the space elevators and orbiting hotels we were promised in the 1950s, today we are sold ever more complex phones and increasingly automated cars that keep us anchored and on the ground.

The apocalypse is more likely to happen slowly rather than all at once, with a slow creep rather than a bang. In Other Suns, another speculative Fremantle Arts Centre exhibition held in 2019, Francis Russell notes that the obsolescence of alternative futures have become quaint, cultish relics of the recent past. Here Lisa Sammut’s beautiful, wall-sized installation of an extra-terrestrial landscape could have easily been used for a Star Trek set from the 1960s series, while Shalini Jardin’s watercolour illustrations of hybrid alien‑human‑fish creatures look like studies for the cover art of 1950s pulp genre novels. In mining older modes of making art, with paper, cardboard and mirrors, these artists remind us that not everything is overwhelmed by the faceless data crunching of corporations and governments.

Shalini Jardin, The Archive, 2013 oil on marine ply. Courtesy the artist
Shalini Jardin, The Archive, 2013 oil on marine ply. Courtesy the artist

It may be that radical visual technologies have become so prevalent that artists can only return to older modes of visualising the Other, using paper, cardboard and mirrors to work the genre that is no longer estranging. Jardin’s hybrids also point to a very different feminism to Kronemyer’s gender war, instead playing with body pieces in order to reimagine our relationship with tentacles and scales. Rather than the structural feminism of Joanna Russ or Margaret Atwood, here we see the fractured heterotopias of Octavia Butler. In her incredible Dawn (1987), an alien spaceship arrives after a nuclear war, and it turns out that this ship’s inhabitants are keen to breed with humans, to merge with them into an altogether new configuration of alien life. Not surprisingly, the humans are loathe to have sex with these tentacled creatures from outer space, but it proves the only way that our flawed species might prolong life, and even enjoy it.

This heady mix of disturbance and attraction characterises much of the work in Other Suns, in which alternative communities, interests and particular weirdnesses thrive in a do-it-yourself space of a retro‑science fiction culture. Symptomatic of this retro‑futurism is Soda_Jerk’s breakthrough Astro Black from 2007, about the afro-futurism of Sun Ra and his legacy. But it is hard to imagine this latter-day video work by two white girls on Afro-American musical culture being made after the rise of Black Lives Matter in the later 2010s, and the growing sensitivity of social media to cross-cultural and racial appropriations. This phenomenon has been so encompassing that Astro Black feels archaic already, although it is barely more than a decade old.

Soda_Jerk, Astro Black: We are the Robots, 2010, digital video. Courtesy the artists
Soda_Jerk, Astro Black: We are the Robots, 2010, digital video. Courtesy the artists

It is possible to be nostalgic for simpler times, when the risk of being vilified on Facebook was not so apparent, nor the risk of censorship so great in China. And yet this nostalgia betrays a certain truth about freedom itself; that freedom is not quite what it appears, and relies on the “transitive trust” of spectators who may or may not share similar values or even a similar sense of humour. While mass media took this trust for granted among its television viewers and newspaper readers, it is no longer possible to know your audience in a digital age. This is as much a problem for the Hong Kong protestors, who work to “capture the ghost” of undercover police, as it is for artists, who cannot know how their work will be received into the future.

The philosopher Michel Foucualt, who made the panopticon central to his theories of society, once conceptualised the police and law enforcement as people who surveil themselves as much as one another. The panopticon lies in the constitution of societies of extreme visibility, networked as much by one’s neighbours as by Facebook friendships and preppers channels on YouTube. It may be that in the future other modes of art and exhibition-making will similarly be brought back from the past, such as the private apartment showings of Chinese art in Beijing in the 1970s and 1980s, or the performance art of the Moscow conceptualists, which took place in discrete places so that they would not be noticed by authorities and the regular public.

For now, it is enough to register the transformation of art in the age of information. Artists and protestors alike have turned to low-tech solutions to rethink their place in a global industry of information sharing and mass-surveillance. The prepper imagination is a means to imagine how communities might thrive in spite of and even because of this overwhelming and impending drama, in the process driving new speculative and expressive forms. If these forms sometimes appear to have come from earlier times, such as Dazzle Club’s 1980s style of face paint, or Kronemyer’s gender war, it is because these earlier strategies remain pertinent to the new problems of the present. After all, and as Foucualt points out, surveillance was a problem in the nineteenth century, while the patriarchy persists. Art and power tend to innovate in their uses of new technologies but remain tied to their own ends. If science fiction has come to recall the futures of the past rather than the future itself, this is because its subject remains this conflict between individuals and great powers, the site where revolutions take place.

Loren Kronemyer, Wounded Amazon of the Capitaloscene 2, 2019, arrow shafts, custom broadheads, fletchings, serving. Courtesy the artist
Loren Kronemyer, Wounded Amazon of the Capitaloscene 2, 2019, arrow shafts, custom broadheads, fletchings, serving. Courtesy the artist

 

Darren Jorgensen lectures in art history in the School of Design at the University of Western Australia. The following exhibitions have been reference points:

NSW Hongkongers: The Art of Defiance
m2 Gallery, Sydney, 6–18 February 2020

Guy Louden: Network Archaeology
Cool Change Contemporary
1–23 February 2019

Other Suns: Cult Sci‑Fi Cinema & Art
Fremantle Arts Centre
27 July – 14 September 2019

Phantom Plane: Cyberpunk in the year of the future
Tai Kwun Contemporary, Hong Kong
5 October 2019 – 4 January 2020

Preppers
Fremantle Arts Centre
16 November 2019 – 27 January 2020

Microscopic Event: Zhang Xiotao Exhibition
Yinchuan Museum of Contemporary Art
7 December 2019 – 1 January 2020

Support independent writing on the visual arts. Subscribe or donate here.