FEEDFORWARD – The Angel of History

This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe, which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such a violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.
Walter Benjamin

FEEDFORWARD – The Angel of History addresses the current moment in history, which is characterized by political and economic upheaval and uncertainty and raises questions about what progress might mean in the 21st century. The exhibition title references Walter Benjamin's essay "On the Concept of History," which interprets Paul Klee's painting Angelus Novus as an “angel of history” transfixed by the wreckage of the past that is piling up in front of him while being propelled backwards into the uncertain future by a storm. The exhibition asks whether—despite the globalized forces that feed us forward— there is perhaps a choice, or series of small decisions, to be made that can affect where and how we end up.

FEEDFORWARD features artworks that both reflect a horrified recognition of the destructive forces of the past and present, and a struggling and even optimistic desire for the future. The exhibition, curated by Steve Dietz (Artistic Director of the 01SJ Biennial) and Christiane Paul (Director of the Media Studies Graduate Program, New School, NY, and Adjunct Curator of New Media Arts, Whitney Museum of American Art) features 29 artworks by 27 artists and artist teams. The projects are presented, as if in the rear view mirror of progress, in sections relating to five themes: the aesthetics and symbolic language of the media of our times; the “wreckage” of the 20th century created by wars and conflict; the countermeasures of surveillance and repression that the state as well as global capital set up in an to attempt to maintain control; the forces of economic globalization such as outsourcing and migration; and the possibilities of reconstruction and agency.

The media of our times is based on digital information systems and communications networks, which use complex and sometimes contradictory systems of participatory mediation to produce informational and cultural content. Instant connectivity and possibilities of participation hold the promise of a more democratic, 'social media' system and, at the same time, nurture a culture of impromptu self-representation that is harvested by the commercial mainstream. Mediation and simulation create fantasy landscapes that feed into and shape the physical world. Several projects in the exhibition address the language of today's media, its aesthetics and symbolism. Margot Lovejoy's video installation Storm Over Paradise (1999) directly references Benjamin's essay and depicts the angel of history flying backwards over imagery representing ruins of history. The project consists of projections onto a series of transparent scrims that highlight the layered and fleeting nature of historical representation. Not only does the storm of progress blow over destructive events without fixing them, it often addresses them with a promise of future fulfillment grounded in a utopian rhetoric. In AES+F's video projection Last Riot (2005-2007) a photo-realistic yet simulated synthetic world seamlessly fuses political and economic conflict and the language of advertising. The artists describe this mutated world as a paradise frozen in time where the past coexists with the future — a paradise populated by sexless inhabitants that seem closer to angels than humans. By contrast, Christopher Baker's Hello World! or: How I Learned to Stop Listening and Love the Noise (2008), a large-scale installation comprised of thousands of unique video diaries gathered from the Internet, is a meditation on the contemporary plight of democratic, participatory media and the fundamental human desire to be heard. While Web 2.0 technologies enable people to speak out and broadcast themselves, there are no new technologies that allow us to listen to all of these new public speakers.

The wreckage depicted in Lovejoy's Storm Over Paradise finds more concrete expression in a variety of projects that address war, corruption, despotism, famine, terrorism, imperialism and corporatism. FEEDFORWARD does not strive to give a comprehensive overview of global political conflicts, but rather highlights different perspectives on destructive forces. Stella Brennan's video projection South Pacific (2007) uses sonar, radar, and ultrasound technologies to explore the legacy of WW II in the region—tropical lagoons littered with rusting ordnance and coral islands flattened for runways—and change our perception of oceanic space and the conflct. A large-scale sculpture by Hasan Elahi titled Instances of Use of United States Armed Forces Abroad, 1798-2006 (2009) uses U.S. Congressional Report RL32170 to trace the global impact of US military interventions. The work takes the form of a world map etched onto bulletproof glass, which has real bullets lodged into it (by a sharpshooter) at the approximately 330 sites of conflict. A very different sculptural representation of conflict is Harwood, Wright, and Yokokoji's Tantulum Memorial—Reconstruction (2008), which memorializes the estimated 3.8 million people who died as a result of the “coltan wars” in the Congo region. Coltan ore is mined for tantalum, a metal used in the manufacture of mobile phones, and the sculpture itself is constructed of redundant electromechanical Strowger switches, the basis of the world’s first automated telephone exchanges. The switches are triggered by actual phone calls made by the Congolese community via a network set up by the artists. A decidedly personal point of view on the effects of conflict is taken in Paul Chan's video Baghdad In No Particular Order (2003), which shows Iraqis in their homes, neighborhoods, cafés, and places of worship and takes a look at the daily life maintained in times of war.

Conflict and war are intertwined with the “countermeasures” of surveillance and repression that states institute to attempt to “clean up” the wreckage. The artworks addressing these issues include photos from Trevor Paglan’s Limit Telephotography series of US government “black” sites and spy satellites, which embody the limits of visibility imposed both by the realities of physical distance and by informational obfuscation; Nonny de la Pena's and Peggy Weil's GONE GITMO (2007), an installation of Guantánamo Prison in the virtual worlds of Second Life; and the performance and installation ALL THAT IS SOLID MELTS INTO AIR! (V ZRAK SE TOPI VSE KAR TRDNO JE!) (2009), a new work by the SYSTEM-77 consortium that explores the potential of tactical unmanned systems (flying drones) for codified aesthetic operations.

In the age of so-called globalization, political tension and conflicts cannot be separated from increasingly networked economics and global markets that take both physical and virtual form. While the term globalization can be traced back over several decades and has been used by economists since the 1980s, the current form of globalization as an increasing interconnectedness of political, economic, and cultural factors has been brought about largely by digital technologies. In the information economy, data provides the basis for the control of the market, feeds into the production process of commodities, and is itself materialized and sold as a commodity. Terms such as outsourcing and off-shore banking have become catchwords of the new globalized information economy. Within the exhibition, the complex social transformations resulting from this contemporary mode of industry are addressed both in Nancy Davenport's evolving video series Workers (leaving the factory) (2004 - present) and Cao Fei's video Whose Utopia? (2006), shot at the OSRAM China Lighting Ltd. factory in the Pearl River Delta in China, which has led the massive boom in China’s economy since the late 1970s and has drawn workers from throughout China in search of economic opportunities and a better life. Economic migration also is the subject of Pacific Washup, a 2003 video piece by Maori new media artist Rachael Rakena in collaboration with Fez Fa’anana and Brian Fuata, which reflects on the issues faced by the more than 26,000 Maori and 43,000 Pacific Islanders living in Sydney, Australia. The growing intersection between labor, emerging virtual economies, and real life commodities is explored in Stephanie Rothenberg's and Jeff Crouse's mixed reality installation Invisible Threads. The project allows 'real world customers' to order designer jeans on-demand through a sweatshop created in Second Life, which is operated by a “global” workforce of worker avatars (real people at computers located around the world hired through the Second Life “classifieds”).

Political conflict and the current global economic crisis raise questions about the possibilities of reconstruction in the 21st century, which are addressed in one section of the exhibition. Is it possible to clean up after the 20th century? What is democracy now? What does progress mean when older concepts, such as continuous economic growth, seem to have failed?

Consisting of scale models, a library-archive, networked data and image banks Postcapital (2008), by Daniel Garcia Andujar, Carlos Garaicoa, and Iván de la Nuez, captures the condition of political change after the fall of the Berlin wall and the former communist empire and raises questions about the new walls that are being put up in the new global politics. A section of the Berlin Wall is recreated by the artist team T+T (Tamiko Thiel and Teresa Reuter) in Virtuelle Mauer/ReConstructing the Wall (2008), an interactive 3D installation that involves users in events spanning the 1960s to the present time, conveying a sense of what it was like to live in the shadow of the Wall. Issues surrounding the construction of democracy are also at the core of Carlos Motta's The Good Life (2005-2008), a multi-part video project composed of over 360 video interviews with pedestrians on the streets of twelve cities in Latin America. The work shows individuals' perceptions of U.S. foreign policy, democracy, leadership, and governance, and examines democratization in relation to U.S. interventionist policies in the region.

FEEDFORWARD presents artworks and interventions that examine and challenge the economic, political, and cultural conditions of the historical present in relation to the as of yet ahistorical future. It recognizes conscription and duplicity in the process of globalized economics and politics but also the complicity and desire seemingly endemic to “progress.” Together, the projects featured in FEEDFORWARD create a complex picture of the global political and social forces that drive us forward. The exhibition features both the problematic aspects of the present and future, and the potential for collectivity and responsible action. At the nadir of the current global economic crisis, FEEDFORWARD is in effect about cleaning up after the 20th century and asks the question, what is progress now?

Steve Dietz
Christiane Paul

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