power plants hito steyerl serpentine 30/5/19
Do you need to see an exhibition to review it?
I haven’t had a chance recently to visit London and see the exhibitions i’ve been interested in seeing. One of which was Hito Steyerl’s ‘Power Plants’ show at the Serpentine that’s not long finished. It’s interesting to consider if i am able to review the show without having physically seen it… is it cheating if i do a bit of research online to get a feel of the show? Is my opinion invalid because i haven’t seen the work in person?
A number of galleries offer virtual tours of their exhibitions online now which i think is great accessibility for people who perhaps don’t have the time to see the show or don’t live locally, and i think presents an interesting new relationship with art in the virtual landscape. Online exhibitions also exist, where the show resides only on the internet and not physically. The concepts behind physical and virtual exhibitions differ, but perhaps physical involvement isn’t necessary for viewing art and takes the leg work out of paying for a train to London or paying an entry fee to a gallery for lazy people like me.
For example the Serpentine website allows me to see images of Steyerl’s work and an online exhibition guide i can download and read to accompany these images, as well as a video of Steyerl talking about the show. Maybe i never needed to visit at all, i have pretty much all the information i need to be able to articulate my critical opinion of the work. Whilst i thoroughly enjoy a day out visiting galleries and the physical effort involved of walking around a gallery space with a curious look on my face, i also love how much more art and exhibitions are being presented in online spaces and the discussions these shows provoke from a critical perspective. This whole idea of ‘the screen’ and the age of black mirror really revolutionises the power of technology in making things easier and more convenient, perhaps too much so, from online shopping to virtual gallery tours. You pretty much don’t need to leave the house anymore.
Its quite fitting then to review a Steyerl show in accompaniment to discussing the virtual and technology. Visitors (both online and in person) can view or download an app ‘Augmented RealityOS’ that accompanies the exhibition, featuring augmented reality of the Serpentine building that is distorted and affected by data that is collected in real time and examines the social inequalities of the area and visualises this to the viewer. The sculptures and video within the gallery also peruses on accessibility to the park itself. In this online video Steyerl mentions her data collection; “ there are testimonies by people from the research partners we have been working with… people are telling us stories about accessing this park under the influence of austerity, how does is feel if you happen to be a disabled person,” She refers to her work as video sculpture, which i absolutely love. The work is not simply a film or a video, it exists as an art object in itself. They act as a futuristic eco system that responds to the gallery and the park. She also refers to her sculptures as future plants, the technology used in the work is programmed to calculate the next frame in the video, so are located 0.04 seconds in the future. So essentially the blooms that we are seeing don’t yet exist. There were also three guided walks and a tour directed by her research partners, that tell a story of the inequalities relation to social housing, low wage and accessibility.
So whilst the exhibition is essentially accessible and available online and very much concerns itself with technology and augmented reality, fundamentally it is a direct response to the Serpentine space and the park it resides in and the social issues (including accessibility, ironically) that are present in the area. The architecture of her ‘power plants’ responds to the architecture of the gallery and is a physical projection of reality in virtual space. And given the fact there is an interactive app that viewers can use within the gallery and surrounding area, perhaps in this sense visiting the show in person would have been more beneficial to gain a deeper understanding and more interactive experience. The show is designed to be immersive. It is always more fun to see a concert in person than to watch a youtube video of it after all. Whilst i have been talking about how useful technology is, a quote from the press release argues against this idea; “Utilising a technology often positioned as beneficial to human evolution, the show reverses this promise, instead considering how such tools could impact our natural environment.” This argument is very relevant and prevalent and current, and i just love art that discusses it and visually presents it.
Reflecting on whether it is possible to review a show i haven’t physically seen, it is very easy for my critical opinion to be influenced by the information i’ve read online. I feel my opinions may not be as organic than if i had been walking through the Serpentine and downloaded the app on my phone. It maybe takes the fun out of discovering the artwork for myself and that my opinions have been decided for me as i can only rely on the written information available. However, my understanding and interest in the concepts behind the exhibition are still informed and allow me to develop a response, however valid or invalid. Enough to decide that i enjoy the work and the concepts involved.
I find it intriguing also that a show that discusses technology and its benefits/disadvantages is so available online, and i am in turn utilising technology to explore this exhibition. I haven't had a virtual walkthrough, but the exhibitions focus on the virtual and augmented environment is quite fitting for how i have 'viewed' this show. I think the exhibition is a beautifully complex and powerful way to explore the social and political issues in the area.