The illuminated writing in warped, post-internet-aesthetics CAPTCHA font stretches over the wall of EIGEN + ART Lab's exhibiton space.
"Is anybody home lol" is both the title of this large site-specific neon piece and of the latest exhibition by the Swiss artist collective !Mediengruppe Bitnik introduced with the recently held Gallery Weekend Berlin. The exhibiton attempts to answer the title question through a variation of possibilities in four works.
Carmen Weisskopf and Domagoj Smoljo, two artists who go by the name of !Mediengruppe Bitnik, have been translating their fascination with technology into elaborate investigations and art forms since their early art college days in Zürich. From the beginning of 2000s, the duo has been appropriating hacking strategies for their interventions into media and communication systems. Software remained their main artistic tool with which they playfully disturb the system. Starting from the digital, their practice moves into physical public space where their interventions take place and ultimately addresses number of concerning issues emerging with the ever increasing impact of technology on the society. A crucial moment in this process is the loss of control, which at a certain point makes them spectators of their own work.
Surveillance is one of the recurrent topics in their work. In "Surveillance Chess", one of the pieces featured in the exhibition, the artists react to pre-Olympics London in summer 2012. The fearmongering climate created around big sports events such as the Olympics is commonly used to push through new surveillance legislations. To find a better position in this forced hierarchy and dethrone the all-seeing figure monitoring public spaces, they established a fair-play terrain. By taking over surveillance cameras in highly frequented places such as tube stations, shops, and streets, the artists replaced real-time surveillance images with a picture of a chessboard and an invitation that says: „I've hijacked your surveillance camera! I'm the one with the yellow suitcase. How about a game of chess?“. The artists then provided their phone number and invited the single recipient of the message – the CCTV operator in his control room – to reach out and make the first move. Through a game with an agreed set of rules, they turned one-way system into a friendly communication channel with equal opportunities on both ends. The video in the exhibition shows the camera takeovers from the surveillor's point of view, displayed along with the yellow suitcase used in the performance, containing video transmitter, antenna, battery, and chess computer.
Another older piece in the show, "Opera Calling", plays with hacking into a system, and establishing an opportunity through an invented channel of communication. In 2007, the group hijacked Zürich Opera House by hiding audio bugs inside the auditorium, which broadcasted live performances via telephone connection to randomly called landlines. Anyone who answered the call had direct access to the performance for as long as they held the line open, and once they hung up, the machine automatically dialed another number. The gallery Cabaret Voltaire in Zu rich served as the call center and retransmitted each performance until all of the bugs were found and removed from the theatre. The video in the exhibition is a recording of one of the calls with subtitles on blue screen, in which an entire family actively discusses and explains what the piece is about. Through this uninhibited reality plug we tap directly into some of the questions the work aims to raise. One of them is limited access to culture, especially publicly funded such as the Opera House which receives staggering 80 percent of all public funds for culture in Zürich.
!Mediengruppe Bitnik's recent and most dominating piece exhibited at EIGEN + ART Lab – "Ashley Madison Angels at Work in Berlin" – is a site-specific 5-channel video installation. Ashley Madison is a dating website which got hacked in 2015. Back then it was revealed that none of the members of the website were women; the company had put in 75000 fembots to talk to men. For the video installation, the artists used service bot faces and animated them to choreography of Ashley Madison bots active on five screens in a room bathed in neon pink light. The dating platform has employed 272 bots in Berlin alone, five of which are active in the exhibition and available for visitors to engage in a virtual conversation with the pickup line „is anybody home“. The installation shows how much of our social spaces, relationships, and identities are in fact invisibly formed by technology. Even the websites such as Ashley Madison, which are designed for communication, are entirely devoid of it and substituted with software.
„Is anybody home lol“ is the question that echoes throughout the entire exhibition. It is the capsule that holds together all of the works on display and pinpoints the ubiquitous yet fundamentally broken relationship between human and machine in a variety of scenarios. Although produced just recently for this show and placed to communicate primarily with the artists' laest piece, it equally resonates with the ideas within the two older works where the artists attempt to verify the other end of the communication channel.
!Mediegruppe Bitnik's works offer critical, yet humorous answers to the questions which appear from the structures and mechanisms that operate under the surface. With a tech-savvy approach they are able to demistify those systems that are normally hardly visible or available to interact with in an unconventional way. Urgent social debates and topics are openly addressed in their work without a forced attitude. What makes their pieces particularly compelling is the moment in which they step away from the work in progress, deliberately lose control over its course, and let the external factors solve the riddle. Through a distinct artistic strategy, their work gives us a different version of the familiar and allows for new readings of the established.
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!Mediengruppe bitnik: "Is anybody home lol"
April 27 - June 24, 2017
EIGEN + ART Lab, Berlin