Realism is a complicated thing. The term conjures the notion that a work attempts a level of representation that makes a legitimate effort to accurately reflect its subject. Yet, one can be confronted with a realistic portrait of an individual, a space or a landscape and continuously scrutinize all the inherent biases involved in its creation until there is nothing left to consider objective. How a thing is represented affects how objectively it is received, thrusting its presumed real-ness into question. None of this is controversial. Indeed, they are truisms of any creative practice or act of art appreciation.
One can ask, however, whether the representation of an idea is conditional upon other factors or if it’s disingenuous in how it presumes its own realism. What about to ask, ‘when seen from this angle, does it foreground this conceit but obfuscates this other one’? Or to put it another way, to approach an institution or an infrastructure as if to say, ‘how they are representing themselves is a lie at worst or a distortion at best.’ Realism can, then, be a tool to shift the lens to another angle and clarify the position or existence of a subject matter. The immediate information that is transmitted can be surreal or abstract but its intent is to shed light upon a notion that would otherwise be hidden, or unremarked upon, whether surreptitiously or unintentionally. Visual information can look real while propagating a lie because its representation is derived from a false premise. Or vice versa. And a more unrealistic expression then can, ironically, show a fuller picture.
↑ Thomas Keenan & Eyal Weizman’s Mengele’s Skull forensically investigates a notorious war criminal, Ingrid Burrington’s Reconnaissance focuses on data centres
In the exhibit “Evidentiary Realism,” presented at NYC’s Fridman Gallery in collaboration with the Berlin-based Nome Gallery, and curated by artist Paolo Cirio, a form of realism predicated upon research, investigation and documentation visualizes and re-visualizes what is otherwise invisible or obfuscated from view. In Ingrid Burrington’s Reconnaissance, (Moncks Corner, 33.064257, -80.0443453), for example, satellite images of a Google Data Center, or what she called data centers more generally during a panel preceding the opening, “charismatic megafauna of construction,” are visualized as trippy lenticular prints. Images of the data center at different points in time are layered upon each so when walking past them they gleam with a bright greyness. Bland colors are given an ethereal glow. What’s ironic in a work like this, and as the artist explains, is their underlying imagery are manipulated to remove clouds and time zones. They aren’t so much ‘real’ as they are providing a view of something that is unseen by the public due to its private and securitized nature. Here is the internet, writ large, whose physical essence and appearance is erased or denatured, promulgated within an image to disclose how it actually exists.
In showing a space or an object from an alternative point of view it cultivates an idea of how it could be seen and why it should be seen in that way. It is realism based on evidence of an existence that in any other case would be concealed from view. A shift in perspective is then used in service to ask ‘why we are seeing it this way?’ for the first time.
In Seamless Transitions, James Bridle uses a game engine and 3D software (CRYENGINE and Rhino), first-hand accounts and investigative journalism to recreate the politically fraught sites of immigration, judgement and deportation, spaces where photography is very often prohibited. The videos quickly flit through the sterile human-less spaces that have the appeal of an early-aughts iteration of a Counter-Strike map skin washed of its more gladiatorial properties.
Seamless Transitions quickly flits through sterile human-less spaces that have the appeal of an early-aughts iteration of a Counter-Strike map skin washed of its more gladiatorial properties.
In a related article written by Bridle in the Guardian accompanying documentation of the work on his site, he recalls following the case of Nigerian immigrant Isa Muazu. Fearing his life would be in danger in his native Nigeria, Mauzu sought asylum after his UK Visa expired only to be fast-tracked, denied entry and detained. Before being deported (and after an initial attempt was botched) he launched a 100 day hunger strike in protest of the treatment he had endured; this is but one example of the conditions these spaces enable. During the panel Bridle was quick to point out how his work and much of the work in the exhibition doesn’t do or show anything that isn’t already readily available to anyone using the web. He discussed the problematic nature of applying the word activist to this kind of work since they are simply ‘showing’ rather than engaging in actual political activism. Contrary to his point though, these types of works promote ideas that can lead to a more engaged form of action.
In animating these secret spaces in such an unrealistic way it unveils their dehumanizing nature by emphasizing their sterility. Using software that is available to anyone, or at least to any architect, Bridle juxtaposes their banality with the severity of the actions that occur within them, magnifying their rawness through mundane spectacle. Burrington and Bridle shift the perspective on private spaces that are not necessarily impossible to envision. Yet in doing so, the process in which each work is sourced and made manifest accentuates how the ostensibly banal can still be loaded with meaning.
↑ Josh Begley’s Information of Note flanked by Navine G. Khan-Dossos’s Expanding and Remaining (left) and Kirsten Stolle’s Monsanto Intervention (right)
Similarly banal, Navine G. Khan-Dossos’ Expanding and Remaining paintings highlight similar graphic design tendencies between ISIS/ISIL’s official magazine and western periodical by removing the actual content from the layout. By the artist’s reckoning, in appropriating Western design it recontextualizes ideas within a format that is familiar to the target audience. Convention can be weaponised – as a container for dangerous ideas.
In contrast, in Josh Begley’s Information of Note, Muslim-owned businesses, that at first glance would appear mundane, are arbitrarily ascribed meaning through police categorization as places of interest due to the religious affiliation of the owners. According to a citation from the Associated Press accompanying the work, the “NYPD Demographics Unit program ‘never generated a lead,’” ultimately rendering the enterprise impotent. It shows how this kind of classification and surveillance can be meaningless beyond its initial biases. The collage of storefronts, with its trim of color photographs appearing as if to seep into its black and white core upon the circular canvas, subverts the intended surveillance by presenting the images together on the same plane. Its convex panoply bursts with a decentralized unity wherein all these commonplace facades comprise the same fabric of everyday life.
The systems in which these images are gathered and transformed are embedded with invisible forces that shape how they are perceived. Even with The Other Nefertiti bust by Nora Al-Badri & Nikolai Nelles questions of ownership and cultural origins are brought to the fore in an object that looks like nothing more than a 3D printed recreation of the Nefertiti Bust.
↑ The Other Nefertiti stoically sits in the foreground of Hans Haacke’s The Chase Advantage (left), Harun Farocki’s I Thought I Was Seeing Convicts and James Bridle’s Seamless Transitions take different approaches to the documentation of oppressive spaces (right)
By reducing the object to a digital model it is given a quantifiable substrate that directly contests the status of the object as it is exhibited in an institutional space. Furthermore, a digital copy of the model has been circulated online and could theoretically be printed by anyone. The lack of documentation of its clandestine acquisition suppresses these origins, erasing its Egyptian heritage as an artifact the artists believe rightly belongs to “everyone”. Sequestered in a photography-banned space, through their stealth scanning of the object they made it accessible to all. While it is only a copy it is still a very good one, and one that thrusts into question the reality of how the original is exhibited. The process through which it came into being and continues to persist both in other museums (there is also one buried in the desert it of its initial excavation) sheds light on its origins – a kind of situational realism.
The realism on display in the works questions the nature of documentation and representation through an array of systems, infrastructures and spaces, both digital and physical. The artists in “Evidentiary Realism” contest ‘official’ realities that are presented as unalloyed fact. They show the conditions through which ideas are presented or emergent within a particular system. Their realism lies in what they reveal as the ideological underpinnings of their subject matter that they seek to explode or illuminate through aesthetic intervention.