An image of the exhibition being discussed showing work by Andrius Arutiunian

Uncertain Data

Andrius Arutiunian, 'The-Irresistible Powers of Silent Talking' (2021), Installation view at FACT, Courtesy of the artist. Image by Rob Battersby

An exhibition at FACT (Liverpool’s centre for new media and technology) often feels like a futuristic terrain to explore; dark corridors plastered with blinking lights and beeping machines. Uncertain Data, a new exhibition that prods at and reconfigures our relationship with technology and the digital era, is no exception. Comprising four freshly commissioned installations by current artists in residence, Uncertain Data benefits from the space it gives to a limited number of works, and as always, the strength of the work at FACT lies in their engaging, interactive quirks.

Upon entering, the first installation is by artist, researcher and Corridor8 writer Tessa Norton, whose practice is imbued with a sense of humour, and finds form at the intersection of memory, heritage and popular culture. As such, there is something fun and lively about ‘The Trouble with Dark Circles (A Mixtape)’ (2021), which explores Anglo-Indian identity through a convergence of found imagery, music and spoken word. 

Image showing people watching Tessa Norton's film work.
Tessa Norton ‘The Trouble With Dark Circles A Mixtape’ (2021). Installation view at FACT. Courtesy of the artist. Image by Rob Battersby

The mixtape is a fragment of Norton’s ongoing research framing memory as malleable and adaptable to change, on an individual and collective level. The mixtape as a medium reflects the idea of memory as something assorted, like a montage, both contemporary and historic, while brief moments of silence in the tape allude to its incompleteness or loss. Memory is ‘theoretically infinite’, the artist says in the film’s audio, ‘but its capacity is limited to three generations’. As the tape loops back on itself, promising no resolutions, I felt encouraged to reflect on this promise of infinity, and the sense that the construction of memory is always in progress. ‘The Trouble with Dark Circles (A Mixtape)’ is a thought-provoking prelude to Norton’s upcoming interdisciplinary installation ‘Dark Circles’, which will be exhibited in full at FACT next year.

Andrius Arutiunian’s ‘The Irresistible Powers of Silent Talking’ (2021) is an installation with an ominous edge, drawing focus to the ways in which artificial intelligence and algorithms are not formless or harmless technologies, but ones with real world consequences. At the work’s core is the idea of iBorderCtrl, an EU-funded project that automates border security. The digital iBorderCtrl agent confronts and interrogates migrants crossing European borders, analysing their expression, appearance and behaviours according to the logic of a hidden algorithm, to determine whether they are acting truthfully or with deceit. Obviously an invasive, probing technology, iBorderCtrl is described by its advocates as ‘innovative’ or ‘time-saving’; the language and priorities of Capitalism being utilised to justify such extreme scrutiny, while reinforcing borders and alienating the individual. 

In Arutiunian’s work, the border control agent is recreated on a large-scale digital screen, orbited by a soundscape that responds to its behaviours. It functions in a way that turns the algorithm’s analysis back on itself, provoking questions about the culturally built logic that the agent embodies. 

As the digital screen lingered on the body, I considered the agent’s constructedness, and the longer I looked, the more unreal it became. When the screen fixated on its face, I was confronted with its overly-neutralised and artificially unblemished features, and when zoomed out, I contemplated the way its uniform constructs a sense of authority through the police-coded navy colour scheme and the empty holsters at the hips. At certain points, the agent is just a hazy, breathing outline, alluding to a disembodied autocratic presence. The result is eerie; a collision of real world-theories of authority with an unreal digital likeness.

By evoking the uncanny, this work is an exercise in exploring how supposedly humanising technology can dehumanise the individual, drawing attention to the sinister ways in which algorithms are being used to make life-altering decisions for marginalised people.

Image showing a visitor in a VR headset experiencing Yambe Tam's work.
Yambe Tam ‘Deep Dive’ (2021). Installation view at FACT. Courtesy of the artist. Image by Rob Battersby

In the next room, Yambe Tam’s virtual reality experience ‘Deep Dive’ (2021) proposes an alternative use of digital space, one that is not overly invasive and categorising but rather revels in the unknowability of the world. Tam’s work fuses the disciplines of fine art and video game, while functioning in the realm of deep sea ecology. When hooked into ‘Deep Dive’s VR sensors, my game responded to my brain activity, and as I relaxed into the amoebic aura of the space, I slowly sank down through the virtual environment, observing the life that appears at different sea levels. 

The game’s sound mimics the atmospheric quality of a typical video game soundtrack, which contributes to the building of an immersive, contemplative space. Though advancing technology is often portrayed as a catalyst for environmental degradation, Tam uses digital space in a way that decentralises the individual, suggesting a new, sustainable and thoughtful relationship between person and planet. 

The real charm of this work is in how it exists outside of conventional, linear time. It was easy to lose myself in its undulating ambience. The thin billowing fabric that surrounds the installation, onto which the seascape is projected in a loose, painterly way, gives it a vague outline, but the VR format makes it feel endlessly expansive. The experiential potential of VR is adopted to transport the user to a new realm outside of the gallery walls’ limits, complete with the nostalgic futurism of 2000s video game aesthetics, and the immersion that comes from being absorbed in the landscape of an open-world game. 

In the corridor outside the gallery, accompanied by large-scale banners depicting vibrant graphic drawings in the vein of textbook images of water cycles, is a film that showcases casual narratives from a variety of people discussing their cultural, social, and ritualistic relationships with water. Independent curator and artist Angela YT Chan strives to shift the narrative of climate change with her work ‘Rain Paradox’ (2021), specifically addressing misunderstandings about the climate that are ingrained into British culture. While many people consider the United Kingdom to have a wet, rainy climate and therefore no issues with water supply, Chan’s work asserts that water scarcity is a real potential threat on our horizon. 

Chan has an accessible and conversational approach to this unnerving idea. There is nothing daunting about her work, and she doesn’t foreground the incomprehensible statistics that are so prevalent in climate change discourse. Rather, ‘Rain Paradox’ is framed in a way that colloquially traces water in all its metaphorical and physical meaning, giving space to collective and communal thinking. Shaping a narrative of the climate crisis outside of the official and government-mandated, Chan works with speculative thought and the generation of realistic change. There’s a coherence to this work that I found impressive. It is very engaging, and its realism is profound without being intimidating.

Since seeing Uncertain Data I have been left thinking about the sheer relevance of the work to us as viewers, as we navigate unsteady political ground and overlapping digital and physical spaces. As a result of being newly commissioned, the installations have a crucial feeling of urgency, acting as relics of the here and now. The four artists’ exploration of technology’s role in shaping our perceptions and our relationship with landscape, borders and ecology, leaves a lasting impression that spills out of the gallery’s bounds and seeps into our contemporary world.

Leah Binns is a culture writer based in Merseyside.

Uncertain Data continues at FACT until 3 October 2021.

The artists featured in this exhibition are also part of Framework for Trust; a series of events and collection of resources that explore the ways in which FACT’s artists-in-residence think about trust, and the relationship it has to the work they are doing, including a guided Whale Fall meditation with Yambe Tam and a conversation with Andrius Arutiunian discussing mistrust in a post-internet world.

This review is supported by FACT.

Published 30.09.2021 by Lauren Velvick in Review

1,314 words