Approaching Abandon Normal Devices’ online festival navigation portal, one sees a series of rotating 3D models dangled over a digital map of the Mersey estuary. Each one represents something happening over the course of the festival itself, many of which sound enticing (musical performances, physical installations, boat trips). Yet all the while in the corner constantly ticks a ‘digital carbon footprint’. Calculating the data usage created by my use of this very portal, it explains that ‘the infrastructure we call the “internet”, the ethereal cloud, is greedy for resources…The waste in the background of the map is composed by traces of your online activity…The numbers below show the amount of waste that is produced by your navigation updated in real time.’
I feel at something of a loss as to how to respond. It is of course crucial to understand the hidden environmental cost of the digital infrastructure we all so easily take for granted. But in this framing, has the responsibility for these vast systems been unwittingly transferred to us as individuals? (The term ‘carbon footprint’ was a piece of publicity pushed originally by BP to outsource responsibility for carbon emissions from governments and the oil industry and on to individuals.)
In some ways this feeling of slight confusion characterises my experience of one of the two online exhibitions, One-Fifth of the Earth’s Surface, an interactive web interface described as ‘a conversation between artists Hakeem Adam, Maxwell Mutanda and the Atlantic Ocean.’ The user is presented with sound files, images, nautical charts and maps, coordinates, 3D models, and archives of texts and links – all distributed through a mostly dark and disorienting online interface. The five sections of the exhibition comprise Cartography, Navigation, Analogue of Rivers, Ports, Memory, and an Archive where all the materials from the previous sections are listed.
The experience of this web interface is investigatory, the user traversing a dark surface looking for clues as to the meaning of their digital encounter. Throughout we experience the Atlantic as a site of historic transferal, dislocation, displacement, and disorientation. And secrecy too: with much of the ordeal of displaced and transferred persons obscured from the historical record, lost to its descendants who must reconstruct these experiences from occluded remnants. My experience is constantly frustrated, as if the interface is resisting my attempts to traverse it, and join together the pieces the artists have laid out.
My initial frustrations took a while to overcome. I felt drowned in something I refused to accept could (or should) be considered secret or occluded history. After all, the broad contours of imperialist enslavement, and the rendering of human beings into property, are not complicated to understand. Yet the occlusion of the history of the Atlantic is an effect of post-imperial world powers doing their best to cover over the vastness of their crimes. As with the festival’s incorporation of the notion of ‘carbon footprint’, this exhibition forces us to come to terms with the contradiction between vast systems beyond our control, and our own individual responsibility to comprehend them.
Is it a habit of the Abandon Normal Devices curators to challenge the idea that we members of the audience have primary responsibility for the dystopia in which we live? The online event on 27 June presented by artist Danielle Brathwaite Shirley is titled The World Has Changed: You Will Be Judged. The information for the event states: ‘You (the audience) will be led through an interactive performance led by your choices…The audience will have to work as a team to encounter, fight and survive through the events. How we begin and end is all up to you.’ Who, or what, is primarily responsible for the anthropocene dystopia we presently inhabit? How should we understand our choices as individuals to interact with world systems that have never been subject to our direct control – or to the control of the great majority of the world’s population?
The other online exhibition Toxicity’s Reach also engages with these contradictions – but in arguably quite a different way. In Sissel Marie Tonn’s striking video work ‘Plastic Hypersea (The Spill)’ (2020), a fictional but highly plausible scenario unfolds on mud flats bordering the North Sea. A storm detaches several containers from a cargo ship (modelled on the MSC Zoe, which lost 349 containers in 2019), depositing thousands of plastic items into the sands of the nearby residents, the so-called Wet Communities. As the plastics break down, they psychologically transform the experiences of these people, disrupting their sleep, invading their thoughts, ‘eating’ their experience of time. Soon, the Expanders arrive, to investigate the new senses acquired by the Wet Communities. Soon the Expanders’ own sense of self detaches, as their immune systems ingest the microplastic nodules. It’s unclear what happens to these people, they may dissolve into the surf itself. Tonn’s fictional world feels only a hairs’ breadth away from our own; it could be a semi-fictional description of real events. Moreover, the unnamed characters are thrown into their circumstances – they try to come to terms with them, but are buffeted by as powerful forces as dislodged the shipping containers themselves.
Feelings of inundation into a plastinated landscape not of our own choosing also suffuse Mary Maggic’s work ‘Estroworld Now: The Quarantine Edition’ (2021) – the viewer drags their disembodied eye around 3D models of a suburban house in North West England. Throughout the house are deposited products and commodities from the Estroworld corporate conglomerate, the life of the house’s absent resident suffused with corporate positivity, plastic waste and synthesised hormones. The chemistry of the consumer lifestyle leeches into the domestic and somatic environment with a bland unstoppability.
The third work in this online exhibition, Luiza Prada de O. Martins ‘The Sea Collapsed into the Pleasures of Sand’ (2021) presents a lyric written narrative against oscillating GIFs of shorelines, docks, quays, and water plants, accompanied by throbs of Ryan Mahan’s ambient synthwave. This work has a kind of gentle psychedelia, meandering romanticism and melancholy.
The long essay by the curator Dani Admiss that accompanies the exhibition contextualises these fictional works within the very real events of the 1981 Toxteth riots and subsequent regeneration projects within the Mersey Estuary. As Admiss reports, in 2019 the Mersey was found to contain more plastic than the Pacific Garbage Patch, and has the second highest UK rate of feminisation of fish from the leeching of synthetic endocrine-disrupting chemicals. The works presented in Toxicity’s Reach provide a series of fictional portraits of an observable coastal environment, suffused with hormones, plastics and synthetic chemistry.
Toxicity’s Reach did not attempt to frustrate the viewer as One-Fifth of the Earth’s Surface did. Rather than the exhibition instructing us to uncover items initially hidden from us, the exhibition lays out its subjects plainly. The works’ methods of elaboration are literary, fantastical, psychedelic. It is the unnamed characters of these works who are thrown into environments not of their own choosing – and who must begin their responses from that position. It is in their continuing fantastical elaboration that the onlooker can draw their own connections, and understand their own position in a similar landscape.
The two exhibitions contrast different forms of remote interaction – providing an apt case study in how different one’s experiences can be with a digital interface. In One-Fifth of the Earth’s Surface, the viewer is constantly bashing into the interface itself, wrangling with it and staring at it, attempting to form connections through the gloom and occlusion. In Toxicity’s Reach, the interface obtains a kind of translucency. Its presence is felt but, after a while, the individuality of the artists’ work swims into the foreground – as the plastic infrastructure of our digital landscape retreats into the background, slowly seeping into our subconscious.
Lawrence Dunn is a writer and composer based in Manchester.
AND Festival 2021 is held at various locations online and offline 27 May – 11 July 2021. The AND Festival 2021 online interface can be accessed here alongside access to Toxicity’s Reach and One-Fifth of the Earth’s Surface. An archive of events from the festival, including The World Has Changed: You Will Be Judged, can also be found here.
This review is supported by Abandon Normal Devices.