Digital Citizen – The Precarious Subject, is a new group exhibition curated by Alessandro Vincentelli at the BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art. This diverse collection of work draws on the imagination of contemporary artists to inspire a conversation on ideas of citizenship in the digital age. The evolution of the human identity against a backdrop of a fast-moving and dangerous modern world is the theme running through each section of the exhibition, questioning more traditional definitions of community and nationalism.
This is a dense body of work demanding the consideration of extensive information: certainly, the scope for progression in this digital age seems endless, but we are also reminded of the data and opinion that now saturates our lives. The space is dim, stark and bleak, illuminated by screens and projections, a reflection of the ‘New Dark Age’ James Bridle warns us of.
Bridle’s ‘Citizen Ex’ (2015) explores a new interpretation of citizenship, based on the physical location of the websites we visit (‘algorithmic citizenship’), rather than the country of origin. As disturbing cases of revoked citizenship hit the headlines, it is pertinent to highlight the changing nature of citizenship and the influences of the internet upon areas of public policy and law. The cynical efficiency of systems that track us as we navigate networks, argues Bridle, directly affects the progress of social cohesion and democratic expressions.
The sinister story of ‘Sashko’ in Kate Stonehill’s ‘Fake News Fairytale’ (2018) demonstrates the power wielded recklessly by anonymous fingers clicking and tapping across the globe, exploited by morally dubious authority figures and money-men. The juxtaposition of the childlike soundtrack of a fairytale with the real-life political consequences that fake news has encouraged is mesmerising: everyone loves a story; the tragedy is that this one is true. The irony of sitting alone on a bench, cocooned in headphones, exploring themes of society, community and citizenship is not lost on me, and that is the challenge this exhibition seeks to confront.
Daniela Ortiz’s powerful statement on nationality, ‘Jus Sanguinis’ (‘The Right of the Blood’) (2016) made for uncomfortable viewing: the vulnerability of the pregnant Peruvian artist undergoing a blood transfusion, voice wavering, arms bared, connected to a slightly breathless Spanish citizen was deeply affecting. In this work, Ortiz openly rejects the law that will declare her Spanish-born child an immigrant.
Immigration, along with the plight of refugees, is referenced throughout the exhibition. The collaborative practice, They Are Here, have worked with several local citizenship groups in the North East, inviting often-marginalised communities to script their own fictional headlines and subvert the power associated with mainstream news production. In a layered and intricate video, ‘We Help Each Other Grow’ (2017), They Are here work with Tamil refugee, Thiru Seelan, who expresses the trauma of his journey through a traditional Bharatanatyam dance, and in doing so challenges perceptions of traditional boundaries.
Elsewhere in this substantial body of work, optimism can be sought in Jonas Staal’s ‘New Unions (Third Draft III)’ (2018), a vast map illustrating the rise in social movements and new models of political assembly. As traditional political parties crumble, Staal explores the swelling evolution of pan-European solidarity movements. Laura Grace Ford’s text commission, ‘Ordnance Arms, Canning Town, November 2018’ (2019), is a tale of belonging, a hymn to forgotten streets and characters living on the edge. Contrasted with her grainy images of East London, her dreamlike narrative is immersive and beguiling.
The influence of gaming is demonstrated in Petra Szeman’s intriguing tutorial exploring digital realms, and this theme continues in Alan Butler’s dual-screen video installation, ‘On Exactitude in Science’ (2017). Butler references the virtual worlds in Grand Theft Auto in his sweeping, panoramic shots.
Peering through the windows of Peter Hanmer’s surreal, apocalyptic installation, ‘Plato’s Lair’ (Redux) (2019), I feel a bleak sense of foreboding at the enormity of our virtual world and its possibilities. Yet simultaneously, there is the promise of hope and regeneration. Vincentelli has accumulated a provocative and innovative body of work. This is a timely reminder of the fragility of truth, that we must question the information we absorb and adapt to the technological changes taking place at speed all around us. As Hanmer himself writes, ‘We are forever learning, unlearning, forgetting’.
Digital Citizen – The Precarious Subject, BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead, 25 January 2019 – 16 June 2019
Caro Fentiman is a writer and musician living in Northumberland.