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“Nervous Systems – Quantified Life and Social Question”, installation view, The White Room © Laura Fiorio / Haus der Kulturen der Welt

How to live in a society where every aspect of life is quantified

“Nervous Systems – Quantified Life and Social Question”, installation view, The White Room © Laura Fiorio / Haus der Kulturen der Welt
  • Are you a robot?
  • Ha ha, what? No, I am a real person. Maybe we have a bad connection, I am sorry about that.
  • Can you tell me “I am not a robot”? Just say “I am not a robot”. Please.
  • I am a real person.
  • I believe you, but will you just say “I am not a robot”? That will make me feel better if you say.

It goes on and on without any conclusion whether the “person” is a robot or not. Moreover, by the totality of its duration it is also not clear if the man asking questions was a real person.

This short excerpt of a conversation between a customer of health insurance coverage and tele-marketeer appears in one of the videos presented at the exhibition Nervous Systems at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin. It also vividly depicts the prevailing mood of the presentation co-curated by Stephanie Hankey and Marek Tuszynski from the Tactical Technology Collective and Anselm Franke – head of HKW’s Department of Visual Arts and Film. This team brought together a broad spectrum of visual, historical and practical materials by artists, technologists, theorists, and activists in order to formulate questions on our existence in a quantified society, where circulation and processing of data elude our understanding.

“Nervous Systems – Quantified Life and Social Question”, installation view © Laura Fiorio / Haus der Kulturen der Welt
“Nervous Systems – Quantified Life and Social Question”, Jon Rafman: Bitsa Park (Bitsevsky Park) Moscow, Russia, 2010, courtesy of the artist and Future Gallery, Berlin

The health service is one of the sectors – next to law enforcement, service delivery and more – where the large scale of data collection and analysis by the public and private sectors has been promoted as a catalyst and a solution to societal changes. The rise of algorithm and data-driven decision-making has its benefits but it also causes anxiety. Data is used by corporations to help them track target groups and improve their services but at the same time we have to be aware of the dangers it harbours for our privacy.

“Nervous Systems – Quantified Life and Social Question”, !Mediengruppe Bitnik: Delivery for Mr. Assange, Replica of Assange Study, 2014, Courtesy FBM Studio, Helmhaus Zürich

In the !Mediengruppe Bitnik’s Delivery for Mr. Assange – Assange’s room (2014), a camera hidden in a parcel documents its way from the postal office to the Ecuadorian Embassy, where the WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange lived. Assange expressed on camera, after the delivery of the package, his support to other imprisoned people who had acted in defence of transparency and freedom of speech. In another work, the German artist duo Korpys/Löffler employs an “intelligence collection method” that observes and documents the constructions of the Federal Intelligence Service in Berlin. Related to Edward Snowden’s revelations, the 3-channel video installation Personen Institutionen Objekte Sachen (2015) focuses on data acquisition and the surveillance society. The work makes clear that data-enabled overreach is not a futuristic vision but part of everyday reality.

“Nervous Systems – Quantified Life and Social Question”, Melanie Gilligan: The Common Sense, 2014, courtesy Galerie Max Mayer
“Nervous Systems – Quantified Life and Social Question”, installation view, triangulations © Laura Fiorio / Haus der Kulturen der Welt

We are trackable everywhere only because of our mobile devices. Even if you delete your Facebook account your data will remain in the Internet void forever. At the same time we believe that social media help us gain a more attractive and controlled life and relationships. How the interpersonal relations are shaped by technological advancement within capitalism, is examined by New-York based artist Melanie Gilligan in her sci-fi mini-series The Common Sense (2014). This experimental narrative drama shows a vision of a society where, gradually, the increasing defectiveness of technology’s networks lead to the situation where people withdraw and isolate themselves from the public and no longer know how to communicate.

As the “internet of things” expands and daily objects become data-collecting devices, the playing field becomes more uneven by the day, which may lead to a common nervousness. “This nervousness is revealed in particular where relationships of power and participation come to the fore, namely in the social question” . The result of the growing data mountain is that the information is not created by individuals but about individuals. What does it mean to be part of a society that reads us in a particular way, by aid of algorithms driven by a need to predict and control outcomes? “Being read by a system should be unnerving. That sense of disquiet rarely surfaces however” , said interactive media artist and writer Stephen Fortune. Maybe this is because, as shown in exhibition, the problem is not new, only the devices have changed and give more options to track and trace.

Within the exhibition space (called the “Grid”) the Tactical Technology Collective installed an interactive installation titled The White Room. This lab-like looking room is an inversion of a major company’s sales- and training facility. It explores how the construction of individual identities is mediated by the state and through corporations, moving beyond the framing of internet freedom, privacy and surveillance. The White Room is “where we learn to de-familiarize ourselves with our familiar technology environment. Here we learn to look beyond the black mirror and the way it reflects our selves”, explains the press release.

Most works in the exhibition are video works and do not require any public interaction. The sense of isolation is heightened by the fact that in with most works you have to wear headphones and the presence of theoretical texts that needs a high level of concentration to be understood. People walk around looking mostly at the screens of their smart phones (HKW has a free Wi-Fi connection) or browsing Facebook while watching Vito Acconci’s Theme Song. Yes, we are all connected to the network, driven by mobile devices: the “black mirrors of ourselves”. It creates an interesting multiple-structured reality, where we can be here and there at once, looking at the exhibition mirroring ourselves, like in a Droste effect. Data within data within data. I am afraid that only a robot would be able to grasp everything, but not the irony of visitors unwillingly mirroring the societal critique of the exhibition they visit.

“Nervous Systems – Quantified Life and Social Question”, Julien Previeux: Patterns of Life (filmstill), 2015, courtesy Galerie Jousse Enterprise, Paris

For some people the amount of information that Nervous Systems touches upon will be overwhelming. It definitely requires a lot of time and energy to experience the complexity of the exhibition. Some will leave the show confused and nervous about our “quantified society”. But what is more important to mention is that despite the enormous amount of research material available (both produced by theorists and artists), the show does not give answers but poses the often thorny questions that define our lives today. The exhibition points out that the discussions on privacy take place in very narrow narratives scope.

Nervous Systems. Quantified Life and Social Questions
Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin
March 11th – May 9th 2016

Weronika Trojanska

is an artist and art writer

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