When 1960s Sci-Fi and Surveillance Collide in 21st Century Sculpture: Björn Schülke Vision Instruments at bitforms gallery

Above: Björn Schülke, Beam Engine #1, 2016, Brass, mirror, paint, electronics, solar cells, motors, laser, 7.1 x 15 x 9.9 in / 18 x 38 x 25 cm

This article was originally published in Whitehot Magazine

Would there be world peace if aliens attacked Earth? After all, doesn’t everyone get along better once they share an enemy?

In the divisive global political environment confronting us, I find myself wishing for the aliens to appear.

I started thinking about this after learning about Raumpatrouille Orion, or, “Space Patrol Orion,” (1966), the first ever German science fiction TV series, which inspired Vision Instruments, a collection of sculptures by Björn Schülke currently on view at bitforms gallery on NYC’s Lower East Side. According to bitforms gallery, Raumpatrouille Orion reflected a certain Cold-War era global attitude of idealistic utopianism, and the mentality of conquest and emphasis on space travel, which is also present in a lot of Schülke’s work.

Schülke was born in Cologne, Germany in 1967. Perhaps as an artist he was drawn to exploring the collective psychology of the environment into which he was born, utilizing Raumpatrouille Orion as his case study. But, what can we learn from Raumpatrouille Orion now? I think that some of the answers might lie in what else Björn Schülke focuses on in his sculptures.

Björn Schülke, Vision Machine #8 , 2016, Brass, steel, wood, mirrors, paint, camera, display, sensor, electronics, 15.75 x 11.8 x 14.2 in / 40 x 30 x 36 cm, Edition of 3, 1 AP (variant)

The other central theme of much of Schülke’s work is questioning the ways in which we interact with technology. To us in 2017, the “technological frontier,” its own universe without borders, can be compared to the physical universe within which exploration was idolized during the Cold War. At that time, we worshipped astronauts like rock stars. Today, we worship tech innovators like rock stars. That is absolutely not to say that we have stopped revering our astronauts, but rather to say that when it comes to astronauts versus tech innovators, the media has switched their “it girl” over the decades and the technologists are their latest sweetheart.

So, how are we interacting with technology, this thing that we worship? I think that one thing that Schülke is trying to say with his art is that we are giving it too much power.

His shiny, white, mechanical, stick bug shaped kinetic sculptures range from about the size of a football to the size of a refrigerator, and are mounted on the walls, floor, and ceiling of the gallery, surrounding viewers from all sides. They each have unique sleek, futuristic designs, but are futile in function, clearly separating them from the product design prototypes of the tech world and setting them firmly in the art category.

Although futile, they each beckon us to interact with them. For example, we look to find our reflections in the tiny circular mirrors that some of them have, and look to see our images picked up by their cameras, even though their cameras are operating in connection with a surveillance system. This evokes the Privacy Paradox, in which we are tempted to upload mass quantities of information about ourselves onto the Internet, almost like a mirror of ourselves, even if it is at the risk of our own security – which we then express simultaneous concern about.

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Björn Schülke, Drone #9, 2016, Fiberglass and epoxide, wood, mirrors, aluminum, display, camera, electronics, sensors, video transmitter, 43.4 in / 110 cm, height, 118.2 in / 300 cm, diameter

In addition, many of the sculptures are equipped with small solar panels that take in light and charge the small batteries within them. Once the charge of the battery reaches a certain level of fullness, the sculpture moves, and is brought to life, like a little anthropomorphic creature that we created, but that now has a mind of its own and operates without our assistance, catching us off guard.

This is not the first time I have seen the issue of surveillance explored in art. In fact I have seen it utilized many times, and have written about it on several occasions as I consider it one of the interesting current themes that the global creative community is having an active discourse about. You can see some of my prior explorations of this topic in my articles about The Privacy Paradox 2016 group show at Reverse Gallery, the artist Joel Holmberg at New Museum, the artist Lorraine Oades and her project TV Tracker (a part of a 2015 group show of artists from Quebec at Knockdown Center). To note, there is also a radio show on NPR right now called The Privacy Paradox.

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Björn Schülke, Supersonic #3, 2008, Fiberglass, plywood, steel, motion sensors, theremin, woofer, tweeter, amplifier, paint 22 x 46 x 15 in / 56 x 117 x 38 cm

So, back to my original question, what can we learn today from Schülke’s revival of ideas from Raumpatrouille Orion? I think that the obvious conclusion is that while it was the first German sci-fi television show, from over fifty years ago, those same issues in the show apply now. Today it seems that it might still require this threatening, alien outside force to attack for all of us humans to band together to achieve peace on earth. What shape and form would that “force” take if the show were remade today? Could it be something like climate change, or related to technology?

Björn Schülke, Drone #9, 2016, Fiberglass and epoxide, wood, mirrors, aluminum, display, camera, electronics, sensors, video transmitter, 43.4 in / 110 cm, height, 118.2 in / 300 cm, diameter

Finally, it is this issue of surveillance resurfacing in both the outer space universe and the technology universe. During the Cold War era of Raumpatrouille Orion, sci-fi fear of aliens was this major allegory for xenophobia, fear of other countries, and fear of apocalyptic nuclear disaster. Sound familiar? At that time, a person might have asked, who are the aliens from outer space who are watching us, spying on us, maybe ready to attack? Today, we could think in those same terms, but digitally. Who is watching us, spying on us, maybe ready to attack, replete with our data?

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The Redefined Gallery Opening: There’s No Art on the Walls and Everyone is Staring at their Phones (+ Bonus Interview with a Feminist Sex Worker)

When Artifactoid first launched, I wrote an article about a work of art by artist Joel Holmberg at the New Museum, in which Holmberg worked with the concept of privacy in the digital age. The piece transcribed a telephone conversation between Holmberg (the artist) and a customer service representative, during which Holmberg expressed security concerns related to possibly publicly having overshared (in a published interview) answers to his private security questions that granted access to his bank account. According to the New Museum,

Holmberg’s work questions how we ‘secure’ ourselves amid a proliferation of consumer identities that are subject to collection, monetization, and surveillance by an indiscernible number of forces, from private companies to third-party marketers to the government.”  

While the topic of cybersecurity might be difficult for some to digest as “art,” it makes sense that more and more artists are working with the idea, as it is such an integrated and controversial, growing part of our daily lives. In Chelsea, REVERSE (an experimental gallery run by artist Andrea Wolf) recently opened a unique art show titled, BEAUTIFUL INTERFACES: THE PRIVACY PARADOX, curated by Helena Acosta and Miyö Van Stenis, that takes an original approach to the topic of online privacy. 

Unlike most gallery openings where the art is displayed on the walls (or is at least plainly visible or audible), at BEAUTIFUL INTERFACES: THE PRIVACY PARADOX, I entered the REVERSE space only to see attendees sitting on beanbag chairs or standing around, all staring down at their cell phones, privately absorbed in works of art displayed on their personal screens.

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On one hand, this style of opening seemed like the anti-social dystopia of the future of the digital age that I’m afraid of, and at the same time, it was intriguing, because presenting an art show in this way was a bold choice. All of the artwork in the show lives on five hacked routers, accessible in the gallery space only through viewers’ smart phones or tablets, and all of the artwork is related to the central concept of “The Privacy Paradox.”

If you’re not familiar with The Privacy Paradox, it is the idea that when it comes to privacy in the digital age, internet users’ concerns about privacy don’t reflect their online behavior. For instance, while many people may agree that privacy is important, those same people are over-sharing their data online.

Not only were the artists’ individual works related to this theme, but the art show as a whole embodied the idea of exploring the digital public vs. private by way of hacking the routers: the powerful data sharing devices were transformed (by occupy.here) into limited devices offering private experiences.

The way that the show works is that visitors are able to access the artwork by following a simple list of instructions available at the entrance to the gallery. The instructions essentially boil down to: open your device’s browser and visit the proprietary website designated for the BEAUTIFUL INTERFACES: THE PRIVACY PARADOX exhibition. Then, in your phone’s wi-fi settings, connect your phone to one of the hacked routers at a time, each named for a specific artist. Then, go back to the website, which changes to feature the artist’s work whose router you’re currently connected to, and offers each viewer a private experience of that artwork.

From bizarre to taboo, featured projects included Electronic Graveyard No. 2 by Carla Gannis, Stranger Visions by Heather Dewey Hagborg, I am a data slave and so are you by Jennifer Lyn Morone, ID by LaTurbo Avedon, and Hooker Meditation Exercise by Annie Rose Malamet.

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I particularly liked the work by Annie Rose Malamet, which examines anonymity, fear, and visibility in relation to sex work. For the project, Annie used her own advertisements, client voicemails, and original footage to create a narrative of her time spent “in exile to the fringes of polite society.” It is a piece about “the anxiety of being discovered and a reflection on [her] own identity as a feminist whore.”

It was a brave project that exposed her a lot. Literally, Annie Rose was wearing sheer lingerie and talking about getting kicked out of her apartment once her roommate found out that she was a sex worker, then moving back into her parents’ house and trying to center herself through her own guided meditation exercise.

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Her original perspective, sense of humor, and unconventional imagery were the perfect recipe for a transfixing piece. I’m excited to share that Ms. Malamet agreed to sit down with me for a brief Q&A about her project and her participation in BEAUTIFUL INTERFACES: THE PRIVACY PARADOX, featured below:

Artifactoid: What do you think of the style of the show and how it affects the way art is experienced?

ARM: I never really understood the gallery format of viewing art as a concept, especially in the context of an exhibition opening. I find it particularly hard to absorb video/new media work in this setting. What I like about the Beautiful Interfaces show is that viewing the work is a private experience that you don’t have to share with other viewers. I’m very greedy and I prefer to look at art by myself through my headphones. This is part of why I make net/video art; it is a democratic art form in that sense that anyone can look at a website or watch a video from the comfort and privacy of their bedroom. I like to imagine people watching my work in bed with their headphones. I have never had a life-changing experience looking at art in a gallery setting. When I saw the Pieta in Rome, I was extremely disappointed because it was jam packed with people and situated in such a way that the intimacy of that sculpture was lost. All of my best viewing experiences have been in my own home. I love that Beautiful Interfaces kind of replicates that by making the experience one you share intimately with your personal device. I think it’s a great format for my piece in particular because the video is all about privacy and isolation. I honestly feel it replicates the existence of being a sex worker; we are in very isolated, controlling, and private relationships with our phones.

Artifactoid: What was it like participating in a show like Beautiful Interfaces? 

ARM: Participating in this show was frankly, a scary experience. Being in a room with a large group of people watching a video showing you completely naked and talking about sex work is an indescribable experience. I felt vulnerable and exposed. I was initially quite scared to “come out” in this way, to reveal so much of who I am and how I process the world. Perhaps this is my own anxiety and insecurity, but I could feel people watching the video, eyes falling on me and thinking, “ok that’s the girl who made the video about escorting.” Whenever I come out to someone I can almost hear them wondering how much it costs to spend time with me. I mean, who wouldn’t wonder that? To have that happen on a large scale is overwhelming. Overall, I’m incredibly proud of what I produced and what Helena, Miyo, and Andrea created. I think the concept of this show is genius and premonitory vision of how art will be viewed in the years to come.

Artifactoid: How did you go about creating your project with this unique style in mind?

ARM: I created this video during a period of turmoil in my life. When your life is chaotic and you are struggling, your phone becomes your lifeline. So when I was making the video I was always thinking about what it would look like on my phone. After all, most of it was filmed on my phone. The piece was made with this always in mind. I wanted to create something kind of quiet and intimate that is best experienced through headphones. 

BEAUTIFUL INTERFACES: THE PRIVACY PARADOX is on view at REVERSE (516 W 25TH Street, Suite #306) through May 14th. It is truly an amazing, original gallery experience that I recommend checking out for yourself! To note, in order to see the work, you’ll need to go to REVERSE on a Tuesday or Thursday, any time between 1PM and 7PM, and bring your own device with headphones.

In addition, today, May 4th, REVERSE will be hosting a panel at Creative Tech Week called, Post Privacy: Is privacy becoming a thing of the past? at 3:45 PM at the Clemente Center (116 Suffolk St, New York, NY). Hope to see you there!

Joel Holmberg, The New Museum

As a part of the exhibition titled “The Great Ephemeral,” co-curated by the Taipei Contemporary Art Center’s Meiya Cheng, The New Museum presented “Changing My Password,” a work by artist Joel Holmberg.

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This was the first time I’d seen an artist label a telephone conversation with a customer service representative as art, and it was refreshing. The theme of the piece, cybersecurity, is a pressing global problem that touches nearly everyone in some capacity. Massive data breaches make headlines frequently, and some experts say that at this point, the question is no longer “if” you will become a victim, but rather, “when.”

It’s great to see an artist take notice of an emerging topical challenge that the population at large deals with, and, in order to expose something about it in a new way, is willing to push the boundaries of what “art” comprises.

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I almost walked right by this unassumingly presented piece, but upon giving the plaque a read and listening to the work, I at once became grateful that I took a moment to take a chance on a piece of art that I normally wouldn’t have paid any attention to. I think this is one of the most remarkable works at the New Museum’s “The Great Ephemeral.”