ARS17: Hello World!

Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art, Helsinki, Finland

To reflect not only the museum’s architectural form but its founding premise of providing a forum for ongoing artistic encounter and exchange, Kiasma was named after the Finnish word that describes the intertwining of chromosome strands. And, almost 20 years after its inauguration, the institution continues to foster productive dialogue between artist and audience – as the presence of 2,000 Helsinki residents at the opening of ‘ARS17: Hello World!’ attested. The ‘ARS’ exhibition series was launched in 1961 with the aim of inviting Nordic and international artists to respond to a wide range of societal issues. ‘Hello World!’, the ninth iteration, features works by 24 artists and sprawls over the entirety of the building’s three open-plan floors, in which purpose-built installation environments have been constructed to accommodate the primarily filmic nature of the works. Looking to the future, the show focuses on our utopian desires and dystopian fears. In the words of museum director and curator, Leevi Haapala: ‘How has the digital revolution, and the post-internet condition, infiltrated our identities, our social relationships, our channels of communication?’

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Julia Varela, X/5.000, 2016-17. Courtesy of the artist; photograph: Finnish National Gallery / Pirje Mykkänen

Julia Varela, X/5.000, 2016-17. Courtesy of the artist; photograph: Finnish National Gallery / Pirje Mykkänen

Kiasma has pledged to allow Juha van Ingen’s ASLAP (2015) – a 1,000-year-long GIF animation consisting of 48,140,288 frames that display ascending numbers starting from one – to run for as long as possible. Inspired by John Cage’s Organ²/ASLSP (1987), Van Ingen’s work comprises an ostensibly endless loop. Launched on the 30th anniversary of the GIF file, ASLAP underscores how quickly technology develops and how the likelihood of its survival decreases as time passes. This investigation of the complexities – and ultimate futility – of attempts to preserve technology prevails elsewhere. Julia Varela develops a riposte to commodity fetishism in X/5.000 (2015–16): an eerie room filled with carefully folded and crushed black plasma TV screens. Imagining these obsolete emblems of technology piled onto a landfill creates an associative echo to the environmental issues addressed in Aude Pariset’s eco-system/installation Greenhouses (2016), in which two vitrines have been filled with a sheet of Styrofoam and some mealworms – creatures whose bacterial make-up means they biodegrade the material by eating it.

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Hito Steyerl, Factory of the Sun, 2015. Courtesy: the artist and Andrew Kreps Gallery, New York; photograph: Finnish National Gallery / Pirje Mykkänen

Hito Steyerl, Factory of the Sun, 2015. Courtesy: the artist and Andrew Kreps Gallery, New York; photograph: Finnish National Gallery / Pirje Mykkänen

Yung Jake claims to have been born on (or should that be ‘in’?) the internet in 2011; his series of new works from 2017 suspends temporality. The invention of his unique ‘digital’ persona, combined with the use of typically ‘millennial’ imagery (iPhone screens, YouTube rap videos, familiar cartoon characters, graffiti spray paint), probes the possibilities offered by social-media platforms for inventing alternative personalities. This genre is perhaps best exemplified by Amalia Ulman’s now-infamous Instagram hoax, Excellences & Perfections (2014), which is included within the ARS17+ online platform. For Jacolby Satterwhite, on the other hand, virtual space affords him the liberty to investigate fantasy realms. The dizzying kaleidoscopic environments of works such as En Plein Air: Music of Objective Romance (2016) move beyond the bland, cis, heteronormative present, operating as an alternative arena in which to celebrate and perform queerness.

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Cécile B. Evans, What the Heart Wants, 2016. Courtesy of the artist, Galerie Emanuel Layr, Vienna and Barbara Seiler, Zürich; photograph: Finnish National Gallery / Pirje Mykkänen

Cécile B. Evans, What the Heart Wants, 2016. Courtesy of the artist, Galerie Emanuel Layr, Vienna and Barbara Seiler, Zürich; photograph: Finnish National Gallery / Pirje Mykkänen

The digital world has also provided fertile testing ground for artists to explore and critique our autonomy in relation to contemporary politics. Hito Steyerl and Cécile B. Evans, for instance, ask probing questions about the relationship between surveillance and transparency in society. Gaming temporalities, surreal talk shows and advertising montages are carefully woven into their expansive visions of human data and image production. Reality, or what we are asked to perceive as such, is satirised or caricatured into discomforting montages, each with its own political purpose.

The instability of human relationships and the nature of hierarchies, cliques and mob mentality are teased out and attenuated in Reija Meriläinen’s video game Survivor (2017). Taking its cue from the eponymous reality TV show, the game requires the player to make decisions based on the relative merits of individual and group dynamics: ‘Your goal is to outcast players and then you can learn how to do it in real life.’

This year, Finland celebrates 100 years of independence. Many museums are marking the occasion with exhibitions that focus on the past. ‘Hello World!’, in contrast, presents a broad-spectrum and provocative meditation on the limits of human agency within our increasingly digitized world, imagining alternative futures, exploiting the latent subjection or emancipation possible within online spheres, and probing contemporary systems of dialogue and exchange.

Main image: Aude Pariset, GREENHOUSES (detail) , 2016. Courtesy: the artist and Sandy Brown, Berlin; photograph: Finnish National Gallery / Petri Virtanen

Philomena Epps is an editor and writer based in London.

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