‘Bit Rot’ is the title of author Douglas Coupland’s first large-scale solo exhibition in Europe, curated by Witte de With’s Defne Ayas and Samuel Saelmakers. It’s also the title of the accompanying publication, which brings together some of Coupland’s fiction and non-fiction from the past decade. The book includes a short essay (also titled ‘Bit Rot’) that muses over the problem of archiving in the digital age. The text describes the conundrum archivists face as paper documents become obsolete and bits (the binary digits of our computerized systems) decay while entombed in our ephemera-stuffed laptops, whose data filing systems we might not be able to navigate even if we could still remember where we stored that old power cord. ‘Bit Rot’ can be read as a sceptically hopeful text because it suggests there is still something worth saving, still something ‘desirable’ and ‘historically valuable,’ to use Coupland’s own words. I’m not sure one can say the same thing about the exhibition – and in any case, the hope is not utopian, since Coupland claims to have shed ‘all of my twentieth century notions of what the future is and could be.’
Taken at face value, the exhibition offers a surprisingly analogue vision of the future-present. The white galleries are elegantly installed with works by Coupland alongside pieces by (predominately male) artists from his own collection – including an anonymous David Bowie death mask he purchased on eBay and a print version of James Rosenquist’s anti-Vietnam war painting F111 (South, West, North, East) (1973). While digital technologies may play a role in the crafting of some of these pieces, those aspects are hardly emphasized, even in works directly inspired by the internet. These include Coupland’s Deep Face (2015), a portrait series in which he applies blocks of paint to obscure printed portrait photographs from the prying eyes of social media facial detection software. The Living Internet (2015) is a somewhat aesthetically old-fangled kinetic work Coupland devised during his 2014 residency at the Google Cultural Institute in Paris. It comprises cast sculptures (a dinosaur skull, an atomic bomb explosion, Rubik’s cube blocks, soccer balls and more) attached to disk-shaped robots resembling automated vacuum cleaners, which jerkily wheel themselves around on the floor and bump into each other in a wide pen. Filling an entire wall above are Coupland’s Slogans for the 21st Century (2011–ongoing), a set of bright posters with declarations like ‘SORRY I GOT LOST IN A YOUTUBE KITTEN TRAP’ and ‘I EXPERINECE MORE TIME THAN YOU DO. HA!’
Vivian Sky Rehberg is a contributing editor of frieze and course director of the Master of Fine Art at the Piet Zwart Institute, Rotterdam, the Netherlands. She lives in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.