The designation ‘alien’ evokes an unearthly being as much as it does a refugee or foreigner – whether the foreign is something cultural, political or altogether stranger still. In the collective imagination, space exploration offers an escape plan for the near future. Despite the unlikeliness of success, a new beginning on another sphere still seems more realistic than repairing current territorial and diplomatic ruptures. Our contemporary state of alienation – where alien technological, social and ecological entities have infiltrated everyday life – is at the centre of the ninth edition of Momentum, a biennial exhibition dotted across the picturesque coastal town of Moss, Norway.
This iteration of the biennial reaches into the historical past and the imagined future, in order to offer a perspective on the possible outcomes of current global political, ethical and environmental crises. In his novel New New Hampshire (2017), Swedish artist Johannes Heldén published a minutely-detailed log of quotidian artefacts from the recent past that had been purchased from various online forums in the year 2037, only to be discarded. On display in vitrines at the House of Foundation, the artefacts range from the inorganic – including a 1983 Panasonic cassette player, continuously playing a 2035 Exorcising Ghosts cover of Yo La Tengo’s ‘Autumn Sweater’ (1997) – to the uncontrollably dynamic, such as a composition of organic materials (moss, lichen, dry twigs, bushes, grass) melted into seven cracked and partially-melted sheets of Plexiglass and covered by soot crystals and a thin layer of unstable quicksilver. On the Plexiglas is an unattributed quote: ‘Free will is what an algorithm feels like from the inside.’ This anthropomorphizing of technology may be too hopeful in imagining that the calculations that dictate so many aspects of our lives have their own idea of freedom, but what does this give us if not optimism? This future perspective on the present may be full of foreboding, but at least it assumes there will be a future.
Linda Persson investigates a concrete path to the earth’s demolition in And Then We Ran Away (2017), a pair of films tracing the aboriginal Wongatha tribe in Australia’s Great Victoria Desert and the disastrous environmental effects of opal mining in that region. Nearby sculptures, It Was Like Experiencing a Fold in Time, She Said (2017), provide abstract analogues of ideas explored in the films, with discs of luminous glass cradled by salmon-hued sand. Jenna Sutela solicits a road less rooted in the earth in Let’s Play: Life (2015–17), in which a luminescent, acid-green pool bubbles up out of the Momentum Kunshtall’s floor, while smoke wafts towards us and a voice evokes Gertrude Stein, asking: ‘Is there a there there?’ At Galleri F 15, a fist-sized hunk of the infamous Moss meteorite, which fell on 14 July 2006 at 10:20am, incorporates a small part of the rooftop that it melted on impact. Sitting on a vitrine under glass, the inanimate shard of celestial rock embodies the primeval desire to fold the heavenly into the worldly.
Entering a dream-state may be the most direct way of traveling between real and imagined realms and eras. Norwegian artist Kjersti Vetterstad’s greyscale, looped short film No Maps for These Territories (2012) is trance-inducing in its subdued narrations and detached visual order. Meanwhile, Amanda Newell and Leon Tan’s Public Dreaming (2012–17) comprises a group-therapy laboratory intended to aid in dream sharing, offering beds in communal quarters as well as goldfish and fried-egg costumes and neon furry paws that participants can wear in order to evoke their uncanny appearance in dreams.
The best hope for adjusting to alternate worlds is to prepare for the unknown and perhaps even to look forward to it: H.R. Giger, best known for his designs for Ridley Scott’s sci-fi film Alien (1979), has created heavy exoskeleton furniture and objects, ostensibly to outfit a parlour on Krypton. In Búi Adalsteinsson’s Fly Factory (2014), clinical compartmentalization is no remedy for a feeling of slithery contamination: windows unveil containers of earthworms, cricket bars baking in tinfoil and a waste-filled herb garden, which together form a fully cyclical nutrition ecosystem inside a metal box.
The Norwegian collective Trollkrem take visitors directly to a nether plane: their Deep Down Below (2017) leads from Moss’s rocky coastline – where they staged a performance introducing shellfish and seaweed strands to an audience a pebble’s throw away from their habitats – to a manmade, sprawling stone beach inside the Kunsthall, punctuated with a Jacuzzi in which visitors can sit while viewing the accompanying, psychedelic virtual-reality film of a cartoonish underwater community. More people have visited outer space, they note in their statement, than the dark depths of the ocean. Even on a lonesome fjord near the Arctic Circle, there is no shelter from the anticipation of the unfamiliar.
Main image: Jenna Sutela, Sporulating Paragraph, 2017. Courtesy: the artist and Momentum 9; photograph: Istvan Virag © Punkt Ø / Momentum 9