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LONDON — Inside Furtherfield Gallery, one is confronted by the noxious fruits of British colonialism. In “Ngarnda: Dead Ringer,” a video by the Martu filmmaker Curtis Taylor, a man is on the verge of losing consciousness, his eyelids drooping and rivulets of blood dribbling down his forehead. This choreographed bloodletting seems to be a dramatization of the colonialist period and the irreparable violence inflicted on the indigenous peoples of Australia. Networking the Unseen — an exhibition of works by indigenous and non-indigenous Australian artists on view at Furtherfield Gallery — is a kind of colonialism in reverse, allowing indigenous artists to colonize a four-room gallery at the heart of a defunct empire.
But this exhibition is far more than simply an indictment of colonialism or a meditation on its aftermath. The subject of Networking the Unseen is not the depredations of the British Empire but the collision of indigenous peoples and digital technology. On the one hand, this technology is a vehicle of expression for a marginalized community, as demonstrated by “YAMA,” a multimedia installation by Gretta Louw, the show’s curator and a non-indigenous Australian artist based in Germany, and three indigenous artists, Wanta Steve Jampijinpa Patrick, Neil Jupurrurla Cooke, and Isaiah Jungarrayi Lewis. On the walls, blunt-headed snakes slither among flat-screen monitors and a web of cords and headphones. Projected onto the floor are two overlapping videos: The first shows a desiccated landscape with rust-colored rocks, yellow grass, and a malevolent sun, while the second shows a wrinkled hand inscribing a red motif on a yellow ground. The conjunction of the videos implies that this is the hand of creation, composing a primeval landscape with mineral pigments.
But if Networking the Unseen demonstrates the creative power of digital art-making practices, it also attests to the broken promise of digital technology as it relates to the Western Desert, a vast expanse in the Australian interior that is home to some 40 indigenous communities. One corner of Furtherfield Gallery has been converted by Taylor and the Paris-based non-indigenous Australian artist Lily Hibberd into “The Phone Booth Project,” a darkened, semi-enclosed chamber that contains red sand, a keypad tattooed with graffiti, and a triptych of videos showing a phone booth somewhere in the Western Desert. For the residents of this region, where cell phone coverage is all but nonexistent, the phone booth is both a portal to the wider world and a point of entry for global culture, expunging geographical, cultural, and linguistic borders. As such, the phone booth is a metonym for the digital age, in which the birth of cheap and easy communication is ransomed with the death of place.
“The Phone Booth Project” hints at the more sinister implications of the unrestricted flow of information. As Louw suggests in a video introduction on the Furtherfield Gallery website, “this show really invites the viewer to consider […] the ways in which technology is not innocent, the ways in which it is not free of cultural bias, and the ways in which technological advancement can also contribute to […] digital colonialism.” In her view, the internet is not simply a conduit of information but an instrument of subjugation, enforcing the asymmetric power relations at the heart of colonialism. This is reflected by the flat-screen monitors in “YAMA,” which show Warlpiri faces alongside the stickers, corporate totems, emoji, motifs, and templates that define our times: Angry Birds, Mario and Luigi, Michael Jackson, President Obama, the Eiffel Tower, snow at Christmas, a leopard, and a beach sunset with palm trees. As Louw remarked in an email, “These are symbols of a culture that is very far from their [the Warlpiri’s] own and very much aggressively at odds with it.”
What, then, can be done to combat digital colonialism? Louw is collaborating on an app that will reverse this dynamic by introducing templates that denote a specific place (in this case, Lajamanu, Northern Territory) and stickers or emojis designed by Warlpiri artists. “I really like the gesture of sending this little satellite out from the desert into the wide world, like a message in a bottle,” she said.
But will this message in a bottle be lost at sea or wash up on distant shores? To gain a foothold in the internet, this Warlpiri-produced content must compete with feline memes, snappy headlines, and the Koolaid-colored chimera of Pokémon Go. Nonetheless, at a moment enraptured with novelty, this initiative represents something new.
In the final analysis, Networking the Unseen questions the status of colonialism in the age of digital technology. From a platform for anti-colonialist sentiment to a gateway for the incursion of Western culture, digital technology muddies the boundary between colonialist and subaltern, reactionary and dissident, indigenous and non-indigenous. Furtherfield Gallery has a number of self-identified hackers on its staff and advisory board, but Networking the Unseen was supported by Arts Council England, a public body. Moreover, the exhibition does not position indigenous artists in opposition to non-indigenous artists, but promotes collaboration between the two. In this way, the exhibition does not simply detonate the bipolarities that undergird colonialism but proposes a way forward through reconciliation and exchange.
Networking the Unseen continues at Furtherfield Gallery (The McKenzie Pavilion, London N4 2NQ) through August 14.