BASEL — Addie Wagenknecht’s solo exhibition Liminal Laws at Haus der elektronischen Künste (HeK, House of Electronic Arts) Basel is outstanding. This is a body of work that defies categorization and does not let your mind go. After spending a couple of hours in the exhibition and innumerable ones since, with the artworks and themes turning over in my head, trying to make it all fit together, I realized that the strength of this work is that it so keenly lays bare the elements of contemporary existence that do not fit together. The show gets under your skin because it confronts the contradictions of the “postinternet” condition: the need for intimacy and authenticity vs the desire to take refuge behind a screen, the fetishization of technology vs the horror of it, the increased awareness of being connected to socially conscious media vs the unconscious consumerism of contemporary capitalist culture.
The first view of the exhibition is mediated — always mediation, always the implied distance of the screen — by four glass panels hanging vertically in space. The Glass Ceiling (2015) series is heavily, almost redundantly symbolic. Each sheet of bulletproof glass bears visible signs of a woman’s touch (lipstick kisses, dried roses, donuts) but remains resolutely whole, undamaged. When I first saw photos of this work online, it seemed almost trite, but the context is transformative. The panels have been positioned at the front door, so that one must traverse the glass ceiling to enter the exhibition. It’s a brave decision: you literally view the artist’s solo show in a respected institution, which some would probably point to as evidence that there’s no such thing as a glass ceiling in art, through a work that is arguing otherwise. Because even if Wagenknecht is successful by certain standards, it doesn’t ameliorate the fact that when you look at auction prices, representation in major museums, gallery advertisements in industry magazines, and the track records of various art prizes (#kissmyars), women continue to come in a distant second to men. It’s not about this one artist’s career, but the solidarity she feels with others and, no doubt, the realization that the further she climbs, the more of a rarity she becomes.
Once you arrive in the main space, you’re forced to contend with “While you were sleeping” (2016), a drone so large it barely fits in the very generously sized exhibition hall. Wagenknecht’s 1:1 model of the unmanned drones — technically called “unmanned aerial vehicles” (UAVs) or, specifically in the case of airstrikes, “unmanned combat aerial vehicles” (UCAVs) — used by the US, UK, and Israel is threatening in matte black and tied down with network cables. It has absolutely nothing in common with the helicopter-like hobbyist drones that we commonly see. It is sleek, repellant, and deadly, and it is utterly unimaginable, considering the sheer size of the thing, that these drones remain essentially invisible, except as evidenced in kill statistics or the occasional investigative journalist’s report.
This is Wagenknecht’s greatest distinguishing factor: she boils down the lived experiences and sociopolitical realities of our technology-obsessed culture to their essences and then alchemizes them, in Liminal Laws, into objects that one recognizes first as art and only upon closer examination — once the work has you hooked — as activism. The Liberator Gun Vases (2016) — parametrically modelled on “the open source Liberator gun, the first 3D modeled, open source handgun made available for download online, utilizing torrent sites” — are the best example. The three works in the series, created in collaboration with Martin Zangerl and Stefan Hechenberger, manage to be both gorgeously elegant (the forms are based on ancient Greek vases) and obviously synthetic — and, in that latter sense, reproducible, less precious. The pieces wrestle with the complexity of a networked culture that is equally capable of disseminating information that’s creative or destructive — or both at the same time — arguing that neither technology nor data is neutral.
Two projections screened in enclosed viewing rooms are key to understanding the depth of the exhibition. “While you were away” (2016) presents footage from around 70,000 unsecured CCTV cameras, but only when an algorithm determines the absence of humans in the video. The work includes a startling array of scenes, most of them banal, but others rather poetic. I watched for a long time. Wagenknecht’s work is often discussed in terms of its references to internet politics; here, for example, she addresses the tech illiteracy and indifference to privacy that drive people to put CCTVs covering their private spaces online, while retaining the unsecured, standard passwords. This is only one aspect of the piece, however; it’s also highly emotional, evoking both a sense of wonder at the myriad unseen lives occurring concurrently with our own and a melancholy that the world is so utterly colonized and electronically watched that we seek to monitor even the waves on a pebbly beach, the fish in some mossy pond. Similarly, “brbxoxo.com” (2013) — video documentation of a web project that shows feeds from sex-cam websites when the performer has stepped out of the frame — embodies the psychological and corporeal longings that we can’t shake, even when surrounded by gadgets and constant digital stimulation.
The two projections bookend the show brilliantly. They demonstrate Wagenknecht’s coding chops, of course, but more significantly, they capture her nuanced understanding of the emotional and psychological factors that govern — to a far greater extent than technical, or arguably even political, factors — our relationship to the appurtenances of digitization. This sense of unfilled longing, of un-belonging, permeates the entire show. It’s echoed, albeit less compellingly, in the Still Alive (2016) series of still life photographic prints of flowers. It is the isolation of the screen, its implied distance, which in Wagenknecht’s work becomes emblematic of different distancing techniques and artificial boundaries as they’re applied to “othered” groups — from the pool of dating partners who become almost interchangeable on Tinder to the communities living under skies patrolled by UCAVs.
The artist has spoken in interviews about the feedback that her work is “masculine” and the recurring assumption that it was created by a man. Most female artists employing new media or technologically driven methods are familiar with this experience. Wagenknecht’s work, however, is inherently “female” in that it delves into the experience of being “other.” The norm in the digital art world (and the larger tech world) is the white, straight, able-bodied male. Artists who find themselves outside of these categories tend to be more aware of the intersections of gender, race, class, and disability, because they face the tyranny of such intersecting factors. This is the core of the frustration that drives movements like #kissmyars — it’s not just about acknowledgement, but also about what’s being missed in the current, dominant worldview. Wagenknecht is one of the many “other” artists considering the effects of rapidly advancing technology and confronting the emotional and psychological repercussions of it, all in subtle, nuanced works. Curators and museums should follow HeK’s lead in bringing more of their work to the fore.
Addie Wagenknecht: Liminal Laws continues at Haus der elektronischen Künste Basel (Freilager-Platz 9, 4142 Münchenstein / Basel) through November 6.