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Step-by-step, a team of technicians assemble a haphazard system of wires, computer chips, and old 2G flip-phones. The men argue about how to proceed with setting up their DIY communications network, which will provide a secure and private channel for Bedouin smugglers to go about their business without the oversight of government authorities. A test of their product: the phones are ringing but nobody’s answering. And then, a line of text appears on a nearby computer monitor, “Did you see me this time? with your own eyes?”
As an introduction to the SculptureCenter’s latest exhibition, 74 million million million tons, Shadi Habib Allah’s video and accompanying installation (named after the above quote) demonstrates how far contemporary artists have gone to transform their work into documentary evidence of the political threshold. Curated by Ruba Katrib and artist Lawrence Abu Hamdan, 74 million million is an ambitious if sometimes impenetrable show that uses art to explore the technological indeterminacies of modernization. Robots and refugees, climate change and surveillance operations — the exhibition speculates on the inability of technology to understand itself and its repercussions on the environment.
If you think this framework sounds confusing, it is. SculptureCenter has organized its exhibition according to the tenets of Forensic Architecture, an emergent research group that seeks to understand the reflexive relationship between urban environments, buildings and their media representations. A watered-down definition of a complex practice, forensic architecture advocates an advanced understanding of art and architecture as key witnesses in the prosecution of human rights, climate change, and war crimes.
Having earned his PhD in Research Architecture at Goldsmiths College London, Hamdan has ensured that the artists featured in 74 million million all have rigorously political methodologies. He has allotted Susan Schuppli, Goldsmiths’ Director of the Centre for Research Architecture, an entire gallery for her ecologically investigative work. As someone who splits her time between art and academia, Schuppli investigates the limits of legibility. Abstract topographical maps and almost-imperceptibly manipulated videos comprise her two series about the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico: “Slick Images” and “Nature Represents Itself” (2018). In the almost pitch-black darkness of the gallery, this evidence is a searing indictment of BP, accusing the company of faking its crisis response efforts to only present a veneer of due diligence. Simulating the atmosphere of the company’s Houston Command Center, Schuppli documents both the scope of disaster within the Mississippi River Delta and the company’s failure to fix things. Successfully navigating a tight balance between explication and demonstration, the artist-academic shows how even the most compelling evidence can be false.
Similarly, Daniel R. Small (no relation to the writer) is interested in this balance between evidence and artistry. In the video labeled “Animus Mneme (Terasem Teyolía)” (2018), Small’s museological survey compares the attempts of civilizations across time to develop an archaeology that safeguard the memory of humanity. Is artificial intelligence a true preservation of human thought? Do transhumanists have a viable strategy for uploading their minds to outer space? A preemptive archaeology, Small collects various theories on the significance of human presence amidst technological and spiritual marvels. Most striking, however, is his interest in the reciprocal question: How will nature record the slights of humanity? Located in Mexico’s Temoaya municipality, the Otomi Cultural Center preserves the indigenous civilization’s practices. An imposing landscape of stone teepees and carved pillars set against a hilly forest background, the site also includes a small army of topiary bushes sculpted into the shape of extinct and endangered animals. As if describing his own guilt for environmental destruction, Small’s camera observes the topiaries with a slow, mournful pause.
Although I would categorize Shadi Habib Allah, Schuppli, and Small as examples of a successful forensic technique, 74 million million’s downstairs program demonstrates how difficult it is to deploy this framework on a grand scale. In a court of law, evidence is a tool of persuasion. It does not necessarily represent the truth but stages a perception of truth into an acceptable narrative of events. But the preponderance of evidence downstairs is so diffuse that no logical narrative is possible.
Further, I wouldn’t necessarily classify the artists downstairs as working within the forensics framework. Yes, their work is politically inflected, but not politically potent enough to qualify as narrative-changing. Sidsel Meineche Hansen’s virtual reality program “No Right Way 2 Cum” allows viewers to think about the female body, and presumably ejaculation — albeit in the glitchy, collision-free landscape of digital animation. Hong-Kai Wang’s sound installation reproduces “The Sugar Cane Song,” a song that once mobilized a class-conscious agrarian uprising from within the workshops of Taiwanese farmers. Meanwhile Nicholas Mangan has a large two-channel video and a series of collages that illustrate his research behind “Ancient Lights” (2015–16) a project that examines society’s attempts to understand the sun’s effects on both human activity and ecology.
The struggle to fill this new role of “artist-as-litigator” is important for audiences to witness. Even if 74 million million sometimes falters in its execution, it represents a possibility for art to transcend its aesthetic boundaries and turn an “observation” of society into an “investigation.”