The Future of Public and Private Space
By Reena Devi
In her fourth piece for GRC, stalwart fact-finding futurist Reena Devi looks at spaces of incomprehensible data, everyday intimacy, and animistic spirituality, in an age of unknowable surveillance. Through close readings of three artists and their practices, she projects ways in which contemporary art holds a mirror up to the very age and body of its time—or perhaps in spite of it.
I’m the President, Baby (installation view), Miranda July, V&A Museum, 2018. Image courtesy of V&A Museum
If you ever wondered what our public and private spaces will be like in the future, a possible answer lies in the seminal exhibition “The Future Starts Here” at Victoria and Albert Museum, London held two years ago.
Specifically, a key work in the show I’m the President, Baby by American artist and writer Miranda July involving the real-time tracking of sleep and app-use habits of Los Angeles-based Niger-born Uber driver Oumarou Idrissa, who grappled with years of insomnia following dire immigration issues—including a late night visit from the immigration authorities.
The installation presents four curtains that open when Idrissa opens an app on his phone or wakes up, and closes when he closes an app or goes to sleep. While the artist was fascinated with Idrissa’s story of trauma never leaving the body, she was hesitant to involve him in such an invasive work, but he agreed.
In describing her artwork tracking Idrissa’s habits, July told The New York Times, “It’s making something into a civilised object that’s also kind of a distressing feeling potentially, or at least unsettling.”
The truth is, in spite of this sincere consideration, this artwork involved an uncanny level of surveillance reminiscent of our contemporary spaces with a consistent gathering of data about our daily habits, tastes, and more (which we mostly guilelessly give away). The artwork also indicates another reality of this age we live in where the boundaries between public and private spaces are blurred.
While many baulk at government surveillance, it seems much more terrifying that all manner of our daily lives are being tracked by private corporate entities with no compunction about doing so and very little public accountability. We don’t know where this information is going or how it is going to be used to influence us—remember the Cambridge Analytica and Facebook fiasco? This fetish for our data is only going to get more effective and brazen with increasingly nuanced A.I. algorithms. Facial recognition software and Instagram filters are only the beginning.
L.A. based Turkish artist Refik Anadol shows us the relationship between data and the future of our private and public space in his mesmerising visualisations on massive LED screens using machine learning algorithms on specific data sets, such as 10 million photos of New York City or brain activity of people reflecting on childhood memories.
In an interview with WIRED, the artist said, “When we found fire, we cooked with it, we created communities; with the same technology we kill each other or destroy….Clearly AI is a discovery of humanity that has the potential to make communities, or destroy each other.”
There is a possibility that as our communities become even more highly surveilled and our data is constantly extracted, we will crave and create increasingly intimate, private spaces. These intimate spaces will allow us to be who we truly are, especially when we are a part of groups of people who fear societal judgement. Pakistani born New York based artist Salman Toor’s work shines a light on these type of private spaces and how they are sacred in all their intimate normalcy.
Toor, who is having his first solo museum exhibition at the Whitney museum this year, is known for small-scale figurative oil paintings featuring intimate views into the lives of young, queer Brown men in New York City and South Asia.
His repeated use of a green-brown colour palette and overall nostalgic aesthetic create an emotional resonance in his art, highlighting the sense of intimacy of the portrayed space featuring friends “dancing, binge-watching television shows, playing with puppies, and gazing into their smartphones”.
The Whitney describes his work best: “Taken as a whole, Toor’s paintings consider vulnerability within contemporary public and private life and the notion of community in the context of queer, diasporic identity.”
Another type of space we will most likely seek to counter this future sense of invasiveness is as sacred as the space created by the aforementioned mundane yet intimate encounters, but for very different reasons; we will find ourselves drawn to ancestral and spiritual spaces which offer a solace very few digital spaces can create.
These spaces are highlighted by Timur Si-Qin, artist of German and Mongolian-Chinese descent who grew up in Berlin and creates uncannily spiritual and primal installations as part of his ongoing project on secular spirituality in the 21st century known as New Peace.
Currently showing at the 2019 Asian Art Biennale in Taiwan and previously exhibited at the Magician Space in Beijing, his work East, South, West, North is a mixed media installation comprising sculptures, lightboxes, and VR displays, creating a space filled with stones, trees, seashells, illuminated advertisements, and digital images.
Alongside lightbox images featuring the kind of landscape you might find in Darhad Valley, Mongolia, known for its shamanism, there are ancient, archaic sculptures resembling rocks and trees, or something far more otherworldly yet reminiscent of our earthly terrain. There is a quiet and primitive intensity that echoes in the space created by his work, reminding us of a time equally complex as our own but far more aware of its origins.
The aforementioned artists and the artworks discussed present an intriguing possibility. Confronted by highly surveilled public and private spaces, be it physical or digital, we could end up eschewing those spaces entirely for largely intimate, personal, rooted, and sacred spaces, uncannily reminiscent of caves where our ancestors used to gather.
Last December, a new study published in Nature revealed that following a recent expedition and further study, scientists have uncovered a 16-foot cave painting on the island of Sulawesi, Indonesia, which could be 44,000 years old. Among the illustrations in the cave, the researchers observed mythological animal-human hybrid figures being captured, referring to either an ancient shamanic ritual or a fantasy narrative that departed from the typical portrayal of daily life that populate cave walls all over the world.
Perhaps ancient caves held far more diverse purposes than we fathomed and could serve as inspiration for the future spaces we create.