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“The future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed.” This is a quote from the visionary sci-fi author William Gibson, a man often credited with coining the phrase ‘cyberspace’ and the genre of cyberpunk. It’s also the title of the 20th Biennale of Sydney.

Artistic director Stephanie Rosenthal, formerly of the Haus der Kunst in Munich and the Hayward Gallery in London, explains that she chose this oft-repeated phrase because it alludes to two key realities of contemporary life: the internet and inequality.

For Rosenthal, the quote is interesting on one level because Gibson himself can’t remember exactly when he first said it or in what context. His words are widely distributed but not accurately attributed. In this way, the phrase neatly encapsulates how we frequently engage with that massive swirling concatenation of data that we call the Internet.

The internet is ubiquitous, something we take for granted. Yet, as Rosenthal points out, we are actually only a fraction of the global population. The statistics vary depending on where you look, but according to one site (found via Google, naturally) less than half of the people worldwide are actually online. And it comes as no surprise to find that North America, Europe and Australia, in that order, have the highest percentages of users.

“I thought this was so important at the moment,” Rosenthal says, “We are constantly on our phones, constantly online, and just to be aware that this really is a privilege.”

Gibson may be a science fiction writer (and the 20th BoS may also include an artwork by Malaysian artist Heman Chong that takes the form of a mobile bookstall dedicated to Stanislaw Lem, author of the sci-fi classic Solaris), but The Future is Already Here is not a sci-fi-themed show.

“I was inspired by the fact that a lot of artists I met went back to science fiction,” Rosenthal says, “not to write or really do science fiction but more to look at our times now through that lens.”

As a curator, Rosenthal is less interested in examining science fictional projections and more interested in engaging with the slightly weird present that we actually inhabit. And yes, this we is us, the privileged, permanently plugged-in minority who also make up the majority of the biennale’s audience.

For us, what Rosenthal calls the “black mirror” of the screen (a phrase she has borrowed from Charlie Brooker’s TV series of the same name) is very much a part of everyday reality, a reality that is multimedia, multivalent and multilayered.

With this in mind, rather than trying to create one big umbrella theme and force everything under it, Rosenthal’s BoS is located in several “in-between spaces”, many in Redfern and other residential areas, and networked across seven themed locations or “embassies of thought”: the Embassy of the Real (Cockatoo island), the Embassy of Spirits (Art Gallery of New South Wales); the Embassy of Disappearance (Carriageworks); the Embassy of Non-Participation (Artspace); the Embassy of Translation (Museum of Contemporary Art Australia); the Embassy of Transition (Mortuary Station) and the Embassy of Stanislaw Lem, which is one of the in-between spaces.

“I could have done the show about science fiction or about disappearing natural resources or languages or whole countries,” Rosenthal says. “But I felt in the end that most artists are interested in several things, it’s really these layers. For me, it didn’t feel appropriate to say there is just one theme in the 21st century.”

Minouk Lim, Portable Keeper, 2009, HD single channel video installation, 12-53 mins. Courtesy of Minouk Lim.
Minouk Lim, Portable Keeper, 2009, HD single channel video installation, 12-53 mins. Courtesy of Minouk Lim.

Rosenthal deliberately chose “embassy” as a word loaded with connotations of bureaucracy, nationality and territory, but also safety. It’s this latter connotation she embraces, while subverting the former. Regardless of your passport, background or other allegiances, she says, “with ‘embassies of thought’ I am alluding to the fact that you can have a safe place by just being united in a thought or a passion or an idea. Basically it’s a desire of mine that everyone should have a safe place everywhere in the world to discuss thoughts.”

As the Embassy of Transition, Mortuary Station, which is now being used as a biennale for the first time, is a particularly evocative and poetic location. Here, English artist Marco Chiandetti will present a new site-specific work that focuses on themes of migration, transition and displacement.

For Rosenthal, the MCA’s location in The Rocks, a site she sees as having been “rewritten” many times since colonisation, made it an appropriate place to contemplate notions of translation. Artists featured here are as diverse as the Australian Aboriginal activist Richard Bell and the long-dead Russian art-star Kazimir Malevich.

Yirrkala artist Nyapanyapa Yunupingu’s larrakitj poles are featured in the Embassy of Spirits at AGNSW, while Artspace, known as a site for experimentation, plays host to Istanbul/London-based duo Karen Mirza and Brad Butler, who explore how non-participation can be an active position.

Minouk Lim, Navigation ID, 2014, live broadcast intervention at the press opening day of Burning Down the House, The 10th Gwangju Biennale. Courtesy of Minouk Lim. Photograph- Taekyong Jung.
Minouk Lim, Navigation ID, 2014, live broadcast intervention at the press opening day of Burning Down the House, The 10th Gwangju Biennale. Courtesy of Minouk Lim. Photograph- Taekyong Jung.

The Embassy of Disappearance is in Redfern, a suburb with deep Indigenous roots that is undergoing extensive gentrification. Here, African artist Gerald Machona will present space suits made from redundant currency.

As for the Embassy of the Real, Rosenthal, while visiting Cockatoo Island, decided that the former convict prison and industrial shipyard would be the perfect site. She discovered that not all of the industrial ruins are genuine and that much of what is visible is actually the remains of movie sets. As she describes it, “It’s somehow stuck between the fictional and the factual.”

If there was one over-arching theme for the 20th BoS (which there isn’t), Rosenthal admits that the works found at the Embassy of the Real would come closest to addressing it.

Some, such as Korean artist Lee Bul’s massive site-specific commission, a kind of alien cityscape with a dystopian edge, deal with how we see ourselves reflected in the mirror of our shiny, omnipresent black screens and how we are shaped by technology. They examine, as Rosenthal puts it, “ways in which we might live in a scenario of science fiction nowadays”. Others, like the interactive, dance-inspired installation by American choreographer William Forsythe, highlight the physical, embodied nature of human existence.

The virtual-digital and corporeal worlds – two key parts of our contemporary reality – coexist at this location, much as they do in our everyday lives, in the future that is already here.

The 20th Biennale of Sydney
18 March – 5 June

Tracey Clement