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Nervous Systems: Big issues with big data

Surveillance, paranoia and big data... HKW's newest exhibition deals with topics Berliners know and love, but may not understand. From Julian Assange's office to a fake Apple store, Amanda Ribas Tugwell unpacks it for you. On through May 9.

Image for Nervous Systems: Big issues with big data
Photo courtesy of FBM Studio, Helmhaus Zürich

Tons of recent international exhibitions and events claim to unpack our collective anxieties, particularly around technology and our future in it. Berlin, home to myriad digital artists, hacktivists and dissidents, is no stranger to that trend. In particular, the Haus der Kulturen der Welt has become a hub of perpetual discussion on the topic – most recently via its 100 Years of Now programme and as host to Transmediale. In just a couple months the Berlin Biennale won’t fall far from the tree. It’s no wonder art enthusiasts are getting a bit jaded by the too-relevant yet increasingly played-out topic.

But HKW’s newest, Nervous Systems, is a thoughtfully curated, informative, and experimental reminder that we’ve only just begun scratching the surface. Thank co-curators Stephanie Hankey and Marek Tuszynski of Berlin’s Tactical Technology collective, who’ve been dealing in matters of surveillance and transparency. Together with HKW’s Anselm Franke, they’ve put together a fascinating new group exhibition on the socio-political history of big data and its dizzying implications.

At the top of the staircase, the sight of dozens of screens and a maze of panels of text and images will have you feeling overwhelmingly lost. Steel tubes that stretch to the high ceilings break up your view, while red neon lights emit a dull warning. To your right, a strange room with unfinished exterior walls stands out in a dark corner. To your left is a space shrouded in screen-like brightness that might be an Apple store showroom.

As you enter you’ll discover On Kawara’s “I am Still Alive” (1995), one of hundreds of telegrams that the Japanese conceptual artist sent starting in 1969, which pairs well with Vito Acconci’s “Theme Song” (1973) where the artist is lying on the floor and talking directly into the camera, seducing his viewers. Both are brilliant early examples of intimacy being transformed into data and delivered through the mediation of technology. Both encapsulate apprehensions, prior to their exponential snowballing we know 40 years on.

Interspersed throughout are 10 sleekly designed grey pyramids called “Triangulations”, curated by thinkers and theorists with texts and examples of how data is employed, referencing everyone from Borges to Baudrillard. Though dense, they are each fascinating essay-like testimonies to the loss of freedom that has come with governments and businesses “knowing” so much.

From there you can see through the windows into the room to the right. !Mediengruppe Bitnik’s “Delivery for Mr. Assange – Assange’s Room” (2014; photo) is a replica from memory of the office in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London where Assange has been cooped up since 2012 to avoid extradition, made following the collective’s many visits. Everything’s there – bottles of booze, a Guy Fawkes mask and a treadmill – except for Assange himself. The installation is the most poignant IRL example here of how data is a tool and a weapon for both governments and those that question them.

In contrast is the alluring “White Room” on the opposite side, with its brilliant white lighting and familiar commercial sheen. Installed by Tactical Tech, it consists in part of a bar where you’ll meet “Ingeniuses” Saturdays through Mondays from 12-6pm, who will guide you through a special selection of apps that help you scrub your data from the coffers of the tech industry. The informational yet transgressive performance is dressed up as the corporate enemy, like a sheep in wolves’ clothing. The room also hosts afternoon workshops on everything from Facebook privacy to “de-Googlizing your life”; see the schedule here.

Of all the contemporary artworks on view, the most impacting is Melanie Gilligan’s “The Common Sense” (2014), a scattered multi-screen video piece that immerses you in a not-too-distant dystopian future. Here, everyone has a device installed into the roofs of their mouths called “The Patch,” which offers everything from working hours while sleeping, to auto-sharing emotions with others, to entertainment in utero. The disarmingly familiar narrative shifts to ask: what would happen if one day we decided we’d had enough? What would a revolution look like in a fully commodified world where we are no longer able to share thoughts with others naturally?

Co-curators Franke, Hankey and Tuszynski don’t hesitate to provide big answers to big questions. But they also don’t shy away from ambiguity, leaving us with the ultimate question: what do we do when we leave the room, with the burden of what we know? A last video by Miljohn Ruperto titled “Janus” (2014) takes from ancient Roman lore to caution us of our tenuous relationship with the past and the future. An animated bust references the famous rabbit-duck illusion, but its neck is wounded, and its bloodshot eyes, which look both back and forward at the same time, squint in pain.

NERVOUS SYSTEMS Through May 9 | Haus der Kulturen der Welt, John-Foster-Dulles-Allee 10, Tiergarten, U-Bhf Bundestag, Wed-Mon 11-19