On Detachment, General Observations

The Netlab's exhibit in the Contemporary Art Centre in Vilnius, Lithuania, Detachment [Atotrūkis], opened on Friday the 17th with work by Leigha Dennis and myself. There is a lot to say about it and I'm afraid it isn't really designed around sound bites. That'll probably turn off a bunch of you right away. Sorry (not sorry). 

This show is the first of my ventures after I have (at least temporarily) retired from full-time teaching. While I remain at the University of Limerick part-time, teaching in the United States just doesn't make sense to me presently. Conditions have changed—not only for me, but in the institutions themselves—and the opportunities outside the university seem much greater than the conditions inside. Architectural education, constrained by financial limitations, accreditation, and vested interests, is becoming stagnant fast. Exhibitions allow me to get my thoughts out there to more people and with greater intensity.

So what is this show about? We begin with the following statement:

How do we break from the frenzy of oversaturation? With a wealth of information at hand, we find no time to reflect upon it. Connected to everyone at all times, always aware of the latest news, able to share our thoughts at any moment, we find ourselves unable to engage in meaningful political thought and discourse. Have we traded the feeling of alienation for a hyperkinetic frenzy? Does having more information that we could process in a lifetime available at our fingertips result in an utter lack of meaning?

"Detachment" (Atotrūkis in Lithuanian) refers to two processes. The first is the detachment that mobile networked technologies allow us to make from both the enviroment and the individuals around us. For the first time since the Middle Ages (if not before), we dwell in a world in which we divide our attention between the physical world and an entirely different, invisible but equally omnipresent and real realm. Our religion, however, is technology and the Ether that surrouds us.

The second is a detachment that we may make from the noise that technology produces in our environment, a detachment that can be useful, even critical, in social and political matters. Detaching or disengaging from noise allows us to re-engage with something in depth. Taking time outs from technology, for example, allows us to read more thoroughly, to engage with our friends and family more intensely, and even to sleep more deeply. This sort of detachment is especially critical for politics. As Merlyna Lim and Mark Kann uncovered in the Networked Publics book that I edited, new forms of technology make political mobilization easy (how hard is it to sign a petition at change.org, agree with your friends on Facebook, or get conned into voting for Brexit), but they have as yet been unable to promote democratic deliberation. In this model, Trump is the perfect networked candidate, living in his own Twit-bubble, ignoring anyone who doesn't fit his myopic view. This second meaning of detachment encourages us to pause from the relentless circulation of information around the globe at light speed in order to give considered thought to issues that matter to us.

Two photographic components document these conditions and their effects. The first set of photographs is inspired by Manwatching, a 1977 book by Desmond Morris, the curator of the London Zoo and surrealist artist. We were struck by the new gestures that individuals make when they use their mobile technological devices and have documented them in the streets of cities worldwide since 2009. This set of photographs underscores the detachment produced by technological devices.

In contrast, a second set of photographs documents conditions in which detachment from the noise of technologized life brings heightened awareness. These photos look at the National Radio Astronomical Observatory in the United States National Radio Quiet Zone (where cell phones, wifi networks and even digital cameras are banned to allow radio astronomy to take place), the Kerry International Dark-Sky Reserve in Ireland (where lights are restricted in order to allow individuals to enjoy the only "gold star" dark sky reserve in the Northern hemisphere), and the Murray Hill Anechoic Chamber, Bell Labs in New Jersey (the first anechoic chamber ever built, which sucks up echoes in order to allow researchers to better understand the characteristics of sound). 

The photographic exhibits are complemented by two installations. The first is Perkūnas [the Lithuanian name for the (god of) thunder]. Perkūnas is a large structure built of commonly available sheet-metal ducting used for ventilation. It is both a found object and the product of architectural design. A ventilation fan, installed outside the room in an alcove, passes air through the duct, producing noise. A microprocessor secretly sniffs for active wifi enabled electronic gadgets and controls the amount of air and noise produced by the duct. If there are no gadgets present, the duct makes little or no sound. With a couple of gadgets, it will make a louder sound. The more gadgets, the more sound. Our ability to communicate verbally is directly affected by the amount of gadgets. If we leave our gadgets behind, Perkūnas will stay quiet, although it also reacts to the electromagnetic weather produced by stray signals in other parts of the museum and the street outside. Perkunas is neither art nor architecture. Like Aleksandra Kašuba’s curved surfaces and Valdas Ozarinskas’ installations, it occupies another conceptual space. Like Vladas Urbanavičius’s “Krantinės arka (Arch on the Quay),” it occupies a position between infrastructure and art. No matter that this exhibit is entirely about technology, this is not a work of new media. There are no screens to look at, there is no interface to play with. Invoking the name of the Perkūnas suggests an affinity with magic; in a world of technology, we once again believe things have spirits.

 

 

The final component is two instances of Leigha Dennis's Pleasure Box, a project that she previously developed as a fellow at the University of Michigan. These boxes are steel lockers similar to those found outside embassies, government offices, and other secure zones into which individuals can place their networked devices. Pleasure Box is an installation that gives users a choice to disconnect, creating temporary relief from the oversaturation of network culture. By locking smartphones and other gadgets inside, users are detached, left to ponder other pleasures including the exhibition.

Inside each compartment is a video screen displaying surveillance footage taken throughout the CAC, along with a stand to prop phones upright for recording this video footage while locked inside. Today we experience much of the world mediated through our devices. We use them to document our lives, sharing videos and photographs on social media. Yet while we willingly exchange these personal details to the public and social spheres, our gadgets are also transmitting vast amounts of personal information into the atmosphere where surveillance systems can freely detect them.
 
The instructions read:
 
1. Choose a lock-box
2. Turn your smartphone camera on and place inside facing the back
3. Close and lock the box—it will automatically lock for 3 minutes
4. Once the lock expires (or wait even longer), retrieve your device and return the key
 
Over the course of the next few days (or maybe weeks), I expect to add some more thoughts on these projects, expanding on what I have already said here. But at least this is a start.