What Has Been Seen, if you forget the overwrought title, is remarkably fun and often funny – upsetting in ways that won’t harm your Saturday afternoon, but upsetting enough to keep you chatting animatedly till suppertime.
The exhibit of Eva and Franco Mattes’s work, curated by Erandy Vergara and on till mid-March at the Phi Foundation, takes the internet as its all-encompassing subject matter, a topic the artistic duo have tackled since the mid-1990s. For a show about the internet, it presents a refreshingly lo-fi take on our digital lives, one that manages to feel neither tech-phobic nor in fanatic praise of the online world.
One of the most compelling pieces in the show, “Emily’s Video,” is a 20-minute video montage of viewers reacting to a video that we gallery-goers never see, one apparently sourced from the dark web and that seems, certainly, to shock — it leaves at least one woman wrapped in a blanket and crying. We understand that the video is gruesome in some respects, but that its meaning is mutable and taste-dependent. People gag, they laugh; they walk away or lean in. It is at once a slightly obvious and cynical metaphor for Art (there’s something to get, something intrinsically polarizing and alienating if not outright disgusting) while also getting at something darker: our consuming appetite to view, and the passivity, personal and political, that comes from a commitment to spectacle.
To further implicate you, the viewer-of-viewers, the gallery presentation of “Emily’s Video” features a black reflective surface in which to see yourself watching and critiquing, sympathetically recoiling or laughing, as if in the surface of your laptop at night. I was even able to watch myself watching the reflection of the young male gallery goer beside me explaining the dark web to the reflection of his female companion as if she were a very small child.
Some of the Mattes’s work can at first feel like a clever visual pun, but there is often an intrusive and more subversive aftertaste to the initial joke. Take “Personal Photographs 2012,” a sculpture built from an extensive series of ethernet cables and flash drives that we’re told contain “239 digital images” and that coil their way through several of the Phi Foundation’s floors. Funny, yet the “personal” in “Personal Photographs” has all but been rendered ironic, and the idea that a sprawling mass of digital wires is a tidy or environmental data-management solution, solving the analogue problems of yore, here seems especially absurd.
Their more pointed commentary about online culture, found in the eerie “Dark Content” and “Abuse Standards Violations,” both of which examine content moderation on social media sites, are an astute and surreal peek behind the curtain, both real and imagined, of moderation guidelines. However, both works suffer from that all-too-common tendency to broadcast whiteness as neutrality. While there is an explicit critique of certain double standards along the spectrum of straight/queer and cis/trans in terms of what becomes considered sexually “explicit” online, the vast majority of the images that figure into “Abuse Standards Violations,” and there are many, depict white people and bodies. Why? Even most of the generated avatars who speak in “Dark Content” are white-seeming, and if this is a critique of white as representational status quo itself, that critique is in no way sufficiently delineated to be read as such by the audience.
Some of the greatest strengths in What Has Been Seen come from the Mattes’ questioning of what narratives are bolstered by online culture, and which are obfuscated. Hence a frustration that their examination of authority and egalitarianism in online space ignores questions of race. There are lovely turns to the exhibit, as with the mesmerizing Riccardo Uncut (an 87-minute slideshow of a stranger’s phone, purchased by the artists for $1,000), not to mention the comedic taxidermied cats, but this omission in particular gave the kind of pause where you hope a pair of working artists will find the future capacity to broaden their scope of inquiry. ■
What Has Been Seen continues at the Phi Foundation (451 St-Jean) until March 15, 2020. Free.