Paul Thomas Rubery
Doctoral Student, Stony Brook University
In Ed Atkins’ installation Happy Birthday!! (2014), the face of a middle-aged man, exquisitely rendered in CGI grayscale, emerges from the sea to address the museumgoer. The fragmented quality of his speech, in its confused often elliptical series of dates, juxtaposes the formal competence with which Atkins executes the representation of the man’s features. The work instills a feeling of unease or anxiety in those who witness the spectacle. As the video progresses, the figure materializes and disintegrates, as if to convey the fragility of the digital medium. What unfolds is a profound meditation on life and death, the body and its avatars, and the temporality of lived experience against the synchronic collection of times, events, and locations made possible by the electronic archive. If corporeality and coherent subjectivity are exchanged here for visual verisimilitude in high definition, then it is to signal the transformation – or, perhaps, to belatedly make visible – the total interpellation of the subject into the myriad networks, fiber-optic channels, and multimedia platforms of the twenty-first century.
The radiant screen light that casts down from Happy Birthday!! illuminates works by fellow contributors Frank Benson and Juliana Huxtable, which all act to open the Surround Audience Triennial at the New Museum. Haunting and oneiric, the piece assumes the symbolic function of a funeral pyre, declaiming the death of the modernist subject while providing new imaginaries and utopic horizons. Atkins’ installation foregrounds co-curators Ryan Trecartin and Lauren Cornell’s interrogation of the political, psychological, and physical consequences of a society increasingly constituted through electronic means. Much like the two previous Triennials at the New Museum, this exhibition emphasizes early-career artists who, in youth and subject matter, emblematize the cultural zeitgeist. But while the work represented throughout the Triennial thematizes the platform-orientated interconnectivity of the contemporary age, the theoretical edifice on which Trecartin and Cornell formulated the exhibition fails to provide the framework necessary for not only the inclusion of certain artists and artworks, but also for the obscure modes of resistance to neoliberal ideology and surveillance culture they present to the viewing audience.
At the New Museum, the term “surround audience” doubles as a blockbuster marquee title, albeit an ambiguous one, for the exhibition and a theoretical neologism, dreamed up by Trecartin to express “both the possibilities and challenges inherent in a contemporary condition wherein we are encircled by a ‘smarter’ and more participatory world.”  For Trecartin and Cornell, social media, online marketplaces, and advanced telecommunications characterize this new “surround audience,” with the technological manifestations of culture being absorbed into the body and thereby constituting the very terms of subjectivity. While nothing about this proposition is particularly novel, since we understand subjectivity to be the effect of a socially articulated network, the generative nature of digital media distinguishes the ethos on display at the museum from, say, that of the recent ZERO retrospective at the Guggenheim. Technology has always influenced our conceptions of self, but it hasn’t always manifested in the infinitely mutable, nonmaterial structure it assumes today.
Casey Jane Ellison’s single-channel video, It’s So Important To Seem Wonderful (2015), typifies the aesthetic privileged by Trecartin and Cornell as it discloses the politics of representation and subjective posturing investigated by the Triennial. In the work, a digital avatar of the artist speaks into a microphone, rolls on the ground, and performs something between standup comedy routine and chat room psychoanalysis. Ellison’s work represents one of the more coherent statements in the exhibition, for it frames the digitized body as a productive site in which to ‘negotiate’ normative conceptions of gender, identity, and class against what Hito Steyerl designates idealized “image spam.”  But negotiation at what cost? To what emancipatory future does negotiation direct the spectator toward liberation in art and aesthetics?
Although Trecartin and Cornell contend that the artists in this year’s Triennial operate “beyond technology,” the work on display neither transcends standard technological fantasies nor deviates from the economic and ideological underpinnings of this century’s multiscreen proliferation – neoliberalism. For throughout the exhibition we observe putatively transgressive gestures and humanist rhetoric imbricated within the machinations of a digital-financial complex that seeks to regulate our passions and desires. In her latest book, Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution, Wendy Brown diagnoses the contemporary challenge of thinking beyond individualism toward a democratic future, a task paradoxically complicated by the Internet and other paradigms of electronic interconnectivity. According to Brown, neoliberalism manifests not only as an economic model, but also as a governing order of normative reason, economizing the entire social field.  In the transition away from classical liberalism to neoliberalism, political life yields as human beings are converted into “human capitals.”  The individual assumes its position as an autonomous unit, endeavoring to maximize its worth through self-investment and subjective posturing while previous modes of communal identity, from race to class, are evacuated of political valence in their economization.  Where the recent eruption of screens and social platforms presents the opportunity to negotiate and reformulate identitary conditions, then, it does so at the cost of a meaningful relationality. The digital has become the elected site of generating individual, asocial value within the current system of exchange. In a sense, for these artists to operate “beyond technology” and resist neoliberal ideology necessitates a departure from the screen as a site of self-imagining and a direct engagement with the socio-historical context of its arrival.
Once intimate and personal affections between groups of individuals are unable to resist conversion to and governance by neoliberal rationality, the connectedness of the digital network obscures the breakdown of the shared. Perhaps no work in the exhibition exposes these failings more poignantly than Antoine Catala’s offensive symbol for empathy, which was conceived with assistance of Droga5 (a boutique advertising agency located in Manhattan). Here, two versions of the letter E – one inverted, the other standardly legible – are constructed out of coral and sea anemones and bear some relation to the artist’s online project Distant Feel. Where the problem arises – that is, beyond its affiliation with Droga5 – is that the networks and communities engaged by the artwork remain too limited, too bourgeois, and too eager to accept the promises of the digital and the financial. Indeed, this issue runs systemically throughout the Triennial, with DIS’s The Island (2015) demonstrating the challenge of forming new, meaningful networks between human subjects within the confines of late capitalism.
And yet, these issues notwithstanding, other inclusions in Surround Audience give visibility to the underground networks of capital migration that support, albeit indirectly, our hyperconsumptive patterns in the digital west. In doing so, they offer us a form of resistance through information as they demystify some of promises surrounding recent media art. For instance, Onejoon Che’s installation, Mansudae Masterclass (2015), Shadi Habib Allah’s untitled video work (2014), and Li Lao’s documentary performance, Consumption (2012), expose the real political, human, and economic networks that enable the very possibility of our posthuman fantasies as well as our desire for emancipation through emergent technologies. To exhibit this work was imperative for the formation of an oppositional politics, even if appears out of step with the generational narcissism permeating much of the New Museum’s latest Triennial. Here, Trecartin and Cornell succeed in bringing to light the often unacknowledged political, psychological, and physical consequences of the expanding digital sphere, by situating it in conversation with the economic, and thereby restoring a materialist framework to the immaterial image. In revealing the base through these selections, they offer a possible rejoinder to neoliberal delirium evinced in other works throughout the exhibition.
In the end, however, Surround Audience disappoints in its inability to posit a coherent vision for resistance, for moving beyond the readymade network toward a more equitable future. For all the emphasis Trecartin and Cornell placed on restructuring identity, the latest Triennial suffers from the same fragmented, digitized, overabundance found in the ‘surround audience’ it aspires to change.
- Lauren Cornell, “Notes on Surround Audience,” in Surround Audience (New York: New Museum, 2015), 10.
- Hito Steyerl, “The Spam of the Earth: Withdrawal from Representation,” in Surround Audience (New York: New Museum, 2015), 41-42.
- Wendy Brown, Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution (New York: Zone Books, 2015), 30.
- Wendy Brown, Undoing the Demos, 65.
- Wendy Brown, Undoing the Demos, 38.
Paul Thomas Rubery is a doctoral student in art history at Stony Brook University, studying European contemporary art and the eurozone crisis. His current research concerns the aesthetics of ruin and decay, the body and embodiment, and post-Marxist critical theory. He writes frequently on Irish and Icelandic art.