Undoubtedly the internet and digital media more broadly is fast changing ideas around user fluidity, while hacker collectives are revealing the vulnerability of systems, prompting us too to go via the back door. In the ‘capture-all’ digital era, performativity has radical potential. embassyHACK is a noisy exhibition, an open, shifting space. Data is on the move - even the furniture maintains a partial presence. Many of the artists included have utilised the digital medium to expose the fundamental vulnerability of a seemingly fixed picture, from hyper-realistic 3D recreation to the coding of a satirical ‘leek’ algorithm.
Cultural diplomacy is a peculiar concept.
We were invited to develop a project in collaboration with the Government Art Collection (GAC), London. As an institution the GAC provides work from its vast collection to British government buildings, embassies and ambassadorial residences across the world in the name of ‘cultural diplomacy’. In fact, the majority of the art collection was unavailable for us to exhibit, precisely because it has been purchased with the sole purpose of circulating. There is surprisingly little of the collection left on site, as it mostly exists in transit - elsewhere. This lack of fixity in what constituted the ‘homebody’ of the GAC’s collection became the starting point for the exhibition.
We were pleasantly surprised by the collection’s expansive definition of ‘British art’ - meaning art made by any artist living and working in the UK and we wanted to replicate that spread in the participating London-based artists. Though we are all London-based curators, as a collective, our backgrounds are varied - French-Israeli, British-Jamaican, and American. This mix is a screenshot of London’s real residents. What is ‘British’ is constantly being challenged and redefined. We wanted to update the traditional notion of diplomacy and nationality with a more informal, responsive and open model of ‘millennial’ operation - how our generation does it. Britishness can no longer be defined by a certain cultural background or aesthetic sensitivity.
Questions of inclusion and access - of whose voices signify ‘the establishment’ were central to our thinking. Cultural diplomacy concerns this negotiation. Crucial for us were the dynamics of diplomacy itself - this push/pull of boundaries, a dynamic endemic to collaborating with an institution. We decided quite early on that we wanted to exaggerate these very specific conditions; to talk about access, about the process of opening up a closed space. We used hacking as metaphor and methodology to undo the seams of this perceived closed space (i.e. the GAC organisation and the white cube gallery space). Hacking introduced a sense of play and openness to the collection, to remind the audience that once you’ve got the code, you’ve got the key. Our method was to set the project within a highly coded fictional space (an Ambassador’s Room), which houses all aspects of diplomatic operation. We then asked ten selected artists to disrupt the scene, transforming it into an uncanny space of deviant objects. Think of the Oval Office in the White House, there is a standardised format to its mise-en-scène. Each work chosen is in some way a proxy for a traditional object that might be found within this space - e.g. the dignitary or sovereign portrait, antique furniture, a bust, official papers.
But these objects are not just part of the scenery. For instance, Juan Covelli’s fragmented, glitched, digital self-portraits, substituted for the traditional dignitary portrait, roam outside of their frames. Bishi and Hardern’s parody of postcolonial British identity, Albion Voice (2014), a single channel music video, is conspicuously nestled in a gilded frame amongst collection works - seascape paintings and Yinka Shonibare’s Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle (2009).
Guy Bar Amotz’s chattering robotic papers sit on the desk, engaged in conversation about being stuck in a loop (while on loop); while also managing to comment about unheard voices, crisis, and... Hugh Grant. Hannah Honeywill’s ‘politely abject’ mahogany sculptures replace honorary busts, acting as elephants in the room that expose the darker history of this exonerated ‘traditional’ material - transported back to England as ballast on slave ships.
Louise Aschcroft remodelled the space, freeing up object significance by spinning a new narrative for each work in the show, liberating sense in her speculative-narrative performance ‘Everybody Wants to Rule the World. Cosmic Latte’s A Recipe for Disaster (2016), leaves us with little doubt that the system needs updating. Taking over obsolete office equipment, it prints images of leeks, sourced from Twitter, into the space, a comically slow and jarring performance that stages the discordance between the processing speed of old systems and millennial updates.
This future is poignantly captured by digital video artist Rob Heppell’s elegiac 3D virtual tour of the exhibition. This work is a sliding doors sonata, a future artefact that keeps sense in motion and takes ‘exhibition-time’ to the next level, radially extending its digital afterlife and residual effect through inspired technological engagement.
The future is live. The most exciting thing for us as curators in this project was being able to update ‘the record’, to introduce new narratives into a seemingly conventional story, and to provide IRL snaps of how we as contemporary curators want to make art and exhibitions today.
Words by Tamar Clarke-Brown and Francesca Altamura
Image credits in order of appearance, top to bottom:
Juan Covelli, Untitled, 2016
Bish & Matthew Hardern, Albion Voice, 2014
Louise Aschcroft, Everyone Wants To Rule The World, 2016
Cosmic Latte, A Recipe for Disaster, 2016
Rob Heppell, EmbassyRomanx, 2016