An immersive new web documentary from the Dutch design studio and Brighton arts organisation Lighthouse cuts to the heart of the online experience
Under whose rules are we really living? In an age of digital immersion and increasing reliance on the tools that enable this, the planetary scale infrastructure of silicon valley can suck any one of us from Brighton or Amsterdam into a geopolitical vacuum. Apple and Google are our messengers and our arbiters. Narratives once considered wild conspiracy theories have become, with the power of social media and personal technology devices, the reality of our experience. And yet, it is our own very contribution to the noise that obscures our understanding of the world that makes the truth of our experience ever harder to grasp.
Seeking to address the aesthetic reality of this contemporary situation is Amsterdam design studio Metahaven and their co-commissioners, production studio and partners, Brighton-based arts organisation Lighthouse. Showing as part of the Brighton Festival for the first time in it’s full 3-part form, The Sprawl is a video installation, website and feature length documentary that takes audiences on a hypnotising jaunt through the topography of today’s online media. In it, the weaponisation of softwares and the spin of information is investigated and reflected through a nonlinear compilation of interviews, Youtube videos, music and graphic design. The broad variety of inputs to The Sprawl, drawn from a disparate collective of creatives, represents Lighthouse’s commitment to communality.
Speaking to Juha van ‘t Zelfde, the Artistic Director of this cutting edge arts charity, we hear more about Lighthouse and the production of the Sprawl, both of which have been driven by the intrinsic desire to collaborate. Included in the expansive line-up of contributors are Berlin-based artist Jonas Lund on the website, Director of Photography Remko Schnorr delivering cinematography and Keudo scoring the film with a soundtrack that, as Juha describes it, is “turbo trance folk music, almost as if Davos, The World Economic Forum, was organised in the same way as the Eurovision song contest."
Narratives once considered wild conspiracy theories have become, with the power of social media and personal technology devices, the reality of our experience.
POSTmatter: How did the concept for The Sprawl come together?
Juha van ‘t Zelfde: It started here in Brighton when we had an exhibition that included screening CNN and Russia Today. Ebola was happening, there was tension between Russia and Ukraine, and the first Islamic State videos had appeared. It got us to thinking about the underlying connection between all these things. We imagined the internet as a weapon of mass distraction, a propaganda machine with all of us connected to it. All of us are involved now; it’s not just states controlling the narrative with propaganda. We’re in a house of mirrors that constantly communicates and connects us to everything. What a challenge it is to figure out the truth behind the news. How do you look at it anew and get some detachment? How do you see the forest through the trees? Although, The Sprawl isn’t so much a political analysis as a poetic joyride through it.
PM: The video installation is a dizzying experience that denies the viewer their instinctual need for a linear narrative. This reminded me of a Metahaven quote that “Objectivity is a myth, which they propose to us and impose on us.” It’s so easy for media and state powers to feed myths to us when we are reliant on stories to make sense of anything.
JvZ: Absolutely. Is there objective truth? No. Which is fine, if you can live with that. We are hardwired to make sense of things and have closure and if we can’t then we have to live with uncertainty. We underestimate and overestimate our brain. We overestimate it in the sense that we think we’re in control, that we understand everything and can express everything. We forget that we are bodies with emotions and physical limitations. But we underestimate it in the sense that we can compute a lot of information and we can see through these narratives, which are sometimes so simple. Now with social media, people’s voices are getting heard and maybe that will equalise the balance of power and injustices.
We’re in a house of mirrors that constantly communicates and connects us to everything. What a challenge it is to figure out the truth behind the news.
PM: What do you think social media’s effect on meta-narratives has been? Has social media had the ability to disrupt the grand narratives of, for instance, patriarchy or capitalism, and change them?
JvZ: I would hope so. We see blips of progress and developments. For me, the ambiguous one is Anonymous. It's an anarchical, libertarian, illegal, immoral, very male nuisance, acting as a bacteria of the internet. However, it is really good at maintaining the ecosystem; it creates some sanity and health by counterbalancing the powers of the banks, or whoever they try to take down.
Apart from Anonymous, platforms such as Soundcloud and other social media have managed to create a very strong, connected subculture of underground electronic music to the point that these musicians are now visibly informing pop culture. My favourite recent example is NON, a self-described "collective of African artists, and of the diaspora, using sound as their primary media, to articulate the visible and invisible structures that create binaries in society, and in turn distribute power." I am in absolute awe with the artists involved, Chino Amobi, Nkisi and Angel-Ho, and how they have become this inspiring renegade art outfit transforming club spaces and art galleries into political zones of critical thinking and dancing. And then there's all these people who were deep in the underground before now working with the biggest pop stars in the world. Kanye, FKA Twigs and Beyonce are now working with the likes of Hudson Mohawke, Oneohtrix Point Never and James Blake. That definitely is an amplification of signal as a result of scale through the internet and through social media.
It accelerates and amplifies both positively and negatively. I definitely see the use in it because it helped me establish my habitat. I never had money to promote events so I used the internet as a free platform to find like-minded people.
PM: You’re also a DJ with a particular interest in experimental underground electro. How has your background in music affected your vision for the artistic direction of Lighthouse?
JvZ: DJing, compiling and editing music has always been my form of communication and habitat. Clubs for me have been really important. A lot of people try out their art form within nightlife, meeting other people for the first time and sharing a magical experience during a performance. The magic happens at night where people are tired and looking for other people or when they drink, when there’s a suspension of reality. That’s when relationships and friendships happen, and when art is created and tested. That is why it’s tragic that half the clubs have been shut down in this country since 2005.
For me, clubs are more interesting than museums, with events like Decession, NON and St. John's Sessions, and artists such as Amnesia Scanner, TCF, J.G. Biberkopf, Werkflow, Arca, Lafawndah, Elysia Crampton, Gaika and Mykki Blanco. People who are into opera and performing arts festivals like the Brighton Festival and the Edinburgh Festival should really appreciate the noisy, weird presence of club culture and its audiences because that’s where all of us form our identities and express ourselves before becoming the artists that end up there. Hence we’ve started doing these things at Lighthouse and with The Progress Bar in Amsterdam.
People who are into opera and performing arts festivals like the Brighton Festival and the Edinburgh Festival should really appreciate the noisy, weird presence of club culture and its audiences because that’s where all of us form our identities and express ourselves before becoming the artists that end up there.
PM: Could you describe The Progress Bar and its aims?
JvZ: It is a club night with an introduction, featuring interviews with the artists who are performing, so you get to know them. There are usually four or five artists from around the world, coming from different communities or collectives that we feel are relevant today and that represent the precarious and avant-garde of music culture. There are light artists designing for us and people dance; it’s fun. The result is like a club night as exhibition. With The Long Progress Bar that we host in Brighton, they function as live performances rather than a club night. So far we’ve hosted performances from Gazelle Twin, TCF, Lotic and Vessel. We try to have art, film, music, alcohol and talks all in one night.
If you only come to Lighthouse once then Progress Bar is a very good first encounter with what else we do. We run workshops and mentoring schemes, we have a studio residency, we commission and we have a MA course at the University of Brighton. Through Progress Bar you become part of the Lighthouse ecosystem, joining us and then improving us. We’re like a benign Facebook, a big social network of people who are interested in life.
PM: How does The Sprawl reflect the ethos of Lighthouse?
JvZ: The Sprawl is the best example of how we want to work. We brought together a team of creatives from Amsterdam, Rio De Janeiro, Berlin, Croatia, Brighton and London who then created a work of art through Slack, Skype, Twitter, iMessage, Facebook and Instagram. You don’t need to be in the same place and you don’t need to have a permanent structure for it to work with each other. The internet has become our office, our studio and our gallery. At Lighthouse we try to be as open, responsive and non-hierarchical as possible, not only amongst ourselves within the team but with the community around us, with the disciplines that we represent and the artists who we support.
Through Progress Bar you become part of the Lighthouse ecosystem, joining us and then improving us. We’re like a benign Facebook, a big social network of people who are interested in life.
PM: What potential do you think that The Sprawl have for social change?
JvZ: It’s difficult to say what a specific work of art wants to do, we have to zoom out a bit. Art broadly wants to communicate through stories and emotions. Art is just a form of expression we use to make sense of ourselves and the world around us, and hopefully make things a bit better for each other. The Sprawl hopefully touches on something that is relevant and useful in a poetic way that makes people giggle, then worry, then giggle a bit more.