Poetics of Encryption at KW Institute for Contemporary Art in Berlin

The show, curated by Nadim Samman, gathers together over 40 artists of international relevance, delving into the hidden functioning of technical systems

Every day, most of us wake up and check our emails or the latest messages on our phone. Later, we scroll through our feed on our favorite social media app. From the very first moment of the day, and for the rest of it, we entrust our daily routine — and the ridiculous amount of data that comes out of it — to technological systems, and most of the time we have no idea how they work. You ask “Alexa, turn on the light”, they reply “ok”, and the lights are on. You might not realize that you are dealing with a form of power: we are constantly forced to come to terms with our relative lack of power in the face of inscrutable systems on a daily basis, because we fail to understand the functioning of the computational systems that make up our lives. And who owns the knowledge — as well as the technology involved in its production, distribution and manipulation — has the power.

According to curator Nadim Samman, mass technologies have led to increasing aesthetics and politics of exclusion, occlusion, secrecy. His latest exhibition, Poetics of Encryption, builds upon this concept, delving into the hidden functioning of technical systems. On view until May 26th 2024 at KW Institute for Contemporary Art in Berlin, the show gathers together over 40 artists of international relevance, such as Rindon Johnson, Kate Crawford & Vladan Joler, Clusterduck, Oliver Laric, Eva & Franco Mattes, Trevor Paglen, Jon Rafman, UBERMORGEN and Nico Vascellari, among others. The exhibition is organized into three chapters: Black Sites, exploring how technical systems capture users; Black Boxes, indicating how they work in stealth; and Black Holes, presenting how they distort cultural space-time.

Eva & Franco Mattes, Panorama Cat (2022). Courtesy of the artists

The first section explores the state of being locked in and, as a consequence, the set of operations that artists conceive to exit from the box — processes of decryption, disclosure and so on. One consistent example is Kate Crawford and Vladan Joler’s Calculating Empires (2023): a 24-meter-long visual atlas (inspired by Aby Warburg’s Mnemosyne), in which complex diagrams — it took four years to give it shape — trace the coordinates of the relationship between technology and power from the 16th century to today. “This is the year when generative artificial intelligence has flooded global culture”, said Vladan Joler, “and dominated attention spans. Millions of people have changed the way they search, write, and make images. But these systems have already shown a capacity to concentrate power, produce ‘hallucinations and misinformation at scale, and challenge the perception of a shared reality. Generative AI also has a significant impact on our ecologies, requiring vast amounts of energy, water and minerals”. Their work is an attempt to visualize this elusive system, that is “obscured by cultures of corporate secrecy and technical architectures, the complexities of colonialism, planetary supply chains, opaque labor contracting, a lack of regulation, and by history itself”, as Crawford pointed out.

Clusterduck, The Detective Wall (2023). Credits Domen Pal / Aksioma

The Black Box’s chapter explores how artists picture the state of being intellectually locked out of ubiquitous consumer and industrial products. In the field of computer science a black box is, indeed, a device system of which you can observe input and output, without any knowledge of a conversion mechanism. You can’t see what is happening inside, which means that its content is opaque. Therefore, this chapter displays artworks that stage tensions between a visible interface and an opaque backend: AI facial recognition is one of these black boxes, and it’s at the core of Trevor Paglen’s Faces of ImageNet (2022). ImageNet is a  massive database of photos compiled more than a decade ago by a group of researchers at Stanford University, located in Silicon Valley in California: through his work, Paglen — who has, for a long time, researched the concept of operational images and machine view — demonstrates latent biases in algorithmic facial recognition. The final chapter, Black Hole, is a dense insight on total datafication, delving into computational processes that scramble distinctions between inside and outside, before and after, sense and nonsense. Here, works such as Eva & Franco Mattes’ Panorama Cat (2022) — a taxidermy sculpture of a ginger tabby cat — triggers an uncanny impression to the observer bringing into reality a viral meme, blurring the boundaries between physical and virtual environment. Borrowing once again from Aby Warburg’s Mnemosyne, the interdisciplinary collective Clusterduck presents The Detective Wall (2023): an atlas of random viral images from the Internet, which attempts to make sense of the recent memescape. “How does one make sense of a senseless world? How can one represent the unrepresentable? How would one map the unmappable?”, ask the collective. Their wall offers a compass to navigate contemporary nonsense.

Laura Cocciolillo
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