There Is A You In The Cloud You Can’t Delete: A Review of “Age of You” at Jameel Arts Centre
By Anna Bernice
Published on May 20th, 2021
As I walked through Age of You, my brain flashes through snippets of the Black Mirror episode, “The Entire History of You”. Set in the near future, its characters possessed an implant that recorded their audiovisual senses, allowing them to rewatch their memories. Immersing in the latest exhibition of the Jameel Arts Centre in Dubai, I wondered if I exist in a real-life Black Mirror episode. Except, instead of a memory implant, I have my devices and the Internet recording and archiving my behaviors into replayable memories.
Curated by contemporary art and literature powerhouses Shumon Basar, Hans Ulrich Obrist, and Douglas Coupland, Age of You: a kaleidoscopic exploration of the self is a preview of the contents of their forthcoming book, The Extreme Self. A commentary on our rapidly changing identities in a technology-driven world, Age of You intersperses magnified book pages with audio deep fakes, video art, sculptures and installations. The curators amassed work from 70 different artists, filmmakers, musicians, and technologists who responded to curatorial prompts with works that ultimately supported the book’s written text. Continuing the conversation of digital futurism from their preceding co-authored book, The Age of Earthquakes, this iteration of Age of You succeeds its 2019 debut at the Museum of Contemporary Art Toronto.
Age of You poses a journey of reckoning and reconciliation with our parallel digital selves. The exhibition acknowledges that the publics with privileged access to the digital realm have their behaviors and information algorithmically stored and processed on “the cloud.” As we explored the two-storey, thirteen-chapter exhibition, co-curator Shumon Basar further contextualized the exhibition for me. “In The Age of Earthquakes, we had this term called proceleration, which is the acceleration of acceleration,” alluding to the deep and rapid embedment of technology in our daily lives. “What this leads to is a psychological and emotional feeling I call change vertigo; things seem to be moving faster than my ability to keep up. Hence, I’m in this vertigo, a sense of disorientation, a lag.” He poses the question: “Are humans really built for this much change this quickly?”
“In The Age of Earthquakes, we had this term called proceleration, which is the acceleration of acceleration. What this leads to is a psychological and emotional feeling I call change vertigo; things seem to be moving faster than my ability to keep up.”
- Shumon Basar
As I weaved through the pages of the book, as curatorially intended, the words on the pages printed on vinyl board serve as curatorial text that guide me in an existential, introspective journey. “We’re not built for so much change so quickly. Technology has outrun our ability to absorb it,” reads one of them: the curators’ words overlaid on Pamela Rosenkranz’ Work In Progress (2019). Another board asks me to imagine what my data looks like — how does one materialize something intangible, even in my imagination?
Another board asks me to imagine what my data looks like — how does one materialize something intangible, even in my imagination?
Across the pages, I notice that the supporting images are often taken out of context, form, or color. For example, Stephanie Comilang’s film, Lumapit Ka Sa Akin, Paraiso is reduced to a screen grab of a Filipino woman on her knees in prayer, and one of Farah Al Qasimi’s photographs, usually aesthetically identifiable through its fluorescent hues, is reprinted in black and white. Perhaps unintentionally, the loss of identity of these artworks functions as a critique on our loss of self and identity in the evolution of the virtual realm.
Thus, the curators' words take the forefront of the visitor’s experience, with the artworks being in support of rather than the conduit of their message. The relationship between the text and the art within the context of an exhibition journey is thus shifted, with the attention of the visitor being drawn initially to the text rather than the (reprinted) artworks. This depiction of text, rather than image, as the main medium of their message hints at the curators’ influence by Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan’s The Medium is the Message, one of the known catalysts for their collective inquisition into our digital realities. The curators’ voices resound through the exhibition, and in the foregrounding of the text, the voices of the artists feel faint. Thus, the exhibition largely functions as a conceptual immersion rather than that of an aesthetic experience, however serving as a potent catalyst and starting point for conversations around our digital beings.
This depiction of text, rather than image, as the main medium of their message hints at the curators’ influence by Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan’s The Medium is the Message.
The exhibition largely functions as a conceptual immersion rather than that of an aesthetic experience.
On the other hand, this exhibition sheds light on humans as the most abundant digital mines, with our feelings and emotions convertible to data points by way of emojis. Untitled (iOS emoji content aware fill) (2019) by Yuri Pattinson, confronts the viewer upon entrance as a large-scale wallpaper featuring eye emojis. A commentary on the constancy of our digital surveillance, the artist processed the emojis through the array function in Adobe Photoshop, a basic form of artificial intelligence, creating the non-repetitive pattern of the eye emojis. Critiquing the ever-watchful eye of digital surveillance, the utilization of emojis in this art piece signal its efficiency as a means of virtual communication and as a dataset for marketing and analytics companies to understand human emotion. “That's why it's a wall of eyes looking at you. There are all these companies, government bodies and security entities that are looking at [your data],” comments Basar.
Critiquing the ever-watchful eye of digital surveillance, the utilization of emojis in this art piece signal its efficiency as a means of virtual communication.
“That's why it's a wall of eyes looking at you. There are all these companies, government bodies and security entities that are looking at [your data].”
- Shumon BasarIn understanding the digital universe co-created by technological giants, artificial intelligence, and the Internet, Age of You interrogates the intricacies of technology’s involvement in our daily lives. However, in examining the existence of facial recognition, the mediation of dating apps in our non-platonic relationships, and the hypocrisy of virtue signaling in digital activism through the exhibition, I could not help but wonder if this resignation to a digital existence is generation-specific. As a millennial, I was born into a world of dial-up Internet connection, Limewire torrenting, and emo Tumblr posts. Though in my formative years I saw the Internet less as a data miner and more as a virtual escape void (in resonance with writer Jia Tolentino in her essay, “The I in the Internet”). I am not a stranger to the omnipresence of technology. While Gen X-ers worry about activating their Face IDs on their smartphones, Gen Z kids unabashedly TikTok their faces away in hopes of micro-stardom. Perhaps, then, our relationship with technology is more complicatedly stratified than this exhibition makes it seem.
I could not help but wonder if this resignation to a digital existence is generation-specific. As a millennial, I was born into a world of dial-up Internet connection, Limewire torrenting, and emo Tumblr posts.
Nevertheless, Age of You is an exposé of the inner workings of technological advancement for the unaware. In further reference to McLuhan and his study of media theory, Basar shares with me, “people create tools, [and] those tools create us. There is feedback. We don't just make things, the things recreate us. It's always listening,” acknowledging the bidirectional relationship we’ve now created with machines. As we entered Trevor Paglen’s 10-minute film Behold These Glorious Times! (2017) I am confronted by thousands of images, both of human faces and objects, that are used to teach machines visual recognition. The film acknowledges that machines learn to see through a pattern recognition process, fed to them by humans through data in visual patterns; a process foreign to many. In direct relation, and perhaps as a consequence of this machine learning technology, NVIDIA Research’s video, Progressive Growing of GANs for Improved Quality, Stability, and Variation (2017), shows thousands of AI-generated celebrity images developed by random number generators. Adjacent to this video piece is Vocal Synthesis’ audio installation of audio deepfakes, featuring persons of power, such as Barack Obama and Queen Elizabeth II, “singing” pop songs by way of AI speech synthesis. As if a confirmation that we now exist in the future, these three pieces signal that machines have now taken a life of their own from harvesting data from the humans that built them.
People create tools, [and] those tools create us. There is feedback. We don't just make things, the things recreate us.
Age of You is a public reckoning of our co-existence with our algorithmically-strung identities, at least for those who have full access to and utilization of the digital realm. In blurring the lines between technological and artistic production, the exhibition asks its audience to recognize, if they haven’t already done so, that we each have a parallel digital identity uploaded into the cloud, an amalgamation of our Amazon carts, our social media reach and impressions, emoji archive, autocorrect dictionaries, Spotify playlists and Face IDs. Though such is a privileged existence, it is one that is irreversible and unerasable; a deleted comment is never quite deleted. This awareness brings relevance in cities like Dubai, where cashless transactions are normalized, identities are stored in microchips, and network signalling via Instagram tags and mentions translate to social capital in real life. Age of You communicates that our co-existence with our digital identities is irreversible; there is a you in the Cloud you cannot delete or escape.
This awareness brings relevance in cities like Dubai, where cashless transactions are normalized, identities are stored in microchips, and network signalling via Instagram tags and mentions translate to social capital in real life.
“The Age of You” is on view until August 14th, 2021 at The Jameel Arts Centre in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.
The Extreme Self: Age of You will be published on May 27th, 2021 in the UK and Europe and in July (US/Rest of the World). Pre-order your copy here.
Anna Bernice is an arts practitioner and communications & marketing strategist currently based in Dubai. Her current interests lie in diversity, inclusion, and representation in art spaces, specifically focusing on the representation of Filipino artistry and identity in the UAE. After receiving her double B.A. in Social Research Public Policy and Theater with a concentration in Art History from NYU Abu Dhabi in 2020, Bernice started her professional career in management and marketing consulting, developing marketing and branding strategy for key real estate and tourism development projects in the GCC region. Simultaneously, she’s pursuing her interest in arts and culture journalism as an independent arts & culture writer for VICE Arabia. Currently, she's working as a Communications Executive at Alserkal Avenue, and is the co-founder of Sa Tahanan Co, a Dubai-based global Filipino art collective.