Art for a dystopian age

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Art for a dystopian age

Lee's comes across as being far more optimistic about the role of the internet and social media and his work, actually, feels closer to our reality

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Lee’s comes across as being far more optimistic about the role of the internet and social media and his work, actually, feels closer to our reality

When I tell Marc Lee that his work reminds me of a Black Mirror episode come to life he grins earnestly from ear to ear. His extensive catalogue of art installations over the years have wrestled with both the perils and merits of technology, ruminating upon how it can be a source of salvation for some and damnation for others. It is therefore easy to see why Lee has been chosen to be a part of the third Karachi Biennale (KB22) given its central theme – Collective Imagination: Now and the Next. While all works on display at the biennale incorporate elements of technology and innovation to present their respective concepts, Lee’s contribution to KB22 comes across as the physical manifestation of the narrative thread underpinning curator Faisal Anwar’s tech-driven biennale.

On display at the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture (IVS), the video installation and interactive display is characteristic of Lee’s oeuvre which relies on real-time processed data and computer programmed audio-visual installations. Titled Echolocation, on first glance the work looks like it’s been ripped right out of the pages of George Orwell’s 1984. As Lee puts it, “In Echolocation, users can choose any location on a map and move through stories posted on social networks like YouTube, Instagram, Flickr and Twitter. It maps the free flow of information around the world in real time. Here, these personal impressions are streamed in real-time like windows into our changing world.” Windows however not only give us a glimpse of the outside world but can also provide outsiders with a voyeuristic view of what is taking place indoors. Given the raging debate about whether the information users share online can be used against them by states and agencies, Lee’s work seems frighteningly prescient and reminiscent of the warnings of individuals like Edward Snowden. After seeing Echolocation one definitely gets the sense that Big Brother is indeed watching.

Nonetheless, Lee comes across as being far more optimistic about the role of the internet and social media than perhaps his work lets on. “I have a great relationship with the internet,” he tells me. “Yes, undeniably, it can be used for some horrible things, but it also has a lot of helpful aspects to it that greatly aid me in my work and research. We live in a globalised world that is becoming increasingly homogeneous, largely due to the social-digital realm.”

Whichever side of this discussion one falls on, most would unanimously agree that what feeds the social media behemoth is increased interactivity. The more the likes, re-shares, comments, emoticons, delight and outrage, the stronger the grasp of such social media platforms becomes. As an extension of this concept, Lee’s work encourages viewers to interact and engage with the visuals they are confronted with. Through the click of a mouse-button, the audience can sift through, pin-point and select from an endless web of information and data – much like Big Brother might do. According to Lee, “The viewer participates in the social movements of our time and makes a journey into new image and sound collages in which one experiences local, cultural and linguistic differences and more and more similarities. Does the flattening of forms and images in the digital world lead to uniformity or can this space be used to expand cultural diversity?”

Naturally, one of the most common questions which has arisen in the social media era is whether these platforms truly bring people together or whether they act as sources of alienation and discord. Lee is of the opinion that whatever the eventual outcome may be, it is undeniable that the internet has leveled the playing field by providing everyone with a voice, “With unprecedented and ever increasing access to mobile phones and the internet, digital hierarchies are being broken. Platforms like TikTok are the new town hall, with ‘influence’ no longer restricted to the urban elite. There is finally a democratisation of creative expression.” 

The Swiss artist’s work is also greatly concerned with how the internet shapes and morphs our perception of ourselves and others. While discussing how social media can promote narcissism and egocentrism, Lee postulates, “The digital era emphasises the individual, who is seen more and more as being at the centre of society rather than being a part of it. Fiction, fantasies, exhibitionism, confessions, self-indulgent activities, solipsism motifs are the drivers behind our virtual life, with corporations and media shaping our perceived reality and recklessly exploiting our desires and fantasies, leading us further away from reality. The permanent representation of the lives of others also creates pressure to depict one’s own life, which becomes a design object, and strengthens the spiral of staging.”

Lee’s interactive net-based installation at the IVS may look like it hearkens back to the works of great dystopian fiction, but in actuality it is far closer to our reality than we may feel comfortable admitting. As he wrestles with the cultural, social, ecological, anthropological and political conundrums created by the fierce rise and abundance of the internet and technology, viewers are left to wonder just how far these platforms can be stretched before they start to devour their own tail.

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