Elusive Personae and Embedded Critiques: "Surround Audience" Opens at the New Museum


It's strange to pause and think about how much everyday life has changed in just the last five to ten years. How our interconnected technologies have become so essential to our lives; how our day-to-day performance of ourselves on social media has become so second nature; and how dependent we are on the devices that occupy most of our waking hours. Yet at some point in the future decades, I imagine our future selves will look back on us in 2015, and remark about how primitive our technologies were "back then." After all, the twenty-first century has only been around for fifteen years; we're living in its adolescence, and it's just coming into its own.​

Antoine Catala, Distant Feel, 2015. Courtesy the artist.

"Surround Audience," the highly anticipated third iteration of the New Museum Triennial, this time curated by Lauren Cornell and artist Ryan Trecartin, surveys art practices that respond to, embody, disturb, identify with, unpack, question, replicate, and complicate the "newfound freedoms and threats" associated with our heavily digitized reality. For the Triennial, Cornell and Trecartin have selected 51 artists and artist collectives representing 25 countries, with interdisciplinary and intermedia practices, almost all of them under 35 years of age.​

Ed Atkins, Happy Birthday!!, 2014. Courtesy the artist and Cabinet Gallery, London.

As the title suggests, these artists emerge from and are informed by the decentralized, democratic and digitized cultures spawned by social media, where everyone is an actor/performer/writer/comedian editorializing one's own life online for multiple dispersed, engaged audiences. These technologies have not only become integral parts of our everyday activities, but affect the way we think, express ourselves and the ways we relate to others. As Cornell explains in the introductory essay to the exhibition catalogue, these technologies and diverse media platforms have liberated us from the homogenizing effects of centralized mass media, while also simultaneously exposing us to ever more complex, surreptitious, and insidious power systems of surveillance and data tracking.

Lisa Holzer. But yes, but yes!, 2013. Courtesy the artist and Galerie Emanuel Layr, Vienna. Photo: Georg Petermichl.

Trecartin's work, with its "tension between, on the one hand, the liberating potential that digital media affords for adjusting or rewriting ourselves...and, on the other hand, a deep immersion in an invasive world order, in which the guises of power are ever more sophisticated and harder to bypass," provides the departure point and organizing principle for the exhibition. Trecartin's revelatory debut shocked and awed audiences of the first New Museum Triennial, "Younger Than Jesus," in 2009, and made an enormous impression on the art world. It will be interesting to see, then, whether any of the art in "Surround Audience" tends to follow in Trecartin's wake, or if it forges its own path into yet uncharted territory.

niv Acosta, i shot denzel, 2014. Courtesy the artist. Photo: Ian Douglas.

Three overarching themes give structure to this exuberant bunch, most significantly the idea of "Elusive Personae." Those who are familiar with the characters in Trecartin's movies will recognize the gender-fluid, shifting "myriad of personae, many surrogates of the self" that appear in "Surround Audience." Elements of identity--gender, geography, culture, social status, ethnicity, personal appearance--evolve and shift in the many strategies used to represent versions of the self in the democratic age of social media. The swiftly rising British art star Ed Atkins, with his high-def digital avatars, is a natural, almost inevitable, fit, but there are also some surprises in store for visitors, artists like Brooklyn-based dancer-choreographer niv Acosta, and New York-based DJ, activist and transgender "nightlife queen" Juliana Huxtable. Undoubtedly one of the most striking works is a 3D printed sculpture of Huxtable, nude and reclining, by Frank Benson; disorientingly futuristic and alien, it exudes the timeless elegance of classical statuary, appearing inconceivably ancient while simultaneously belonging to the future.

Frank Benson, Juliana, 2015 (detail). Courtesy the artist; Andrew Kreps Gallery, New York; and Sadie Coles HQ London.

While internet communications afford an empowering visibility to communities that are otherwise marginalized, the darker side of our technologically dependent society comes into view as artists tackle the issues of state and corporate surveillance and data tracking, disguised, denied or hidden as tools used to safeguard us or market to us more effectively. Hong Kong-based artist Nadim Abbas will create a quarantine bunker within the museum, while New York-based artist Josh Kline presents an immersive installation of sinister "police Teletubbies." Chinese artist Li Liao reveals the great disparity between producer and consumer by embedding himself within a factory assembling iPads in a five-month performance (the amount of working time required for him to earn enough money to purchase one iPad). Jerusalem-born, New York-based Shadi Habib Allah, on the other hand, records the journeys of off-the-grid networks of Bedouin smugglers on the Sinai Peninsula, who operate from a position of political invisibility to defy governmental surveillance out in the open desert.

Shadi Habib Allah, Untitled, 2015 (still). Courtesy the artist and Green Art Gallery, Dubai.

"Surround Audience" also sets out to explore the myriad ways artists maneuver outside the established channels of the art world and "how art is migrating across context," from YouTube and Instagram, to corporate boardrooms and nightclubs. The artist collective DIS, for instance, moves deftly between the worlds of branding, luxury goods, fashion, and marketing, while rejecting the "false claims of market autonomy" often espoused in the art world. Cornell identifies that artists are increasingly "mobilizing the 'art world' as a home base, a point to alight from or touch down, but not an exclusive final destination," embracing other forms of popular culture and dispersing their works through the networks and channels of the internet. These works, existing independently from the curated and protective environment of the art institution, form what could be considered an "embedded critique" within culture at large. Maine-based artist and poet Steve Roggenbuck's emphatic, humorous and idiosyncratic works exist primarily on social media networks like YouTube and Twitter, while Los Angeles artist/comedienne Casey Jane Ellison's work can be defined as the development of a cultivated public persona, which she broadcasts on Twitter, in video stand-up routines and through her video talk show "Touching the Art" (Ellison will be filming new episodes of "Touching the Art" at the New Museum over the course of the exhibition). These dispersed and decentralized art practices present a challenge to the art institution, and it will be interesting to see how the curators will harness them for display and consideration within the museum.

DIS, Studies for The Island, 2015. Codesigned by Mike Meiré. Courtesy the artists and Dornbracht.

A survey exhibition like the New Museum Triennial is a naturally fraught enterprise, a precarious undertaking. "Surround Audience" acknowledges this right in its promotional campaign, designed by artist and trend-casting collective K-HOLE. "Nothing Lasts Forever," reads one of the posters promoting the show, while another announces, "We Really Tried This Time." These tongue-in-cheek pronouncements simultaneously curb expectations while heightening the desire to confirm whether those expectations compare to the experience of "the real thing." 

K-HOLE,"Extended Release": I'll Triennial Once, 2015. Courtesy the artists.

"Will the art of today be seen as conservative or radical in the future? We can't predict," admits Cornell in her essay. It remains to be seen whether the artists in "Surround Audience" will have a lasting impact on art history, and the way we view, make, and consume art. I suppose we'll only know in retrospect.


--Natalie Hegert