Seeing is Revealing: In Conversation with Artist Emmanuel Van der Auwera
In his current solo show “Seeing is Revealing” at House of Electronic Arts in Basel, Switzerland, Emmanuel Van der Auwera is premiering three new works that join his older works in an expansive survey of his work curated by Sabine Himmelsbach. Largely working with hacked, inverted, sliced, and fragmented video installations, his work tends to poke into the surveillance state, the threats of AI, and the eeriness of online found materials, questioning what it means to be an autonomous citizen today.
The Belgian artist’s work has been shown in numerous exhibitions worldwide, including Centre Pompidou and Palais de Tokyo in Paris, Ars Electronica in Linz, as well as various solo shows with his Brussels gallery Harlan Levey Projects. In 2019, the Dallas Museum of Art acquired his VideoSculpture XX (The World’s 6th Sense) for their permanent collection (also on view at “Seeing is Revealing”), exploring the infringement of the thermal imaging camera surveillance that was utilised discreetly by a private company in Las Vegas. The work is part of the “VideoSculpture” series he started a decade ago, where he cuts into LCD screens with a knife.
Installation view of “Seeing is Revealing”. Photo: Franz Wamhof
From YouTube celebrities to archived material off defunct platforms like Periscope, Van der Auwera evidently seems to enjoy traversing through online rabbit holes. “What an incredible time to be an artist!” he tells us. To coincide with Art Basel 2022, we caught up with the artist to talk about the American “dream machine”, hypothetical futures, digital media literacy, and his upcoming plans.
To what extent does previous work inform your current work?
My research tends to grow from one work to the next, and new work is often influenced by what I did before. The completion of a work brings resolution but also leaves many leads open, and many questions unanswered. Most of the time, those openings need to be addressed in another medium or language. Previous work deeply informs and influences my current work, and current work will have the same impact on future works I’m sure.
A video I made in 2014 titled “A Certain Amount of Clarity” illustrates this pretty well. It consists of found video that documents a phenomenon from the dark age of meme culture: an internet challenge where teens filmed their emotional reactions to an authentic murder caught on film and shared these responses on YouTube. My current work continues to engage with the implication I drew from this work, and although I didn’t know it at the time, shaped the core of my current practice. From this work came the idea of bringing a knife to the screen, an act of destruction that grew to become the VideoSculpture series. The documentation of the internet phenomenon was also the driver behind works like Wake me up at 4.20 and The sky is on fire where observers are active creators as well as disengaged witnesses. A sense of de-humanising our gaze is a thread through many works including those in the HEK Basel exhibition, particularly NSJ.
Installation view of NSJ, 2022, House of Electronic Arts. Basel, Switzerland. Photo: Franz Wamhof
In your latest works across “Seeing is Revealing” at HEK Basel, you tap into various timely issues present in the US. What drew you to these aspects of the current climate, and in what way do you find these issues to be of European, and global, concern?
The US has always attracted me. This started long before I became an artist. Looking at it from a European standpoint, the US has this familiar strangeness, like a distorted reflection of old Europe made anew. It is a “known unknown” to a European. Obviously, we in Europe live surrounded by the products of the US cultural industry, and the US itself is a kind of dream machine that hooks you by selling you iterations of the dream. It’s the gift of the US, its cultural identity is also your own, it’s transnational. In that sense, I feel I’m a citizen at the fringe border of an empire.
The current climate — marked by deep political, ideological rifts — is felt everywhere, and illustrates how the Western compass has shifted. It’s like being an artist during the sack of Rome and being asked why this is a relevant subject. It’s just the story of the Era. The US gave the internet and social media to the world, and if you think of it in terms of “manifest destiny”, maybe the US is not necessary anymore. The dream has taken over.
You grew up at a time when childhoods were devoid of the internet. Do you think this has helped you investigate the absurdities of digital media, like deep fakes, differently?
I was eighteen the first time I got a cellphone. That thing was of course, not yet connected to the internet. Google was not there. Social media did not exist. Can you believe that? If you answer no, then you’re a digital native born in a strange new land. I can only speak from my own experience, so I don’t know if it helped or if it was detrimental to fully grasp the intensity of it all. But it is true that I feel that by growing up right before the turn and having experienced a world without the internet, I have witnessed something unique in the history of our species; similar in scale and implication to the fish suddenly walking out of the water to go dance inside of the microwave. For better or worse, it is that kind of evolution. What an incredible time to be an artist!
The visual language of digital culture is so foreign when compared to what was there before. That’s what drives me to investigate internet conspiracy, social media challenges of extreme nature, or AI identity-altering technology like deep fakes. These are symptoms, a needle-sized hole in which you can peep into a larger picture. I think I want to keep my amazement fresh; I don’t want to get accustomed to it. It is still a strange and new land, and I want to keep it that way. I think this attitude helps me look at it in a different light and with a different lens. Reality today is way too bizarre to accept as a new normal.
Installation view of VideoSculpture XX (The World’s 6th Sense), 2019, House of Electronic Arts. Basel, Switzerland. Photo: Moritz Schermbach
I’d love to hear more about your new work VideoSculpture XXV(Archons), particularly the influence of Rik Ferguson.
Archons depicts a world close to ours but transported into a hypothetical future. I wanted to create a piece where the spectator could look at the surface of the black lacquered glass and see a reflection of our own time. This may have something to do with our current zeitgeist. What I mean by that is that the present feels like it is accelerating, that the current environment is so fluid that there is a shared sense of being in a time capsule, drifting at lightspeed.
Rik Ferguson is a cyber security expert and futurist. I found a white paper he wrote in 2020 where he maps the security challenges for the year 2030, according to current trends and technological evolution. The white paper is made to offer perspective and thought to the cybersecurity and law community, but there is a Philip K. Dick feel to it. Ferguson discusses a world where the internet is accessed via contact lenses, and in which the virtual and digital worlds have almost fully merged. Digital avatars are omnipresent, and so are synthetic media generated by AI. It would no longer be possible for people to distinguish between what is genuine and what is fabricated. AI-controlled avatars of diseased people roam free, interacting with their loved ones and with the net, and having their own agency. All the while, disinformation warfare between hostile states, or corporations, or political groups, is raging.
It is a world in transition, from post-truth to post-life as we know it. I got inspired by this depiction of the future because it is such an exaggerated vision of what is happening now, a sort of “fun-house” rendition. I used it as a canvas for the 19-minute video work visible in the installation. The video is my attempt to grasp the spirit of the “post-truth” era and where things could go from here.
Installation view of VideoSculpture XXV (Archons), 2022, House of Electronic Arts. Basel, Switzerland. Photo: Franz Wamhof
Taking the crystal ball out, what do you think our “next big concern” in terms of digital media literacy might be?
It’s always tricky to prophesise because we tend to see the future as an extrapolation of what’s trending today. The evolution of digital culture is intrinsically linked to technological innovation. The internet has already gone through several revolutions, from the laptop computer to the miniaturised smartphone, from a global library of information to the human ecosystem of social media. Each time, it has reshaped what we recognize to be a digital experience. In the last couple of years, AI technology has had several breakthroughs. We are just starting to implement them and find new applications every day. Deepfakes are spectacular today, but they’re just a glimpse at what GAN will be capable of achieving in a matter of years. Algorithms will get much more precise at monitoring every micro-ripple in their underworld ocean — like a kingdom of data.
When I look at collective reactions, that’s what gets me very worried. We can always say that this is just internet trash, but conspiracy and the worst of meme culture are going mainstream. With the recent Depp v. Heard trial, it became obvious to me that the sort of “hive-mind” mentality and behavior is the bread and butter of Facebook, Twitter, and TikTok machines, the raison d’être of the whole apparatus. It needs raw emotion as currency, and to instigate that it pushes to the surface the more controversial, absurd, or shocking narrative, then waits while it percolates by itself.
Installation view of NSJ, 2022, House of Electronic Arts. Basel, Switzerland. Photo: Moritz Schermbach
On a lighter note: what is the Brussels art scene like? Has it changed over the years?
Brussels is a great place for an artist to live and over the past decade many artists, curators, and other creatives have moved to the European capital. The scene seems to keep growing and is large enough that there are actually many ‘scenes’. The city has been a fascinating cultural crossroads for hundreds of years and is inspiring and full of profound contradictions on every level. It’s much smaller and slower than New York, London, or Paris for example, but has as many different nationalities as all of them.
Until recently, it has remained extremely affordable, and its location makes it easy to get almost anywhere comparatively quickly. Brussels and Belgium also have deep art history and are hotbeds for all strands of contemporary practice — dance, performance, fashion, music, film, conceptual, decorative, and so on. There’s also a great ecosphere for artists that includes lively institutions, leading galleries, and many state-run programs that support artistic production and reflection.
I’m grateful for residency opportunities like those at WIELS, HISK, and more recently, MINDSPACES that helped me both shape and share my practice. As well as the support of the Federation Wallonie Bruxelles who along with my gallery, Harlan Levey Projects, helped realise the works in this exhibition in Basel.
Installation view of “Seeing is Revealing”. Photo: Moritz Schermbach
What’s upcoming for you over the next year?
Later this summer, I’ll have a solo exhibition in Biel at the Photoforum Pasquart, which compliments the HEK exhibition nicely by bringing forward series of works that aren’t on view in Basel. I’m also working on a new film that I’m very excited about and will have my first exhibition in London as well as my third solo exhibition with Harlan Levey Projects later in the year. Beyond that, I’m excited to follow some of the leads left open from my work over the past two years, which is on view at HEK.
Explore more exhibitions to see in 2022.
Cover Credit: Franz Wamhof
Writer | Bana Bissat
Bana Bissat is a Milan-based writer who reports on sound art for Sound of Life. She has written for Flash Art, Lampoon, and Cultured. @banabissat