As is clear, not least from this summer’s news reports, our time is marked by rising nationalism and racism, growing terrorism and an increasing number of refugees. In parallel, the scientific fields of nanotechnology, neuroscience and digital image production have advanced. The New Human at Moderna Museet in Stockholm presents around twenty video works and films on some of these topics, as symptoms of a world in flux. “Today, thirty-year-olds can rightfully claim that the world looks completely different compared to when they were children”, stresses the press release, which mentions the September 11 attacks against World Trade Center as a turning point for this new age.
The New Human concludes an exhibition trilogy, whose previous parts were installed at Moderna Museet in Malmö. The presentation in Stockholm goes on for nearly a year, showing different films at different times. Its form is described as something in-between an exhibition and a film festival, and the list of works looks like a film program containing information about what films will be running at what times. Because of the length of the films, it is practically impossible to see all of them in one visit. The format works so-so. Despite headphones, the sound leaks through the walls of the installations. And in contrast to the space of cinema, which forces us to stay for the duration of a film, visitors here tend to stay only a few minutes with each work, at least on those occasions when I visited the exhibition.
At the center of the exhibition is Tomáš Rafa’s work spanning several years, that documents people who have fled their countries of birth and presently live in overcrowded refugee camps along the borders of Europe. Rafa has as also depicted the growing far right and Nazi movements in the former Eastern Bloc, as well as the Roma population being oppressed in those countries. A monitor in the entrance shows the violent Citizens and Extremist Protest Against Roma People, Ostrava, Czech Republic (2013), in which men and women dressed in black walk the streets carrying the Czech flag and shouting that the Roma people must leave the city. “Let’s do as in the Middle ages, and destroy their settlements”, cries a young man who gets the marching crowd to go along with him. Meanwhile, Rafa’s ongoing documentation of refugees making their way to Europe is presented on several screens in one room of the exhibition. One film in particular stays with me: the photographer stands among desperate people at the border to Croatia, where a barbed wire fence is being set up. Amid the rain and the grey setting, we see police in riot gear pushing the crowd of older women, hysterically screaming children and teenagers having difficulty breathing under the pressure created by all the bodies wanting cross to the other side. I experience feelings of suffocation, and wonder why I haven’t before seen these films that give a brutal insight into a reality rarely shown on the news.
Several of the works in The New Human deal with how technological developments in image production – animation especially – changes our relation to images. Harun Farocki’s two-channel film installation, Serious Game III: Immersion (2009), follows two American soldiers who suffer from post-traumatic stress after the war in Iraq. They are therefore offered a new kind of therapy based on reliving the traumatic events by returning, like a player in an animated computer game, to the war zone. That the same technology is used to prepare soldiers for war shows what power these new image technologies have over people’s lives. Hito Steyerl’s film How Not To Be Seen: A Fucking Didactic Educational Mov. File (2014) inquires, like so many of her films, into what it means that our existence is increasingly bound to whether or not we are represented by images. The film humorously leads us through different instructions on how we can erase ourselves from the images that are generated by surveillance cameras and social media, and how we thereby can “disappear” in a more existential sense.
Another theme of the exhibition is how advancements within fields such as nano- and robotics technology effect the perception of humans. In Daria Martin’s film Soft Materials (2014), we see two naked dancers, a man and a woman, interacting with robots in the early stages of production. We see how the dancers sensually touch the robots and let themselves be touched by them. The stark contrast between human and machine, the sterile space of the action and the grainy quality of the 16mm film, is reminiscent of different psychological experiments made during the 20th century. In Zero Point Energy (2016) Kerstin Hamilton, too, has accessed publicly non-accessible research, which devotes itself to examining the smallest constituting parts of matter through special optics. We see the camera pan past dancers dressed in white, full bodysuits. Sometimes they move slowly and theatrically, other times they emphasize motion patterns that one can imagine taking place in a laboratory. Unfortunately, we never see the images that the scientists relate to and which represent the power exercised by science. Nanotechnology is to a large extent about the image’s ability to represent the nanometer, a measurement that is the equivalent of one-billionth of a meter. I want to know what these images look like, but instead Hamilton chooses to dramatize the environment where nanotechnology happens.
The works by Martin and Hamilton both dichotomize humans and technology by using dance as a metaphor for the human, which is reminiscent of how modern dance often represented the exoticism of colonial “others”. This nostalgic dimension becomes even more clear in Ed Atkins’s animation Even Pricks (2013), which appears more as glorifying the aesthetic that the artist himself grew up with in the eighties, than critically questioning what animated image representation looks like today.
What kind of new human does The New Human want to create or reflect? Although some works point toward a power to effect change ‒ such as Rafa’s exposure of images that are rarely shown by mainstream media ‒ most are dystopian reflections of the dismal world we live in. Rather than showing how art in times of social and political upheaval can mirror this experience in new and unexpected ways, the exhibition appears as largely retrospective in terms of both form and content. I am struck by how the phenomena that are brought up ‒ waves of refugees, technological development, and right wing nationalism ‒ have been recurring for the past 150 years. It is hard to tell what exactly is new about these phenomena. People have been on the move throughout all ages, as many scholars have pointed out, and the fascism we now see flourishing in the United States and Europe is historically intertwined with modernity. And even if new technological sciences, for reasons not least financial and political, wish to appear as presenting a new humanity, mankind remains the same threat against itself that it has so often been before.
The New Human presents a complex image of the present, but instead of using art to critically reflect on contemporary experiences, the exhibition’s thematic appears as one way of capitalizing on the experience and the notion of the new. The problem with the position that sees religious extremism and political violence as expressions of new and changing times, is that it risks blinding us to how contemporary political conflicts are part of a historical development. In the end, it is perhaps the exhibition’s lack of historical grounding that is its most contemporary aspect, which makes it typical of the time it wants to capture.