It would be no exaggeration to say that Sandra Mujinga has become hyper-visible in recent years. In 2021, she had her first solo show in the United States at the Swiss Institute in New York, an institution that many look towards when it comes to identifying trends in contemporary art. Shortly afterwards, she received Germany’s most important award for young artists, the Preis der Nationalgalerie; as part of the award, she will present a major exhibition at Hamburger Bahnhof later this year.
By contrast, the protagonist of Mujinga’s exhibition at the Munch Museum in Oslo is only visible in glimpses. This figure, a 2D animated character which looks as if lifted straight out of a sci-fi comic book or video game, fades in and out of the exhibition’s three projections: 3D animations of pulsating, viscous patterns in metallic shades of purple, green, and red that spin out of the centre of the image to create a tunnel-like effect. The images are projected from disturbing sculptures that look like metal-clad robotic dragons and loom large above us, standing several metres tall. The animations are projected from what appear to be the sculptures’ eyes onto translucent glass surfaces with side walls, also made of glass. Visitors can move around these structures, thereby exploring how the dancing lights and colours refract through the glass from all angles.
The first time I saw the character – which Mujinga developed in collaboration with character designer and animator Saphira Nancy – it was running across the image, visible in profile. I managed to register that its body is athletic, gravitating towards the monstrously masculine, with superhuman amounts of bulging muscle. Does it have bluish-purple skin, or is it wearing a tight-fitting bodysuit? The second time I saw it, I noticed that its head consists of coiling tentacles covered in suckers and has neither eyes nor a mouth.
In the projection where the kaleidoscopic 3D patterns move the fastest, octopus man (as I choose to call him) stands still, visible as a translucent half-figure that fills out most of the frame, and appears short of breath. Taking off his octopus head, he turns out to be a young Black man with a narrow face and long dreadlocks. The soundtrack that constantly fills the space mixes the reverberating sounds of dripping water with synth tones and rumbling bass, rather like an ambient DJ set that never really gets going.
I imagine that the octopus man is on the run in Mujinga’s nostalgic staging of cyberspace, moving through streams of data. The animations that he fades in and out of have the same pulsating character as the visualisers in 1990s mp3 playback software. Nostalgia for the internet and software culture of the 1990s and 2000s – before the emergence of hegemonic search engines and SoMe companies – seems to be a generational trait shared by people who have recently turned 30. In the book Glitch Feminism, published by Verso in 2020, the American curator Legacy Russell describes how she, as a young teenager with access to the internet, could experiment with gender, sexuality, and the body in ways that would not have been accepted offscreen. Mujinga too expressed an affinity with a post-digital and polymorphic approach to the self in a 2016 interview with Kunstkritikk: “When I am online, I exist as a poly-body. There I exist on several levels. There I can make room for complexity.”
How should we understand the octopus man’s hidden face and his flight between different projections? One possible explanation is that while the web can be a place for exploring different identities, it is also a profit-driven surveillance machine capable of creating and exploiting profiles on everything from sexual preferences to patterns of movement. By extension, there are endless examples of how artificial intelligence and other tools that depend on large data sets can amplify pre-existing discrimination in everything from the housing and job markets to police work.
Mujinga’s installation seems to distil these conflicts between the fixed and the floating web through intuitive aesthetic links forged across past and present tropes of online culture, mingled and merged with sci-fi, cyberpunk, software, and so on. The result is a club-like space – an archetype that has been sorely missed during the pandemic – in which most 30-year-olds will immediately feel at home. At the same time, the dystopian elements, such as the looming dragons (are they the threat that the octopus man is trying to avoid?), are as much symbolic of surveillance capitalism as they are emblematic of sci-fi. After all, there is little to suggest that today’s visions for how IRL and online life will be further integrated – whether in the form of web3 or the Metaverse – will ease the profit-motivated collection of data that is not in the user’s interest. Indeed, Mujinga’s retro-futurism suggests a world stuck on repeat.