The Baltic’s “Digital Citizen: the Precarious Subject”, groups together works from contemporary artists on the themes of citizenship and self-identity in today’s digital age. These are ideas that are undeniably rife in the modern world: fake news is all the rage in the era of Trump tweets and insta-journalism, hysteria about online surveillance has been hyped since the Zuckerbergian Cambridge Analytica scandal, ideas about identity are causing havoc with the rising acceptance of gender-fluidity and dare-I-say Brexit is making us question democracy and our collective identity in an increasingly divided world. The Baltic’s collection brings these pressing issues together in a unique way: one that links together current affairs and hot topics by their common participation in a wider digital revolution.
This was my first visit to the Baltic gallery, and it did not disappoint. Just over the bridge from Quayside, it occupies a converted flour mill- striking and industrialist with a spacious, modern interior. It definitely fills the Tate Modern needs of my London roots- a magnet for edgy fine-art types and septum piercings- and I felt very at home (if a little twatty) with my moleskine notebook and a DSLR slung over my shoulder. “Digital Citizen” was in the main exhibition room on the ground floor. Upon walking in I could see that it incorporated many different artistic mediums, from photos and short films, to interactive structures and three dimensional artwork by a range of up-and-coming artists. In the dimmed space and with a digital hum coming from a screening in the next room, its themes of eerie online surveillance and the blurred distinctions between reality and simulation felt especially poignant.
I left the exhibition feeling sufficiently spooked, but enlightened
I was immediately drawn to Alan Warburton’s “Trollololologram”, a funky illusionistic hologram (or “Lenticular print”) that depicts a 3D representation of “keyboard warriors” at their desks. The characters change at every viewing angle, each hunched over in the same position at their computers, but are obscured by flecks of prismatic colours and holographic effects. Warburton takes the mundanity of teenage internet trolls in their bedroom and conjures their position in an eerie and precarious technological future, exploring their significance in internet-driven ideologies such as the alt-right.
In the next room there is a screening of Warburton’s “Goodbye Uncanny Valley”, a short film that explores the historical limits imposed by technologies on CGI and our rapid technological advancement since. He questions the consequences of being able to create hyper-realistic depictions of almost anything using software, and the boundaries this crosses between falseness and reality. “As computer graphics get better”, he puts “we believe all images less”.
Another stand-out piece was the prominent media installation that centres the exhibition room, “Plato’s Lair”. A white, shed-like box from the outside, this sculpture by Peter Hanmer involves sticking your head through the fabric-covered viewing holes to see what is inside. Shadowy and dimly lit, it includes a series of miniature figures, each involved in various strategies to try and escape the box. It acts as a modernised allegory for Plato’s famous allegory of the Cave, which calls into question ideas about the nature of reality itself. In this case, Hanmer critiques the restricted field of truth imposed by today’s ideological echo-chambers, and encourages us to seek to look at things from new and varying viewpoints.
I left the exhibition feeling sufficiently spooked, but enlightened. The consequences of living in a digital age means an uncomfortable new linking between the online world and reality- a treading between the reassuring feeling of anonymity and the constant online surveillance to which we are the subjects.