Power and commerce are explored at London Art Fair
January 20, 2016

Emerging galleries question the future of the art market amidst the rise of new technology, as risk-taking artists confront the darker undercurrents of the digital age

Entering the London Art Fair, we find ourselves amidst a range of Modern British painting, from Alfred Wallis’ quiet coastline renderings at the Jerwood Gallery’s prominent ground-floor stand to an early Patrick Procktor work at the Redfern Gallery. Nearby at VIGO Gallery, Oliver Marsden’s large-scale paintings appear almost luminous as they translate light, colour and other natural phenomena to pigment. Meanwhile on the same stand, two LED screens by Heywood & Condie show abstract close-ups of thick paint being slowly poured, their colours blending richly together. Set amongst numerous painted works, it is easy to at first mistake the screens for canvas; pixel for pigment. We retrace our steps to do a double take.

This diversity is reflected throughout in the ambitious scope of the fair, demonstrated most clearly in its 'Art Projects' section, nestled on the top floor. A curated showcase of new and emerging international galleries can be found here, bringing a firmly contemporary outlook to the fair. The pervasiveness of digital culture could be seen as a recurring theme in a number of the installations displayed, its more subtle influence on the networks of power that govern our lives found everywhere from a cryptocurrency video game to a series of performances commissioned from an online labour force.

 

Set amongst numerous painted works, it is easy to at first mistake the screens for canvas; pixel for pigment.

 

At NOME Gallery’s stand, a large photo shows Julian Assange, tinted a deep red. Part of a series by Jacob Appelbaum, an independent computer security researcher and artist, the portrait was shot on colour infrared film originally used in agricultural surveillance and forensics investigations to reveal more information than standard film. Adopted in a newly political context to depict figures linked to the Snowden revelations, the camera lens is imbued with the sinister omnipresence of surveillance at large. On the opposite wall, Paolo Cirio turns his camera to the other side of the revelations in Overexposed. Unauthorised pictures of NSA and FBI officers were spray-painted onto public walls and presented here on canvases, exploiting the same systems of dissemination and propaganda that intelligence organisations utilise.

Gesture Control by Jeremy Hutchison, presented at the Division of Labour stand, takes on the simple bodily gestures recently patented by technology companies to be applied to the programming of devices such as laptops and televisions, whereby users can administer digital commands through their own physical movement. Hutchison addresses the ownership and agency of these gestures as he employs a workforce of online labourers to film themselves performing these from their own living rooms, sourced from profiles in which they promise ‘I will do anything for $5’.

 

Adopted in a newly political context to depict figures linked to the Snowden revelations, the camera lens is imbued with the sinister omnipresence of surveillance at large.

 

Hutchison won last year’s inaugural De’Longhi Art Projects Artist Award, given this year to Belgian artist Joachim Coucke for his installation Fishing the Pool at Antwerp’s NEST Gallery. Focused on the materiality of the virtual realm, it features pillars wound in ethernet cables and minimal, text-based works whose slogans that confront our experience of the internet. Speaking at the fair ahead of his win, he explains, “I like working with physical materials, which relate to the digital and the internet but are taken from a distance. In a way it is like a loop. Looking into this digital ocean of information, I catch a small piece of information, take it to the studio and translate it.” A server sits amidst the cables, quietly gathering ‘lightcoins’ (similar to Bitcoin). “This work has a material value as a piece of art, but it creates extra value while being presented during the exhibition,” he says. “The latter is not visible for the visitors but it opens a dialogue on our future economy.”

Cryptocurrencies are explored further in Art Projects by arts organisation Furtherfield in their presentation of Play Art Data Money, a video game that playfully addresses the economic future of the art world. Ruth Catlow, Furtherfield founder and the artist behind the game, tells us, “We aimed to build a collective project in which people draw, make and play games about the future of places they care about. In it, this can lead to prosperity for all, or to total catastrophe.” Players take on the role of ‘Art Angel’ and must jump through levels collecting ‘social assets’ in the shape of Instagram, Twitter or Bitcoin tokens to feed ‘bunnybots’ and complete the game. “I think that it is big data and the developments around crypto-currencies that are having a huge but invisible effect on our global economy,” Catlow says. Her work at Furtherfield is focused on engaging with change and through the creation of a new language to discuss and improve the impact of technology on our lives. "Technology will change depending on what we do with it. We would like to diversify the people working with technologies that are good for us all, rather than just a few.”

 

I think that it is big data and the developments around crypto-currencies that are having a huge but invisible effect on our global economy.

 

The artists tackling the political and economic implications of this technology stand out most at this year’s London Art Fair, bringing its darker undercurrents to the forefront. While well-known names such as Grayson Perry and Francis Bacon can be found at the stands of more established galleries, it is a new generation of artists who show themselves willing to confront head-on the systems of value and capital inherent within the commercial context of the fair. The wide scope of work on show, crossing decades and disciplines, builds a strong backdrop to these concerns. Here we find a surprising nod to the timelessness of the systems of power at play within the art market, while acknowledging the renewed urgency of these issues that cannot be ignored amidst the technological landscape of today.

 

The London Art Fair takes place from 20-24 January 2016 at the Business Design Centre in Islington.

 

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