Group Exhibition Tumbling In Harness
- Oreet Ashery
- Common Accounts
- Stine Deja
- Charlie Engman
- Russell Perkins
- Vunkwan Tam
This exhibition brings together Oreet Ashery, Common Accounts, Stine Deja, Charlie Engman, Russell Perkins, and Vunkwan Tam, six artists who explore representations of death and grief within the digital sphere. Collectively, their work acts as an inquiry into the sociological implications of online death in the age of advanced capitalism—a complex, recently-emergent phenomenon whose consequences are yet to be fully understood.
As the world has become increasingly integrated with online media, the temporal and spatial boundaries of digital memorialization complicate the notion of what remains of a life after death, and how the bereaved “gather” in the absence of physical bodies. In the moment of death, a person’s social media profile transforms from an attestation of their vitality to a public archive imbued with meaning, occupying a liminal space between remembrance and forgetting, and material and spiritual. These profiles house the digital remains of the deceased—articulating their digital assets, their digital bodies—carving out new avenues that influence what is remembered and how, and through which rituals and practices the dead are commemorated.
For most in Western societies, death today is no longer a familiar or first-hand experience, as it was for most people just a century or two ago, but it is now something increasingly filtered through media screens. Social media users participate in online grieving processes shaped by the social media platforms in play. Representations of death, dying, and grief become harnessed—selected, edited, revised, and revalued according to a particular digital interface—within the framework of a managed website with existing commercial provisions. The nature of these platforms reflect their engineers’ economic motivations; they are designed according to algorithmic logic rooted in the measurable value of popularity. As death is increasingly ritualized through social media platforms, where the posthumous online self persists, the promise of digital afterlife becomes a sought-after commodity. Tumbling in Harness brings together a group of artists whose work considers how rituals of death and dying intersect with online technologies that are ultimately determined by consumerist and algorithmic assumptions.
In Untitled (The traffic noise arched over a bubbling mass of public conversation and pattering footsteps on concrete) (2021), Vunkwan Tam lays out two black body bags across the floor, conjoined and flattened. With a kind of matter-of-factness, Tam speaks to the internet age, which often reduces conceptions of death into a single consumable mass. Devastating events of political, social or ecological violence are frequently circulated as shareable, sometimes marketable, photographs and videos, prompting fractured and apathetic online expressions of sorrow. Social media users are more accustomed to visual representations of mortality than they are to death’s corporeal reality. The emptiness of Tam’s sculpture implies the absence of a body, pointing toward the paradoxical state many of us inhabit: simultaneous physical being and digital disembodiment.
Online intermediation has recontextualized how photographic practices of death are both distributed and produced. In his photographic series, Charlie Engman uses text-to-image generating software to explore how artificial intelligence compresses the complex notion of digital death into a visual image. By feeding the program textual prompts, Engman attempts to understand the software’s visual lexicon on the theme of death and dying, generating samples compiled from pre-existing image data. The resulting images produce an aesthetic of transition and dislocation; of human figures caught in a state of transmorphism, escaping their mortal container by growing wings or dissolving into a wash of pixels. The uncanny, hyperrealist avatars constitute a posthuman reimagining of the digital ghost, whose personhood remains, although their body abandoned.
Stine Deja’s Suspended Vision (2019) displays a fragment of a human figure hung upside down within the frame of a screen, suspended outside of space and time—a ghost in the machine. Inspired by the practice of cryogenic freezing, Deja projects Western society’s wide-eyed optimism about technology’s potential to preserve life, encircled by a cold commitment to allowing material inequalities to dictate who can harness such potential.
Russell Perkins engages with artificial intelligence to extend the labour of mourning. His multi-channel sound installation The Future Tense (2021) presents an AI application that modifies the first movement of Johannes Ockeghem’s Requiem (c. 1460), the oldest surviving polyphonic funerary choral mass. The application is guided by the real movements of people: it sources GPS data recorded across the first year of the pandemic from a marketing solutions company offering “mobility insights” to help marketers anticipate human behaviour. This data accumulates whenever a cell phone moves. A rest in the requiem indicates the absence of information, the absence of movement, altering the composition so that the three voices of the funeral mass never reach harmonic resolution, singing into eternity.
The online data a user leaves behind has been theorized to comprise a kind of virtual afterlife, and novel technologies in death-care open new frontiers in how memorial might take shape today. In You Are Well Liked in Your Community (2023), Common Accounts (Igor Bragado and Miles Gertler) explore the macroscopic and ritual aspects of online death as they imagine bridges between the physical and the virtual. An LED sign exhibits death-care industry slogans, messages left by mourners in YouTube comments, and measures of datasets of internet users—virtual bodies sublimated to the cloud. In contrast, a vessel containing fluid from alkaline hydrolysis is present: the effluence of a new ecological disposition method that proposes to mitigate many of the limitations and disadvantages of burial and cremation. As social media platforms become digital cemeteries, Bragado and Gertler respond to the plural material realities of death online and IRL* and envisage death’s atomization into daily life.
Oreet Ashery’s Revisiting Genesis – Episode 8: Bambi, Online Death (2016) offers a critical perspective on the commercialization of death services. Her online web series, developed in consultation with medical and online death experts, focuses less on the traditional funereal arts than on the emergent virtual afterlife, exploring new industries that manage the longevity of one’s posthumous avatar via social media services, digital safety boxes, legacy vaults for personal information, and imaging and video messaging.
These works examine the mediated, ritualized space of online death, where digital legacy obfuscates finitude; where self identity persists beyond the physical body, and the dead lie not in cemeteries but in our very palms. In this digitized world, the dead wait patiently, forever harnessed in a state of suspension for the swipe of a finger, the click of a mouse, or, importantly, when the algorithms dictate, to conjure them back into existence. Social media platforms provide a new socially situated space to grieve; one that enables the proliferation of ‘posthumously persistent’ profiles and offers the promise of immortality by way of a digital afterlife.
*(Internet shorthand for “in real life”)
Curated by Erin Reznick
Presented by The Art Museum at the University of Toronto in partnership with CONTACT
Oreet Ashery’s practice includes live art, video, 2D image-making and installations exploring ideological, social and gender constructions against a backdrop of wider social and cultural contexts. She draws on her personal politics and identity to produce often collaborative or participatory work questioning the modes and conditions of art production. In 2017 Ashery won the Jarman Award for the work Revisiting Genesis, exhibited in London and elsewhere (2016–18), and in 2020 she was awarded a Turner Bursary for her contribution to the exhibition Misbehaving Bodies: Jo Spence and Oreet Ashery at the Wellcome Collection in London. Her work has been exhibited internationally including at the Brooklyn Museum, New York; Centre Pompidou, Paris, and the Freud Museum, London.
Common Accounts—founded in 2015 by Miles Gertler (b. 1990, Canada) and Igor Bragado (b. 1985, Spain)—is a conceptual design office based in Madrid, Toronto, and Seoul. Fueled by an underlying interest in speculative fiction, Common Accounts explores social narratives and practices of the past to project alternative systems and futures.They have taught courses at Cooper Union, Cornell University, University of Toronto, and University of Waterloo, and have guest lectured at the Harvard School of Graduate Design, Alserkal Avenue, National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea, and Soho House Istanbul. Their work has been featured in publications internationally, including The Architect’s Newspaper, Artsy, Dezeen, E-Flux, Frame, The Globe and Mail, and Uncube.
Stine Deja’s practice explores the sticky in-between of real and virtual worlds with a striking arsenal of media that includes 3D animation, immersive installation, moving image, and digital surrogates. In Deja’s simulated spaces, uncanny avatars hinge between what’s strange and familiar, seducing us with not quite-real products informed equally by the artist’s simultaneous fascination and revulsion with our hyper-commercialized contemporary culture. Concealed beneath a sleek surface, multiple layers of social critique meld with absurdist aesthetics and tragicomic narratives to create a cybernetic landscape of fantasy and desire. At the heart of all of Deja’s projects is a keen interest in how these heightened emotional states, often coaxed out by late capitalist narratives of self-care and guilt-free indulgence, are displaced onto the body.
Charlie Engman, originally as a movement artist, arrived at picture-taking as a form of visual notation. His images capture the sculptural potential of an action, as a detail of the setting is caught in the moment of becoming something other than itself. Engman’s images are at essence conceptual and visual solutions to the formal problem of picture making, pushing the scope and visual possibility of what he has to work with—models, clothing, props and sets, a certain space, light, the potential of post-production and graphic design. Engman playfully and cleverly confronts the artifice of his images, allowing the viewer to be privy to the boundaries and construction of his working environments.
Russell Perkins makes work across media that aims to understand how economic imperatives register on the individual body. Recent projects were made together with forensic scientists, professional poker players, a biochemical reagent manufacturer, and singers specializing in extended vocal techniques. He received an MFA from Hunter College in 2018, where he was The Artist’s Institute’s Lazarus Curatorial Fellow. While at Hunter, he also conducted research in the archives of architect Lina Bo Bardi in São Paulo, Brazil with support from an Evelyn Kranes Kossak Travel Grant. His work is informed by two years studying philosophy at the University of Oxford, where he was a Rhodes Scholar, and a long term commitment to anti-prison activism as co-founder of Wesleyan University’s Center for Prison Education.
Vunkwan Tam’s practice ranges across sculpture, video, text, sound, and installation. He explores ideas relating to the internet age, which flattens culturally significant objects of all eras into a single consumable mass. For Tam, this contemporary behaviour encapsulates the absurdity of the compression and contortion of (as well as disengagement from) feelings of sorrow and frustration—feelings that reached full expression in the failure to fully manifest a communal sense of mourning in the wake of the protests in Hong Kong in 2019 over encroachment by the mainland Chinese government and the way the region’s authorities were dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic.