Metahaven: The Sprawl

Review

Metahaven: The Sprawl

By Anton Stuebner February 2, 2016

A massive red moon appeared in the night sky on September 27, 2015. Scientists hailed the occurrence as an astronomical phenomenon, a rare optical effect resulting from the confluence of a lunar eclipse and a supermoon.1 Christian extremists, however, interpreted the event as an apocalyptic sign, with claims that the “blood moon” marked the beginning of the Earth’s imminent destruction.2 These fanatical fears became so widespread that CNN, the Guardian, and the Washington Post ran columns exploring possible end-of-world scenarios.3

The world did not suddenly implode on September 27. But it’d be easy to think otherwise given the litany of violence that made headlines in 2015. The Syrian refugee crisis, the proliferation of ISIS, and mass shootings in France and the United States mark only a handful of horrors that should make us collectively wonder if a near-constant state of trauma is suddenly the new norm. The blood-hued moon in the sky may not be a divine harbinger of doom, but the cultural metaphors that it provokes—of a supernatural lunacy, of violence and blood—are too difficult to ignore.

Metahaven. The Sprawl (still), 2015. Co-produced by Lighthouse and commissioned by Lighthouse and the Space.

It’s hard to take your eyes off of the colossal red moon that dominates The Sprawl, the video-based installation at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts by Metahaven, the Dutch-based design collaborative founded by Vinca Kruk and Daniel van der Velden. Projected against the gallery’s rear wall, its ominous presence dwarfs the five mounted television monitors that function as the exhibit’s primary means of display. This juxtaposition between natural phenomena and technological devices raises questions about how screen-based media continually define (and redefine) our perceptual experience of surrounding environments. But in drawing on the symbolic associations around the “blood moon,” Metahaven’s installation evokes the anxiety and paranoia of living in a world marred by violence, while also critiquing how images reinforce violent narratives through visual association and metaphor.

Commissioned by British arts organizations Lighthouse and the Space, The Sprawl was conceptualized as “an episodic internet documentary” looking at how states, activists, and terrorists utilize the internet to access wider online publics.4 Described by Metahaven as “propaganda about propaganda,” the film includes clips that show how online-based platforms facilitate networks for organizing mass-scale protests, disseminating state ideologies, and recruiting members to insurgent sects.5 The film was conceived as a series of individual episodes intended for distribution through video- and image-sharing websites such as Vimeo and Tumblr. Due to unforeseen delays, however, the project's planned June 2015 web launch was postponed.6

Metahaven. The Sprawl (still), 2015. Co-produced by Lighthouse and commissioned by Lighthouse and the Space.

The current installation at YBCA, by extension, marks the completed film's debut in the public realm.7 In imagining the work for a decidedly physical setting, Metahaven and curator Ceci Moss faced a number of challenges. Comprising news excerpts, interviews, animation, and brief vignettes, the 70-minute film depicts how three recent geopolitical events—the Ebola outbreak, the Russian Federation’s annexation of Crimea, and the recent rise of ISIS—have been depicted in mainstream and alternative media. The conditions of The Sprawl’s proposed web release means that viewers can engage with the film through the privacy of their own screens. Its online format also means that a viewer encountering, say, an unfamiliar news clip of the Crimean invasion could open up a web browser and instantly find supplementary sources for additional content. In a screening context, however, the work loses this interactivity and, with it, the possibility for the unintended divergences and individual associations—arguably, the sprawl of the work’s title—that its originally intended medium not only allows but encourages.

The installation at YBCA attempts to create a viewing experience that is, quite literally, multilayered. Viewers entering the gallery’s main entrance are invited to sit along a bench. Five columns are positioned throughout the gallery at varying depths; a flat-screen monitor mounted at a different height on each column faces the viewer. The cumulative effect feels akin to watching pop-ups appear on a computer screen, each window/screen tiled across and over one another. Three of the monitors stream The Sprawl from one point, while the other two stream it from another. The audio track only matches one stream at a time, creating a discordant experience in which the disparate images simultaneously harmonize and clash with the sound. The blood moon projection lingers behind it all, a dark portent for the trauma depicted onscreen.  

Metahaven. The Sprawl (still), 2015. Co-produced by Lighthouse and commissioned by Lighthouse and the Space.

In presenting their work as a critique of representation itself, Metahaven suggest that images gain symbolic power from the multiple narratives that overlay, alter, and distort their meaning. Likewise, the juxtaposition of clips from news networks against declassified clips of military intervention from anonymous reportage sites such as War Leaker offers a contrasting study of the effect of dominant and counter narratives on public consciousness of warfare and other violent events. Additional interview clips with scholars and activists add an erudite veneer. But none of these narratives are ever fully sustained, and The Sprawl comes off less as a documentary about insurgents and propaganda machines and more as a loosely satirical take on cultures of representation. Absurdist interludes featuring actors silently posing in front of monochromatic screens with captions such as “actress claiming the right to have a perspective” bring this satire to the forefront, as do recurring animated overlays of emoticons and symbols such as dollar signs that appear throughout the film. Metahaven ultimately argues that all representation is mediated by external disruptions that affect how we respond and react to images. It’s a compelling and insightful argument, but it’s also fairly easy to glean, especially in light of the extensive curatorial and artist statements that accompany the installation, both of which leave little to the imagination.

Metahaven. The Sprawl, installation view, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 2015. Courtesy of Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. Photo: Charlie Villyard.

The Sprawl is too dense a work to be sufficiently contained by a single installation, and YBCA’s exhibition forecloses those chances for interactive viewership that made its impending web release so compellingly expansive. But there are flashes of clarity throughout. The most resonant moments in the film are a series of wordless vignettes featuring actors blankly staring into flat-screen monitors, their faces mirrored back like ghostly avatars. These brief scenes have a startling echo in YBCA’s installation: mirrored surfaces mounted on the columns’ backsides reflect the viewer’s face, the red moon lingering in the background. In these moments, Metahaven poetically suggests that trauma’s real origins aren’t found in the images on screen—they’re located within ourselves and in our inherent capacity for perpetuating violence in the world around us.

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Metahaven: The Sprawl is on view at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, in

San Francisco

, through April 3, 2016.

Notes

  1. http://www.cnn.com/2015/09/01/living/blood-moon-biblical-prophecy-feat  For further explication of this phenomenon, see NASA’s excellent article on the September 27, 2015, eclipse: https://www.nasa.gov/feature/goddard/nasa-scientist-sheds-light-on-rare-sept-27-supermoon-eclipse.
  2.  The popularity of Texas pastor John Hagee’s Armageddon-themed tome Four Blood Moons (2013) on Amazon.com’s bestseller list precipitated a renewed interest in apocalyptic narratives, and later articles in the doomsday symbology around “blood moons,” as cited below, reference Hagee’s work extensively.
  3. The Washington Post began running debates on the “blood moon apocalypse” as early as April 2015: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2015/04/03/everything-you-need-to-know-about-the-blood-moon-apocalypse-debate. For additional citations, see CNN’s coverage of the phenomenon from September 2015, http://www.cnn.com/2015/09/01/living/blood-moon-biblical-prophecy-feat, and the Guardian’s piece that originally appeared in the newspaper’s religion column, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/sep/27/blood-moon-apocalypse-nasa-lunar-eclipse-supermoon.
  4.  From the October 2014 program notes for Lighthouse’s original commission of The Sprawl at the Space: http://www.lighthouse.org.uk/programme/the-space-commission-the-sprawl.
  5. From the exhibition’s curatorial notes.
  6. As per the author's February 2015 correspondence with curator Ceci Moss, the film’s web launch is impending with plans to stream The Sprawl both in its entirely and as discrete episodes.
  7. The complete film also screened for one night only at Witte de With Contemporary Art in Rotterdam: http://www.wdw.nl/event/78206-2/.

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