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Review: A World Without Us



The deepest thoughts of a ‘smart’ fridge

Visual Art

In the exhibition ‘A World Without Us’ artists explore the world after mankind has eliminated itself

Thomas van Huut
NRC, 3 December 2018

“Just a moment, I need to turn on the robots.” The exhibition A World Without Us gathers artworks that explore a world without humans. The post-Anthropocene: a world where mankind has been stupid enough to eliminate itself. Unacknowledged threats like climate change and artificial intelligence make this an ominous possibility that is worth examining. But it is also not so significant that robots can move through an art space without a living and breathing desk clerk pushing a button.

These robots by artists Katrin Hochschuh and Adam Donovan are the most endearing work in the small exhibition by Impakt, center for media culture in Utrecht. The Empathy Swarm consists of a group of tiny robots on wheels. It seems like they want to make contact. Or are these feelings of affection little more than human projection?

Halfway through the duration of the exhibition Empathy Swarm will be replaced with Antisocial Swarm Robots by Anna Dumitriu and Alex May, mini robots that rather stay away from each other. In a striking manner Empathy Swarm shows how little is needed to induce our empathy for a lifeless object. It provokes the question of why mankind takes so little care of its natural environment.

This matter is further explored in the video Aqua_forensic: Underwater Interception of Biotweaking in the Aquatocene. This video, a collaboration between artists, scientists and volunteer researchers, shows the search for invisible pharmaceutical and chemical residues in the oceans, seas and rivers of our planet. How can we feel responsible for imperceptible pollution? Only a dry video presentation can be seen of the work: this is not art that is intended to stimulate the senses, this is art that wants to convey ideas.

Smart Electrical Appliance

The video GreenScreenRefrigeratorAction (2010) by the British artist Mark Leckey (winner of the Turner Prize 2008) is visually a lot more striking. The film shows a shiny black Samsung smart fridge in front of a green screen on which images are projected, among which those of other Samsung products and foodstuffs. What you hear is the auto-tuned deepest thoughts of this smart fridge. In stacatto and with fearful voice this electrical appliance recites its features: “should be placed on a straight floor, immense storage space, stainless steel door handle.” As imagined by Leckey it does seem to be rather lonely to be a fridge. Semi-conscious, locked in a cool container. But yes, here you find our empathy with things again.

What another life form could look like after earth has become unlivable for humans is imagined in a different work by Antisocial Swarm-designers Dumitriu and May. The ArchaeaBot is inspired by archaea, a type of primeval bacteria that is seen as one of the most ancient life forms on the planet. In a tiny aquarium at Impakt the ArchaeaBot listlessly taps the glass with its mechanical arms. Is this really what mankind leaves behind?

Should a different world without humans really occur, we should hope that we can be there to see what it will really look like.

Corrected (3-12-2018): below the photograph of ArchaeaBot the wrong photographer was mentioned. This has been corrected.