“Nervous Systems: Quantified Life and the Social Question” is about the manifold nature of human activity, specifically in terms of the ways it can be quantified and how such gathered information is used.
It’s about big data, mined by obscure, secret entities as well as high-profile private companies. As overwhelming as the show feels, due to its wide range of works and the abundant implications of its subject matter, it’s a pity seeing it come to an end. It was no small feat finding a vocabulary to articulate a subject as complex as this. To that end the curators put together a vast selection of mainly contemporary examples that show artists’ and activists’ reflections on big data at work. Without mapping an entirely dystopian landscape, the exhibition succeeds in sharing a sense of fascination and, through the inclusion of historic artworks, a surprising poignancy in this context.
Examples of the latter include On Kawara’s classic telegrams from different locations, apparent acts of self-quantification that simply state I am still alive, and Vito Acconci’s Theme Song video, featuring the artist seducing and manipulating the viewer, echoing online video dating sites with uncanny prescience. But the main thrust of the show concerns the digital present. The glaringly white centerpiece of the show, a manned installation on a slightly elevated platform conveying the artificiality of an Apple Store, is by the Tactical Technology Collective, whose founders, Stephanie Hankey and Marek Tuszynski, co-curated the exhibition. Here we see, for example, a microchip that can be tucked into the human body to remotely control female fertility, a development of the Bill Gates Foundation.
So-called “triangulations” punctuate the show, adding historical and/or theoretical information to the exhibits, such as nineteenth-century studies measuring and mapping poverty and crime rates.
Today there is no way out: we’re all connected. The only hope is to develop an awareness of how this gigantic machine tries to shape how we see the world and ourselves, and to develop images that can put this monster into perspective.