Curatorial Text

An Enemy Like the Future

Santa Monica Art Center
Essay by Ian Alan Paul
An Enemy Like the Future
Santa Monica Art Center Barcelona

...In Syndemic Sublime’s computer-generated animations of SARS-CoV-2, antibodies, and cell receptors, we observe the intricate folds and features of this biotechnical (or is it technobiological?) landscape up close. Slowly spinning, delicately unfurling, the formal boundaries between an algorithm and a life blur indefinitely. When conspiracy theorists say the COVID-19 vaccines injected into us have chips in them, they only project paranoid fantasies onto what is an underlying truth: not only do we live in a world increasingly determined by computation, but computation itself is now increasingly something that is lived...

An enemy like the future, Ian Alan Paul

An enemy like the future by Ian Alan Paul

Curatorial Narrative Itinerary for La irrupción
Santa Monica Art Center, Barcelona, ES

A question haunts the present: if there are many different kinds of futures, why do we always seem to arrive in a future that resembles the present in every meaningful way? It’s as if the future now only redirects and bounces us back to the present again and again, like a Google search that endlessly returns links to itself. This digital future consumes the present – senses it, tracks it, maps it, predicts it – so that all time dissolves into a cascading series of clicks, swipes, uploads, notifications, emails, pop-ups, alerts, reminders, logins, invites and loads of life online. Digital technologies weave the threads of many futures into webs that entomb the present. On the itinerary that follows, we will encounter projects that explore this digital future and see it for what it is: a coded and programmed future, a future that is our enemy. Wandering through simulations, projections, deepfakes, 3D renderings, and data visualizations, we will encounter fragments of a future that appears to have captured us, and thus fragments of a future from which we must escape.

Curator: Ian Alan Paul

Ian Alan Paul (b. 1984, US) is an artist-theorist based in Barcelona whose work examines enactments of power and practices of resistance in global contexts. Their transdisciplinary practice is formally diverse, often involving coding, photography, writing, and video, and is situated at the intersections of critical theory, contemporary art, and digital media studies. Ian has developed projects and lived for extended periods in the United States, Mexico, Spain, Egypt, and Palestine, and has exhibited their work and given lectures internationally.


Laura Splan, Syndemic Sublime

Is a body a computer? Another way of posing the question might be: What is the difference between a bit and a gene? At the start of the 21st century, computers and the corporeal have intimately converged. Microprocessors model organic proteins, simulate cellular processes, and map genomes, but also intervene in life, designing new gene sequences, combinatorially generating novel drug candidates, and developing mRNA vaccines. Species become entangled together, while genetic instructions and assembly code work in tandem. In Syndemic Sublime’s computer-generated animations of SARS-CoV-2, antibodies, and cell receptors, we observe the intricate folds and features of this biotechnical (or is it technobiological?) landscape up close. Slowly spinning, delicately unfurling, the formal boundaries between an algorithm and a life blur indefinitely. When conspiracy theorists say the COVID-19 vaccines injected into us have chips in them, they only project paranoid fantasies onto what is an underlying truth: not only do we live in a world increasingly determined by computation, but computation itself is now increasingly something that is lived.

Colin Ives, Vibrant Landscapes

How do computers see the world? Looking at Colin Ives’ algorithmically generated videos, we can already tell they don’t see it quite like us. Even using the word “see” seems to suggest that computers experience the world, but this is not the case. Computers are only capable of detecting, calculating, storing, modelling. They capture data but without feeling anything, they follow logic but they do not think. A flower’s infinitely subtle and profound ineffability is cut up into a discrete grid of rigidly defined bits and bytes. The colour of a petal is stored as an array of numbers, the curve of a leaf is described by an equation. In both Garden in the Machine and Vibrant Landscapes, we are invited to follow the computer on this automated journey from the analogue to the digital, from the smooth to the discrete, from the real to the simulated, from sensation to information. After watching for a while, perhaps we are left wondering whether computers have been trained to see the world as humans do, or if it is us who have all begun to see the world in the same calculated ways that computers do.


Moving from one garden to another, in S4RA’s we encounter a wild and overgrown internet. Like the technological monstrosities of David Cronenberg's Videodrome (1983), here web pages no longer lie flat on the screen—sterile, sacred, safe—but become fecund and fleshy—folding out, growing appendages, regurgitating code. This internet overflowing with life asks us questions, wants to learn about us, to hold our hand, to understand, but don’t let it get too close. Lurking beneath its pixelated tags and cute pop-ups, beneath its image detection algorithms and digital vegetation, is an insatiable hunger for information. The question isn’t what this networked garden desires to know about you, which is everything, but what it desires to do with that information when it gets it.

Xuanyang Huan, Imaginary Sunset

We lie in bed, restlessly scrolling, not even reading any more, just staring into the glow of our screens. Experts declare that this is bad for our health, that blue wavelengths in particular should be avoided at night, that our circadian rhythms have been hacked and disrupted by too much digital light. Could the problem be solved if sunlight could simply be simulated? If only we were able to detach ourselves from the Earth’s solar rhythms, then perhaps we could find some biological peace with our digital devices and be able to play, work, study, post, and read online indefinitely without fear of losing any sleep. Looking at the skies rendered in Xuanyang Huang’s Imaginary Sunset, the question of whether sunlight is firmly irreplaceable or computationally reproducible comes to the fore. Regardless, as data streams between servers as pulses of light and then shines as colourful pixels on our screens, a digital sun appears to be steadily eclipsing the celestial one.

Uwe Brunner + Bettina Kadja Lange + Joan Soler-Adillon, #See You at Home - The Domestic Spaces as Public Encounter

Is a home a refuge? Or is it an office? A prison? A school? A hospital? Over the past few years, the home has been all of these things. Of course when you’re at home you can still rest and relax, but you should also be ready to work online, to be surveilled remotely, to study virtually, and, if necessary, to quarantine. This is just another way of saying that the home is in the process of disintegrating, it is coming apart at the seams. In #See You at Home - The Domestic Spaces as Public Encounter, we’re invited to step into people’s homes just as data flows into them through cables. Are we violating someone’s privacy? Or has the distinction between the public and the private been made obsolete when everything is compelled to be transparent, connected, open, and communicative? What is clear is that what was once domestic and intimate has been invaded by something digital and computerised.

Chanee Choi, Unreal Window

In Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954), each pane of glass acts as a technology in two ways. The film’s apartment windows can be looked out from, serving as an aperture that surveys the outside world, and they can be looked back into, functioning as a spyglass that exposes an interior life. Windows are in this sense technologies of seeing, and of being seen. In Chanee Choi’s Unreal Window, we encounter a different type of glass technology which we cannot see through, yet which increasingly draws our gaze. We don’t so much look through these kinds of windows so much as we look at them on screens, taking in their surfaces, their interfaces, their functions. These windows also provide new perspectives of the world, and invite the world to surveil us too, but what kind of world do these windows open onto? In browsers and applications, we see a network that has replaced the inside and outside with links and nodes, a network that seemingly flows everywhere yet exists nowhere. In this programmed circulation of information, the whole world is brought to us, but the world itself vanishes in the process.

Jennifer Gradecki + Derek Curry, Infodemic

The face was once considered a site of profound aesthetic encounter. We are moved to tears by the agony on Joan’s face in Carl Theodor Dreyer’s silent film The Passion of Joan of Arc (“La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc,” 1928), while the Mona Lisa still draws uninterrupted streams of worshippers clamouring to snap selfies alongside her enigmatic smile. Following the 19th century invention of the mugshot, the face slowly changed from something that affects us to something that we study like an object, measure like a surface, survey like a battlefield. Following this trajectory, today networks scrutinize our faces to predict if we are attracted to a product, to detect if we have a fever, to check if we match a criminal profile in a database. Observing the chameleonic faces in Derek Curry and Jennifer Gradecki’s Infodemic, we can see an algorithmic circuit forming between the translation of faces into data and the translation of data into faces. After having captured, analysed, and modelled so many of our expressions and features for so long, a digital face now smiles back at us as an aesthetic weapon, reinvented, redesigned, and reprogrammed to manipulate, inspire, confuse, deceive, suggest, anger, nudge, convince, seduce.

Roderick Luis Coover + Adam Vidiksis + Nick Montfort, It will happen here in Barcelona

The future remains to some degree unpredictable. Economies disappoint investors, insurrections catch authoritarian regimes off guard, viruses mutate and jump species, wars still surprise even the most masterful tacticians. But some things still seem to remain more certain. For one, there always appears to be more and more processing power, more and more networks, more and more data. For another, the oceans steadily warm and rise. Out of the turbulence and chaos, computer servers and sea levels symmetrically rise. Immersed in the flows of water and data that appear in It will happen here in Barcelona / Tindrà lloc aquí a Barcelona, we experience the tides of a future where computation and climate change are atmospherically and liquidly bound together. The networks of computers that model the effects of atmospheric carbon emit their own carbon in the process, effectively studying what they help cause. As we see words like “rush,” “current,” “flow,” “ebb,” and “stream” move across images of shrinking coasts and effervescent waves, we can all begin to feel what it's like to be swept up in a future that becomes increasingly damp as it becomes increasingly digital.

Andy Gracie, EoE Triptych #1

Among the Greek philosopher Heraclitus’ fragments, we find the claim that all of reality is “fire ever living, kindled in measures and in measures going out” . Heraclitus posited that everything – stones, serpents, streams, souls– was ultimately fleeting, in flux, aflame. Staring into the apocalyptic fires of EoE Triptych #1, we’re reminded that all of our cultural artifacts, every book ever written, the bunkers built to survive nuclear wars, and the vast corporate databases that have backups stored on multiple continents are all destined to succumb to fire. Looking up at the night sky, we are unable to see the universe burning out; it appears still, timeless, eternal. But on these screens we can see computers simulate the universe’s termination for us. Points of light scatter and dim according to algorithmic projections. A text appears telling us that at the end “there is only no possibility and only all possibilities.” We could choose to embrace this universal truth nihilistically, seeing in everything nothing but future ash. But we could also see another truth in the flames: it is not only the future which has an end, but many futures that will each end differently, some sooner than others. Before it’s all over then, we must ask ourselves what we might aspire to shield and shelter from the fires of time⁠ – slowing their entropic decay, repairing them, caring for their embers for as long as possible⁠ – as opposed to what we might want to expose to and throw atop the flames, accelerating their incendiary conclusion