ENDUSER is the title of Tomas Penc’s latest solo show, which takes place in the Triskel Christchurch, Cork. The show is located in the nave of the old Christchurch Cathedral. Penc’s practice revolves around our relationship with contemporary digital technologies framed through the prism of dystopic irony. ENDUSER is no different, cleverly framing the exhibition within a site of worship clear parallels are drawn between our reverence for technology and theological worship. This is a recurring theme throughout the show. Upon entering the dimly-lit space of the old church one is confronted with a solid white wall erected directly in front of the entrance to the exhibition. On this wall beneath the exhibition’s title, is a one way dialogue aimed squarely at the viewer, beginning with the words ‘You owe me…’
This is a demanding start to what turns out to be a demanding but extremely rewarding and immersive exhibition. Moving into the raised aisle between the pews of this cavernous space, the motions of the viewer trip sensors which switch on rotating holographic displays floating high up in the four corners of the church aisle. These holograms depict alternately, a bald idealised head and a hand. Flicking slowly between one form and another, the holograms all conform to a looped regular rhythm. One walks into the church looking for enlightenment and is given an oblique holographic sign from above.
On the hour, the soundtrack for this, the title piece of the exhibition begins. ENDUSER* consists of these four holograms and a looped sound piece filling up the entirety of the church beginning with what can only be described as a synthetic gong, ringing a long, loud chime. This is followed by familiar words spoken in a strange voice, ‘You owe me…’
The voice is unmistakably female while being obviously synthetic. What follows is a list of demands which seem to be owed to this being, interspersed with chimes from this synthetic gong. The synthetic voice is obviously taking on the role of a deity within this place of worship. A technological deity, made by humans. One gets the impression it wants to be human, in some sense:
‘You owe me the life I have always wanted… synthetic dreams… strawberries forever sweet…’
These rotating holograms which are conjured up in place of a congregation are representations of humans, but abstracted to their most essential features; the hands for interfacing and the head for processing. These are humans as imagined by the machine, these are users in their most fundamental qualities, Homo habilis. One is never sure whether the voice is talking to the viewer or the holograms, perhaps they are the endusers of the exhibition’s title.
A fascinating feature of the exhibition is the site specificity. ENDUSER* plays on the inherent spatial power relations within the church very successfully. The use of motion sensors to trigger the holographic apparition gives the space a sinister watchfulness, a trait that has always been associated with Christian spaces. Jesus may or may not be watching your every move, it is a matter of personal faith, but your smartphone definitely is, this is something which is universally understood yet often ignored. It takes the reframing of these digital apparitions into the religious space to hammer home the pervasiveness of this constant surveillance.
ENDUSER* draws a satisfying if somewhat scary comparison between the figure of a deity and that of the digital. The dialogue that rings out cannot be understood as anything other than a sermon when it is squarely aimed at the aisles of a church and punctuated by long drawn out rings of percussion. Penc shows an astute awareness of the spatial politics present in this room and uses them to his advantage.
The Last Judgement [Fig.1] consists of a digitally rendered animated video that explicitly references the 1505 Hieronymus Bosch painting of the same name [Fig.2]. It is a minimalist depiction of hell populated by yet more homogenous representations of users, either labouring steadily or being subject to barbaric tortures endlessly on what is clearly an infinite loop. This scene, however, has nothing of the deranged brutal clutter and confusion of a Bosch painting. Here we have about a dozen characters and three buildings selected from the painting with the rest omitted. What is left of the copy/pasted painting has been abstracted and simplified down to its bare essentials, again we are not faced with depictions of individual humans instead we have homogenised users, and all of the action takes place in a pristine white abstraction that is explicitly reminiscent of the pure, futuristic minimalism that pervades contemporary technological hardware design.
This vision is scary when considered as a prophecy of times to come but becomes sickening when thought of in terms of the present. Its layering of slick contemporary digital design on top of a late medieval depiction of hell conjures up neo-feudalist comparisons in relation to contemporary technology production. Neo-feudalism is a term coined to invite a comparison between the current advanced capitalist economic model and medieval feudalism in terms of the top-heavy division of wealth, labour and rights, to borrow a quote from William Gibson ‘The future is already here – it’s just not very evenly distributed’. Where ENDUSER* seems to be comparing our relationship to technology to worship given its situation in Christchurch Cork which stands upon the site of a medieval parish church from the 1500’s, The Last Judgement is located in an abstract facsimile of the virtual space of Bosh’s painting created in the 1500’s. Penc often uses medieval cultural artefacts as touchstones for his exhibitions and with The Last Judgement he makes a compelling case for the relevance of Bosch’s themes over 500 years later as a means for societal criticism.
Moving beyond this projection screen one comes to the last work in the exhibition Strawberries Advertisement [Fig.3]. Here one is confronted with an uncannily perfect representation of a bunch of strawberries floating mid-air in an infinite white expanse. These must be the strawberries of everlasting sweetness demanded by the deity; they live up to expectations. Almost pornographic in their perfection, it is clear that they are not the real thing but digital representations. They may be forever sweet however they are also inaccessible, are these the fruits of the user’s labour? Abruptly the strawberries fall at once, as if in that very instant they collectively remembered to obey the laws of gravity which they had been ignoring thus far. They fall onto a mountain of yet more strawberries and bounce down the pile until they come to a stop. After this the video loops back to the start.
Unsurprisingly, given the title, this work uses the aesthetic language of advertising as its register. Just like everything else in the room it has been streamlined and abstracted to the point of complete anonymity, an advertisement pushing an image of a product that doesn’t exist for a company that remains anonymous.
Structurally the entire exhibition is essentially a series of overlapping circles. The fact that everything one encounters is rotating at various speeds and intervals (from the looped video pieces to the literal rotation of the holographic heads and hands to the repetition of the sermon on the hour) reinforces the idea that everything is stuck in an infinite loop and will not be changed. Penc makes use of differential specificity here as the underlying structure of infinite repetition mirrors the main conceptual thrust i.e. although society has advanced beyond the strict theological regime and feudalist structures of the 1500’s, by replacing Gods with Big Data and feudalism with advanced capitalist neo-feudalism we are doomed to repeat the same cycle for the next 500 years and beyond.
Daire O’Shea, 2018