Three sectors make up the 6th Guangzhou Triennial, As We May Think: Feedforward (21 December 2018–10 March 2019), curated by Philipp Ziegler, Angelique Spaninks, and Zhang Ga. 'Inside the Stack: Art in the Digital' considers how the digital and physical are becoming increasingly interwoven. 'Evolutions of Kin' imagines new life forms—human and non-human—that might arise alongside technological advancement. 'Machines Are Not Alone' offers a techno-worldview, visualising systems as organisms—and vice versa—whether social, environmental, or technological.
Rather than keeping these sectors separate, around 50 works by 50 artists and collectives from 15 countries, including David O'reilly, Dorian Gaudin, and Ief Spincemaille, are blended across three floors of the Guangdong Museum of Art. In total, the exhibition occupies 12 galleries, with some works clustered together and others enjoying their own independent spaces. For example, Thomas Feuerstein's PROMETHEUS DELIVERED (2016–2018) takes up one room on the second floor. A life-size marble sculpture is entangled in black tubes through which it is being fed chemolithoautotrophic bacteria. The bacteria cause the stone to disintegrate and transform into organic matter, while drawings and literature that surround this central work portray processes of distilling and fermenting human liver cells, adding to a project that 'oscillates between science fiction and horror, utopia and dystopia.'
Taken together, the Triennial's three themes express an overarching concern surrounding the increasing integration between the digital and the real, and how this might impact life and ideas. This concern is encapsulated in the Triennial's title, As We May Think, which is taken from a 1945 essay by American engineer Vannevar Bush, published in The Atlantic, that imagined a device in which records of human experience and knowledge could be contained—a vision that anticipated the information age.
Opening the show is a chronicle of events documented in The Genealogy of the Digital Code (2017), conceived by ZKM | Hertz Lab and presented in the entrance hallway on a wall opposite the exhibition's foreword. An interactive AR installation depicts milestones in the development of computer technology from the 1800s to the present day, including the origination of the binary code, early computers, the first neural network, modern computers, and artificial intelligence: a thread of technological development that made all the works on view technically possible.
Moving further into the hallway, visitors might be lucky enough to encounter floating soap bubbles wafting into the space behind the central staircases: part of Music of the Spheres (2013–2015) by scientist Dr Nick Golding and artist Charlotte Jarvis. Bubbles come from soap machines located in the museum's courtyard; they fly in through open doors with the wind like the strings of visitors entering the space. The bubbles are generated by a new musical composition written and recorded by the Kreutzer Quartet, which Golding and Jarvis encoded as a sequence of DNA that has been suspended in the soap solution.
In general, there is a sense of being in a research facility rather than an art exhibition. In one ground-floor gallery, Deep Swamp (2018) by Tega Brain and The Autophotosynthetic Plants (Phytonucleum electricus cella) (2013–2014) by Gilberto Esparza combine to form a living laboratory. Brain's installation consists of a set of semi-inundated environments in tanks containing soil, water, and wetland life forms such as plants, fish, and insects. Esparza explores the potentiality of waste for energy generation, as inspired by Lima's water system. The installation consists of a crystal ball attached to larger machines by a series of cables and wires, constructing a metabolic mechanism that produces electricity and improves water quality.
In one of the third-floor galleries, Shoal II (2016) by Shen Ruijun provides a gentle counter dialogue to the bio-worlds of Esparza and Brain, choosing to echo the real through more formal modes of artistic representation, while still interrogating reality's possibilities. Combining ink drawings, stop-motion animation projection, and paper cuts of semi-transparent films, the monochromatic piece is installed into the wall as a transparent case that recalls the experience of looking into an aquarium. The catalogue describes the work as a crafted 'virtual spatial effect', with the creatures and objects depicted in the animation—tree branches, flying birds, and stone-like shapes—existing in their own self-contained micro-worlds that interconnect and overlap.
In a similar fashion, Oliver Laric's animated video Betweenness (2018) depicts organisms—such as insects, mushrooms, and machine parts—that move and change shape, accompanied by a soft and repetitive string music soundtrack. The artist constructed the animation so that each figure is drawn from and connected by a single line. The piece poetically illustrates an inquiry expressed in one of the three themes that run through this Triennial, 'Evolutions of Kin', which considers humans and non-humans following a shared trajectory of evolution.
The blurring and blending of the boundaries between physical and virtual are also articulated in The Future is but a Second Away, Materialization (2018) by Delia Jürgens, for which Jürgens transferred deconstructed stock images of rocks and minerals on the surface of sleeping bags and on the inside of dissembled traditional Chinese clothing, creating a double surface connecting the worlds of objects and images. Likewise, I'm Here (2018) by Lin Ke requires a previously downloaded smartphone application that can be used to activate video clips of the artist's online activity, in which he arbitrarily clicks on folders, links, and icons on his screen.
In another act of transference, The Darker Side of Light (2017) by Feng Chen consists of a site-specific installation that utilises the windows on the second- and third-floor stairs. Feng uses a device controlled by hymn-like sounds to regulate the flickering of blinds, orchestrating the flow of light.
The concept of a hybridised future when human and non-human life will merge to create new worlds altogether, is distilled into the site of the body in YOU:R:CODE (2017): an interactive installation of 'digital mirrors' conceived by Bernd Lintermann, based on an idea posed by Peter Weibel. The installation considers the human body in the era of 'transhumanism' not only as a mass of genetic code, which a wall text for the work describes as 'the algorithm of life', but as a pile of digital codes and a carrier of data.
YOU:R:CODE is the most selfie-ed work of the show: a mirror in which viewers are able to see their reflection gradually transforms into an industrially readable code. While playful, the work's explanation points to current research that utilises synthetic DNA strands 'as long-term storage for digital data'.
Offering a more affective—albeit ominous—view of the coming singularity is Love Archaeology – 1 (2018), one of three works from Lu Pingyuan's 'Stories' series (2012–ongoing) on view in this show, each presented on a sheet of A3 paper held out from the wall by mechanical hands. Love Archaeology – 1 considers the impending strife resultant from separations between spirit and body in the era of AI—a sense of foreboding that continues at OCT Boxes Art Museum, located an hour's drive from Guangzhou in the Shunde District of Foshan, where a satellite Triennial show features Tomás Saraceno's Aerocene (2016). This video recording shows the process of releasing an emission-free floating sculpture into the air, reflecting on the irrevocable encroachment of the Anthropocene and humanity's attempts at resisting it.
Overall, As We May Think: Feedforward does not offer any answers to the questions of what the future might look like as rapid development of digitalisation continues; nor does it provide any firm conclusions as to how relations between humans, machines, and the earth might evolve. Rather, the works on show offer new ways to think about these concerns. The world this exhibition conjures is far from fictional, but entirely based on existing technologies. But as the artists in the exhibition demonstrate, with imaginary twists they can draw out different potentialities.—[O]