Science Fiction: New Death, 27 March – 22 June 2014, FACT, Liverpool

Richard Parry reviews a show that looks at the relationship between technology and ways of living and dying, from the Summer 2014 issue

Larissa Sansour, Nation Estate, 2012 (production still). Courtesy the artist

With its abundance of derelict tunnels and vast, monumental buildings recalling a past age of transatlantic glamour (and slavery), Liverpool can at times feel like the backdrop for a novel. In recent years this has taken a turn towards science fiction, through the epic £10 billion proposed development for ‘Peel Waters’, whereby the Mersey riverfront has been astronomically reconceived as a Manhattan for the north of England.

Against this context, curators Omar Kholeif and Mike Stubbs have developed an exhibition proceeding from a set of commissioned short stories by ‘weird fiction’ writer China Miéville.

From this starting point the exhibition becomes, as the intro text states, ‘a deconstructed film, in which the curators play the role of the director, artists that of actors, and the gallery itself becomes a set upon which the story unfolds’. Liverpool-based the Kazimier, described as ‘experience designers’, have transformed the galleries into a set of eidolic dystopian environments, within which artworks are periodically encountered. Entering the show through a set of bleeping portals, the viewer is confronted by a labyrinth of corridors with identikit white doors eerily lit from the inside. It’s bold and atmospheric, although also a touch hammy – less Blade Runner and more Crystal Maze. Turn a corner and there’s a door with a handle: you’ve found your first artwork.

Obsession, self-enclosure and endless circularity figure highly in Jon Rafman’s installation assembling two videoworks, Main Squeeze and Still Life (Beta Male) (both 2013). Rafman evokes a disturbing world of individual isolation at the hands of technology in our hyperconnected world; themes that surface again in an early Ryan Trecartin video (Tommy-Chat Just E-Mailed Me, 2006). Here self-absorbed characters inhabit an oversaturated world where babies and librarians scream and play to the camera with a total absence of attention span. This is a place where the threat of the other is revealed not in the classic sci-fi form of alien invaders, but ourselves; where the everyday narcissism of posting selfies and videos online is amplified to a chaotic conclusion within perpetual cycles of screen-based self-obsession, self-promotion and consumption.

Larissa Sansour’s Nation Estate (2012) also offers a commentary on statehood – this time on the Palestinian- Israeli conflict, in a work that is as sardonic as it is probing

‘Resist!’ is the message from Karen Mirza and Brad Butler, whose film Deep State (2012–14), coscripted with Miéville, introduces the figure of the ‘riotonaut’, or eternal rioter, and is a jolting call to arms against the incursions of the ‘state within a state’. Larissa Sansour’s Nation Estate (2012) also offers a commentary on statehood – this time on the Palestinian- Israeli conflict, in a work that is as sardonic as it is probing.

Moving upstairs, the tone shifts to one of elegiac melancholy and playful stoicism in the face of endgame. Jae Rhim Lee has designed an ecologically conscientious body suit – Infinity Burial Suit (2009–) that assists human decomposition after death – while Petra Gemeinboeck and Rob Saunders’s Accomplice (2010–13) sees robots (of the nonanthropomorphic kind) having minds of their own. But rather than seeking to take over the world, these robots seem, despite their artificial intelligence, bored or perhaps mischievous and frustrated: they lurk behind a wall, ‘watching’ viewers as they come in and occasionally punching a hole through it.

Miéville’s eponymous short story at the core of the exhibition examines our cultural distancing from death, suggesting our desensitisation through oversaturation of images depicting it. But the sense here is that the real death being described is not one of corporeality but of political consciousness. ‘This is not a manifesto. This is a call for a manifesto to be written.’ The quote looms large on the stairs, goading visitors and artworks alike to awake from the all-too-real reverie that surrounds them.

This article was first published in the Summer 2014 issue