Interview: Jacob Lillemose, "Momentum 9"
By: Taliha Gazi
In recognition of the opening of Momentum 9: Alienation on June 17th, our Arts and Culture sub-editor, Taliha Gazi spoke to one of the curators, Jacob Lillemose about the exhibition, and why, as the modern world transforms with increasing momentum, the way it appears to human eyes becomes all the more alien.
Momentum, the Nordic Biennial of Contemporary Art, has been in the vanguard of exciting developments in contemporary art produced in the Nordic region since 1998. While the concept of ‘the alien’ has connotations of an uncharted modernity, an apex in human advancement which the rest of humankind would be alienated by, such as the half-human, half-Vulcan Spock from Star Trek, ‘the alien’ also refers to primordial states of humanness, or sub-humanness, as is characterised in Shelley’s Frankenstein. Consequently, the assumption that Momentum is addressing an issue which is somehow contemporary or postmodern is partly false and partly true. The alien condition is, therefore, a temporal hybrid: both old and new, yet continuous in the fascination it evokes in humans past and humans present.
Jacob Lillemose, one of the exhibition’s curators, strongly believes in the importance of confronting the alienation present in our modern society, a duty which he describes as ‘critical’. In fact, this aspiration to bravely understand the alien as an unknown, both within our world and beyond it, is the fundamental reason why both he and his fellow curators chose the theme of alienation for Momentum 9. ‘Looking at the world around us, we, as curators, share a similar sense of living in times of dramatic transformation’, Jacob observes. ‘The world is becoming more and more alien to us humans: alien in terms of geo-political changes, developments in technology and science, and the awareness of non-human life in the vast space of the cosmos. Alienation, therefore, is a challenge, but one which boldly presents a vision for the future. The future well-being of the planet depends on it.’
Such a vision seems pertinent, indeed, as science and technology website, Futurism, recently published an article stating that alien life could be discovered within 10 to 15 years, according to astronomy researcher, Chris Impey. Alienation is an indisputable concern for modernity, and Momentum 9 is conscious of this is in a uniquely meta sort of way. ‘The character of the artwork and its installation, as well as its distribution across different, carefully chosen venues, invites visitors to experience and engage with something alien. First and foremost, we want to emphasise alienation not as a theoretical concept, but as an existential, ecological, social and even spiritual experience that can lead to the deepest of reflections and the richest of realisations’, comments Jacob. The exhibition is aptly dissected into three subthemes: technology, social structures and ecology. But Jacob insists that these subthemes do not operate as separate sections, but rather, as he puts it, ‘three interconnected pathways into the alienated world.’
Yet, the ‘alienated world’ is so intimately connected with our own seemingly ‘familiar’ universe that to present them dichotomously is misleading. In a similar vein, Hegel, who introduced the notion of the Self in relation to the Other in the 18th century, makes a related point. Hegel posits that self-consciousness is the knowledge that the Other has awareness of oneself. However, the Self cannot exist without the Other defining it in turn; therefore, the alien and the familiar, the Self and the Other, are interdependent, and not dichotomous. In fact, alienation is not an alien concept to us after all, for the Other has been a part of us ever since we began to possess self-consciousness, as Jacob elaborates: ‘Alienation has always been part of the human condition. Humans have never been alone on this planet so, in that sense, we have encountered and engaged with the alien since day one.’
However, the types of alienation we face have been evolving since the mid-1960s, says Jacob, with accelerated developments occurring in technology, science, travel, social experiments and even drugs. Ironically, though, as we grow more accustomed to living alongside the alien, the less alien it seems. In some cases, such as the controversial advancement of real-life sex robots, technological alienation is proving to be an alternative for human interaction, thereby making alien other human beings and our relationships with them.
Yet, Jacob insists that we should not alienate such behaviour. ‘I think our ability to take on this specific form of alienation with empathy and curiosity rather than fear is fundamental to the future stability – and advancement – of our contemporary globalised world.’ While Momentum 9 does not directly engage with the issue of ‘robot sex’, there are works which address the feelings of alienation human beings are experiencing towards each other as a result of technological intervention. These include Wael Shawky’s marionette cabaret about the Christian crusades, Rolf Nowotny’s installation about a diseased outcast, Abigail DeVille’s architecture of junk found in Moss, Ragnar Persson’s paintings of agonised souls and Rana Hamadeh’s science fiction inspired research on the politics of aliens.
Although Jacob accepts that there is a burgeoning fear of robots taking over or disrupting intra-human relations (he cites Swedish TV series Real Humans as an example of this, but also as a ‘great inspiration’ for him), there are films such as Her and Ex Machina which are fostering excitement about the new possibility of human-to-robot relations. Such films were even points of reference for developing the biennial theme. ‘I think we need to be aware of both the risks and the possibilities. A fanatic fear of robots is just the flip side of an indulgent love for them. What we need is a critical and visionary approach, a radically expanded view.’ Jacob deems encounters and engagements with the alien as ‘challenging positives’ which promote the sustainable and progressive development of life on Planet Earth.
He emphasises, however, that Momentum 9 does not mull over alienation in the traditional Marxist sense of the workers’ relationship to the means of production. Rather, its focus is to comment on general human relations with alien entities and agencies as a means of ‘complementing and expanding our horizons as humans living within human societies.’ Alienation can ‘contribute enriching and visionary experiences’ to our world, according to Jacob, and it is safe to say Momentum 9 is certainly doing its bit for the cause.
Despite Jacob’s core beliefs, he and his fellow curators do not intend that Alienation preaches any definite message about our relationship with the alien. ‘We do not want to come across as didactic curators; we are not into the business of teaching. Rather we see ourselves as presenters of work who facilitate a critical and speculative space. If anything, we hope the visitors will embrace these experiences and come away more open-minded, and full of new wonder and curiosity.’ However, Jacob does suggest to visitors that they suspend their disbelief to the ‘fullest extent’ possible while viewing the exhibition, and that they should leave any prejudices they have at the door. Only then can people fully immerse themselves in the experience of the exhibition.
For those who are convinced that the subject of the alien is too alien to have any interest in, Jacob has one word to help rethink your attitude: microbes. ‘There are billions of microbes living in our intestines. Recent scientific discoveries suggest that these little ‘creatures’ influence human life far more than we imagine.’ This raises a question about our so-called humanness, as Jacob explains: ‘Since microbes make up about 50% of our body, we can infer from this that we are only 50% human, which is a claim made by Sonja Bäumel, one of our artists in the biennial.’
To conclude, then, aliens are everywhere: beyond us, by us and even breeding inside us, and exhibitions like Momentum 9: Alienation achieve a remarkable scope on a subject which can often feel alienated to the realms of science-fiction or tabloid sensationalism. What Alienation does best, however, is evoke a personal involvement in the somewhat uncanny nature of alien life. It does this by asking us to confront the awkward questions, while admiringly, yet unashamedly putting the ‘I’ into the word ‘alien’ like never before.
Momentum 9: Alienation will run from June 17th – October 11th 2017 in the main venues Galleri F 15 in Alby Mansion on the island of Jeløy in the Oslo fjord, and Momentum Kunsthall in the historic centre of Moss, Norway. The exhibition will also feature works at off-site locations around Moss. Opening times are 11am-5pm from Tuesday to Sunday, and tickets cost 50 kr per adult. To see a trailer about Momentum 9: Alienation, please click the link here: https://vimeo.com/215788711.
All images courtesy of "Momentum 9: Alienation, The 9th Nordic Biennial of Contemporary Art" press material.