End of the Tunnel: Technology, Art and the Natural Sublime
A video installation in the exhibition Anthropocene at the National Gallery of Canada, and its sister-exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario, shoots you through the world’s longest railway tunnel — 57 km — in about 20 minutes. Made by strapping a RED Epic camera to the front of a high-speed train travelling under the Swiss Alps, Gotthard Base Tunnel, Gotthard, Switzerland, 2018 tricks your brain into a mild state of vertigo. With your eyes locked in, you feel yourself moving backwards and forwards at once. Colourful emanations, flashing faster than vision itself, burst forth from the pinprick of the tunnel’s vanishing point.
Gotthard Base Tunnel is the work of the filmmaker duo Jennifer Baichwal and Nicholas De Pencier, who collaborated on the project with Edward Burtynsky and are showing their work in the multi-venue exhibition Anthropocene. The video is reminiscent of a popular story about the Romantic painter J.M.W. Turner. Supposedly, Turner strapped himself to the mast of a steamship, at night, in the middle of a snowstorm, to come face-to-face with nature’s enormity. However believable this story may be, Turner’s depiction, Snow Storm – Steam Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth (1842), does everything paint can to engulf us in the bad weather vortex.
While Turner sought to absorb the power of the elements and channel them through his brush, Baichwal, Pencier and Burtynsky examine the human element: technology. “When you think about Turner, [there is] this idea that nature had this capacity for the sublime, that we were cowed in the face of nature,” comments Baichwal. “And now we are in this situation where we are dwarfed by our own inventions. Our own technologies are now the sublime, more than nature.” That’s the idea behind Anthropocene, which casts the extractive, wasteful habits of humanity in a clear, dystopic light. The artists capture the enormous scale of our cities, dumps and technological experiments in photographs, videos and augmented-reality works. And while some may be entrancing — the otherworldly hues of a Chilean lithium mine, the underground cathedral of a Toronto water reservoir — our planet’s imminent ecological devastation hangs heavy. More sublime than nature can be a dangerous thing.
Thinkers and artists have been fascinated by technology’s world-transforming powers since well before the advent of human-made climate change. In Turner’s time, the French philosopher Charles Fourier theorized that steam power and internal combustion would bring about an egalitarian society, with equal rights for women. The German engineer John Adolphus Etzler calculated that, in a single year, wind, tidal and solar energy could replace the world’s entire workforce. Looking Backward (1888), Edward Bellamy’s utopian sci-fi novel, imagined America in the year 2000 as an environmentally sustainable socialist Eden — an idea that soon garnered a cult-like following. By the post-war period the architect Buckminster Fuller created Montreal's geodesic dome and coined the term “spaceship Earth.” Fuller remained optimistic, believing that the technology of the future would produce more goods using fewer resources while wind and solar energy would power everything.
Yet by the 1970s, as television became ubiquitous in Western households and globalization boosted the spread of a liberal market economy, artists in particular grew equivocal. Some embraced the change. (“I want to be a machine,” Andy Warhol famously said.) Nam June Paik, a forebear of internet art, who dreamed up a proto-YouTube (the free-share “Video Common Market”), was among the techno-optimists. Paik incorporated video monitors and synthesizers into his performances and sculptures, often blurring the line between real life and simulacra. His TV Cello (1971), for example, produces not music but video footage of the cellist Charlotte Moorman as she performs the artwork-instrument. TV Buddha (1974), meanwhile, is not absorbed in contemplation of the enlightened path, but watches itself meditating on a live surveillance feed.
Those who were more critical reacted not only to technology’s social implications, but to the ecological damage wrought by mass consumerism. The Neo-Dadaist Robert Rauschenberg was a life-long environmentalist, thanks to his upbringing in a Texan oil refinery town. Robert Smithson, the land artist whose well-known Spiral Jetty (1970) reclaimed a post-industrial wasteland on the shore of Great Salt Lake, lamented the “infernal regions — slag heaps, strip mines, and polluted rivers” destroying America’s ecosystems. Smithson and other land artists engaged with the landscape on its own terms, urging urbanites to leave the city and seek again in nature something of the sublime. “Following the spiral steps,” he wrote, “we return to our origins, back to some pulpy protoplasm.”
Today, however, our experiences — of nature and art and everything else — are more often than not mediated through a wi-fi connection. This generalized condition is known as "post-internet". Among other things, it has transformed our attention spans into currency, collapsed our surroundings into data networks and assailed us with the infinite reproducibility of digital content. Identity itself has been rendered unstable — an unmooring that has been broadly explored by contemporary artists, notably the video artist Ryan Trecartin, whose hallucinatory psycho-drama A Family Finds Entertainment (2004) propelled him into prominence in the early 2000s. Jon Rafman, a finalist for 2018 Sobey Art Award, has extended Trecartin’s critiques with experiments in virtual reality art, while the work of Camille Henrot, whose practice verges on digital anthropology, leads us to wonder: Is true knowledge even possible after the internet? Or have facts been replaced by datasets, open to endless reinterpretation?
For their part, the creators of Anthropocene have seized upon our post-internet condition, with the inclusion of two augmented-reality artworks that “appear” in the exhibition space through the lens of your camera-phone. These “sculptures,” made by stitching together thousands of digital images, memorialize species that are nearing extinction or already extinct — with the aim of educating young people about our negative global impact. “We are in a geological time where humans affect the planet more than all natural systems combined,” Baichwal points out. Whether we can sustain this arrangement, she adds, is ultimately up to us and our policymakers. If we don’t act fast — if we get swallowed up by the high-speed tunnel aimed at our own extinction — there will be no “us” left to act. Only cockroaches, fruit flies and slime-based ocean creatures.
Anthropocene is on view until February 24, 2019 and the Sobey Art Award Exhibition until February 10, 2019, both at the National Gallery of Canada. Subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest articles, Gallery exhibitions, news and events, and to learn more about art in Canada.