Connecting the world takes every one of us
Endless stream of packages flows speedily forward on a conveyor belt, and product-delivering robots move smoothly around a gigantic warehouse. Thousands of kilometres of cable are installed under the seabed to transport data as it flows across oceans and continents. The enormous logistical systems provide smooth movement of people, goods and services around the globe, and thoughts, ideas and social relations travel digitally across the world in a split second. But are these systems not also a force that controls and exploits the social, economic and ecological present?
The American artist Benjamin Gerdes’ video montage is a combination of industrial and commercial promotions that present highly advanced logistical and technological solutions. As artist and researcher, Gerdes is interested in technological infrastructures that underpin contemporary communication, mobility and social life. The transmission of data – to watch a movie from a streaming platform, to order a product online with a couple of clicks, or to pay without cash – are seemingly immaterial and abstract. The effectively designed warehouses and the rigidly organized transmission cables often look boring and inhuman, and they rarely attract the attention of the wider public. Gerdes’ montage makes visible how these systems are, in fact, propped up by heavy industry with massive spatial and electrical demands that are an enormous burden for the environment. The clouds for saving data seem to be flowing weightlessly out there – out of sight, out of mind – but the building of technological devices, powering them, and storing the data in massive data centres produces enormous demands for electricity including land and admissions. The rapidly growing information and communications technology sector is responsible for 2% of global emissions, which is roughly the same as the aviation industry’s carbon footprint from fuel emissions.
Gerdes’ montage brings light to the uncanny character of the logistical and technological systems organizing the world. The fast-paced visuals in the video are accompanied by hyper positive voices describing the newest technologies that can remove all obstacles when creating a world optimized for even faster movement of goods and services. But are the promotional voices celebrating the connectedness of the world a bit too ecstatic? Bottlenecks and other troubles occur constantly due to trade wars, shortage of materials, natural disasters, economic uncertainty, and industrial strikes. The global systems are highly vulnerable to political, economic, and geographical changes. In March 2021, a 400-metre-long container ship blocked the Suez Canal for six days, and the trade between Europe, Asia and the Middle East came to a halt. Soon after Russia’s war of aggression escalated in Ukraine in 2022, subsea gas pipeline, connected to the Baltic and Northern Sea pipelines and further to the European grid, was sabotaged in the Baltic Sea. European countries are highly dependent on the Nord Stream pipeline, given that it bypasses many transit countries, such as Russia, Finland, Sweden, Denmark and Germany. The pipelines are among the most strategic assets for Europe today.
Gerdes’ video montage invites the spectator to the linear and geometrical aesthetics of the warehouse. The same mechanisms that promote speed, access, organisation, or mobility also create forceful control: containment, detention or technologically mediated spatial and social segregations. Energy poverty – to not be able to cover one’s needs due to the lack of access to modern energy services – affects hundreds of millions of people in the world. Energy poverty is tightly connected to socio-economic systematic inequalities, and the increasing prices and inaccessibility make the struggle all the more difficult for people in vulnerable positions. At the same time, consuming and using energy is made constantly easier for wealthier nations by the same global systems. The resources are not as endless, effortless and unproblematic as the promotional bits might tell us.
In addition to the logistical and technological systems, Gerdes’ montage calls attention to yet another system that can control us, namely the system of images. Shining new data centres glow in the neon lights of fuse box buttons and high-end technology, and virtual technology teaches warehouse workers to handle the stream of packages even faster. But as Gerdes has detected in his research and artistic process, it is not always easy nor safe to enter or film these locations. The distribution of images from these sites has become monopolised by a small set of state and corporate actors within very tight aesthetic regimes, presenting only the hyper-positive façade. Paradoxically, Gerdes interrupts this supply chain of images by simply using the very same system. When the cheesy slogans and the warehouse aesthetics are further amplified, the visual system of promotional videos begins to turn against itself.
Finally, the human condition – the profound longing for connections but also the urge of emancipation– manifests itself through the cuts and merges in the video montage.
Benjamin Gerdes is American artist and researcher working at the Royal Institute of Art in Stockholm. Radical politics, knowledge production and popular cultural themes intersect in his artistic practice. Focusing on video and film, Gerdes explores how art can challenge dominating socio-economic systems and contribute to social change. In the artistic processes and long-term research projects, Gerdes collaborates with activists, trade unions, architects, urban planners, geographers, and archival researchers. His art has been exhibited, for example, by Centre Pompidou (Paris), Documenta (Kassel), National Gallery of Art (Washington DC), New Museum (New York), Rotterdam International Film Festival and Tate Modern (London).
The exhibition is curated by Malin Barth.