Emma Adler, 2021
born 1980 in Besch, lives and works in Berlin
Emma Adler, born in Besch, studied fine arts in Saarbrücken, Barcelona and Berlin. She was a master student of Else Gabriel at the Berlin Weißensee School of Art until 2015 and subsequently received the Elsa Neumann Scholarship of the State of Berlin. Her final project EEEEF#GE received several awards and was presented in the exhibition Rundgang 50Hertz in cooperation with Hamburger Bahnhof, Museum für Gegenwart, Berlin (2017).
In her projects, which revolve around the interweaving of spaces, realities and identities, Emma Adler provokes familiar ways of looking at things and questions supposed certainties about the relationship between reality and media representation. Since 2017, the focus of her expansive, multimedia installations has been on conspiracy theories and the associated question of different levels of reality.
Her work has been represented in numerous national and international group & solo exhibitions, including at the Arp Museum, Rolandseck, the Neuer Kunstverein Gießen, the Kunstverein Bremerhaven, the Kunsthaus Dahlem, in Copenhagen and New York (Peninsula Gallery), where she spent half a year in 2017 as artist in residence, funded by the Künstlerhaus Schloss Balmoral. In the same year, she received the Bernhard Heiliger Fellowship.
Her solo exhibitions SUPERFLARE at Neuer Kunstverein Gießen (2019) and REALITY SHOW at Kunsthaus Dahlem (2018) are part of a series of complex installations that revolve around conspiracy theories and will be continued in different exhibition formats. The artist is currently developing a project that examines the characteristics and mechanisms of conspiracy concepts in the post-factual age – between pandemic & populism – from different angles.
Emma Adler is part of the artist collective SORGEN (International), whose projects have been exhibited at Basis Projektraum, Frankfurt and the KINDL Museum for Contemporary Art, among others.
Reality in the Age of Technical Reproducibility
1. In the beginning there was reality…
The search for and finding of new artistic positions traditionally takes place in exhibition contexts, for example in galleries, at fairs, in studios or at biennales. I first came across Emma Adler’s art as an installation view of approximately credit card size on a computer screen. Nevertheless the brief impression was enough to trigger an excessive internet research. My interest was therefore not aroused from the original, the artwork itself, but from a duplicate media representation, namely the photo of an exhibition that I was looking at on a screen. This story offers a wonderful entry into Adler’s œuvre when she outlines the meta-theme of her artistic analysis: the complex relationships between different levels of reality that have become ever more entangled through the digitalization and technization of our everyday world.
The Internet offers many useful opportunities, yet as a research instrument it has become indispensable in our daily life. From almost anywhere we can immediately search for information, communicate worldwide and receive news in real time. On account of these characteristics many hopes in the new technology have been pinned on the popularisation of the World Wide Web. Exactly as was the case with television, the inventors of the Internet were convinced that with this medium a tool had at last been found to make education accessible to the broad masses. The dream of enlightenment that might liberate each and everyone from their self-imposed immaturity seemed to be within reach. Although the belief in progress of the modern has been extensively deconstructed by postmodern criticism, this hope placed in technology is particularly persistent. This was also so at the beginning of the 2000s. In an issue of Yahoo! Internet Life magazine that appeared in December 1999 it was said that through the constant verifiability of claims the Internet would help to oblige politicians to honesty. Tim Berners-Lee, who is regarded as the founder of the World Wide Web, even asserted: “I’ve always viewed the Web as a tool for democracy and peace.”1 These unreservedly positive evaluations of the World Wide Web and their associated prophesies have not been fulfilled. Despite the sheer endless abundance of available information, data and facts, the Internet has definitely not contributed to an enlightenment, but rather reinforced the post-factual tendencies of perceived truths that were always present. The pluralisation of world views and opinions, and the algorithms of the social media reinforce one’s own thinking with their constant affirmation, while at the same time suggesting this would be shared by many others. The result is as many different versions of the truth as there are people who are seeking it.
2. SIMULATOR [SIC!]NESS
Emma Adler’s œuvre brings out this sore point of our time. The exhibition SIMULATOR [SIC!]NESS is about conspiracy theories and their dissemination in the Internet. ‘Simulator Sickness’ describes a feeling of unease that may arise in flight simulators or during a long period in virtual realities when the perception of the eyes and that of the organs in the ear responsible for balance are in conflict.2 The writing style borrows the [sic!] that is used in citations as an editorial reference to a mistake or an erroneous piece of information in the original text. In computer languages it may be used within a comment that is, however, only visible to readers of the source code. So already from the title there arises a complex web of references alluding to different forms of deception, fallacy and illusion. At the same time our perception stands in the center of the conflict as the basis for knowledge.
On entering the exhibition space, the first thing visitors come upon is a grey machine whose invented brand name SIQ Games refers to the title of the exhibition. The arcade game seems to summon us retro-futuristically to choose one of four players. Four counterfeits appear as green flickering outlines that may be identified — or not, depending on how well one is versed in the world of conspiracy theorists. For example, one of the players is Alex Jones, who operates the radical right-wing internet portal Infowars. Another one is Ken Jebsen, who with his broadcasting station Ken FM disseminates crude conspiracy theories, mostly in the German speaking area. But Adler does not continue to concern herself in the whole exhibition with the narratives that these people disseminate, nor does she try to counter them in some way, even at the end. She does not present us with any further supposedly ‘correct’ world view, but analyses and deconstructs our present by means of art: four portraits of players from the conspiracy scene are translated into green flickering outlines by means of a machine that is actually used for calibrating films. The reduced faces thus become not only just that, but also resemble the figure of the joker that some of the players up for selection have publicly taken for themselves. Adler creates with her machine a sort of archetype of Internet rogue. At the same time the four men are deprived of their symbols and habitus with which they would otherwise try to convince their audience. Instead of being spellbound by them, the reduction builds up a distance that allows for critical consideration. Although the gaming machine was the first of its type with a touchscreen, trying all the buttons to select a player is to no avail — a further disappointment that offers a reason to examine one’s own assumptions and perceptions.
On entering the large exhibition space one is hit by a dystopian scenario: a construction site fence, around which a quilted material trails, is set up crosswise; in the corner a hose of the same material pants frenziedly, and lying on a heap of sand is a green-violet iridescent painted chair. It is reminiscent of a racing car seat, but also of a gaming chair used by online computer gamers and a YouTube content producer called Oli, who Adler came across during her research into the current conspiracy scene. He is another player, who features in the SIQ game mentioned above. The chair appears unreal, strange, to which neither the origin or function can be clearly ascribed. This impression arises because it is the imitation of a chair made of PU foam that has been reduced in form and alienated by the other materiality. The symbols of the manufacturer have also been removed, as have the details of the processing. It looks like a casting. Jean Baudrillard diagnosed in his simulation theory a societal condition in which the symbols are increasingly detached from what they are symbolizing, thereby becoming ‘referenceless’.3 Consumer goods then no longer exist primarily as objects of need, but are consumed in their ideal dimension as a symbol of a particular lifestyle. If the gamers are demonstrating by means of the chair that they are engaging in high performance sport exactly like professional racing drivers, then Web video producers and conspiracy influencers are using it as a symbol of their zeal. As they are sitting the whole day in front of the PC for their audience, researching, commenting and cutting videos, such a comfortable seat is needed. It belongs to the equipment of a hypermasculine Internet warrior. Through the reduction and decontextualization of this consumer good its ideal function becomes visible. From her research journey through the Internet Adler has brought along even more set pieces. The model of a middle ear cochlea sparkles on a site fence foot that is coated with the same flip flop paint as the chair. This organ of the sense of balance refers not only to the title of the exhibition, but is also the symbol of the last player of the quartet: Bodo Schiffmann. He is the face of the ‘Querdenker’ (Lateral Thinker) movement in Germany, and as a doctor specializes in the phenomenon of vertigo (‘Schwindel’ in German, with the alternative sense of ‘swindle’, ‘hoax’). To disseminate his views he started off by making use of the channel of his medical practice — which ironically is called ‘Schwindelambulanz’ (Vertigo Outpatients Clinic).
The large exhibition space is enclosed on two sides by a concrete wall. On closer examination it is clear that all the concrete panels look exactly alike. They are identical copies. Is there an original? On a visual search the wall resembles exposed concrete that one knows from bunkers or temporary architecture in the urban space. But in this environment not every stone can appear the same, unless there is a fault in the matrix. The appearance of concrete as visual reproduction we again know from kitchens in a concrete look, or from PVC surfaces imitating concrete. The nearest reference to stacked concrete slabs that are always identical and slightly decayed are walls in computer games in which programs erect entire buildings by means of digital stamps in no time. Would the programmed concrete, which is itself a copy of exposed concrete, then be the original? And is the original the finalized visualization of the concrete, or is it the numbers of the programmed stamps? Already in his essay Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit published in 1935, Walter Benjamin was working on the problematic dialectic of original and copy, aura and destruction, permanence and fleetingness. He comes to the conclusion that attempts at a resolution are already pointless with a photographic image. After all, an analog photo has a negative that is not the finished product, although any number of prints can be made from it. Applied to our present day, the loss of the original art work may be equated with the loss of an original reality. The digital world and the analogous reality are inseparably interwoven on innumerable levels, with each individual person living in his own quite distinctive confusion.
A particular quality of Adler’s works is simply that, quite in keeping with the age, they do not describe a dialectic of original and copy, of analog and digital, of truth and falsehood, but all the (concrete) grey in between. In contrast to the conspiracy theorists she is not concerned with simple answers to complex questions. The contradictions of the present are not leveled in any singular narrative, but exposed — for example by a ‘faked’ concrete wall that is a reverse translation from a virtual world into the analog exhibition space.
3. A critical summary
Walter Benjamin put forward a thesis for his time, particularly in relation to film, that people ought to learn a new perception. The new medium made it important to read and to understand. Today we possess almost as a matter of course the media competence to read films, yet for the new media, the Internet, augmented and virtual reality it is still lacking. Adler’s works tell us something about our present. Deconstruction, decontextualization, media translation, alienation, reduction and the digital culture technologies, like copy-and-paste, teach us a new perception that is required in order to come to terms along with Benjamin with the new speed and acceleration of our age.
Understanding of the new technologies in their meta languages and of the mindsets in which they are steeped, requires an enlightened person with a technology education. It is exactly here that art can make an important contribution. For even if we live in a world in which machines and technology replace human work ever more comprehensively, critical thinking will continue to remain the domain of people.