Blocked Content

13 May to 26 November 2017
The Russian Pavilion at the
57th International Exhibition La Biennale Di Venezia
Curated by Semyon Mikhailovsky, Co-Curator: Ekaterina Shcherbakova

Lest Darkness Fall

The contemporary human being gain social experience and knowledge mainly through their interaction within the Internet. However, with the development of artificial intelligence, humans have come to feel themselves guests in this intangible and non-visualised virtual space that they have recently created.

For several years Recycle Group have been delving into the phenomenon of the virtual world. Andrey Blokhin and Georgy Kuznetsov reflect on the possibility of the net to offer immortality to its users. Being embedded in the Internet, the online portraits exist, whether or not a person uses their account. Yet the eternal virtual life is only promised to the righteous of the net, while the disobedient are blocked by the machine. In store for spammers, impostors, pretenders, the foul-mouthed, and aggressive hawkers of goods and services, there is an eternal existence in a virtual hell, an information void, white noise with no likes or reposts. They are not eligible to any indulgence – the algorithm perceives the violation and blocks the profile forever.

Recycle Group’s Blocked Content visualizes this virtual hell, bordering on the absurd. Finding themselves in a black cube or a black square raised by one dimension, the viewer is confronted by blocked information. Is this prohibited content or simply the overlap of all the worldviews? One or zero? Or possibly some abstract universal value? The Blocked Content is everything and nothing at the same time, it consists of compressed maps from the atlas of the new world of the Internet.

The materialisation of virtual functions continues in the digital cave where the characters blocked by the system suffer. Human eye can perceive only polygonal sculptural forms reminiscent of sea ice ridges. The Internet sinners are physically blocked and can be seen only by a computer-aided eye via the augmented reality application. These characters, generated by the computer program from the profiles as ideal images of the human beings, are trying to photograph invisible food, tussling over a number of likes that haven't been delivered, and entreating the system of the return to the online activity.

This digital cave of frozen information interspersed with symbols that the machine uses to characterise the user thereby recalls a prehistorical grotto. Cave painting marked the first victory of the cognitive progress, which separated art, belief and science. It symbolises the development of reason from perception. Age, sex and activity in the net – this is what the Internet user is distilled down to. The system does not possess sense organs required to analyse the real character behind the profile. The difference in the perception of reality by the human being and robot is one of the key paradoxes addressed by the project.

On the one hand, Recycle Group's total installation materializes the underlying principles of how social networks operate. On the other, the virtual hell created by the artists refers visually to the classical image of the underworld as depicted in Dante Alighieri's Divine Comedy. The poet put traitors and charlatans of all stripes, doomed to eternal torment in the frozen lake of Cocytus, in the ninth circle of hell. As the sinners buried in ice shed tears, the volume of the ice multiplies. The reference to The Divine Comedy brings to the fore the issue of new morals in Recycle Group's work. Dante's poem was an encyclopedia, a visionary message and a mystical sacred text at once. He addressed this new moral code to an ordinary reader, writing it not in Latin but in the vulgar tongue of the people. His choice of language was met with doubt by the contemporaries, but rendered the poem accessible to all the country’s literate citizens. The virtual space as well democratises communication and levels social statuses – it is global and understandable to everyone. The Devine Comedy presented not only the analysis of the contemporary political realities and scientific knowledge, but a compilation of ethical rules and standards. Moreover, the poet declared his poem sacred, thus likening it to divine revelation, and equating himself as its main character and the pilgrim to the creator. Blocked Content chimes in with this view. The networked machine here is the creative subject, which is ready to provide competition to its creator both in productivity and spirituality. This post-digital parable, which seems to be transported from the future, contains an ironic allusion to the forthcoming reality.

According to futurologists, the technical singularity will happen in 2030–2045, when the level of technical progress will exceed the boundaries of human understanding and control. Following the development of robotics, man depends more and more on solutions by artificial intellect. Whom should the driverless car save – the passengers or pedestrians? How can a robot be taught to think in the categories of human moral? What is a harm, and what is a benefit? Why can’t the robot think of seizing the world in order to safeguard the man from harm? Who is right in the logical confrontation between machine and man? These are the questions Recycle Group try to answer in their work. They adopt the role to foretell the future, which is imbued with apocalyptic sentiments. These anxieties are caused by new technological forms of life that to date have remained man’s apprentices. After all, a robot cannot suffer unless we teach it to.

Ekaterina Shcherbakova