The curator, Shumon Basar, speaks with Rebecca Anne Proctor on how the exhibition charts the loss of a former version of self amidst an increasingly digital landscape
Rebecca Anne Proctor [RAP]: What is Age of You about and what inspired to staging of the exhibition?
Shumon Basar [SB]: Age of You is an exhibition by myself, Douglas Coupland and Hans Ulrich Obrist, with design by Daly & Lyon, and it’s about how our sense of individuality has changed, first because of technology, and even more recently, because of the pandemic. We chose the title “Age of You” because in the 21st century, the most valuable resource in the world isn’t oil or gold; the most valuable resource is how you feel, and how your feelings are turned into tradable data and information. In a sense, every single one of us is at the center of this new world, this new reality, and this new kind of economic power.
RAP: In the hyper-tech world that we are living in where Instagram culture and the digital sphere has in many ways replaced a large part of our physical reality, why is this show so pertinent to today’s world?
SB: Change happens so quickly today — and the changes are so profound — we’re going through what I call “change vertigo.” I don’t know about you, but I wake up every morning to something entirely new. What I took for granted yesterday, I can’t anymore today. And then the pandemic made this feeling even more extreme. Things that we thought were constants (like being able to get on a plane or go to the shops or hug a loved one) are suddenly impossible or complicated. The pandemic has made us exist on screens, as data streams, as interminable Zoom calls, as voice-notes, as expressive emoji. Is there any going back? It seems ridiculous, now, to talk about “first life” (the physical) and “second life” (the digital) as though they are separated anymore. “Age of You” is interested in how our sense of being individuals, or collectives and crowds, are morphing because of these ruptures in the fabric of reality. What have we become? What are we turning into?
RAP: The exhibition is based around Basar/Coupland/Obrist’s latest book, The Extreme Self, a sequel to their previous title, The Age of Earthquakes: A Guide to the Extreme Present. How did you adapt the ideas found in the book to an exhibition format?
SB: The Age of Earthquakes was an homage and an update of Marshall McLuhan’s The Medium is the Massage (1967). This time our spirit guide is a book called The Age of Extremes from 1994 by Eric Hobsbawm, the great Marxist historian. It’s a book that holds shared importance for all of us. Hobsbawm’s 20th century starts off with the infamous gunshot in Sarajevo in 1914 and ends with the collapse of the Soviet Empire in 1991. Put in simple terms, one could say that the 20th century was dictated by a war of ideologies: on the one hand, there was Communism, which prioritised the collective, the State. And then, there was Capitalism, which elevated the wants, needs and rights of the individual. What we say in our book and exhibition is that, “the Age of You is the new Age of Extremes.” It’s what is already defining the course of the 21st century. In terms of formats, our books feel like exhibitions — or even, meme accounts. They’re collisions of text and images, which are sourced this time from over 70 artists, designers, musicians and technologists. So, it wasn’t a stretch to plan the exhibition (which was shown in its first iteration at MOCA Toronto in late 2019) and the new book (which comes out in Spring 2021) in parallel. They feed each other.
RAP: How did you work on the exhibition with the other curators, Douglas Coupland, and Hans Ulrich Obrist?
SB: The exhibition is just one possible form of expression of what really happens between us: an infinite conversation that’s over a decade old now, and still counting. Where our interests overlap is: trying to make sense of the present moment, as it mutates into the next present moment. In order to do this, you need to be interested in everything. Fashion, gadgets, economic theory, celebrity gossip, scientific research, and, mostly, people. But then each of us also brings a set of specific unique skills. Douglas is one of the best known writers in the last 30 years. But he’s also been a visual artist for even longer than that. Hans Ulrich Obrist is without a doubt the most informed and connected curator of our times, with an archive of interviews that measure in thousands of hours of recording. And I believe what I am able to do is synthesise the complex materials we deal with, into something like a whole, in close collaboration with Wayne Daly, our graphic designer.
RAP: The exhibition is very much conceptual in format. How did you select the participating artists?
SB: There are over 70 visual contributors to the book and the show, and then another dozen who contribute in situ works for the show. We have criteria when deciding who to invite. We insist there’s breadth in geography — from Asia to the Americas — and also in generation. So, there are contributors one might call “Generation Z” and then there are extremely well established, venerated figures. We have more women than men, and also, crucially, people whose gender identification goes beyond those two binaries. Lastly, it isn’t just artists. There are fashion designers, musicians, technologists. It’s really a polyphony of voices and visions.
RAP: What are some of the highlights of the show’s “13 immersive chapters” and how do the works show how the remaking of our interior world as the exterior world is driving humanity into a greater state of uncertainty?
SB: The pandemic has pushed us faster and further into the 21st century. Things that were predicted to happen in decades’ time are suddenly all happening right now. In Satoshi Fujiwara’s photographic installation, he’s asking us if we still feel safe or scared being in crowds. In Trevor Paglen’s film, he’s showing us how machines see the world and see us. Since many of us spend most of our waking lives staring at screens now, it’s important to understand how these systems work. And in Sara Cwynar’s film, she’s talking about how we define ourselves by the things we order online. As we know, online shopping has rocketed over the last year, while many famous shops and stores have closed down. Our relationship to online items is only going to increase from now on, and with it, the entire universe of shopping.
RAP: The show seems to conclude on a bleak note: The Age of You seems ultimately about the loss of You. Do you agree? If yes, why?
SB: Your position is valid by itself! And I find it very persuasive. Perhaps, the way I’d phrase it is: what is lost is a former version of yourself. However, it’s replaced by a new version — this “Extreme Self” — like an operating system update. The reason the last item in the show is a latex cast of David Bowie is because David Bowie was one of the original “extreme selves” from the 20th century. He was born as David Jones. He realised that in order to achieve what he wanted to achieve, he had to invent a character: David Bowie. And then David Bowie invented a character: Ziggy Stardust. Then Bowie killed Ziggy off. And for years and years, Bowie reincarnated again and again as different characters, with fully formed back stories, personalities and styles. Isn’t this what we do online these days? Is your Instagram “you” really “you” or an idealised, invented version of “you”? One of the chapters in the book says, “You are multiplying.” So, it’s not so much the loss of you, as it is, the endless multiplication of you — known and unknown, intended and unintended — that marks this moment.
RAP: What do you, Coupland and Obrist believe is the next stage of our current Age of You?
SB: Douglas says that he thinks the biggest change will be the inability to handle or exist inside the physical world. For decades in Japan they’ve had a demographic called hikikomori, and there’s over a million of them. According to Wikipedia:
Hikikomori are reclusive adolescents or adults who withdraw from society and seek extreme degrees of isolation and confinement. Estimates suggest that half a million Japanese youths have become social recluses, as well as more than half a million middle-aged individuals.
The only time hikikomori ever leave the house — if they do — is in the middle of the night to maybe go to a 7-Eleven or a Lawson for snacks. The “real world” no longer exists for them. Being hikikomori is like anorexia or hoarding in that once the tendency is in operation, it’s already too late to fully rectify. I then told Doug that, there was a meme that emerged when COVID-19 reached the Western hemisphere. It said — and here I paraphrase — that with everyone in the world shutting themselves indoors, all the hikikomori can finally go outside. But he still believes that it’ll be the opposite! He says, “I know that the ‘virtual world replacing the physical world’ is a very old idea, but if you’re asking for a visual of life in 2030, then I think that’s going to be it.” We’ll have to wait and see.