Insight: the power & politics of visual culture in the age of mass media, Emmanuel Van der Auwera at Edel Assanti

Text by Meritxell Rosell

Fire and Forget, Emmanuel Van der Auwera at Edel Assanti (2022). Installation view

One of the first impressions of experiencing Emmanuel Van der Auwera‘s installations is being in front of a mirage, but rather than a naturally occurring one, in this case, technology-induced. Van der Auwera’s works trick the viewers with a deconstruction of new media, aided by a smart, playful interplay between politics, agency and perception. During Frieze London 2022 in London, Van der Auwera presented Fire and Forget, a solo exhibition at Edel Assanti Gallery. The first time he showcased this selection of recent works together. 

Fire and forget is a term commonly used in military jargon, referring to the act of firing a weapon with little concern for its aftermath. This phrase provided the title and guiding theme for the exhibition, which included light-responsive photographic plates, an immersive video installation and a film. The exhibition explored the dehumanisation of the human gaze and what it means to be an autonomous citizen in a digital era defined by internet conspiracy, surveillance technology and AI identity-altering algorithms.

Van der Auwera’s recent works have been drawn to the US and its proliferation of conspiracy theories. His exploration delves into the complexities of a Debourdian society of the spectacle, where voyeuristic acts are prevalent and move from one target to the next at breakneck speed. In a world where we readily embrace new technologies without fully grasping their implications, “fire and forget” has become the norm. Through his art, the artist urges us to reflect on our position as spectators in this spectacle, and whether we are truly acknowledging our agency or just deceiving ourselves.

The centre of the exhibition is VideoSculpture XX (The World’s 6th Sense) (2019), an intriguing video installation that is composed of six wall-mounted LCD screens, each one treated to prise the screens apart from their polarising layers. Once removed, we read, the screens become imperceptible, and the naked eye only sees a bright white light. As if conjured by a tech high priest, the screen content is only revealed through the eight rectangular polarising filters, which are strategically distributed in the installation room on tripods. The effect is haunting and confusing, and the viewer’s sight takes a while to adapt to the trick.

But more haunting is the content shown behind the filters. The installation uses footage presented at the largest arms fair in the world, annually held in Las Vegas, to demonstrate the accuracy and tracking capabilities of the FLIR system  (military-grade thermal imaging systems, self-proclaimed as the World’s Sixth Sense), when casually used to zoom into tourists and citizens enjoying the Las Vegas Strip. The confronting scenes of unaware individuals observed with military-grade targeted precision are further enhanced by the appearing and disappearing images on the main screens, which become the narrative conductors.

Fire and Forget, Emmanuel Van der Auwera at Edel Assanti (2022). Installation view
Fire and Forget, Emmanuel Van der Auwera at Edel Assanti (2022). Installation view

For Van der Auwera, though, video was the core of his early artistic practice. But it wasn’t until 2012, when he stumbled upon a particular online phenomenon, that he was struck with a new perspective. The trend in question? Reaction videos. But not just any reaction videos – these were recordings of teenagers reacting to a video of a murder. At first, Van der Auwera was drawn in by the morbid curiosity of their interest, but what really captivated him was the way these young viewers were able to bottle up their fascination and export it as new content. This experience proved to be a turning point for Van der Auwera, inspiring him to explore the tension between voyeurism and violence that lies at the heart of our contemporary digital culture.

The Death of K9 Cigo (2019) features a riveting montage of mobile phone footage sourced from the already defunct platform Periscope, a live broadcasting site. The footage was filmed by individuals in and around Miami in the months after the 2018 Parkland school shooting. The carefully edited assemblage takes on the character of citizen journalism, as it captures the contrasting self-presentations and documentation of local events, which range from the outpouring of grief at the funeral of a police dog shot in the line of duty, to the energetic protests of young people at an anti-gun rally.

In this poignant portrait of a community grappling with the perpetual presence of violence and grief, screens are also the conductors of the narrative. A narrative that is not linear anymore, but projects into many layers of our societal angst. 

As we navigate an increasingly complex and interconnected world, Van der Auwera’s work serves as a poignant reminder of the power and responsibility that comes with our technological advancements. Through Fire and Forget, he invites us to consider the human costs of our ever-expanding digital footprint and to contemplate what it means to be truly present in a world that is increasingly mediated by technology.

(Media courtesy of the artist and Edel Assanti)
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