PanGenerator is a team based in Warsaw which works in the areas of design and new media. Its members are Piotr Barszczewski, Krzysztof Cybulski, Krzysztof Goliński and Jakub Koźniewski. Since the year 2010 they have been designing structures which overstep boundaries between art, technology and media. For them, new media art is like a laboratory for the future. They arrange untypical situations involving technology in order to analyze new human behaviors in an open formula, reflecting on them before they happen in the real world of the future.
Despite the ongoing pandemic, on 16 February the National Ethnographic Museum in Warsaw invited the public once again to see the ‘Icons’ exhibition. I used this occasion to talk to the members of panGenerator and to the curator of the National Ethnographic Museum in Warsaw – Bratek Robotycki. I asked them some questions about the exhibition and discussed with them how constant interaction with new technologies shapes our minds.
Ivanka Berchak: ‘Icons’ is one of the events from the Iconic Things project which focuses on what is iconic in our reality. How does the exhibition address this area of focus? What aspects and phenomena did you want to present?
PanGenerator: The Iconic Things project was all about phenomena, symbols, objects and artefacts of broadly understood contemporary culture which are important to us. We wanted this series of events to include an exhibition on digital culture, which can be seen as an intangible component of culture. On the other hand, we can surely assert that there is a tangible aspect to it, especially when we reflect on how enormous an influence digital culture has on our lives, how important and vital it is for our existence.
We open our exhibition asking which symbols and gestures of digital culture we can consider truly iconic. We use some older artefacts, such as the iconic Nokia 3310. In the piece entitled ‘Temptation’ we present it as a forbidden fruit — the very first mobile phone for some, but only a dream for others. On the other hand, we are looking at new phenomena which are very typical and deeply rooted in our everyday reality. A good example here is the work entitled ‘Infinity’, where we reflect on Infinite Scroll mechanism invented for the purposes of social media platforms. This mechanism is supposed to preoccupy us and not let us put our smartphones away. We present this trap in a very symbolic way — there is a screen with a kneeler attached for the visitor to assume a kneeling position in front of this screen. We perceive the whole scrolling process as a kind of meditation or as a situation where we are making an offering of our attention and are enticed with the attractiveness of the infinite scrolling experience.
Bratek Robotycki: On the basis of conversations with our visitors we concluded that the National Ethnographic Museum is not usually considered a place to see pieces of contemporary culture. Iconic Things is an attempt to change the image of the museum a little bit. We chose the ‘iconic’ due to the popularity of this concept and its very broad nature. Not only artefacts can be iconic, but also an idea or something that is immaterial. This project was multifaceted — the exhibition was running simultaneously with research activities. We carried out surveys with certain focus groups of our guests. We asked them how they understood the notion of ‘iconic’, where it manifested itself and what was its nature. We collected this information and we also asked various experts to help us define this key notion. We wanted to prove that we were not just preoccupied with videos and graphical materials (plus folk costumes, obviously) but were also focused on the world that surrounds us. We want to emphasize that ethnography is indeed a reflection on us in the world, not only from the point of view of history, but also the situation here and now.Hungry for more?
As a team of museum workers we created our own description of the notion (definition would maybe be a too strong word here), listing certain types of features which iconic things possess. This helped us define the pathways we were about to follow in this series of projects. The very notion of the ‘iconic’ is really multifaceted. There is an economic aspect, which is obvious and can be understood as availability or the answer to the question of whether we have the money to buy something. There is a marketing aspect, which is about advertising and how far such an object can reach. The social aspect indicates a group of users of a given object. The next aspect is cultural, which is related to fashion. The psychological aspect means for example the sense of loss or being attached to a certain object. These were more or less the categories which altogether made up our definitions. The ‘Icons’ exhibition is where we can find these notions, objects and themes.
IB: My strongest feeling when I visited the exhibition was nostalgia and affection. I do remember how iconic the Nokia 3310 was in those years.
PanGenerator: Indeed, the personal aspect and emotions was what we intended to play with and refer to. We make the exhibition full of personal experiences. Nokia is a kind of recollection of the past. It makes us remember times when we had only just started to interact with the digital world. An example of an emotional work is the triptych entitled ‘Anticipation’ consisting of three different ‘icons’ in golden frames. Each one has its own title — ‘Fury’, ‘Desire’ and ‘Hope’. Our emotions related to waiting are depicted in this way and these icons are an emotional element of our own user interface. We wait for the machine to do what we instructed it to do and keep our fingers crossed for it not to freeze.
IB: What other current topics or aspects do you discuss in your ‘Icons’ exhibition? The titles are themselves very important and meaningful elements which keep the audience on track. Could you explain the titles of the displayed works?
Bratek Robotycki: The exhibition is very ironic and amusing from time to time. A lot of issues are being discussed there, starting from fashion and creating needs in humans and finishing with the very first mobile communication opportunities (meaning communication via the Internet rather than simple voice transmission). Let’s look at Nokia 3310 and the whole installation, which the authors named ‘Temptation’. This cell phone is an archetype of a phone. Using very primitive systems (if we look at them now) it gave us access to the Internet. PanGenerator group called it ‘entry drive’, so something which gives us an opportunity to enter. Here we have the icon – holiness. The title, in a very perverse way, introduces another aspect of this piece, which is temptation. It ironically refers to the snake game which used to be available on this Nokia model and makes an association to the story from the Old Testament. This is how we play with our audience. In every piece panGenerator refer to certain social and cultural determinants. They use the language of gestures (kneeling down, clicking, scrolling), symbols and signs (waiting icons or a progress bar). They use things which are basically available to everybody. It is only at the second level, when we ask ourselves why the exhibition is presented in a museum, that an enormous room for interpretation opens up in front of us.
Have you ever wondered what art will look like in 30 years? Will it even remotely resemble the art world we know today? What sort of trends and tendencies will dominate the scene? How about the influence of innovative technology or the evolution of art galleries and museums? Will artificial intelligence assist curators and artists on a daily basis? Will traditional art forms, such as painting or sculpture, be consigned to obscurity? This not-too-distant (or at least, so it seems) future becomes an even greater “Unknown” when we cast our minds back to the world of only 30 years ago: The internet revolution was just around the corner, no-one was even imagining the possible impact of the mobile phone, and Video-Art was widely accepted as the most tech-heavy format that Art could take on.
The work which is very interesting to interpret and, I have to say, my favorite, one, is ‘Conversation’. It is a box with two small windows. Inside these windows resembling chat bubbles in a social media platform we can see three dots/little balls which jump up and down during a conversation to keep it going. When we see them moving, we know that someone is going to tell us something really soon. In the theory of communication this is called the phatic function of language. Here we can also see ironic references to the way we communicate online. When we do not see the face of our interlocutor, we can instantly stop our conversation or prolong it using the moving dots that suggest we are writing something. We can also escalate emotions with emoticons.
Someone may ask: why are there works that require interpretation presented in our exhibition? It is very important to understand that ethnography, anthropology and ethology are also connected with art, to understand the language of art and the special tools developed to tell others about the world using this language. This is very important for us. Even more because art also shows the reality which we would like to invite to our museum, namely, the digital world.
PanGenerator: The titles are notions that can be understood literally or more metaphorically. This applies for example to the ‘Infinity’ project or the installation entitled ‘Memory’ (previously ‘hash2hash’), which transforms our selfie into a pile of gravel. The topic of this particular work is digital saving. It reflects on the fact that the cloud is where our life is registered in the form of photos. Truth be told, we cannot be sure that in fifty years we will be able to access these pictures. In fact, it is possible that, due to technical failures, breakdowns or cyberattacks, a big part of our digitally saved memory may get ‘scattered’. Every single object presented tells us how digital culture influences selected aspects of our lives.
IB: The objects presented are focused on issues/objects from different times — I would even say from different eras, because technology develops so extremely quickly. All this makes me wonder, who is the target audience for your exhibition? Who exactly was on your mind when you were creating it?
Bratek Robotycki: The exhibition is specifically meant for every single visitor. The reception will be different in the case of a person who feels sentimental attachment to a given object than in the case of a person who has a neutral attitude towards it. There is also a psychological aspect to it — we did not want to say that we’re referring e.g. to a sense of loss. Rather it is all about what contemporary humans experienced in the past. Let’s look at three of the installations: ‘Infinity’, ‘Memory’ and ‘Conversation’. It can be assumed that a representative of the young generation is completely immersed in this virtual reality, acts subconsciously and spontaneously (no matter whether they are swapping, scrolling or using the cloud to save data). Through our behaviours we show our attitudes towards the digital world. Here it is not about what is currently ‘iconic’, but what CAN BECOME iconic. It is a modern phenomenon which is evolving constantly and is influenced by various factors. One of such basic influencing factors is economy and the fact that marketing specialists are aware that we are consuming the world around us at an increasing speed. Nintendo, emoticons which show expectations and emotions. All these are remembered. We get accustomed to interfaces of specific operating systems. There are methods to adapt new interfaces to look like the older ones in order for us to feel relaxed and at home. Such mechanisms exist in marketing and are used in the digital world. The reason is, on the one hand, that we are constantly looking for simplified systems which describe the world. On the other hand, we know more and more about ourselves and understand the psychological features which, when combined with scientific knowledge, for example from the field of neurology, make it easier to manipulate us. Some are of the opinion that this is bad. Others may think that this is just yet another tool which allows us to understand today’s world.
How are digital interfaces reshaping our personal relationships? What do new technologies imply for the future of the romantic sphere? How do screens affect our sexual intimacy? Are the new means of connection shifting the old paradigms of adult life?
The advent of the Internet and smartphones has brought about a split in the romantic lives of millions of people, who now inhabit both the real world and their very own “phone world”. In terms of romance and sexual intimacy these phenomena have generated new complexities that we are still trying to figure out.
This exhibition communicates the message that there is no clear distinction between the digital world and the world of culture. These are both elements of the same world. They are only distinct in anthropological discourse. Nevertheless, the digital world is generally perceived as the world that allows us to create our own selves and all our emotions — we can be ashamed or fall in love. These are simply elements of our world. Therefore, this world must find its place in an ethnographic museum.
IB: This year panGenerator celebrates its tenth anniversary. How has the digital culture changed throughout these ten years? What should exhibitions on digital culture look like today?
PanGenerator: It is very hard to say whether culture has changed during the ten years since we started our work together. I think that techno-optimism gave way to techno-scepticism or even pessimism. We started our cooperation in 2010, so not very long after the first smartphones with touchscreens became available on the market and the whole ecosystem of mobile apps and startups materialized itself. That year was when social media rapidly gained popularity thanks to the constant availability of Internet connection on our smartphones. The starting point for us was optimism and faith in the amazing powers of technology that would solve all our problems. We believed that there was an infinite number of good ideas and solutions, which should be shown off. Such an approach was obviously more natural to us because we were younger and less critical, we had a lot of enthusiasm, sometimes we were a bit naive in this respect. During the last ten years a lot of our assumptions, including the positive expectations, have been revised. As a result our current exhibition is more critical and pessimistic in its character than many of our previous projects, which often explored what can be done with technology and how to engage the audience and give everyone the pleasure of interacting with the newest technical developments. Our approach to digital culture changed and it certainly shows in our projects presented at this exhibition.
IB: People become increasingly more addicted to technology. What are the dangers or, the other way round, the advantages of this situation?
PanGenerator: Technology is not good or bad in itself. It is the way to manifest our desires and aspirations that are quite universal and eternal. When it comes to the question of how people are, nothing has really changed. Nonetheless, a lot of these emotions, desires and phenomena, which are not always positive, are being ‘turned up’ by technology to a dangerous extent. Just look at how much hate is present online. In fact, we have always been critical of other people, even long before technology changed our lives so much. But technology makes such critical opinions more noticeable and louder. It is an accelerator and an amplifier for our aspirations, emotions and features of our character, both positive and negative. People are not properly prepared for such a huge amplification of certain behaviors and this, obviously, is a problem.
Bratek Robotycki: If you take a closer look and interpret the exhibition, you will notice that it shows more of the ‘dark side’ of the digital world. I do not know if all this is going to last. Digital communication is dodgy, no matter how strongly we idolize the Internet. We are just scrolling absent-mindedly to kill time. I have the impression that we approach technology as if it had magical powers. We think that if we stare at something on the screen for a long time, a process will be accelerated. When it comes to the positive aspects, I notice them outside of the user experience and science-related areas. Technology could allow us to speed up the production process. Maybe this is what digital reality has in store for us, maybe it will allow us to stop working, because our tasks will be carried out by machines. Apart from that I could not think of any benefits of digital reality in the sphere of psychology, emotions and culture. As for now, we analyze it in terms of the threats it causes. We are addicted to the screens of our electronic devices. I wonder whether there are any positive aspects of this, apart from efficiency and productivity.