Tilbury Port, 1967: the design critic Reyner Banham noted vast, shed-lined landscapes of single, unbroken ten-acre tracts. The shed, ‘a stiff tent’ made of hi-tech materials, found its form around the increased importation of containerized goods in standardized steel containers. An early Modernist ideal made manifest, these sheds could be perfectly designed by engineers without architects’ interference. At Tilbury, Banham diagnosed a new kind of space: a decentralized flatscape with unpredictability designed out – an expression of capitalist expediency.
Global shipping, containerization and oil in Tilbury, London Gateway and Thames Oil Port provided the backdrop for Hannah Sawtell’s recent exhibition, ‘#STANDARDISER’, at Focal Point Gallery, a little further up the Thames Estuary in Southend-on-Sea. These suggest materials, motifs and themes that collided in the show with objects of the New Industrial Revolution – said to be underway right now, any place you can get online, facilitated by peer-to-peer currency such as Bitcoin, 3D printing and open source soft- and hardware on the internet.
Docks have always been nodes: a point at which lines in a global network intersect. Are these comparable to nodes in digital networks? What new forms of standardization have occurred or are occurring online? These were a few of the questions implied by an exhibition that itself wanted to be considered a network. The eponymously titled installation #STANDARDISER (all works 2014), in Gallery 1, is a node, with all other works, in the window gallery, reception and Gallery 2, individually titled as extensions of this root hashtag. Navigating this network, a proxy for others, we were confronted by philosophical questions of value and exchange, labour and creativity, personal freedom, the state, standardization and ownership.
In Gallery 1, a parabolic acoustic wall screens the view but not the pervasive, low-frequency beat. The wall pushes you out to the edges of the space and then gathers you back between it, a corresponding video projection and two MDF speakers and sub woofer. Apart from the grounded sub woofer, these elements hang from a luminous orange steel frame. This ‘modular acoustic display system’ worked with the wall to concentrate sound waves in one area of the room. Diedrich Diederichsen has called this affective field within physical space Sawtell’s ‘industrial psychedelia’. At Focal Point, her intention was to produce a ‘dense digital situation’ as a condition for viewing the video – suggesting we consider the low-frequency beats and the rests between them as a fluid binary stream.
Sawtell has described her audiovisual works as ‘decelerated repetition’. If, for Hito Steyerl in Liquidity Inc. (2014), waves symbolize the forceful liquidity and speed of corporate capital, for Sawtell the most apt decelerationist liquid is oil. In the animated HD video, produced using freeware on a tablet device, coagulated oil drips over a proposal for a luxury Norwegian hotel in the shape of a floating glass snowflake. (I think of oil-rich Norway: Oslo’s waterfront redevelopment, home to the country’s most expensive property and the privately funded Astrup Fearnley Museum’s new, super-slick Renzo Piano-designed HQ.) Paired with this was a slow aerial tracking shot that circles a computer-generated cooling tower. Beyond the tower, a single wind turbine loops in and out of shot, in sync with the ten-minute loop of these videos. Sawtell projects the films onto a bullet-proof polycarbonate plastic sheet, as if to repel the cliché of camera-as-gun: CGI, after all, is cameraless.
In #STANDARDISER_SQUATTER (2014) steel security screens partially cover a brightly lit display cabinet containing a large tub of 3D-printed Bitcoins of the artist’s speculative design. Normally used to prevent access to vacant properties, the screens’ function here is ambiguous. One thing’s for sure: it’s not to guard the loot. Bitcoin is an entirely virtual currency that only has online value in relation to other users on a peer-to-peer system, without recourse to a central reserve or banks, which has caused great excitement since its launch in 2009. Identities are hidden in transactions, shielding users from data mining, but at the same time raising fears among the sensationalist press about its potential criminal use.
Bitcoins, this time loose, were heaped alongside a litany of CNC’d and 3D printed objects in Gallery 2. A tooth, Google glass, the ebola virus, a drone propellor, the British Standards logo and a router, among other things, were arranged in a quasi-anthropological table-top display. Designs for these objects were downloaded from free open-source, user-created files. Here, Sawtell’s mediation was felt least. These items are curiously indifferent, like high street 3D print shop novelties.
Orange vinyl British Standard Kitemark logos were repeated in diamond patterns on the gallery window. The motif, introduced in 1903 to identify products that meet British manufacturing standards, may be the key to understanding the exhibition’s ambivalent title. British Standards directives have real restrictive consequences for industrial design, but a standardizer is also one who can set new norms; who can innovate rather than regulate. Here, Sawtell herself is the #STANDARDISER, decelerating hi-tech materials designed for expediency.
First published in Issue 168