Flicking through Instagram, I come across a quote from a book I admit to not having read:
“Intelligence is the ability of a living creature to perform pointless or unnatural acts” – Valentine Pillman in Roadside Picnic (Arkady & Boris Strugatsky, 1971).
Bear with me. I’m at Signal Film and Media in Barrow-in-Furness for artist Will Kendrick’s exhibition That Hall is Woven of Serpent’s Spines. In the windowless space, lit florescent pink, stands a strange cobbled-together structure made from pieces of scaffolding with computer monitors strapped to, and house plants dangling from, it.
The screens display Photoshop collages of animal skulls, plants, and runic symbols that have been under/overlaid with patterns both man-made and natural. The plants slowly move up and down on a Raspberry-Pi programmed pulley system, and are cared for by hydroponic lights that sit above their pots.
The straps that fix everything in place are made from heavy-duty nylon and use metal ratchets and hooks – materials normally associated with freight services – to hold the work with a deliberate tension. I read it as a kind of new age totem pole.
Also in this space is a wall hanging that contains similar imagery to the screens and two projections: one of a tyre sloshing around in some water and the other of more nearly recognisable symbols.
The Internet is broken. The Cloud has dispersed. We are in a Neo Dark Age. The digital realm, which we had previously used to navigate, archive and express our lived realities, is out of reach. Few if any records of early 21st century life exist. We find ourselves re-appropriating symbols, objects and technologies, and combine them with fragments of memory and oral history that may or may not be true. We do this from new myths and customs in the wake of society’s structural breakdown.
This is the scenario Kendrick paints for us and it is not incredibly unique. Neither is its aesthetic. However, what is interesting about That Hall is Woven of Serpent’s Spines is the way in which the artist uses Barrow-in-Furness as a starting point for his hypothesis about the future.
The area’s Viking history and artefacts from the Furness Hoard (found in 2011) forms the basis for the exhibition. A symbol that appears repeatedly is of a serpent twisted into a figure of eight; the snake is eating its tail, making the shape without beginning or end. This symbol and the exhibition’s title reference Old Norse myths about a giant snakes.
One story in particular has roots in ancient Egyptian iconography; the infinite shape created by the reptile’s autosarcophagy is an example of an Ouroboros – a symbol of introspection, eternal return or cyclicality, especially in the sense of something constantly recreating itself.
There is a text to accompany Kendrick’s work written by Trevor H. Smith. Within this text we learn that the lack of documentation left by the Vikings is mentioned as the reason behind 19th century scholars coining the term ‘The Dark Ages’. The Victorians revived archaic Norse cultures on assumptions (Vikings never had horns in their helmets) and created new myths around them.
It is interesting to consider the cumulative error of historicity – and then to imagine what might happen to us. How will we interpret our past once our god The Internet and its guardian The Cloud has died?
Smith and Kendrick present a world in which the human is repositioned as the author once more. In this post-apocalyptic landscape we’ve reclaimed intelligence from the machines and enact it through what the Strugatskys called “pointless” or “unnatural acts”. These “acts” are our myth-making and re-appropriation of fragmented histories for guidance and structure in lieu of technology’s numbing dictatorship. The exhibition is an enjoyable exercise in thought. But it’s not entirely convincing.