Thomas Kneubühler, Absence | Landing Sites — Patrick Brian Smith

[Summer 2019]

Patrick Mikhail Gallery
November 10, 2018–January 19, 2019

Landing Sites
November 15, 2018–January 26, 2019

By Patrick Brian Smith

Thomas Kneubühler has always been concerned with developing new ways of visualizing – and critiquing – power formations and their related infrastructures in the late-capitalist, globalized world. From Private Property (2006), in which he aimed to expose the “unseen presence of those who watch,” to Land Claim (2014–15), in which he mapped the global interconnections among resource-extraction multinationals and their concomitant exploitation of First Nations communities in Canada, Kneubühler has been interested in making forms of capitalist and sovereign exploitation, and the technological, logistical, and industrial apparatuses that support them, visible. These are practices and infrastructures that have largely been strategically hidden from sight. Kneubühler’s two most recent exhibitions, Absence and Landing Sites – both presented in Montreal in 2018, the former at Patrick Mikhail Gallery and the latter at Dazibao – build on these preoccupations; in both, however, there is also a focus on the intimate, micro impacts of such large-scale networks and infrastructures. In Absence, first presented in 2002 in Montreal in the show La vie en temps réel : Mode accéléré and subsequently exhibited in France, Germany, and Switzerland, he examines the multifarious impacts – affective, attentional, onerous – of early computing and digitization on human labour. Landing Sites, a new multimedia work, is focused on transatlantic fibre-optic cables and the ways in which they have reconfigured the temporalities of human communication and information transfer.

Absence is a collection of sixteen portraits. Each photograph presents a medium close-up of a figure staring beyond the limits of the frame. Each gaze and posture is subtly different: staring up, down, or straight ahead; neck craned or tilted back; shoulders tensed or relaxed. However, all are captivated by what is present beyond the edges of the image – something apparently so engrossing that there’s a suggestion it could be staring back. These postures and gazes are somehow immediately familiar, even before we know that the figures are all working at computers.

In Absence, we are witnessing sixteen acts of one of the most ubiquitous performances of human labour under late capitalism. Vegetative and hypnotizing, these are the forms of computational labour that we have been increasingly subjected to since the late 1970s. Here, Kneubühler seems to be interested in how both computational and technological shifts have reshaped the affective, attentional, and onerous dimensions of human labour. Moreover, there is a strong emphasis on the alienating capacities of such work. As Kneubühler suggests, “The monitor is the gate to the digital world which makes things visible to the user. Focusing on the computer screen, people are completely absorbed by the machine and forget about their physical environment: they dive into another reality.” Within the gallery space, these portraits are spaced in such a way that their subjects’ vacant stares never intersect. Thus, despite these disparate bodies being collected together in the gallery space, there is a strong emphasis on the absence of a potential collective agency that could emerge from such forms of alienated digital labour.

The central focus of the Landing Sites exhibition is the fibre-optic cable FLAG (Fiber-Optic Link Around the Globe) Atlantic-1, put into operation in 2001, which connects Long Island, New York, with Bretagne, France. It was the first submarine cable that could transmit at up to 10 Gbit/s and, consequently, handle high-quality video. A diptych of photographs, Landing Sites (East and West), portrays the two endpoints of the cable. The East image captures a collection of seaweed-covered rocks in the foreground, with several of the buildings on the Bretagne seafront peeking through the mist and fog in the background. West looks out to sea from a Long Island beach, capturing several container vessels on the ocean’s distant horizon. These ghostly landscapes serve to emphasize the invisibility of such infrastructural technologies, which are so crucial for contemporary globalization, capitalist circulation, and human communication. Indeed, as Kneubühler suggests, such technological apparatuses “are affecting people’s lives and changing the world, they are present in all parts of daily life. But still, the essential part of new technologies is invisible: cables connecting people from continent to continent are somewhere under the earth or in the sea.”

Another work in the exhibition, a two-channel video piece titled Ebb and Flow, focuses on how uneven access to these communications infrastructures is tied into the wider modalities of contemporary settler colonialism and natural-resource extraction. Split across two large screens and staggered through the back half of the gallery space, the piece juxtaposes two locations. The Bretagne seafront makes a reappearance, alongside Nunavik’s Ungava Bay. In both videos, children play on their respective beaches, and we observe their activities in long, statically framed, single takes. The children in Bretagne slowly disappear into the coastal fog, whereas the children in Nunavik are audibly drowned out by the approach of an off-screen helicopter (owned and operated, as Kneubühler tells us, by a transnational mining company). In Nunavik, access to the internet is limited; the town is not plugged into the wider fibre-optic matrix of FLAG, and satellite connections are unreliable at best. These same spaces are also the sites of contemporary neocolonial exploitation, as transnational mining companies scour the land for the precious metals that facilitate the further development and advancement of these communicative – and late-capitalist – infrastructures elsewhere. First Nations territories are continually plundered, and at the same time proper access to communications is repeatedly foreclosed (and the relationship between these exploitative practices is certainly not coincidental). Kneubühler’s rich and intricate exhibitions serve to remind us that our myriad forms of digital communication and their related infrastructures do not create, as Tiziana Terranova suggests, a free-floating postindustrial utopia”; rather, they are “in full mutually consisting interaction with late capitalism, especially. . . global venture capital.”1 Kneubühler’s carefully researched work both allows us to peek behind the curtain of contemporary formations of power and their related infrastructures and impresses upon us the fact that the inherent invisibility of these formations is a fundamental part of the violence that they exact on the world.

1 Tiziana Terranova,“Free Labor:Producing Culture for the Digital Economy,” Social Text 18, no. 2 (2000): 43.

Patrick Brian Smith is a film and moving image studies PhD candidate in the Mel Hoppenheim School of Cinema at Concordia University, Montreal. His research interests include experimental nonfiction cinema, the politics of space, Marxist geography, late-capitalism’s (un) representability, and the essay film. He is currently working on a dissertation titled “The Politics of Spatiality in Experimental Non-Fiction Cinema,” in which he maps out the presence of a spatio-political tendency within a diverse corpus of contemporary experimental nonfiction films.

[ Complete issue, in print and digital version, available here: Ciel variable 112 – COLLECTIONS REVISITED ]
[ Individual article in digital version available here: Thomas Kneubühler, Absence | Landing Sites — Patrick Brian Smith ]