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Dane Sutherland in conversation with Samuel Capps

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Dane Sutherland: As an exhibition comprised of foreboding atmospheric sound, a 3D-rendered wraparound mural depicting a vast topography of biocrystallized cells and neural pathways, tentacular veins cutting through the gallery space, a virtual reality encounter with a scientific laboratory abandoned by all except overgrown growths of pullulating tissue and spores, and a suite of sculptural objects that blur obvious distinctions between biological and technological, futuristic and ancient, alive and dead, the overall experience of Exudater to me embodies the de-centred “coagulated connectivity” you describe in the dense and equally immersive accompanying text. As a body in the gallery there is a palpable physical labour in reorienting yourself in a heavy space defined by the amalgamation of hybrid forms and dread-infused ambience. This is particularly evident in the altered proprioception of the VR work Organs Without Body, with this technology’s history of inducing ‘cybersickness’ in some individuals.
 
I begin with this brief reflection on my experience as I’d like to throw to you the idea of Exudater as an ‘embodied simulation’, that it provokes a visceral sensorimotor response and that this response is tethered to elemental cerebral concerns such as survival and navigation. The written text along with the nascent tendrils and dendritic vein systems snaking through the exhibition’s physical and virtual strata is suggestive of evolutionary mutations and pathways, so it occurs to ask whether Exudater acts in some way as a multimodal motor-integration, a tacit protocol for traversing our disorienting “cultural delta” as you call it? Or, is this simply a reflection of what it feels like to have “no map to navigate” whatever it is we are currently experiencing after Postmodern fragmentation? How do you situate the experience of disorientation and even dread that permeates Exudater on multiple levels? 
 
Samuel Capps: Exudater as a show is an attempt towards embodying this place and time in culture, but maybe not mapping it as such.   It was an attempt to evoke the continuing perplexity of being at a point in time where objects we have known for our lifetimes are beginning to overlap, where the lines drawn between classifications are becoming increasingly blurred.  I’m very interested in this collapsing of binaries or dualites, so as you mentioned, that could be the futuristic and ancient, alive and dead, but it is also present in many contemporary phenomena such as biotechnology, post-truth, augmented/virtual realities, quantum mechanics and artificial intelligence.  I often think that my interest in this subject may be drawn from my own personality, as I find myself shifting between poles quite rapidly or frequently.  But contemporary life and production is evolving so rapidly that the grasp we hold on a series of norms is in a way slipping away very quickly, so I wanted to enforce this sense of dissociation and disorientation.

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With regards to the virtual reality work Organs without Bodies, a lot of the show's audience would comment on how much they like the VR work in the show but how it made them feel “a bit sick”.  For me, this is great and exactly what I want people to feel, I wanted the work to really invoke a physical and bodily reaction and I purposefully built this into the work.  Generally VR developers would try to extricate this feeling as much as possible, but by creating a locomotion system that uses the function of a joystick within a sculpture, audiences standing still with their hand on the controller will induce a motion sickness effect.  There are several theories why motion sickness can be generated in virtual reality and although there's not been enough research done to prove any of them, one of them speculates that it is a hangover from our hunter-gatherer days.  This posits if someone ate poisoned berries and their vision became disconnected from their movement or with blurred vision, the bodily reaction would be to dispel the poison through being sick.  So this concept entwines with the posthuman narrative within the work quite nicely, and intensifies through the fact that the more you use VR the less this feeling is prevalent. Therefore the more common VR is, the more experience people will have with it.  So what you are seeing is almost like human evolution from the deep past to near future, a sensation evolving (literally) before your eyes; it is almost in real time on an evolutionary scale. 

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I think the dread that you mention is definitely important, and with a lot of my work there is always a darkness involved.  Maybe that's because I might have a negative and pessimistic outlook on things. But to me this darkness is consistent with the world, and especially the way that it is heading.  I think it's naive to think the world can live under some new techno-utopia as Capitalism and the elites already won a long time ago.  This became obvious in the 80s with cyberpunk presented as a chaotic, technology induced, end-game capitalism, struggle for survival.  The more people and inventions we have, the more complex things become, especially in the urban environment, where the majority of the world’s population now lives.  The problem is actually nature. Nature is terrifying and if we put what happens in nature into an extended human context it is extremely horrible.  Nature is the struggle for survival and domination; the constant cycle of order and chaos, life and death. Maybe, as Taoist’s believe, life would be unfulfilling in the absence of these dualiaties. But I do believe we need to transcend natural constraints and systems of behavior.  I think the complexities and pressures that are applied by modern techno-capital are becoming overwhelming in many ways, so you could see it like this; the more paths that are joined, the more connections that are made, and the more complex the networks, the more holes there are going to be for things to slip through.

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DS: Do you think that dread and the logic of pessimism plays a role akin to that of the evolutionary mutations wrought by the prevalence of VR you describe? That they have a renewing navigational efficacy rather than a wholly debilitating effect, as traditionally assumed? Or is pessimism to “end-game capitalism” what the oft-fatal injuries of a car crash is to the car?
SC: I would say the evolutionary shift to augmented or virtual realties is something to broadly anticipate, although maybe in a naive way at least, as it is the infrastructural control of the big tech companies within these spaces that is of concern.  This has already started to happen with Facebook buying Oculus, releasing the Quest 2 headset, but then forcing customers to lock actual hardware into facebook accounts and forcing their ridiculous terms of service on everyone.  The advent of the major internet companies shows the dangers of unchecked and unregulated capitalism in industries where developments move too fast for the knowledge of legislators.  This is really the building blocks for corporate authoritarianism and the fact that social media companies are already instrumental in post-truth power plays and propaganda leaves a worrying position for how virtual spaces will be controlled in the future.  In our current reality, at some point you have to relinquish any sense of control and I think nihilism can almost act as the most virtuous plane of existence in this scenario, but even opting out in many cases can make you a simp for capitalism.

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DS: I like your characterisation of cyberpunk. Rightly or wrongly it is now often associated with the slick technocapitalist aesthetic and ideology of a disembodied transhumanism, perhaps because readers and writers of this expansive subgenre have approached it both as critique and as celebration to varying degrees. But Exudater, to me, speaks more to the biopunk/ribofunk subgenre that deals with the chaotic contingencies of augmented, remixed, and mutated biological forms under dystopian technocapitalist regimes (a contingently re-embodied posthumanism). Do the tropes and aesthetic affordances of highly affective sub-genres such as body-horror or bio-horror have a specific import for the (sometimes speculative) deep evolutionary pathways your work traces? These subgenres certainly provide a contemporary rendering of dissolved dichotomies - that “nature”, too, is defined by an erroneous binary that might better be resolved now through the post-natural coagulations of Exudater?

SC: I guess biopunk and ribofunk could be perceived as slightly different: ribofunk was partially an assertion against the nature of punk, claiming it to be dead, which goes some way into an overriding capitalist narrative but falls into being an incoherent understanding of punk.  Punk is still very much alive to the people that live it or believe in it, it's just that it could be seen as dead from uninitiated observers on the outside.  I’ve always thought that punk manifests itself in many forms, and does not need to be wholly represented by patches or studded jackets.  Grime in the UK, and more broadly Drill for example, to me are modern forms of punk; purely outsider subcultures that are violently and aggressively antisocial, but created by and deeply entwined with the same society they struggle within. This can quite easily be proved by the knee-jerk reaction that the political and media classes have to its existence.  
So much as it is a trope of biopunk; of the outsider, unaccepted by society and the natural order, this will most likely be the outcome - until it becomes nature itself.  So that “nature” too can also be interpreted as Nature 2, a concept that Mike Davis addressed in his book Dead Cities.  A phenomenon that was first observed in post-war Berlin, where bombed and destroyed areas did not spring up with new growths of indiginous flora which would be expected in any localised green space - instead flourishing with completely different plants and ecologies. If we take this to extremes, it can question the very idea of post-nature as nature is itself just the confirmation of evolution, so even the unnatural can become natural.  So the disturbing essence of body horror, or even any sort of horror, is being confronted with the reprehensible distortion of the natural order, and only resonates until a final desensitising and naturalisation occurs.

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DS: The text you have written to accompany the exhibition similarly brings together a multitude of materials, compressing and connecting what feels like a lot of disparate information into a proposal that I think deserves critical attention and fleshing out. I take this to be the proposal of biological exudate as a rich mental model for a contemporary epoch that has supplanted and emerged from the Postmodern. Could you clarify and summarise this idea, and explain what you think its significance is?
 
SC: I’m not sure if it's supplanted, but definitely emergence from the Postmodern is a key factor.  With the postmodern creating branches of substructures there is a level of entanglement now occurring, but now these entangled branches can be observed to be merging together, leaking all of this information into one blurred slurry.  So the actual exudate was an analogy, taken from the biological and botanical phenomena of secretions from plant rhizomes, which is obviously a key tenet of postmodern theory by Deleuze and Guattari.   A lot of my prior research came from my dissertation while I was studying Critical Practice at the Royal College of Art, called Techno-Transcending Postmodernism: A Sludge Ontology for an Accelerated & Woke Capital.  This investigated our cultural techno-transcendence beyond the fragmentation of postmodernism into a new age of an amalgamated blurriness which can also be observed in the continual partitioning of subcultures. Although they have only really been around for the last century, every decade they are subdividing and subdividing, to the point where the individual branches are beginning to overlap and fold in on themselves.  So for example, you could take 70/80s Two-Tone Ska as a postmodern convergence between Jamacian ska/reggae, combined with British punk/skins, tracing both lineages into an apex of a novel construction.  Postmodern assemblages always seemed to retain the parts that contributed to a new whole, whereas now, a lot of subcultures seem to have much more of a confluence of so many different things, that they are so less defined and blur together indiscriminately.  

One of the defining introductory parts of my essay was taking Frederic Jameson's reaction to a section of Earnest Mandel's Late Capitalism, describing the development, production and widespread use of power technologies in industrial ages that directly relate to cultural shifts. The production of steam-powered motors and the start of Realism in 1848, the production of electric and combustion motors in the late 19th Century bound to the birth of Modernism, and to the machine production of electronics and nuclear energy in the 1940s and 50s that coincided with the advent of Postmodernism.  Following this format, I’ve speculated that our current development of renewable power, specifically nuclear fusion, is a sign for the dawn of a new age,  which represents the homogenisation of our culture-techno-sphere on multiple scales. On the atomic scale, the fusion reaction is created when two or more atomic nuclei are in close enough proximity to each other that they assimilate to create one or more new atomic nuclei and subatomic particles.  Atomic energy of the postmodern era (1940s+) was created in fission reactors that used plutonium-239 or uranium-235 fissile nuclei to absorb a neutron, thus resulting in a reaction where the nucleus would split into lighter nuclei, releasing radiation and kinetic energy that could be harvested and converted into usable electricity.  Therefore the nuclear energy of postmodernism atomically represents the fragmentation of culture at the time, whereas nuclear fusion of the future comes to represent the assimilation of multiplicities and the infinite feedback loop.

It's such a deep and multifaceted topic that is probably just a bit too hard to tackle within one exhibition, small text or conversation, and although I have made several works that have skirted areas around some of the issues involved, I’m now working on a new project which will be a much longer rendered CGI video essay to tackle the subject in a lot greater depth.

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DS: Does Exudater (or any further projects by yourself or others) point towards how exactly this “assimilation of multiplicities” is being manifested (either presently or as a near future projection)? While the fractal subdivision and assemblage of generic forms you describe as part of Postmodernism can be apprehended in the ‘long tail’ model of distribution, I can start to position various contemporary phenomena and their cultural momentum via the exudate model of (trans-contextual) secretion and fusion. This, to me, builds on critic Jörg Heiser’s notion of ‘super-hybridity’ where “In the wake of ravenous capital and the transformative effect of the Internet, hybridized forms of art-making have today moved beyond the point where it’s about a fixed set of cultural genealogies and instead has turned into a kind of computational aggregate of multiple influences and sources”. What is it about the image of exudate that is more relevant ten years on from Heiser’s formulation?

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SC: The point is that the perceived levels of subdivision do not split into such a downward long tail graph. The branches and pathways of subdivision are totally overlapping and entangled within themselves.  In graphical terms, it's more like ever-expanding malthusian vectors of intangible perception intersecting with the plotting of linear cultural production.  But  I don’t think I’m claiming more relevance for the exudater analogy, as Heiser’s evaluation is still completely valid. It is just that the leaking between is becoming more prevalent and therefore, complex.  I think that the availability and complexity of new technologies and the globalised connectivity of culture continually compounds this theory and will only increasingly do so on an exponential scale.  I would say there's a lot of artists and other cultural producers working specifically within this amalgamated space, some even unintentionally, which could be seen as a major signifier of a cultural movement.  

One of the works that comes to mind is Andrew Sunderland's solo show Infinite Diegesis which was shown at the London-based gallery I run, Gossamer Fog in 2017. This was not only one of my favourite shows exhibited at the gallery but really embodied this subject matter.  It could be described as a solo presentation of a large suspended alien wormhole-like sculpture with speakers built into it, but the sound piece playing from those speakers was formed from 40 other soundworks collected from other artists and musicians.  This was then mixed together indeterminably so you could not really tell where one artist’s work started and another work finished, essentially making an amalgamated group show within one work.  With regards to my own practice, I’m working towards a collaborative philosophy text via multi-user access on Google docs, using machine learning to curate a group show from a dataset of thousands of recent exhibitions and a series of projects with a range of collaborators using virtual production workflows during live streamed performances.
 
DS: There has been an uptake of rhetoric in contemporary art and other creative fields regarding grand forms of storytelling such as myth-making and world-building, with the latter seemingly now attached to almost anything (especially computer-generated environments). While it is promising to see and potentially be a part of discourse that critically counters the totalizing Postmodern knee-jerk aversion to grand narratives, it is also bothersome to see this inflated rhetoric used to couch the work of individual artists/brands rather than emergent, distributed scenes composed of negotiated differentiations. Surely a truer form of world-building would lie in the acts of gangcrafting diverse scenes or in the struggles of what philosopher Lorenzo Magnani calls “eco-epistemic warfare” to describe the contested enterprise of the sciences, rather than in the depiction of an isolated artistic imagination that can afford to indulge itself. The term can thus tend to re-energise ideas Postmodernism rightly tried to eradicate, resuscitating a kind of zombie-genius archetype of possessive individualism. I sketch out this situation in order to cautiously approach what is happening in Exudater and even in your broader practice, when there is a distinctly ‘otherwordly’ sensation or user experience – whether in the immersive tectonics of the soundscape, the 360 degree mural, or in the sci-fi styled VR work. Each conjures strange dimensions to navigate.


For example, the sound work Colloid that infuses the gallery calls to my mind the kind of spaces evoked by artists like Nurse With Wound or Anni Nöps. Intimate and claustrophobic imagined spaces defined by organic textures as well as structures under physical stress and heavy atmospheric pressure. Does this point to a form of ‘exudate-storytelling’ (or at least a form of embodied literacy) native to the conditions of our “coagulated connectivity”? Does the occurrence of “exudata” that you focus on and apply to the present moment offer us a model for contingently constructing narratives? Here I think firstly of ambient music as an ‘open system’ which tactically embeds itself within situations to affect the environment and listener’s mood, and secondly I am reminded of the artist duo Pussykrew’s statement that what they aim to do is “to subjugate decay”.

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SC: I wouldn’t say I’m attempting world-building, but rather atmosphering what I observe to be forming fluidly around us in the present.  I think world-building as a term has been taken on as a lazy catch-all phrase both curatorially and artistically. It suggests a fictional set of circumstances whereas I think I would take more of a position of abstracting reality.  It is the same thing as the perception of utilising science fiction aesthetics, as we are really not in the time where any of this stuff is fiction now: it's just becoming science and it's happening right now, albeit in a stage of infancy.  
As an individual artist and curator I don’t see myself as being able to define grand narratives, and especially not in the geopolitical narratives of the postmodern. But the irony of this position is not lost on me whilst conducting such a long in-depth discussion.  It's almost a moot point really as any sort of statement or position could be perceived as such, but the whole point is that the offering is not contingent narratives as cultural assessment but rather the becoming of an overtly blurred and murky position.  This is the problem with defining this current cultural age as much as it is moving away from postmodernism, as it still inhabits some of its properties.  There has been so much speculation from many theorists and commentators trying to get in on claiming the rights to name this new era (metamodernism, post-postmodernism, high modernism, digimodernism - the list goes on).  But by its own essence it is indefinable, yet still just an evolved postmodernism; maintaining some characteristics but in a much more blurred hyper hybrid fashion.  
I would agree that art drives one of the key factors of postmodern capitalism through promoting the individual self as wholly important.  Technology has now blown this into unbelievable levels with instagram and social media for anyone that uses it, so maybe as soon as everyone accepts they are worth nothing anymore then maybe we can begin to form a post-natural collective self - unless that sounds too much like a cult? :)

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The soundwork, Colloid, was less of an embedding and more of a smothering if you will, aiming to create a soft bulbous pillow to insert other objects into, rather than insert itself into them.  The reason for using such ambience was, as the title of Colloid suggests, to act as a fusing audiation to really exemplify the stretching, warping and connectivity of the moment.  In a way my curatorial practice, primarily enacted through Gossamer Fog, also provides a similar outlet for this, enabling an external cohesion of other practices and more experimental collaborative projects, something of which I have more planned coming up in 2021. Both my curatorial and artistic practices often influence each other,  bleeding across and flowing into each other in both directions.  But I think decay is actually something that is potentially quite potent in this process of hybridisation because as much of the postmodern assemblages of the past were wholes that were joined together to make a new whole (100%+100%=200%).  I think now there must be some loss to really make a multifaceted hybrid, the subject needs to lose enough of its own nature to be able to be not fully representative of it anymore.

Exudater was at Seager Gallery, London from September 12th to October 25th 2020

Samuel Capps is an artist and curator whose interest lies in the convergence between natural materiality and technology. He has recently completed an MA in Critical Practice at the Royal College of Art and he is the director of Gossamer Fog, a London gallery focusing on science, ecology and technology.

Dane Sutherland is a curator, artist and writer based in London, primarily working as Most Dismal Swamp. Dane is a contributing editor at Tzvetnik.

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