Aphids’ Artefact: grieving dead tech

Malcolm Whittaker

I have been without a phone since August this year. The transition was awkward at first, requiring some adjustment. However, I have since come to enjoy the sensation of being “off the grid” and the time and space opened up to me in everyday life. Of course, this is much to the ire of friends, family, colleagues and the odd curator who has had difficulty contacting me. It was not a political decision, or at least not at first. What happened was this: the Nokia 3210 I was using became inoperable when the provider I was connected with turned off their 2G service. I had been moved on from another service, also closing, not long before, and simply gave up the chase, deciding to go without. I believe there is now only one telecommunications provider left in Australia that offers a 2G service, and this will become inactive shortly, making all the phones on that platform inoperable in the process. It will be the end of an era.

Aphids’ Artefact provides a memorial service for this sort of orchestrated obsolescence of technology. Originally a ceremonial event staged at the 2016 ANTI Festival in Kuopio, Finland, the project has now taken the form of a video work that had its premiere at a one-off event at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) in Melbourne on 3 November, the same day that Apple released yet another iPhone. The video primarily comprises documentation of the original event, but in such a way that the eulogy it delivered is retained, continuing the memorialisation. The video is more than typical self-mythologising in which documentation provides a trace of the artists’ cultural capital for posterity. Admittedly, it does this as well. It is aesthetically very pleasing and creates a longing to have been at the event. More than this, the video expands the world of the project, in which the death of technology is acknowledged, celebrated and reflected upon.

When we enter the ACMI cinema, an usher warns strobe lighting will be used and hands out a program that asks phones be left on in order to communicate with the audience during the screening. We are requested to text the message “I’m here” to a provided phone number and reassured that we will not have to participate directly. Rather, we are invited to “contemplate the ideas present in this ceremony: technology, obsolescence, death.”

The screening begins with a series of shots of individual children wearing veils and staring forlornly into the camera. One shot is of a baby lying on its back, against a background of seemingly infinite blackness. The sound of old-fashioned mobile ringtones humorously offsets the moody footage. Segue to a church in Kuopio, where something akin to a funeral ceremony is taking place accompanied by a death-metal choir conducted by a figure with a pixelated face. Artist Willoh S Weiland, black-clad and veiled, leads the ceremony in a procession from the church to the nearby Technopolis Park. There, mourners from the local community, somewhat directed by the choir leader, dig a hole as a base for a 15-tonne grey granite monument — a cross between a gravestone and a featureless mobile phone or tablet. The scene brings to mind 2001: A Space Odyssey, but where the Stanley Kubrick film focused on progress, here the emphasis is on obsolescence.

Artefact, Willoh S Weiland and JR Brennan, Aphids and the ANTI Contemporary Art Festival, photo Pekka Mäkinen

During the screening video artist Emile Zile sent texts at opportune moments to audience members (a friend shared their phone with me), triggering a cacophony of digital ringtones and creating a makeshift orchestra. These contrasted with the sounds of the old mobile phone featured in the screening, making them seem ridiculous in comparison. The texts frame the content of the screening and facilitate its transcendence beyond documentation into an ongoing memorial service. They achieve this with dramatic allusions that, for example, connect the emotional pain of losing a technological device with the experience of sensing a phantom limb, or nostalgically recall the feeling of playing Snake, as well as providing information about the history of Nokia and its commercial standing.

The screening of Artefact sheds light on the economic and environmental consequences of manufacturing for obsolescence. Progress has brought great precarity to brands like Nokia, a Finnish company with a 152-year history and a staple of the country’s economy. Zile texted, “Nokia 3310… lest we forget…. requiem for buttons and keypads laid to rest… please recycle thoughtfully.”

Artefact is wonderfully timely, positing the value of farewelling devices with which we’ve formed intimate relationships, whether your old mobile phones or gaming platforms.

During a post-screening Q&A, Weiland wondered if Artefact could have been made here; would we have been able to take the subject seriously? But this wonderful tension between seriousness and silliness is the strength of Artefact, which is simultaneously ironic and sincere. During the Q&A a child cries and has to be carried out of the auditorium, the parent explaining that the tears were caused by the screen of her phone going dark, adding a final ironic touch to the requiem. Coupled with the release that morning of iPhone X and the impending end of 2G service in Australia, it added a further sense of timeliness to the project.

Over drinks after the screening, ANTI Festival Director Johanna Tuukkanen informed the artists that a gravesstone, a button with an ‘x’ on top and installed with the commemorative monument in Technopolis Park, had somehow been moved to a skate park next to the site. The artists were thrilled to hear it was now being skated on.

Aphids Artistic Director Willoh S Weiland received the 2015 ANTI Festival International Prize for Live Art — a commission for the Artefact project.

To watch Artefact, send an SMS to 0437 839 625 saying: Yes, please.

If you have an old phone that needs disposing of, go here http://www.mobilemuster.com.au.

Artefact: concept Willoh S Weiland, creators Willoh S Weiland, JR Brennan music direction, original composition JR Brennan, cinematography Kim Saarinen with Matthew Gingold, Lasse Hartikainen, editor Kim Saarinen, video editing Matthew Gingold, Artefact design Willoh S Weiland, Susan Cohn, presented by Aphids and the ANTI Contemporary Arts Festival; ACMI performance text Willoh S Weiland, Emile Zile; ACMI, Melbourne, 3 Nov

Writer, performer and a founding member of the performance collective Team MESS, Malcolm Whittaker is completing a practice-based PhD at The University of Wollongong. Titled “An Intellectual Adventure in Ignorance,” his thesis centres on the Ignoramus Anonymous project which takes the form of a support group for the ignorant, with meetings held since 2013 at festivals and in galleries, libraries and community centres across Australia.

Top image credit: Artefact, Willoh S.Weiland and JR Brennan, Aphids and the ANTI Contemporary Art Festival, photo Pekka Mäkinen

28 November 2017