What do Stephen Fingleton’s debut feature The Survivalist and the current exhibition in Somerset House’s Embankment Gallery, Big Bang Data, have in common? Extreme opposites they may be, but at their core, they both examine how we might understand the brave new world and I saw them both last week.
The Survivalist’s world is one of food shortage, living off-grid and going back to basics in a way no politician could ever imagine. It’s sparse, bleak and terrifying. At the very beginning of the film we watch a digital visualisation of some data. There are two lines, a red one that tracks the size of the world’s population, and a blue one that does the same for oil resources. We follow a trajectory, statistics appear and disappear, the flow of the lines fluctuates wildly, losing all sense of direction, until they eventually plummet. It’s all of a minute long but it tells us all we need to know to prepare us for the situation we find ourselves in at the start of the movie. And then things get worse...
Big Bang Data is a curious exhibition that balances content and design in a way that tries to make information more visually digestible but also, sometimes, more beautiful. The amount of access to and the way in which data is used in the modern world provides an underlying sinister side to the exhibit but, as well as confronting the viewer with (often frightening) hard facts, sometimes you’re not sure what you are seeing. Some the prettiest pieces told the most horrifying stories. The most successful needed no additional explanation. It was a ‘What am I looking at?’ experience with so much variety that it became slightly overwhelming.
We live in a world of short attention spans, time-micro-management and multi-tasking. Reading a book and writing a letter are archaic luxuries for people with time on their hands (I still do them, though, as ever, there’s discipline involved). Information is overwhelmingly available and there’s no such thing as a ‘need to know basis’. But amidst all the celebrity trivia, bite-sized news, viral videos and CRM vying for our attention, how can we tell important stories in a digital age? And in a world where the relationship between storyteller and listener needs no intermediary (you just plug straight in, and you can even cast yourself as the hero), where does the physical world fit in? How do we live? I may not have the answers to these questions, but I almost always head in the direction of art to have a look for them.
Going back to those two lines at the beginning of The Survivalist, reductive as they were, we come full circle. The movie could be seen as prophetic; but a transition from those two glowing lines on a screen to the sun shining through the leaves of a tree in Ireland tells us more than any amount of data in the universe can tell us about how, more than human beings, nature’s existence is under threat, and that some form of secondary big bang will get the better of all of us in the end.
Have a nice day.
Watch the trailer for The Survivalist here.
Big Bang Data continues at Somerset House until 20 March.