The Universal Addressability of Dumb Things

30 Aug 2013

De La Warr Pavilion

This week we were lured down to the seaside, not (just) because the sun was shining but because Bexhill’s De La Warr Pavilion was hosting Mark Leckey’s current exhibition, The Universal Addressability of Dumb Things It is not quite a literal take on the ‘internet of things’ from which the title comes, but the exhibition is concerned with “a world beyond tomorrow when every ordinary, unthinking object – tinned meat, refrigerators and satellites – becomes an active participant in the Great Connection.”

The artefacts in the exhibition come from all sorts of places but were all sourced in the first instance by internet searches, Leckey dragging and dropping items in to folders - "aggregating" as Google itself does - ultimately to bring together actual objects that had previously co-existed only on the internet. The resulting collection is eclectic and challenging; one of the volunteers in the gallery tells me some visitors have left saying they didn’t understand it. I worry, I say, that all of the things it is making me think – and it’s impossible to walk around and remain unprovoked – are not the things I am supposed to be thinking. “You’re not supposed to be thinking any one thing,” comes the reply.

The exhibition begins with several screens playing videos on a loop: one of the first is a piece by the autism rights activist Amanda Baggs, in which she describes how she interacts with the world using touch and movement and song rather than the conventional spoken word. Her video is a stand against the discrimination that she suffers but it is also a piece that makes you think about the way that humans can communicate with the things around us; watching Baggs caress the water running out of the tap really brings home this idea of communion.

This notion guided me through the rooms, as did the growing recognition that time did not really matter to the items in this collection: here a hand reliquary from the 13th century, and there – next to it, speaking to it and of it and being addressed in return – a bionic hand created last year. The continuities that could be traced between all sorts of artefacts were fascinating, all of them “familiar objects full of voices”, as Leckey puts it. Arranged together in specifically designed spaces, they were even more animated.

“The more technology allows us to compute our world,” Leckey writes in the catalogue, “the greater it invokes the mindscapes of our ancestral past. In our work on the cultural narratives surrounding (new) identity management technologies, we found that their novelty was usually intertwined with much older, mythical narratives expressing fears about who we are, how to trust others and to live socially. The questions posed by these new things seemed, in fact, to be ancient; posed less by their time than by our humanity, the edges of which are blurred by our relationship with objects. It is exciting to visit the exhibition and find this idea echoed. How often can you gaze upon a shelf on which a medieval gargoyle and a Cyberman helmet sit either side of a William Blake death mask wearing ECG wires and think 'Yes, that makes sense'?