Emerging out of graphic design, METAHAVEN have been working across various mediums for fifteen years, advancing a visually and conceptually savvy critique of the digital landscape and the infrastructures of power. As told by FRANCESCA GAVIN, a cycle of five recent films—on view in Amsterdam and London—steps out of the mega-structures to lean towards dream-like spaces, and a new poetic inquiry.
Metahaven's work reflects a plethora of references: online trolls, propaganda, fake news, time, the nature of reality. With influences spanning from Eastern-European politics to the Van Eyck brothers’ Ghent Altarpiece, from Superstudio’s utopian architecture to the Bayeux Tapestry, from 18th-century industrialization to VR, from the Eurovision song contest to Tarkovsky, their work is filled with seductive, dream-like spaces, poetic inquiry, materiality, information, fiction, and the contradictory feeling that reality is falling apart.
Based in Amsterdam, Daniel and Vinca have been working together since 2003, at times as a conventional design studio, at other times in a collective and open-ended fashion. This October, they are opening two major shows—at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam and the ICA in London—that will introduce these cult favorites to a much wider public. “Metahaven are unique for me for how they have married a critical and intellectual rigor, an engagement with and active production of theory, with aspects of visual and stylistic spectacle,” ICA curator Richard Birkett points out. What makes their work so special is the fact that, far from being incidental, the aesthetic is key—meaning and medium, surface and content are all intertwined.
Their approach to graphics always felt one step ahead of their contemporaries. Their 2010 book Uncorporate Identity explored branding from a geopolitical and emotional perspective: “Can design itself, however, dream? In the human mind and body, dreams play an essential role in ‘post-producing’ our lived experiences. Thus can design, devoted as it is to life still be healthy and self-repairing when it can’t dream?” The book presented a truly fresh approach to text and image, infused with the influences of digital experience. “I got to know them as visually savvy and conceptually sophisticated graphic designers,” recalls Tensta Konsthall director Maria Lind, who invited them in 2012 to create a visual identity for the small art centre, to make it recognizable beyond branding. Metahaven created a new graphic system including flags, office-printed handouts, and an ever-changing mark instead of a logo. “This was a way of highlighting the immaterial infrastructure of the institutions—blinking at Centre Pompidou and Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers’ way of making the architectural infrastructure very visible on the outside of the building,” Lind enthuses.
Often touching on the political—their first project was the branding for a fictional state called Sealand—Metahaven’s practice increasingly shifted towards theory and writing over the years. Their books Can Jokes Bring Down Governments? Memes, Design and Politics (2014) and Black Transparency: The Right To Know in the Age of Mass Surveillance (2015) and essays such as “Captives of the Cloud” (2012) have positioned them among the most interesting contemporary thinkers engaging with our relationship to the Internet, politics, aesthetics and meaning. As curator and collaborator Lesia Prokopenko observes, “Metahaven draws our attention to the fact that there is too much noise around us and we don’t seem to hear each other at all.”
For the past four years, film has been the central focus of their output. For film theorist Maja Bogojević, “Metahaven’s work is the epitome of how academic interdisciplinarity has influenced designers’ work today. They create their art at a time when many theoretical, artistic, ideological boundaries collapse or seemingly blend together. Also, they have efficiently highlighted through their artwork the vulnerability of the contemporary artist, who cannot be completely autonomous as she/he depends on various (organic or less organic) systems around them.”
Their first film, The Sprawl (Propaganda about Propaganda) (2016), is a 70-minute experimental documentary, which also exists online in inventive web form at sprawl.space. They began the piece in 2014, at the time of the Malaysian Airline flight disappearance and early awareness of Russian troll farms. Interviews with people like sociologist Benjamin Bratton and author Maryam Monalisa Gharavi are interspersed with slow scrolling graphic elements, footage from DIY YouTube news channels, and clips from RT. “In 2015, Internet platforms and the role they play in the distribution of disinformation weren’t discussed at anything like the scale and frequency with which they are today,” Vinca notes. “At the time, we were looking at this idea that, with some minimal means of production, you can produce something that resembles a TV show, and put that on YouTube, and it becomes its own focal point and belief system.”
The Sprawl was one the first attempts in visual culture to truly articulate the disintegration of reality that has grown to define the contemporary media and emotional landscape. It exposed some of the superstructures that inform our lives, like information networks, planetary-scale computing and new forms of propaganda. Metahaven made us aware, as much by things said as unsaid, of how scarily messed up things were. As Richard Birkett observes, they “render the felt dimensions of life in the thick of digital and physical layers.”
The film reflected political mechanisms, yet it’s much more than an illustration of the new Cold War, and Metahaven’s own position is never explicit. In the past, they’ve created collections of scarves and T-shirts to fundraise for WikiLeaks (2011) and in support of the freedom of Chelsea Manning (2015), but their stance is not as fixed today. “It is not so much about how you judge or value power structures, but how you formulate a voice when you are confronting one, or when you are confronting degrees of misinformation,” the duo explain. As Lesia Prokopenko notes, “Metahaven don’t see (and, for that matter, don’t show) things in black-and-white. And that’s a radical project per se.”
After The Sprawl, their film work moved into a different direction. They began to create more narrative pieces playing with genres, most prominently sci-fi. “The film cycle comes from a desire to describe new political and aesthetic realities through many different genres of filmmaking and storytelling,” explains Stedelijk curator Karen Archey, who is working on their retrospective at the museum and has contributed an essay to their forthcoming catalogue.
Information Skies was commissioned by Maria Lind as an online artwork for the duration of the Gwangju Biennale she curated in 2016. More fable-like or poetic, it depicted politically disengaged characters in a landscape on VR headsets. The graphic seeped into their work. People were interspersed with graphic monochrome anime, that acted as double for the characters. The film was a big departure, more nuanced and ambiguous, like the recurring visual motif of reflections in muddy pools of water.
In their next film Hometown (2018), drippy oil-slick fluid graphics were cut in between footage of female protagonists moving around an amalgam of Beirut and Kiev. “Eventually, everything becomes liquid, a metaphor for the idea that there is some kind of liquid underworld to our existence where we are joined together,” Daniel notes. They created a fictional city out of these two very disparate spaces, speaking around ideas of complex belonging and a strange déjà vu. All of their films have included subtitles and text in some way, often with English as secondary to Korean, Arabic or Russian.
Poetry, and in particular absurdist poetry, is something increasingly present in Metahaven’s scripts and voiceovers. Things began to switch from pointing towards mega-structures to the inhabited experience. As Archey notes, “Sometimes this is much more emotionally incisive than a more intellectual, academic approach to identifying a worldwide phenomenon.” With inspirations including Marina Tsvetaeva, Alexander Vvedensky and Daniil Kharms, alongside the work of Ariel Dorfman, William Wordsworth and M. Vasalis, the poetic is not just a token, but a way to render the phenomena we exist in. “With the Ukrainian curator and writer Lesia Prokopenko, we've been thinking about how the development of this type of poetry is connected to ideology,” Metahaven explain. “How it is connected to what can, and cannot be said in certain ideological and political circumstances.”
Andrey Tarkovsky’s approach to poetry and its inclusion in his films is an interesting comparison here. Like the Russian filmmaker, Metahaven use texture and atmosphere, speed and the poetic as ways to escape the realistic narration of a story. Tarkovsky included poems—often written by his father Arseny—in Mirror, Stalker and Nostalgia. In his book Sculpting in Time, he described the poetic in cinema as opposed to any “rigidly logical development of plot.” For him, like Metahaven, poetry revealed the unseen. His slow camera panning and rhythm of editing at times reflected stanza breaks. “Poetry is an awareness of the world, a particular way of relating to reality,” he wrote in 1986. “Through poetic connections, feeling is heightened and the spectator is made more active. He becomes a participant in the process of discovering life, unsupported by ready-made deductions from the plot or ineluctable pointers by the author.”
The upcoming shows in Amsterdam and London will provide Metahaven with an opportunity to premiere their latest film, Eurasia (Questions on Happiness), co-commissioned by the ICA and Stedelijk. Part of it was filmed in Veles, Macedonia, the “capital of fake news” linked to the 2016 US election. Their narrative riffs on the idea of troll farms, alongside a tale that a peasant believed the landscape itself was sentient: “He alleged that even the vegetation had played some part in the disinformation campaign.”
“It’s very hard to describe Eurasia (Questions on Happiness),” they write. “You could see this as a phantasmagoric investigation of the southeastern Urals and Macedonia. You could also see it as a film about post-truth. And you could see it as a film about filmmaking. After having made three films that each incorporate elements of epistemic uncertainty into their ground layer, and visual lyricism on top of that, it was interesting for us to come full circle back to where The Sprawl began.” The new work will be exhibited as an installation on an immensely bright video wall, viewed from a thick, colorful, tufted rug, which expands on the graphic elements within the film itself.
“With Eurasia, we are becoming a bit more specific about what image resolution could mean, how it could be read, and how the camera itself could become a character,” Vinca observes. Here, Metahaven interweave archival footage with their own material, aware of production values, timestamps and downgraded copies. “The problem is that low-res always wins,” Daniel points out. “But of course, we are also interested in quite elaborate images. While they're still digital, not celluloid works, a cinematic effect can actually create a narrative jump from video to film.” Their use of texture or film surface is not to manipulate the audience, but part of a narrative structure and process.
Metahaven emerged as vocal critics embedded in the digital and Internet, but the context has changed and so has their focus. “Rather than show anything related to technology in a too direct way, it's become much more interesting to imply it,” they explain. The work was never about technology itself, but rather ideas around the manifestation of power or the experience of being human. For them, offline is where real discovery can take place. But in their practice, separations disappear. It is not about pulling about the digital and the real, the body and the mind, the unsaid and the spoken, the image and its surface. They are radically inclusive and egalitarian in their concept of media and meaning. As the voiceover says in Information Skies, “United we are, in chaos.”