Vinca Kruk and Daniel van der Velden started working together when they met at the Jan van Eyck Academie in Maastricht, in the early 2000s. Their first piece of design-led research was focused on the Principality of Sealand, a former World War II sea fortress in international waters off the coast of Suffolk. “We worked with the stories that surrounded the self-proclaimed nation, not necessarily aiming to arrive at something finished”, says Vinca. Their time at the Academie aligned with the unofficial independent state’s time as an unregulated data haven, and their project defined a hypothetical identity for Sealand. This was also when they forged their collective identity, and found the name Metahaven. “That moment coincided with technological changes, the internet, social media and in 2005, YouTube being founded,” Vinca explains. “All of these developments have been influential in how we make work, how we arrive at work, and how we work through work.”
Version History, which opened on 03 October at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA), is Metahaven’s first solo exhibition in the UK. The show features a new moving-image commission, Eurasia (Questions on Happiness), as well as their films Hometown and Information Skies, all of which consider the overlaps between geopolitical, technological and emotional concerns.
With backgrounds in graphic design, Daniel and Vinca first started working in moving image when they collaborated with Holly Herndon, on the videos for Home, in 2014, and Interference in 2015, and found they were excited by both the video form and the music itself. “The music video began as a mini feature film, compressed stories where you put the entire drama down in three or four minutes; the medium has since become increasingly underfunded and much more experimental,” says Daniel van der Velden. “[In the case of Interference the music gave us such an emotional push. Spending hours and hours listening to the same song creates this weird tunnel vision, which gets addictive. You want to create it over and over again, with different types of content.”
“It’s not just about describing what we analyse, but finding ways to internalise what we observe, and create films with that”
Before working in moving image, Metahaven produced publications, exhibitions, web projects, apparel, and hypothetical proposals; they found that film worked as a composite of their practical interests. “[Making a film requires you to combine] moving image, image making, prop making, editing, writing of voice, interviewing, researching – all of those aspects become part of the same work – which is satisfying. It can be messy and clumsy, but it feels like we’ve solved that in a way,” says Vinca. “There’s a lot of writing involved in the conception of the work. Drafting the text, drafting images, and seeing how they feed into each other to form a script,” she continues. “When we write voice, it’s not just about describing what we analyse, but finding ways to internalise what we observe, and create films with that, rather than to point at things that are problems or things that we would want to address.”
After Home and Interference, their moving image work became increasingly influenced by “experimental forms of documentary, the idea of the interface and the cut”, says Daniel. “As a medium, film is a twisting of real time, it’s immersive and mesmerising; but it’s also cutting and revealing, in the sense that it can push you basically anywhere.” Eurasia (Questions on Happiness) encapsulates this principle, as a speculative narrative made up of an ‘archipelago’ of cinematic sequences, found footage, animation and graphics. The film is underpinned by the story that the continent of Eurasia has assumed the name ‘DVD Zone 5’, with regional empires, breakaway states, and petty nationalist republics engaged in fights over resources – sound familiar? – with a voiceover reading three poems, which challenge the notion of language conveying any coherent meaning. The documentary elements of the film were shot in the South-Eastern Urals and in Macedonia, and when all spliced together, Eurasia “sets forth on a journey towards the Eurasian steppe where it meets the New Silk Road”. It imagines a fractured continent in the thrall of self-learning data sites that trigger world events and confronts various forms of hoax; from cut-and-paste political doctrines to neo-classical façade architectures, “mapping the contemporary condition, and expressing what it means to inhabit the map”.
In Eurasia, Metahaven proposes the idea that fake news is a man-made proxy of the indifference that artificial intelligence may feel toward the human condition; and zooms in on the ideological and political currents unravelling the European Union. “We’re not interested in revealing that technology is manipulative, because we already know that,” says Daniel. “In Eurasia we tilt the horizon until it becomes a sort of screen that people are staring at and the person is tilting with it. We call it ‘soft sci-fi’, a sci-fi that’s created without CGI or manipulation. A sort of clumsy sci-fi.”
“We’re not interested in revealing that technology is manipulative, because we already know that”
Daniel van der Velden
The exhibition takes in notes of science fiction, apparent not only in the films, but also through the environment – in plush, future-from-the-past textiles and a series of murals – and the title itself. Version History refers to “both different versions of history and reality, and an interface through which these versions are rendered”. It’s a sort of “truth futurism”, which Metahaven defines as “a mode of speculation on an altered cognitive order, in which the lack of accountability of the ‘post-truth’ era has become emotionally processed”. The works in the exhibition defy the principle of an agreed single reality, they represent examples of the potential to “post-produce the past” and “wrap facts in fictions, and fictions in facts”. Hometown and Information Skies project further into psychological space, told as both monumental and deeply personal, sci-fi-infused stories of belonging and planetary-scale computational infrastructures.
Of their process, Daniel says: “We approach our moving image work with a structure, as weird as the structure may seem. But we also work with ‘archipelago’ – instead of working on a fixed timeline, we work on different islands within that timeline and then connect them.” This is all to do with this the idea of “versioning”: “Normally in a film-making process, there’s this kind of sacrificing that needs to happen in order to arrive at a structure. We like to work on films that work well as islands [and as a feature], which allow for the internal versioning of stories. Our first film, The Sprawl, was released as both a feature-length film and as a number of islands on the internet. If you watch it as islands, you can try to reconstruct the timeline, but you can also view each part on its own.”
Although Eurasia is shown at ICA as a single, continuous film, it cuts between a variety of clips and contexts; from found footage of people clinking wine glasses with wiggly straws, to clips from a Russian shopping channel, and drone footage, which according to Vinca “creates a feeling of the complete absence of human presence”. She elaborates: “[It’s an environment] where one type of image or tool for image production is encountering another”. The various image resolutions, sources, clips and cuts are on equal footing in terms of value; and the technical process of editing the film is “made visible”, removing the often-lauded mystique of filmmaking. Returning to the plastic straws, Daniel says: “We see the clip as a metaphor for reality. [The man in the clip] talks about challenging what this object can be, other than something to drink with – which is a question you can also ask about design. He talks about these little objects as breakthroughs, which is in direct opposition to another fragment we had in a previous version of the film, which is a clip of a speech made at the European Commission – which has just banned plastic straws. There are two opposing energies at play. Passionate energy about an almost insignificant object.”
Another example of the opposing energies at play in Eurasia is in the footage of the Neo-Classical facades in Skopje, Macedonia’s capital city. In 1963, the city suffered an earthquake and it was rebuilt as a centre of modernism. In 2014, an architectural project, ‘Skopje 2014’, saw the commissioning of statues, fountains, bridges and museums at a cost of around €500 million, and the introduction of those facades. “Utopian, brutalist architecture was brought to Skopje, which has now been deconstructed and covered by these Neo-Classical facades. The facades are not ‘real’, but they are. And they are also an example, or a symptom, of something that’s happening in the country, on an ideological level,” says Vinca. “What we found interesting when you enter the space is that it’s a physical example of interfaces – or digitally designed images – and narrations of reality, which may not be true, or we may not agree with them, but they are happening with very specific consequences. This idea of design as the narration of the real on a technological level, and in physical space, is something that has been in all of our film works”, Vinca explains.
Rather than foregrounding what is the most ‘real’, or the most historically reliable in a context that’s rich in a mix of ethnicities and religions – and has continuously shifted in terms of its architecture and national identity over the 20th Century – Vinca suggests that what is termed real may be “about belief – what invokes the strongest belief in something – rather than whether we agree”. Elaborating on this principle, Daniel says: “The notion that it’s Classicist vs Modernist isn’t necessarily what’s interesting about it. It’s the fact that they made the effort to build what is essentially an interface, physically, for an idea you could convey via technology. You don’t need to have the physical fountain, but they built it for real, as a theme-park that nobody wants.”
Offering another example of how reality can be ‘versioned’, Daniel elaborates on the 2009 re-brand of Macedonia: “There’s a fragment in a film [as part of] the branding campaign, where you see people in Greek outfits drinking wine. It was made five years before Skopje 2014, the city’s redevelopment project, and shows how the philosophy of going backwards, into this time-warp, was pre- or re-enacted in these films before being realised in architecture.” Such examples of the construction, “pre- or re-enactments” of reality, and of history, are nothing new. Whether it’s on the scale of a national identity, or in the comparatively insignificant context of a brand, the hoax, or the versioning of history – for a variety of purposes – has long been part of life.