Suzanne Treister

Suzanne Treister on black-hole space-time and post-surveillance art

Suzanne Treister, The Escapist BHST (Black Hole Spacetime) Constellated Interface, 2019, animated gif. Courtesy the artist, Annely Juda Fine Art, London and P.P.O.W., New York.

Since the 1980s, the British artist Suzanne Treister has blended history and speculation in ways that many are moved to call hallucinatory, if not slightly paranoid. Her paintings and pioneering digital works have drawn on her interest in systems of observation and belief, from surveillance to theoretical physics. Often diagrammatic and filled with wordplay, her early pieces anticipate the technopolitics of the twenty-first century and presage postinternet-era arcana like a future-tense Hilma af Klint. On September 19, 2019, London’s Serpentine Galleries launched Treister’s augmented reality app, The Escapist BHST, along with an illustrated book, From SURVIVOR (F) To The Escapist BHST (Black Hole Spacetime). An exhibition with the same title is on view at Annely Juda Fine Art in London through November 2, 2019. 

I USUALLY ONLY WORK on one large project at a time, but I had started The Escapist (BHST) for a Serpentine digital commission halfway through SURVIVOR (F), and was creating paintings for both when I made an image called The Museum of Black Hole Spacetime, which looks like something between a spaceship, a dress, an alien life-form, and a Tree of Life constellation in outer space. I suddenly had this really strange sensation that a portal had opened between the two projects and, somehow, they started bleeding into each other.

The Escapist has many components, including a fifty-two-page comic strip, about thirty-six diagrams and watercolors, eight portals, thirty-five paintings, and an augmented reality work where these all come together in a virtual dimension superimposed over consensus reality. The first thing you see when you hold your phone up to the sky are the eight portals. Each portal has a black hole at the center, around it is the event horizon, and then around that are rings of text with phrases such as “relocation to new dimensions of lost consciousness” or “rare forms of mystical movement in quantum spacetime.” Users can zoom in and download watercolors of each portal to fit their mobile devices or computers as desktop backgrounds. These become interfaces between the user of the device and the virtual reality of the internet, which lies beyond their screen on that other dimension. The Museum of Black Hole Spacetime also floats around the sky, and entering it transports you to the next universe, where the real sky is overlaid with the transparent mist of outer space and five new portals appear to take you to other works in the project.

Last spring, I began a residency at CERN, where I investigated the holographic principle, an interest of mine for quite a few years. When three-dimensional objects enter a black hole, they apparently leave a two-dimensional equivalent of themselves on the event horizon around it. This, if you are a theoretical physicist, leads you to deduce that reality is holographic. If you want to extrapolate from that, you could say that, if our universe were holographic, then at the place that theoretical physicists call the boundary—which is like an infinite space-time away from us, so far that we can’t ever get to it—there would be two-dimensional equivalents of everything, including us. About five years ago I developed a theory, which began as a kind of joke, that the whole history of art, from cave paintings up to now— despite what art historians thought and what artists themselves claimed they were doing—was really an attempt to describe this holographic reality. Perhaps, on a deeper level, artists sensed this. To test my theory, I echoed the methodology of CERN’s Large Hadron Collider, which accelerates particles in a loop. I gathered thousands of images representative of art history and accelerated them chronologically at twenty-five images per second in a 16.54-minute video loop. If you recognize one artwork, your brain holds on to it, and you miss about a hundred more. But if you let yourself go and just look at all the images flashing, it creates a holographic sensation.

I see my 2014 Post-Surveillance Art project as expressing a kind of psychic abstraction, the sense of being in a space where you’re under constant observation. I had critiqued government spying and control in my piece HEXEN 2.0, which I started in 2009, but after the Edward Snowden revelations it became evident that most people didn’t appear to have a problem with being surveilled; it almost seemed to be an exhilaration. People continued to be exhibitionist, narcissistic exposure freaks who lived to be watched. There’s something in this work that refers to that new humanity, where the screen becomes the interface between the subject and their watchers. There’s an erotics and a poetics there, but the questions remain: Is this what we really want? Who is controlling whom? How is this changing humanity, and what will the long-term effects be, assuming the human race makes it that far into the future?