Not Angels or Algorithms, Only Human Error
22 May - 3 July 2021
“It’s really become impossible to have a conversation about climate, health, poverty, refugees — about anything real. It is only possible to have a conversation about what the algorithms realise upsets people…
Until, gradually, one day it’s too late and we haven’t faced reality and we no longer have agriculture, we no longer have our coastal cities, we no longer have a world that we can survive in. And what I worry about, is a very stupid, cranky, undignified end to us: not a big dramatic one. It’s neither a whimper or a bang, but just sort of a cranky rant that could be our end.”
An excerpt from Jaron Lanier’s lecture, How the Internet Failed & How to Recreate It, 2020. (Peggy Downes Baskin Ethics Lecture, UC Santa Cruz: California.)
WHATIFTHEWORLD is pleased to present Not Angels or Algorithms, Only Human Error, a group video exhibition curated by Lindsey Raymond, with contributing artists Dineo Seshee Bopape, Lungiswa Gqunta, Dynasty Handbag, Angel Ho, Lakin Ogunbanwo, Cameron Platter, Tabita Rezaire, Athi-Patra Ruga, and Warrick Sony.
Divided into three parts, Not Angels or Algorithms, Only Human Error, begins with an evaluation of our political world and ends with how we respond to and heal from the injustice that has come to signify our present. Humanity, history, ‘evil’, and error are located within the seemingly abstract — ’cultural criticism’, ’neoliberalism’, ‘the internet’. The programme excavates some of humanity’s greatest failures: from The Gukurahundi, a series of massacres in Zimbabwe between 1983 and 1987; to the Marikana Massacre which took place on 16 August 2012, in South Africa; to the laying down of fibre network cables on the Atlantic Slave Trade seabed routes; to the invention of social media, algorithms, and modes of ‘connecting’ through manipulative systems. ‘Evil’ in this case refers not to the doctrine of Original Sin, but rather, to the underbelly of humans’ relationship to power. Theorist Thomas Hobbes argues that humans’ self-interest, and our investment in reputation and material wellbeing, hinders our ability to live together in large-scale political societies. Unlike bees or ants, who instinctively band together for shared survival, humans compete over scarce resources. We are hardwired for socio-political and economic failure.
Used in the title, the term ‘human error’ refers to an unintended and undesirable act that leads a task or system to react outside of its acceptable limitations. As a consequence, this ‘happening’ or deviation from intention (from ‘goodness’) risks the integrity of the whole. A blip in the matrix causes a catastrophic end or, as Jaron Lanier suggests, a “whimper”. This tongue-in-cheek use of the term, coupled with it’s diminutive prefix “Only”, refers to humanity’s ability to dismiss malice, negligence, and wrong-doings as being “only human” only when the intention is deemed pure. “Order”, “progress”, and “freedom” are good intentions, but against our contemporary milieu, cannot be separated from self-fulfilling political motivation, and often leads to tragedy, death, and division. By dismissing the invisible scapegoats “angels” and “algorithms” — phenomena which appear outside of human control — the title prompts the audience to restate the weight and responsibility in being only human: the single most significant impact on Earth’s geology, ecosystems, and humanity itself.
Part 1 / Video Synopses
In Part 1, Tabita Rezaire’s Deep Down Tidal examines the political and technological affects of water as a conductive interface for communication. Rezaire reveals how the infrastructure of submarine fibre optic cables may inform the transferral of users’ digital data and the data economy at large. Rezaire refers to the internet as the new cyber colony, whereby a more dignified data economy could see the establishment of a universal standard income. Where housing, healthcare, and education, are provided for just by users creating content and generating more data for psychographics. Rezaire questions: “From fibre optic cables to sunken cities, drowned bodies, hidden histories of navigations and sacred signal transmissions, the ocean is home to a complex set of communication networks… . What data is our world’s water holding? Beyond trauma, water keeps myriad of deep secrets, from its debated origin, its mysterious sea life of mermaids, water deities, and serpent gods, to the aquatic ape theory (Goodman Gallery, 2017) .”
Warrick Sony’s abstract scapes of secretly obtained video footage form the backdrops to his evocative sound pieces. In Most of You Will be Listening, an uncut video, taken with a handheld device, shows a person walking through the twilight aftermath of the state-led atrocity of the Marikana Massacre which took place on 16 August 2012, in South Africa. A recording of South Africa’s first female national police commissioner, Riah Phiyega, plays in which one hears her quietly congratulating the police force on their part in the massacre. In Gukurahundi, a meditative Mbira soundtrack emotionally guides the audience through abstract swifts of military forces walking through a landscape. The video reveals found footage from The Gukurahundi, a series of massacres in Zimbabwe between 1983 and 1987. Both videos comment on cultures of violence; state terrorism; corruption; neo-fascism and democratic decay.
Similarly, Athi-Patra Ruga’s Injibaba comments on the strengthening of national borders as a result of racism and colonialism. In vernacular, “injibaba” means alopecia, a condition whereby hair falls out in patches and the hairline recedes. Ruga’s character, Injibaba, formed from synthetic Afros, was born in Switzerland (while the artist was on residency) as a response to a xenophobic poster by the right-wing Swiss People’s Party. It depicted a couple of white sheep kicking a black sheep off of the Swiss confederacy flag. Injibaba highlights European xenophobia under the guise of ‘state control’ and ‘nationalism’, a means of protecting utopia.
Part 2 /
Cameron Platter and Ben Johnson’s Solid Waste hosts the duality of being simultaneously disturbing and compelling. The absurdist, collaged video is an ongoing archeological web project documenting and parading some of our most embarrassing cultural trophies. Set up almost as a screen recording, the video shows clips found from hours scouring the internet (such as a woman licking her elbow); scenes from a suggestive video game; and a scrolling Word document showing what appears to be a frustrated poetry draft, in fact, R Kelly lyrics. The video reveals “the ugly reality of tweens googling how to get high off of nutmeg; of incels trolling web forums; the YouTube vortex; the Dark Web; hacking; and of data theft (Raymond, 2020) .”
My BM is Bigger Than Yours is an animated video made entirely on Microsoft Paint. In the video, Cameron Platter creates a fictional universe as a way of critiquing humans’ behaviours, decisions, and actions on earth. The story follows a mission declared by the Killer Zebras from Out of Space on the utopian planet, Asstropolis, to rid the universe of all evil. Platter uses tropes from fables and morality tales, where animals are given human qualities, to pinpoint the absurdity and evil of our neo-liberal, capitalist present.
Continuing the focus on failure, in part 2, the exhibition explores what queer theorist, Jack Halberstam calls The Queer Art of Failure . This is not as much a failure to succeed as it is a refusal to participate in a system of valuation that is predicated on exploitation and conformity. Halberstam suggests that in its essence, queerness explores alternatives to conventional understandings of “success”, as determined by heteronormativity, capitalism, and anglo-academia. It is only in the willingness to fail, to pursue difficult questions about complicity, and find counterintuitive forms of resistance that one finds art. Angel Ho’s dreamscape Garden of Diva takes place in the imaginary of a queer entertainer (in this case, a drag queen) who lives out their dream as a Diva in the true philosophy of opulence: “I own everything!”. The ideal being performed is fully constructed through queer culture and offerings. Rather than being made to feel disembodied and othered as an LGBTQI person, Angel Ho manifests reality through fantasy. By using tropes of music video aesthetics and popular culture, they become the Diva personified: desired and self-assured.
Uploaded right after Trump’s election, Dynasty Handbag’s Fascist Dictatorship Make Up Tutorial reads more as a streamed breakdown. The video utilises the now ubiquitous YouTube make-up tutorial as a way of communicating her distress following Donald Trump’s inauguration in 2017. In the video, Handbag relays, “useful information to the masses about how to look your best under the new regime!” This comedic skit mimics the outrage of Jibz Cameron as a lesbian, she makes jabs at “smooth whiteness”, “pastoral American blue”, and the “new look!” with the “same great taste!” Handbag’s satire of contemporary politics resonates with Jack Halberstam, in that she fails, or refuses, to take this emergency seriously, rather, finding an escape in humour.
Part 3 /
In Part 3, the programme ends with an exploration of the home, family, church, history, and the self. Lungiswa Gqunta’s abstracted video Gathering documents two pairs of hands folding bedsheets. This action goes beyond domestic labour, and is rather seen as a time that one gets to learn about their family’s history of survival and resistance. Gqunta represents a moment of archiving a collective conversation; a site of unearthing; and an opportunity for intergenerational knowledge exchange; a time when “a young girl gets to understand how her mother keeps all her strength throughout the hardships and what her aunt’s methods of healing are (Apalazzo, 2020) .” Gathering celebrates black revolt and collective healing and resistance, and focuses on the often overlooked importance of women within these narratives.
In Lakin Ogunbanwo’s Ojo-Aiku (*Sunday), the viewer is guided through a filmic pilgrimage of Lagos on a Sunday, as shown from the perspective of a young Yoruba boy. The tensions in this shared weekly ritual, performed across Nigeria and the world, arise in the varying expressions of the day’s significance to this child and his father. In the video, Ogunbanwo’s portrayal of their relationship reveals that ‘Sunday’ means something different to each of them. For the father, it is secularised as a day of fervent religious worship, while for his son, Sunday is representative of family bonding, leisure, and connectivity. The father’s pervasive nature of devotion blinds him from seeing his son’s attempt to connect. It is only when he pauses to recognise the goodness and light within his own son — the tangible manifestation of God right in front of him — that Sunday becomes the binding day of love sought out by both people.
By contrast, Lakin Ogunbanwo’s e wá wo mi (*come look at me) represents the culture surrounding Nigerian brides, and marriage ceremonies. The brides are captured singularly, veiled and barricaded off from the fuss of weddings. The attention Ogunbanwo places on these brides, lends an intimate and vulnerable tone, as well as an ‘untouchable’ regality and grandeur. The performances these brides carry out in the moments before their weddings are ones of love, celebration, cultural pride, and feminine strength, but they are also the burdens of being wives, mothers, and daughters-in-law. The expectation of femininity, and the role of women, are canonised on the wedding day.
Described as a “cosmic ceremony”, Dineo Seshee Bopape’s is i am sky tracks the artist’s movement through time and space. Inspired by Sun Ra’s poem, The Endless Realm, where Ra reflects on being black in a white world and being “nothing” within a white imaginary, Bopape “sings songs with the camera low, kissing the sky, thinking about what it is to be landless and have nothing.” Analogue documentation is montaged with digitalised landscapes and a cacophony of sampled music, sound, and effects. This “corruption of relationally”, as the artist calls it, is a way of bridging absence and presence, where ones immediate environment is one of both emancipation through imagination, and corruption by the dispossession of black people from their land. Bopape engages in how the African Diaspora heals through art, memory, and technology.
Text by Lindsey Raymond
 Lanier, J. 2020. How the Internet Failed & How to Recreate It. Peggy Downes Baskin Ethics Lecture, UC Santa Cruz: California. [Vimeo]
 Goodman Gallery. 2017. Exotic Trade [Exhibition Press Release]. Goodman Gallery: Johannesburg.
 Raymond, L. 2020. Solid Waste [Press Release]. WHATIFTHEWORLD: Cape Town.
 Halberstam, J. 2011. The Queer Art of Failure. Duke University Press: Durham.
 APALAZZOGALLERY. 2019. Lungiswa Gqunta [Exhibition Press Release]. Viewed: https://www.apalazzo.net/media/exhibitions/en/Lungiswa_Gqunta/press/lg_-_press_release.pdf