Essay written for Martin John Callanan‘s solo exhibition Data Soliloquies at Argentea Gallery, Birmingham, May 2017

In his short story “The Library of Babel”, published in 1944, the Argentinian author Jorge Luis Borges imagines the whole of human culture brought together in a labyrinthine library. The books it contains represent the obsessive organisation of all conceivable human thought, in every language and from its beginnings. The concept harks back to the idea that knowledge could ultimately be grasped in its entirety, leading to mastery and omnipotence.

The work of Martin John Callanan (Birmingham, 1982) inevitably recalls this literary allusion, but it is immediately clear that it illustrates the way in which our relationship with technology has exactly reversed the terms of its argument. In contrast to Borges, who imagined that all knowledge could be made visible in one place, Callanan acknowledges that today we live in a decentralised information network that irrevocably determines the way we live. When he describes himself as “an artist researching an individual’s place within systems”, the “place” he refers to does not describe an aesthetic relationship in the traditional sense, in which the observer is dissociated from the things observed; it assumes that we are inextricably connected with them.

The exhibition Data Soliloquies establishes a relationship between three works that are clearly complementary in this way. The sculpture “A Planetary Order” features a 3D scale model of the earth, on which a series of satellite data is combined to show the exact state of the Earth’s cloud cover on a given date. It stands on the floor, making it seem vulnerable, and demonstrates that a phenomenon that is so transitory, while at the same time represented by “hard” data, is fundamentally impossible to grasp, and always beyond complete human perception: technology has not overridden what is incommensurable. The printed series “Text Trends” is a statistical comparison of Google searches for pairs of words, from 2004 to the present. The self-referential nature of the relationships between the chosen words (winter/summer, buy/sell, etc.) and the fierce humour that emerges from them, reflect the expectations embodied in these statistics: they represent actual searches of users. Something that might be taken as a single measurement reveals itself to be also an oracle, whose performativity determines our behaviour. Lastly, “The Fundamental Units” is a series of images each of which shows the smallest value coin used in various national currencies, photographed using a 3D optical microscope at the National Physical Laboratory, Teddington, UK. These images are then expanded and printed in extra-large formats, so that they show the all traces of the handling they have undergone, and thus the paradoxical physicality of money, whose exchange is now entirely dematerialised.

Despite their power and clear visual precision, these objects sometimes appear cold, as if placed at a distance: the white earth, statistics, coins. They are the product of a conceptual, minimalist approach that emphasises protocol. In addition, they contain no trace of the artist: unlike other recent conceptual works which compare human physicality with repetitive systems, as in the case of Roman Opalka or On Kawara, Martin John Callanan does not introduce his own actions into his work, or only very rarely. Moreover and strictly speaking, it hardly matters if we know the positions of the clouds on a given date, the development of Google searches or the way in which the coins in our pockets have aged: in themselves these facts and these objects include nothing that would give them the status of an artwork . In that case, where do we get the feeling that these works speak so profoundly about ourselves?

It is at once clear that what these artworks have in common is that they talk about value, and its direct connection with the way generalised quantification has become the dominant paradigm and the universal criterion for representing and evaluating human affairs. Callanan also addresses the idea of value from a very specific point of view, namely an almost deliberate focus on representing totalities. An overview of his work reveals the consistency of that approach, seen even in their titles: every flight departure, every internet search, every war waged during the artist’s lifetime, all his commands when I using a software, every telephone number, the number of people who have ever lived, the number of days of his life, every newspaper headline, every cloud present above the earth at a given moment, to see the whole of London, and so on. This approach may seem simplistic but it selects precisely those phenomena to which our sensory experience never gives us complete access. Given that the world of data is characterised by the very fact that the global calculations performed by systems are beyond human perception, can artworks reverse that relationship?

We then see that each of these artworks takes a specific physical form, which reflects a profound knowledge of coding, networks and computing, applied to a wide range of forms: sculptures, prints, artists’ books, objects or performances. Using this vocabulary, Callanan offers a parallel set of “ aiming devices” that connect the various totalities in order to show more clearly that we can never have complete control over them: having departure times appear briefly on a screen or a town crier proclaim the dates of wars; printing the clouds on a 3D sculpture that cannot be seen as a whole; demonstrating the performative nature of statistics and opinion polls and the physicality of money, or creating a publication that cannot be read due to its enormous scale. Each of these situations creates a paradox: they open up a divide between, on the one hand, the promise of omniscience and a totalising vision, and on the other, its impossibility, due to the inevitably fugitive and local nature of human perception. It is in this gap, this falling-short, that the agency of Callanan’s works resides.

In this way, by creating a very specific relationship between these successive stages –value, totality, promise and falling-short – Callanan reveals what we expect from these representations. It is a question not so much of value itself, than the desire for value; less one of totality than the dream of totality, less one of control than of what eludes it. All of these issues bring us back to the human condition, its desires and its limitations. This is where we find the poetic but also the profoundly critical aspects of a body of work that brings us face to face with the multiple manifestations of the infinite, only to assert our inability to embrace it. The work also emphasises the radically futile nature of all approaches that place an excessive emphasis on technology. What differentiates us from the “systems” invoked by the artist is that we also find meaning in things we do not understand.

This brings to mind the writer and critic John Berger, who showed that one of the specific characteristics of art is not to represent things in themselves but to identify the way we see them, enabling us to interrogate the ways in which that experience is formed and determined, including politically. At a time when many projects facing the issues raised by digital cultures fall into the trap of the figuration (of data, artificial intelligence, surveillance and so on), Martin John Callanan assumes the vain character of such an approach and positions himself at a point where his research leads us to a vertigo. With his characteristic modesty, with his works, their “data soliloquies” and the way they suggest that we would never seize them, he illuminates the specificity of the human’s condition vis-à-vis the immensity of the world.

Thierry Fournier
Aubervilliers, April 2017

Thierry Fournier is a French artist and curator. He also co-directs the curatorial research group Ensad Lab Displays. He lives and works in Aubervilliers.

Translation Imogen Forster