Venice Architecture Biennale’s Irish Pavilion explores our role in the data revolution

Entanglement by Annex reflects Ireland’s long-standing, complicated role in global tech ecosystem

Entanglement by Annex. Photograph: Alan Butler

Entanglement by Annex. Photograph: Alan Butler

 

Slowly things are returning: the first concerts, the first big matches, exhibitions and events. Despite, or because of, the very long wait, some of it feels strange. Seeing the group representing Ireland at this year’s Venice Architecture Biennale waving from a Vaporetto via social media, I experienced a conflicted mixture of delighted-it’s-on, and no-I’m-not-ready-yet.

The Venice biennales are riddled with contradictions anyway. Having the world flock to a sinking landmass for glamorous parties during each heady opening period would be enough to give you pause, without also watching massive cruise ships jostling with the yachts of the super rich to add their own irreparable damage to Venice’s fragile ecosystem. The whole thing has always felt troubling, to say the least.

And yet where better to exchange new ideas about art and the world than this extraordinary spot, where human ingenuity triumphed to create a floating city, and which once was a key cultural crossroads? Perhaps what Venice offers best is the realisation that nothing is ever that simple, however things may appear on the surface.

In any case, Entanglement, the Irish Pavilion at the 17th Venice Architecture Biennale, is a highly intriguing prospect. Put together by Annex, a collective of architects, artists and other thinkers, the installation features a tower of singed computer server cabinets, fans, screens, lights and plants. It is unusual to write about something I haven’t seen in the flesh. I’m still not ready to travel yet, even though some mental gymnastics could have made me declare it to be “essential work”. But I can imagine that unlike some of Ireland’s presentations at Venice – in both the art and architectural biennales – Entanglement sits well in its space, and definitely conjures an impact.

Artist Alan Butler, one of the Annex team, says that the whole experience in Venice was surreal. “The city was empty. Walking through St Mark’s Square had an apocalypse kind of a vibe.” Working on the installation involved passes that accessed your own particular area, and Covid tests every 72 hours. “Eventually it gets normalised,” Butler says, “but I did get this feeling: I really have left my 5km now . . .”

Our installation is saying: we need to think about this, and we need to try and propose solutions

Entanglement explores the mysterious world of the cloud – not the puffy grey things that disrupt an Irish summer, but the nebulous entity made up of networks that hold and upload all our digital information. Ireland is at the epicentre of the cloud. We are the data centre hub of Europe, hosting 25 per cent of all available European server space. And data centres are hungry beasts. Every time we idly click “Like”, or email back to say “Thanks”, and then again to add “No, really, it’s much appreciated”, we generate a little fizz of heat in a data centre. The Annex team quote the estimate that by 2027, data centres will consume one-third of Ireland’s total electricity demand.

In Entanglement, screens show thermal images of data centres in Ireland, glowing hotly against pinkish fields. Those colours remind me of Richard Mosse’s work. He represented Ireland in the art biennale of 2013, using military-grade film to produce pink-tinged images of child soldiers in the Congo. His latest work, exploring the migrant crisis with different thermal-imaging technology, is currently on show at Kilkenny’s Butler Gallery until August 29th.

Faceless entities

Data centres are simultaneously fascinating and enigmatic. Taking up vast acreages, they’re also almost entirely faceless. In 2015, Irish artist John Gerrard made Google’s Pryor Creek data centre in Oklahoma the subject of one of his real-time 3D digital art works. Intrigued by the physicality of the building weighed against our idea of the immateriality of the internet, Gerrard said: “I became interested in asking: what does the internet look like?”

It is the same question that has preoccupied the Annex team. “After a year of being in the Zoom world, it was great to make something physical,” laughs Butler. “And the work was about the physicality of the internet. All the things we had been exploring and researching became part of life during Covid, so while the last year has been hell, it has opened up conversations that the work is about.”

Data processing, says Butler, is only a fragment of what causes energy consumption by data centres. Paradoxically, the fans that cool the computers generate more usage, and more heat. So is idly scrolling through social media a terrible thing? “I feel like I have been on the internet way too much in my adult life,” says Butler. “But you have to look at what is most processor-intensive. So that’s machine learning, cryptocurrencies. Netflix is high up too,” he adds.

While artists have dipped into the world of data centres, architects have been slower to respond. As Annex architect David Capener explains, it is time this changed. “Architects aren’t interested in massive great warehouses in the middle of rural Ireland. Architects are interested in things they can touch and see,” he says. The group became fascinated nonetheless. “It’s the physicality of data centres, but also the processes, the entangled networks they are part of,” Capener explains.

“Architects deal with space, but increasingly mobile technologies are producing the spaces we inhabit. Google Maps will very literally produce how you move around the city,” he says. “And what I see on my Google app map will be very different to what you see. The information there is not necessarily for my benefit. Statistics have shown that if I’m shown a shop or cafe on Google Maps, it makes me much more likely to enter a place.”

Entanglement by Annex. Photograph: Alan Butler
Entanglement by Annex. Photograph: Alan Butler

Maybe we were already primed for such a situation. French philosopher Jean Baudrillard’s essay Simulacra and Simulation (first published in English in 1994) took the form of a fable, in which an empire creates a map that is so detailed and exact it entirely overlays the territories it describes, leaving them to rot underneath. Ultimately, people take it for the genuine thing, unable to distinguish reality from image.

Now we can add the likes of Alexa to the mix of what Capener describes as “the entangled economy of surveillance capitalism”. The former involve us agreeing to have what are essentially listening devices in our homes, in exchange for various non-essential life enhancements. “One has to agree to a lot of data collection,” notes Capener wryly.

Ireland’s role

Ireland’s own role in the story of global data goes back almost to the beginning. The first transatlantic telegraph cable was laid across the Atlantic sea bed in the 1850s, from Valentia to the Bay of Bulls in Newfoundland. It wasn’t a great success, but efforts persisted. In 1901, Guglielmo Marconi transmitted some of the world’s first wireless radio messages from the west of Ireland to Newfoundland. More recently, in 2015, a transatlantic fibreoptic cable came ashore in Kinsale, linking Halifax in Nova Scotia to Somerset in England, via Cork.

“It’s a global story, but an Irish story,” says Capener. “And now the amount of data being produced is exponential.” This has brought a degree of greenwashing to the narrative, with PR exercises knitting the problem into the fabric of society.

So is there an ask at the heart of the Annex project? Capener points to Greenpeace’s Clicking Clean report (clickclean.org), which audits major internet companies on their energy usage – though oddly, given the size of Ireland’s presence in that field, doesn’t list this country specifically as it does other regions. Last updated in 2017, the report sees Facebook doing well, Netflix less so. “Efforts are being made,” believes Capener. “But they’re too slow and not enough. Our installation is saying: we need to think about this, and we need to try and propose solutions. That’s not to stop watching Netflix, it has to be about new sources of technology, new sources of energy.”

“We’re in the digital world,” says Butler. “It’s not going to go away. But that click you make is a permission for a data analyst company to spy on you, and to generate information to sell to someone else. When you’re not clicking, it’s information too. The archives are building and growing. And they’re being exploited to shape the world. The problem isn’t the energy use, it’s where the power is coming from.”

Also on the environmental side, Butler points out how we’re digging up huge parts of the Congo to make microprocessors, which brings us back to Richard Mosse.

“It needs to be looked at from different angles, and with different approaches,” Butler says. “From audiences as much as producers. As a visual artist, that’s real fertile ground,” he concludes.

Mixed reviews

This year’s biennale has, overall, drawn mixed reviews. “It’s a miracle it [the biennale] happened,” says Capener. “You have to cut it some slack.” He mentions the moment when celebrated architect Norman Foster came into the Irish space, and started taking pictures of himself on the thermal imaging screens. Capener also highlights the Chilean Pavilion, and the one from Uzbekistan. Butler picks out the Croatian space, and the community library dreamed up by the Philippines team.

Exploring online, I am also intrigued by the British entry, which includes an investigation of the possibilities of pubs, and the paucity of public toilets, in a presentation entitled The Garden of Privatised Delights. Clicking through, I have an itch to visit the event in Venice. To go and see. And little by little, I feel drawn back to travel, to contributing to those carbon costs via air miles; back to being part of the problem as we all investigate a solution. Entanglement seems inevitable. 

Annex are: Donal Lally, David Capener, Fiona McDermott, Alan Butler, Clare Lyster and Sven Anderson. Ireland at Venice is an initiative of Culture Ireland in partnership with the Arts Council. The Venice Architecture Biennale runs until November 21st. labiennale.org

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