They’ve explored pollution in the Urals, freight trains in China, and daily life in the world capital of fake news. Now the Dutch art crusaders have imagined Europe’s future – and it’s very medieval
11 October 2018 | Oscar Wickett | The Guardian
On the way to meet the Dutch film-makers Metahaven, I have a very Metahaven experience. The Eurostar from London to Amsterdam grinds to a halt almost as soon as it crosses the border into the Netherlands. It sits stranded on the high-speed track for two hours before smoke starts billowing from the train. A voice is heard over the intercom: “Don’t worry,” it says, “it’s just the brakes.”
The scene could come from the duo’s own work, which these days focuses on late capitalism in which traditional forms of authority have broken down, online platforms have stolen our attention and seemingly advanced systems – like rail networks – are forever glitching.
I text Metahaven’s Daniel van der Velden to tell him what’s going on and mention that I’d always imagined the Netherlands operated smoothly and efficiently. “Yes, that is the myth!” he texts back.
Metahaven comprise just Van der Velden and Vinca Kruk, although the duo prefer the flexibility of the term collective. Created in 2007 as an Amsterdam-based graphic design studio, they have since gravitated towards film-making, through which they send dispatches from a world in which we live in a “medieval haze of information”. It is a world, they tell me, where “we are passionately arguing on Twitter with bots”, and where we’re subject to all kinds of cognitive distortions, such as fake news and post-truth.
Metahaven’s transmissions from our dystopian present have long been venerated in art circles. Now they are starting to reach a wider audience. The Institute of Contemporary Art is hosting a Metahaven solo exhibition, Version History, which features a new film, Eurasia – shown on a vast video wall – alongside their previous works Information Skies (2016) and Hometown (2018). (It runs concurrently with the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam’s Metahaven retrospective.)
A sense of uncertainty pervades Metahaven’s films. Post-Soviet spaces feature heavily and the work of the Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky is an enduring influence. Animations created by the collective bleed on to the screen and the kind of dropdown menus and sidebars normally found on YouTube videos pop up, satirising the online experience.
The first line of Information Skies captures Metahaven’s view of the absurd moment we live in: “Something happened this morning on our way to work. It began raining facts from the ceiling.”
The background photo of the collective’s Twitter account is a still from Hometown, in which you can read the text: “revolving doors and mirroring walls”. With Metahaven, you’re never quite sure where you are.
My train pulls into Amsterdam Centraal two hours late and so I meet the duo at an place inside the station that manages to be a cafe, record store, online radio station and craft beer bar. Van der Velden was born in 1971 and grew up in Rotterdam, while Kruk is nine years younger and was raised in nearby Leiden. They each have a degree in graphic design. As well as working together, they live with each other and have a five-year-old daughter.
“I worry about publicly stating we are a couple, because there’s a tendency to really romanticise that,” Kruk says.
“Or not!” chimes in Van der Velden.
“If you work and live together like we do, there’s always this curiosity about role division,” continues Kruk. “It’s extremely liberating to work under one name because you can change what you do within the collective.”
Alongside The Sprawl (2015), Information Skies and Hometown make up Metahaven’s “truth futurism” trilogy. Subtitled “propaganda about propaganda”, The Sprawl was a more traditional piece of documentary. Talking heads popped up, including Peter Pomerantsev, whose account of 21st-century Russia, Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible, introduced western readers to Vladislav Surkov, an aesthete and Putin ideologue who’s been described as “the arch-puppeteer of Russian politics”.
“Propaganda techniques now no longer work from the idea that they are promoting a centralised perspective,” Van der Velden says. “They are trying to create doubt, trying to intervene in cognitive space where we don’t have the facts but we can create stories.”
The group wanted to explore this idea further in Eurasia, which is still being edited when we meet. The film, says Van der Velden, will be set in a “fictitious, not-so-fictitious future Europe that resembles something like a medieval map of fiefdoms”.
There is archival footage of Nigel Farage and the Italian comedian-turned-politician Beppe Grillo. Farage, the artists say over email after, is “exercising his now-familiar bit, ‘I’m a political outsider, I’m actually a comedian’ – which is really a Trojan horse destroying politics itself and becoming some kind of quasi-amicable figure whom we have to trust because he is funny.” He is also a creator of fictions about the past – as Van der Velden points out, Europe was not a land of nation states before the European Union came along, it was a land of empires. This ties in with the collective’s central idea for the film, which is how by “manipulating the past you can actually shape futures – by retrofitting the past to an outcome that’s in the future”.
To make Eurasia, Metahaven travelled to sites that hold significant meaning in our 21st-century dystopia. They visited the Sak-Elga river in the Ural Mountains, on the geographical border between Europe and Asia, where the water is red from copper pollution. They travelled south looking for signs of the new Silk Road between China and the west, eventually filming Chinese exports travelling on Soviet-made railways through 18th-century landscapes.
And in Macedonia, they went to Veles, a town that became known as the world capital of fake news during the 2016 US election because a significant number of pro-Trump sites were being run from there. Hillary Clinton blamed her defeat on such places, but what Metahaven found was “sort of nothing. You find a town in which people have no work, there is an old factory that’s abandoned and there are guys with computers and a sense politically that there is not a very strong tendency toward liberal worldviews.”
There’s no room for irony in Metahaven’s work. “Irony is dead,” Van der Velden says. “It was effective in the 1990s but it’s not something that really works at the moment. You see that with someone like Sacha Baron Cohen – the form of it still resides on the idea that we have a perspective outside from which we can laugh. This type of outside is what is being undercut or taken away.”
Indeed, Metahaven are very much part of the world they critique. They cite their own “YouTube addictions” as an influence on their work, and they’re not about to start throwing their devices away just yet. “We’re not really into this idea of, ‘Go back to a 96 Nokia and enjoy reality,’” says Van der Velden. Instead, they want to look forward.
Although unpicking what the future might have in store will have to wait for another time. My train back to London is waiting – if it ever makes it out of the Netherlands.