Silencing the Noise:
Caline Aoun

Our idea of new, digital art is usually that it is full of effects and easy to consume. And the VR glasses with which museum visitors can feel their way into new virtual worlds is now also a sign of the times. Starting in November 2019, the Lebanese artist Caline Aoun is showing her large solo exhibition as Deutsche Bank’s “Artist of the Year” 2018/19 at the PalaisPopulaire. The show demonstrates that digital art can be haptic and can provide completely new kinds of styles and knowledge. An encounter.
A meeting with Caline Aoun quickly undercuts all the usual clichés about art in the digital age. When talking with her, all of the virtual reality glasses hanging in museums and biennials today, all of the “immersive” spaces in which visitors are bombarded with computer-controlled rain, light effects, and animations, no longer seem so topical. Moreover, you also start to doubt the art scene’s widely held belief that a creative answer to the latest technology requires the use of the latest technology. Aoun is currently in Berlin preparing her exhibition at the PalaisPopulaire as Deutsche Bank’s 2018–2019 “Artist of the Year.” Coming on the heels of seeing is believing at MAXXI in Rome, this will be the 36-year-old Lebanese artist’s largest solo exhibition in Germany.

Aoun is sitting at a long wooden table with a glass of water in front of her. She talks about her works, about the feeling of being flooded with data and information, which, she says, “we feel inside.” She is straightforward and unpretentious, as opposed to many artists of her generation who experiment with digital media, genes, or new silicon compounds—artists who have the air of entrepreneurs, scientists, or designers.

Nor do Aoun’s reduced works appear to be “digital” at first glance. They mainly consist of paper, and sometimes papier-mâché, copper, or concrete. There is always something temporary, something fleeting, about them. And they always work with the space. Her installation in Rome, which filled the entire exhibition hall, looks as if Aoun printed out a pixelated, abstract landscape. The picturesque grid wallpaper, consisting of individually printed, brightly colored DIN A3 sheets, completely covers the walls. As the work progresses, the initially velvety-looking tar-black surface increasingly gives way to color fields of inky blue-gray, rich cranberry red, and violet. But the feeling of warmth and opulence eventually subsides. Increasingly, the design decomposes into narrow strips of light blue, turquoise, or yellow. Finally, all that remains is white—riddled with smears and traces that were made by empty printer heads scraping over the surface of the paper.

Of course, this “wallpaper” can recall Minimalism or Conceptual Art, conjuring up a kind of digital Color Field Painting. However, Aoun says she is not referring to this canon. Actually Aoun is inspired by texts. The spectrum ranges from the Marxist philosopher and sociologist Henri Lefebvre, a pioneer of the student unrest in 1968 who propounded the concept of a “right to the city” for all, to media theoreticians like Marshall McLuhan and Friedrich Kittler.

Aoun says her approach is not about generating innovative abstract forms with the printer, but rather, as she explains, about the “image struggling to appear through the process of its own making.” Indeed, these color fields emerge through complete saturation, exhaustion, or an extreme shortage of material. Aoun feeds an overload of data into her printer, churning out gigabytes of images until the color cartridges are almost empty. The printer struggles to print a black-and-white image. To create black, it makes use of all available color, gradually running dry. For her work Paperplane (2012) from the Deutsche Bank Collection, Aoun pushed folded paper airplanes through an industrial printer, and of course they got stuck. Such works are an act of violence—also for the artist, who has to rip the snagged paper out of the printer. Instead of producing an “image,” the printer leaves traces of color on the folded edges and sprays the paper in fine gradations of blue. Traces of the machine, as well as remnants of tearing and printing, are discernible. It is a kind of abstract emergency situation. Where the digital image is supposed to emerge as if by magic, Aoun brings hardware into play: the body, the machine, the paper.

Her works emerge precisely where the illusion of digital perfection implodes, where systems, as well as data and information flows, collapse, capsize. A case in point is her Fountain (2018) through which the remaining cartridge ink is pumped — cyan, magenta, and yellow — until the different colors gradually flow together and form a black mass, which dries out and agglutinates over the course of the exhibition. Asked whether the fountain, like the prints, has to do with the transfer and circulation of data, Aoun replies: “What is data? It is pure information. Rather than being interested only in the information that data carries, I am more interested in the physical dimension it carries. But how that physical dimension, how that actual proton of data carries with it a vision, it carries a faith, it carries a future and consequences and things like that.”

In a world in which data is “leaked,” in which national assets, masses of goods, and people, are moved digitally, Aoun treats data “as matter, as pure material.” Thus, the pigment particles of printing inks are “data carriers” to the same extent as the digitally stored information that the printer deposits onto the paper as an “image.” When Aoun makes a silicon impression of a wall at the PalaisPopulaire construction site or casts pine needles she finds on the street outside her front door in copper and exhibits them, that is a data transfer. Just as when she captures live video images with a webcam outside her window in Beirut and transfers them to her Berlin exhibition.

What data is she interested in? “Currently, I am looking into the data that is closest to me,” Aoun answers. For instance, as her Beirut gallery was located at the city’s harbor in 2015, she collected freight data from the port to make her work Datascape, explaining, “I had to react to the information around me.” At the moment, Aoun says she is preoccupied with technologies such as the Apple Watch, which measures bodily functions such as breathing rate, pulse rate, and the number of steps taken, then transfers that information straight to the wearer—a data cycle at extremely close quarters.

At the PalaisPopulaire she is planning to install a complex circulation system of interconnected fountains that exchange ink with one other. Over the course of the exhibition they will gradually become saturated and dyed black. “The more you consume data on a daily basis, if you watch a YouTube video, or read an e-mail, or google something, the more you receive data, the more you give data up without knowing it,” she says. “And this is the main reason things are completely free and why access is so easy, because they need that information from you. It is quite a huge and interesting thing. But I have this question that keeps going through my mind: What would happen if that thirst for data was saturated someday? What if it becomes oversaturated? And that kind of saturation may happen.” Aoun repeatedly refers to the overload of images and data as “noise,” which more or less subliminally impacts our entire surroundings. The minimalist, abstract appearance of her art is something akin to breaking down that noise. “It is a way for me to reduce the peaking of environmental noise that we are experiencing nowadays.” At this moment it becomes clear that Aoun, rather than adding even more volume to media noise, condenses it in her work, gives it a tangible material form, a form that makes it possible to sensually perceive and contemplate elusive connections. Aoun’s works can be read as abstract symbols of excessive consumption and the simultaneous deficiencies inherent in global capitalism, of information terror in a world that has been thrown out of whack. They don’t merely depict something, but are themselves physical events. We can feel the mechanical violence she wreaks on her printers in order to silence the noise. And we marvel at the incredible beauty that can emerge when a system is overstrained and collapses. “My works may be quite abstract,” says Aoun, “but at the same time they are very close to something real.”

Caline Aoun
Deutsche Bank's "Artist of the Year" 2018/19

November 15, 2019 – March 2, 2020
PalaisPopulaire