You've changed since 2016. We all have. And this show will force you to look in the mirror

Tech has rewired humanity, say curators Douglas Coupland and Shumon Basar. Welcome to The Age of You.

Tech has rewired humanity, say curators Douglas Coupland and Shumon Basar. Welcome to The Age of You

Michael Stipe. "3-D Scan, Early Technology, with Michael Oliveri, Athens." From The Age of You. The exhibition appears at MOCA Toronto to Jan. 5, 2020. (Courtesy of MOCA Toronto)

"One of the rules," says Douglas Coupland, "is that it can't make sense to someone from 20 years ago" — although really, most of the statements you'll find inside The Age of You (an exhibition co-curated by the Vancouver artist and collaborators Shumon Basar and Hans Ulrich Obrist) would have been head-scratchers as little as five years back.

"She knows exactly how to make the algorithm love her."

"You only read the comments section."

"Do you still feel like an individual?"

Maybe those phrases, examples of some of the slogans featured in the show, are still plenty esoteric on their own, but they were even more befuddling pre-2016: before Trump, before Facetune conquered the App Store, before The Great Hack.

But The Age of You isn't about any of one of those things. It's about, well, you. All of us, really — and how the internet, broadly speaking, might have mutated our thoughts, our actions and our very identities. And it suggests that all that change is happening fast. So fast that maybe you haven't been able to process it.

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Is this you?

That's been Coupland's experience, at any rate, and he suspects he has company. "I feel like I'm a different person now than I feel I was five, 10, 15 years ago. And I don't think it's a matter of my brain getting older or anything like that." (The author of such zeitgeist-bottling books as Generation X and Microserfs is 57.)

"I think my brain has really reconfigured and that's really changed my perception on everything," he says. "And I think that's something a lot of people are going through right now. You can feel it."

The curators have a term for this "new you" experience. It's called "The Extreme Self," and a book by that name is slated for release next spring (a publisher is still TBD). In the meantime, the exhibition partly serves as a preview to that work. It features 138 pages from the publication, or "poster pages" — prints featuring text by the curators matched with visuals by more than 70 multi-disciplinary art-star contributors (e.g. Amalia Ulman, Miranda July, Fatima Al Qadiri, Michael Stipe ). That group was asked to respond to the text with a portrait of a person or crowd.

Installation view of The Age of You, MOCA Toronto. (Tom Arban Photography Inc./Courtesy of MOCA Toronto)

Installed over two of MOCA's wide-open floors, the images guide visitors through 13 chapters, sections grouped by topics including beauty and celebrity, call-out culture and the "The End of Democracy." In a way, the effect is a little like navigating a hall of inspirational quotes, a favourite content pillar of the masses. In a sense, the slogans should be digested just as easily — though they're certainly harder on the system than platitudes of the "live, laugh, love" variety. (This has not stopped visitors from already posting their faves on Instagram.)

"We're so used to memes and memetic thinking these days," says Coupland. So the show's easily scan-able form, in one way, hits the audience where they live. "We tend to read at what I call the speed of swipe," says Basar.

But it's also a reminder of an idea that the entire project is scratching at: how have our tech-reliant times fundamentally changed the way we are?

It's showing you why you might think and feel the way that you might think and feel.- Shumon Basar, co-curator of The Age of You

It's a question the curators have been asking themselves for years now. In  2015, they published the The Age of Earthquakes. That project took a similar approach, crowd-sourcing imagery from a pack of contributors for a series of spreads designed by Wayne Daly (also the graphic designer for The Age of You). Both Coupland and Basar describe it as a sort of speculative continuation of Marshall McLuhan's The Medium is the Massage, and that 1967 book took a similar design approach, too. Says Basar: "We thought, well, the Medium is the Massage is the perfect crystallization of electric media from the late '60s, but what would McLuhan's version of that be in the early 2010s?"

For The Age of Earthquakes, the focus was our tech-dependent moment. For The Age of You, they've pivoted to our tech-dependent selves.

Says Basar: "I think reading our books is a kind of mirror. But instead of the show showing you what you look like, it's showing you why you might think and feel the way that you might think and feel."

2016 changed everything

November Paynter, Artistic Director at MOCA, was such a fan of The Age of Earthquakes that she approached the authors with the idea of producing an exhibition. The subject matter made special sense for a Toronto audience, she says.

"The Impossibility of David Bowie being Dead in the Minds of the Living." The Age of You, MOCA Toronto. (Tom Arban Photography Inc./Courtesy of MOCA Toronto)

"Knowing that the Vector Institute is here, and the start of AI sort of blossomed here: a lot of the issues they were interrogating, it just felt it would be pertinent to discuss in this context," says Paynter.

"November approached us in 2017," says Basar. "She said to us, 'Kind of imagine what it would be like to walk through it — to walk through the book.'"

"And at that point, we already felt we were into a new era of something."

"I think 2016 was really this watershed moment," he says. It was the year of Brexit and the American election, he notes, events that revealed how personal data can be used to manipulate the course of history. It's also the year David Bowie died — an artist whose genius for inventing personae seems, in retrospect, to be the blueprint for modern life. (A cast of his face appears near the end of the exhibition like a religous relic, one of several works that anchor and expand on the themes from the posters.)

"We're not just a single identity or self anymore, but we are many," says Basar. He uses the hypothetical example of a message board troll. In real life, they might be a friend from work. "They'll make you a cup of tea and ask you how your kids are. But then at night, using a pseudonym, they'll raze you to the ground.

Basar and Coupland walk you through a few of the posters appearing in the show.

Words: Basar/Coupland/Obrist. Image: Jarvis Cocker, Hong Kong Mirror, 10/11/2018. (Courtesy of MOCA Toronto)

Basar: "Well, there's a joke there. It's our friend Jarvis Cocker, [formerly] the lead singer of Pulp."

Coupland: "Two years ago in London, Shumon and I were at a mutual friend's [event]. Miranda July was having an exhibition in the top floor of Selfridges, and so we went there and — Ohmigod, it's Jarvis Cocker. (Gasp!) We were like, 'You talk to him. No, you talk to him! No, no! What if he hates us or something?' So we did a retreat, and then he came over to us. He actually had a copy of Age of Earthquakes in his bag. And he's like, 'You guys did this? I've been reading this all week.'"

Basar: "That's an image he sent us which happens to be a reflection of him."

Coupland: "I think he really wanted to be a part of this, so that was his addition."

So, what is classic individuality like?

Basar: "With something like that, we wouldn't want to explain it away. It's more like if you know what classic individuality is, then you know what classic individuality is. (Laughs.) You inhabit it, and everyone else will be like, what are you talking about?"

Words: Basar/Coupland/Obrist. Images: Urs Lüthi, "TRANSMISSION ERROR II" and "TRANSMISSION ERROR I", 2015. Ultrachrome-Pigmentprints. (Courtesy of MOCA Toronto)

Why did the face become such an important theme, or motif, in the show?

Coupland: "This is really freaky that you're asking me this question because about one hour ago  I activated the facial recognition program in my new iPhone X. […]  And now, I pick up my phone, I don't touch anything, it just turns on because it sees me. Oh! What does that mean? It's that easy to capture me."

"The way we present ourselves is just so strange. Starting with selfies, and going to our media consumption habits."

Basar: "I think the moment our phones got the front-facing camera we have become a species of self-portraiture and of portraiture, as well. I'm pretty sure if we were to analyze the number of images that get uploaded to Instagram every day, the vast majority will be of faces of people, either ourselves, ourselves with other people, other people with other people. What's interesting about that is you could say the technology of doing that is new, but the cultural habit has been there for thousands of years, right? Someone pointed out that the two biggest genres on Instagram are either selfies or pictures of food. And those are the two great categories of western art history: the portrait and the still life."

"So you know, everything is different and everything is the same."

Words: Basar/Coupland/Obrist. Image: Peter Saville by Yoso Mouri, 2016. Design: Daly & Lyon. (Courtesy of MOCA Toronto)

Why go with a portrait of Peter Saville?

Basar: "(Laughs) Well, on the one hand, it could have been anyone, but I think we liked that it's not a photograph of Peter. It's by a Japanese Illustrator (Yoso Mouri), so it's already a kind of interpretation of a face, or of a person. A translation. But then, if you're like a really hard core Peter Saville nerd, you might know that in 1983 he made one of the most important record covers of all time, which was for New Order's Blue Monday, and what he did was make a simulacrum of a floppy disc, at that time.

"But what's interesting about that point is Peter was in the studio with New Order and he saw this object, this slim black piece of plastic, and he didn't' know what it was. And they told him, well, we put music on this. OK, this is going to be it.

"So that's the kind of Reddit explanation of why Peter Saville is there. On the other hand, it's a face and you know, what does any of our data portraits look like? We have no idea, because ultimately we can't see it."

Words: Basar/Coupland/Obrist. Image: Stephanie Comilang, Still from "Lumapit Sa Akin, Paraiso (Come To Me, Paradise)", 2016. (Courtesy of MOCA Toronto)

Basar: "That poster came out of a section thinking about virtual reality and augmented reality. It feels like we're on this never ending roller coaster of excitement about virtual reality. To me, anyway, we never seem to get to the destination. But what's behind the excitement of the promise of virtual reality? Well, it's this promise that you can inhabit somewhere else."

"It's a platform that allows you to look like someone else, to be somebody else, to be somewhere else. They're all techniques of escapism. But then, when we were discussing this we realized, well, actually, this has also been around for time immemorial. So whether you practice Sufism, or you took LSD in the '60s, or you take whatever choice of pharmaceutical today, there's always been a desire to want to escape — who you are and where you've been and to some extent [where you're] condemned to be."

"This is where our interest in history comes in, I think. It's also important to remind ourselves that many of these supposedly new sensations and new experiences are actually part of very long-running traditions and long-running obsessions that we've had as a species."

The Age of You. Curated by Shumon Basar, Douglas Coupland, Hans Ulrich Obrist. To Jan. 5. The Museum of Contemporary Art, Toronto.


Leah Collins

Senior Writer

Since 2015, Leah Collins has been senior writer at CBC Arts, covering Canadian visual art and digital culture in addition to producing CBC Arts’ weekly newsletter (Hi, Art!), which was nominated for a Digital Publishing Award in 2021. A graduate of Toronto Metropolitan University's journalism school (formerly Ryerson), Leah covered music and celebrity for Postmedia before arriving at CBC.