Abierto x Obras, Matadero, Madrid, Spain | Website
In the work of Zach Blas (American, b. 1981) the visual language, value systems and power dynamics of digital technology are dissected, probed and re-contextualized to map the edges and foundations of our technocratic society. Working in a range of media that includes film, sculpture, writing and performance, Blas employs a mix of dark humor, theoretical research and influences spanning mysticism, science fiction, pop culture and queer aesthetics to weave layered commentaries on digital culture.
In SANCTUM, a new installation commissioned by the Matadero on the occasion of the inaugural Tentacular Festival, Blas creates a mystical environment that is part sex dungeon, part sacramental altar and part airport security detention center. In the center of the gallery, a masked figure keeps watch over a group of digital avatars who find themselves captured and ensnared in various torture devices. The silent figures, which resemble the anonymized body scan imagery generated by airport security scanners, are contorted in what appear to be violent and humiliating positions—they are bound, gagged, pierced, and whipped, and their digital matter is harvested in order to produce new torture instruments. Yet the ambiguous nature of their environment makes it difficult to know for sure whether these avatars are victims or willing captives. Do they experience these acts with pleasure or pain? Are they prisoners, martyrs, or sex slaves?
SANCTUM problematizes our symbiotic relationship with technology, examining the nature of personal agency, surveillance, and control in a world shaped by data mining and social engineering. In today’s digital landscape, our lives are increasingly monitored, tracked, and profiled—by our phones, social media platforms, retailers, governments, and even the products in our own homes. Most users acquiesce to this condition, either enthusiastically or begrudgingly, in exchange for the promise of security, convenience, self-expression, and affirmation. Designed to be sticky and seductive, these products are so appealing that although there is mounting evidence of the many ways they could potentially be misused—think of recent data breaches like the Cambridge Analytica scandal, where it was revealed that the data of more than 50 million Facebook profiles was harvested in an attempt to influence voters—most people continue to use them anyway. In SANCTUM, this “opt-in” relationship to surveillance is recast within the consensual power play dynamics of the BDSM subculture, highlighting how systems of control have evolved beyond the oppressive bureaucracies of “Big Brother” to occupy a space of pleasure, play, intimacy and trust.
Commissioned by Julia Kaganskiy; Tentacular: Festival de Tecnologías, Críticas y Aventuras Digitales; and Matadero Madrid