Curatorial Text
Poetics of Encryption
17 February  – 26 May 2024


Curator: Nadim Samman

Assistant Curator: Linda Franken

Curatorial Assistant: Lara Scherrieble

Exhibition architecture: in collaboration with Jürgen Mayer H. / J. MAYER H. and partners, architects


Poetics of Encryption


God is an infinite sphere whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.

Nicholas of Cusa


We rely on digital tools for many things, yet rarely understand how they work. Gaining deeper insight is not always an option. First, due to the proprietary nature of much corporate tech. Second, because understanding how an advanced AI came to generate a particular output can be impossible. Such ignorance and lack of power with respect to encrypted systems is difficult to endure. How does this situation register in art?


<p>Most Dismal Swamp, <em>Scraper, </em>Video still, detail, 2023. Courtesy the artist.</p>

Most Dismal Swamp, Scraper, Video still, detail, 2023. Courtesy the artist.


This group exhibition builds upon the recent publication Poetics of Encryption: Art and the Technocene by Nadim Samman. It explores the crypt in encryption, surveying an imaginative landscape marked by Black Sites, Black Boxes, and Black Holes. These terms indicate how emerging tech captures users; how it works in secret; and how it distorts cultural space-time. Three chapters showcase these themes, across all gallery floors at KW. Throughout, the exhibition toggles between enlightened concern and occult dreaming.


Each chapter proposes an imaginative model for where an intelligent, embodied human is placed in relation to the realm of digital secrets and hidden mechanisms. The artworks gathered under the heading Black Site explore the state of being locked in: captured or contained, buried in a technological grave. Black Box explores how artists picture the state of being intellectually locked out of ubiquitous consumer and industrial products. Finally, Black Hole considers how super-dense digital archives and/or computational processes scramble distinctions between inside and outside (locked down), before and after, sense and nonsense.


In the latent space between exclusion, occlusion, secrecy, questing, and speculation concerning technology’s inside, there unfolds an emergent poetic of encryption.


This exhibition features new and historic works spanning analogue and digital media by over 40 international artists. They are set within an architecture by Jürgen Mayer H. / J. MAYER H. and partners, architects. Additionally, a website serves as the project’s digital gallery and catalogue. It features three ‘web-first’ artistic commissions, rich media, a bespoke AI chatbot, and further project documentation. See


Featured artists: Nora Al-Badri, Morehshin Allahyari*, American Artist*, Emmanuel Van der Auwera, Gillian Brett, Émilie Brout & Maxime Marion, Juliana Cerqueira Leite, Julian Charrière, Joshua Citarella, Clusterduck, Juan Covelli, Kate Crawford, Sterling Crispin, Simon Denny, enorê, Roger Hiorns, Tilman Hornig, Rindon Johnson, Vladan Joler, Daniel Keller, Andrea Khôra, Jonna Kina, Oliver Laric, Eva & Franco Mattes, Jürgen Mayer H., Most Dismal Swamp, NEW MODELS, Carsten Nicolai, Simone C Niquille, Trevor Paglen, Matthias Planitzer, Jon Rafman, Rachel Rossin, Sebastian Schmieg, Charles Stankievech, Troika, UBERMORGEN, Nico Vascellari, Zheng Mahler, among others.


<p>Carsten Nicolai, <em>Anti</em>, 2004, Photo: Uwe Walter, Courtesy Galerie EIGEN + ART Leipzig/Berlin.</p>

Carsten Nicolai, Anti, 2004, Photo: Uwe Walter, Courtesy Galerie EIGEN + ART Leipzig/Berlin.


Black Site


The artworks on this floor concern the state of being locked in. Captured or kidnapped—buried in a technological grave. They are about finding oneself stolen away, and about the labor of escape from this situation. In a related vein, they highlight search and recovery operations, including de-cryption, dis-closure, and more.


Black Site traces the contours of a new underworld. One that artists discover inside a mechanical planet, surrounded by an array of satellites and sensors. Some featured works explore its dark infrastructure, digging through troll caves, cockpits, game-space, and open-pit mines. Others attempt to map this labyrinth, as every escape attempt requires some kind of plan.


Indicative works include the video Holding Death Close (2021) by enorê, which dramatizes disorientation and wayfinding through an aesthetic reminiscent of early first-person adventure gaming. Juliana Cerqueira Leite’s SHEE (2018, 2024) speaks to the architectural continuum between the human body and outer space—and the strange tension between the human digit (the finger) and the digital. The sculpture comprises a series of body casts in plaster, produced within a 1:1 scale model of a living system commissioned by the European Space Agency. Elsewhere, Kate Crawford and Vladan Joler’s Calculating Empires (2023) attempts to chart how power and technology have been intertwined since 1500, through an overwhelming 24-meter diagram.


<p>enorê, <em>holding death close, </em>2021. Video still. Courtesy the artist.</p>

enorê, holding death close, 2021. Video still. Courtesy the artist.


Black Hole (I)


What is life in the shadow of a data trail? What is death, when a digital body lives on? And how do we make kin with the network object?


Like black holes, super-dense digital archives and algorithmic processes

warp cultural space-time. As the internet and powerful AI models devour the known universe, collapsing every kind of difference into the singularity of code, meaning becomes denatured. Today, chimeras and stretched definitions abound. This floor explores the strange figures that artists use to signal the ‘event horizon’ of total datafication.


Eva & Franco Mattes’ Panorama Cat (2022) is a taxidermy sculpture of a ginger tabby cat, based on a viral ‘panorama fail’ photograph. It is an icon for the digital distortion of nature and culture, and the convergence of code and nonsense. In Juan Covelli’s Speculative Treasure (2020-2022) a Generative Adversarial Network (GAN) appears to fill in important blanks in Columbia’s archaeological heritage, replacing looted sculptures with novel artifacts informed by training data based on the national collection. Emmanuel Van der Auwera’s VideoSculpture XXV (Archons) (2022) offers unsettling reflections on the notions of digital immortality, post-truth, and deepfakes. Meanwhile, Émilie Brout & Maxime Marion’s animated musical video IDLE (acts α and ß) (2023) dramatizes the creepy self-regard of a nascent Artificial General Intelligence (AGI).



<p>Émilie Brout & Maxime Marion, <em>IDLE (acts </em><em>α</em><em> and </em><em>β</em><em>)</em>, 2023, 4K video, 25′, with the support of the CNAP and Fonds Culturel National, courtesy the artists and 22,48 m².</p>

Émilie Brout & Maxime Marion, IDLE (acts α and β), 2023, 4K video, 25′, with the support of the CNAP and Fonds Culturel National, courtesy the artists and 22,48 m².


Black Hole (II)


Like black holes, super-dense digital archives and algorithmic processes

warp cultural space-time. This floor catalogues the images that artists use to signal the ‘event horizon’ of total datafication. These chimeras stalk the social, economic, and political landscape—ecstatic conspiracies and post-truths that mark a point of no return.


Hyperlinked space is, for the most part, flat, with seemingly infinite pathways between sites and values. This suggests a lack of privileged vantage points from which to survey a scene. The ‘big tent’ conspiracies of Web 2.0, such as QAnon, run on such tracks, building ever more powerful connections into their web of (non)sense-making while sustaining all manner of contradictions.


Clusterduck’s The Detective Wall (2023) teeters on the edge of misadventure. The work attempts to make sense of the recent memescape by bringing the art historian Aby Warburg’s celebrated approach to image analysis together with the insanity of a TV detective’s ‘crazy wall’.  Joshua Citarella’s e-deologies (2020–2023) speaks to the power of digital media to deform political life. The work comprises a series of flags, whose respective heraldries each symbolize a strange hybrid. From ‘Anarcho-Capitalist Voluntarist Pacificism’ to ‘Left Egoist Transhumanism’, the wild combinations are all too real—gathered from political message boards. Nearby, Andrea Khôra’s new commission, RAPTURE (2024), explores the unlikely convergence of hallucinations and capitalism through the prism of Silicon Valley’s rising enthusiasm for psychedelic chemicals. Her work employs machine learning visuals inspired by the artist’s own ketamine deep dives.


<p>Trevor Paglen, <em>Because Physcial Wounds Heal…</em>, 2023. Courtesy of the Artist, Altman Siegel, San Francisco and Pace Gallery © the artist</p>

Trevor Paglen, Because Physcial Wounds Heal…, 2023. Courtesy of the Artist, Altman Siegel, San Francisco and Pace Gallery © the artist


Black Box


Black Box explores how artists picture being locked out of ubiquitous products and control systems.


A black box is a device that can be viewed in terms of input and output, observing only their pattern, without any knowledge of a conversion mechanism. What happens inside it is opaque, veiled in shadow: black. Our encounters with these occult agents represent a locus of desire and disappointment in contemporary technoculture. In this section, featured artworks stage tensions between a visible interface and an opaque backend. Some also consider how a rhetoric of transparency can, in fact, obscure the truth.


Eva and Franco Mattes’ P2P (2022) is a server connected to the open Internet, distributing a digital artwork as a torrent through the peer-to-peer network. The server has no output, and so the register of the piece is limited to blinking lights and the noise of the cooling fans. What else is going on behind the scenes? Trevor Paglen’s Faces of ImageNet (2022) demonstrates inherent biases in the emerging technology of facial recognition, drawing out concrete expressions of algorithmic racism, misogyny and more, latent in the AI’s training data, as it categorizes visitors. Elsewhere, Tilman Hornig’s GlassBook (2013­–2023) series stages the aesthetic sleight of hand surrounding computation. To what extent are smartphones, laptops and other systems really transparent mediators of reality?




Curator: Nadim Samman

Assistant Curator: Linda Franken
Curatorial Assistant: Lara Scherrieble

Head of Production: Mathias Wölfing, Claire Spilker (on Parental Leave)

Technical Management: Wilken Schade

Head of Installation, Media Technology: Markus Krieger

Installation Team: KW Installation Team

Registrars: Bryn Veditz, Luisa Haustein

Education and Art Mediation: Laura Hummernbrum, Alexia Manzano

Public Program and Outreach: Nikolas Brummer
Head of Communication and Marketing: Anna Falck-Ytter

Head of Communication and Press: Marie Kube

Assistant Press and Communication: Luisa Schmoock

Text and Editing: Nadim Samman, Linda Franken, Lara Scherrieble

Translation and Copy-Edit: Sabine Weier, Simon Wolff

Academic Traineeship: Aykon Süslü

Interns: Robin Schmitt, Michael Broschmann, Salome Klotz, Mattis Thomsen, Josefina Dux




*The artists, whose names are crossed-out, have chosen to strike against German State-funded institutions and therefore withdraw their participation from the exhibition. 


<p>The <em>KW Digital Program</em> in 2023–2024 is supported by Volkswagen Group.</p>
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The KW Digital Program in 2023–2024 is supported by Volkswagen Group.



The exhibition Poetics of Encryption is supported by Apalazzo, Blessed Foundation, max goelitz, Harlan Levey Projects, and Sprüth Magers. The exhibition is initiated by KW and a new iteration will be shown at Kunsthal Charlottenborg in Copenhagen in late 2024.



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<p>Media partners to the exhibition</p>

Media partners to the exhibition