Scan as prompted, and your phone camera becomes a portal into an ‘augmented reality’: quotes from anonymous service workers hang in the air like so much smoke; the Sackler building morphs into one graph after the other, its building blocks points on axes revealed and summarised by swiping to the app’s WTF tab. Disruptive, playful, imploring, Steyerl’s Actual Reality OS brings invisible power dynamics into relief via data models, snippets of testimonial and auditory intervention (“[t]he app’s score is sonified local inequality data”), immersing its user in a story of systemic inequality usually unseen – that is, unseen by the type of person who would visit a gallery or download a conceptual art app. Without sounding like someone who’s enjoying their first spliff – reality is subjective, man. You can’t know how other people are experiencing the world, especially looking down from the dizzying heights of economic and social privilege. As such, Actual Reality OS, “A DOCUMENTARY TOOL/ A SENSORY PROSTHETIC/ A SOCIAL SCULPTURE”, does what it says on the tin: in the refined grounds of Hyde Park and against a building funded by one of the richest families in the world, stark testaments to abject poverty and exploitation spring like weeds between the careful topiary of The Gallery Experience.
Steyerl takes the UK broadly, and the Serpentine’s borough of Kensington and Chelsea specifically, as the demographics to have their wealth statistics processed into her work and your experience of it. With some of the most profound economic inequality in Europe, the gallery’s surrounding area is activated – literally, through the app and its physical sigil prompts, and metaphorically, called to answer for a worldwide injustice of poverty and exploitation – to surprisingly confronting ends. Steyerl’s visuals – graphs and testimonies entering your field of vision via a phone-screen-frame – command all the associated authority of News Night graphics or a shareholder’s presentation slides. There’s a pleasing sleight of hand, then, in recognising that their content undermines the medium: 56% take painkillers to see them through their shift. Bullet points and statistics are largely the preserve of the establishment: but WEALTH for the TOP 10% is 295 TIMES higher than the BOTTOM 10%. So, who’s speaking?