Can you become addicted to getting a bunch of psychedelic cats aligned in a row? I’ve got to admit it gave me a warm glow when I “won” while playing an interactive artwork by Katriona Beales that mimics online gambling. The pleasure persisted even when her “game” informed me it had been compiling data based on my eye movements.
Yet, as sickly diverting as it is, I can’t imagine waiting on a street corner, $26 in my hand, to buy the next hit of online cat portraits from my man. Hooked: When Want Becomes Need, the thought-provoking show that opens London’s new Science Gallery, mixes artworks about drug and alcohol addiction with pieces that explore the online world. It suggests that smartphones and social media may be as addictive – and harmful – as heroin or vodka. Yet the exhibition also illuminates a striking difference. While artists once turned to traditional narcotics for romantic inspiration, the compulsion to check that phone one more time is hardly going to give anyone visions of caverns measureless to man, as Coleridge put it.
Only one work in Hooked summons up such pale wasted poets. Joachim Koester’s installation The Hashish Club uses green Moroccan lanterns and a projected photograph of a lush, orientalist sitting room to recreate Club des Hashischins, where intellectuals met in 1840s Paris. Its members included not only the poet Baudelaire and the painter Delacroix but also Alexandre Dumas, author of The Three Musketeers. (I’ve always wondered what D’Artagnan was smoking.) Over the romantic image of the room where these dreamers met, Koester layers a sinister morass of animated weeds – the silhouettes of very 21st-century street skunk.
Addiction ain’t what it used to be. Like other affluent middle-class professionals, many artists today spend their money on cocaine. This was the drug of choice for the YBA generation, and it appears here in Richard Billingham’s 1998 video Jason Chopping. Tellingly, it is shown near to Billingham’s 1999 piece Playstation. Both are closeups of nervous, busy hands.
If we’re all addicts, as Hooked asserts, what lies behind our shared sickness? Sitting in a car wash watching the roller engulf his windscreen, a recovering alcoholic in Melanie Manchot’s video installation Twelve explains that the animal part of our brains, beneath the neocortex where our higher human functions reside, is the one susceptible to addiction.
This is the most explicitly scientific statement in the show. The Science Gallery works directly with researchers to develop exhibitions that bring art and science together. Its London branch (like the drugs trade, it is an international venture) is affiliated with King’s College London. Yet Hooked wears its science lightly and refuses to be judgmental. You may be addicted to sugar, social media likes, or Fortnite, but no one here is criticising.
But as the exhibition progresses, the consequences of addiction look ever more menacing and wasteful. Dryden Goodwin has worked with young offenders alongside Kim Wolff, director of forensics at King’s. All of the young men in the group were convicted of offences related to drug dealing. One is in prison for murder. To protect their anonymity, their faces cannot be photographed, so instead Goodwin has incorporated his expressionistic drawings of them into a moving and troubling film.
Why is there so much addiction and who really benefits? Rachel Maclean’s mind-boggling video installation Feed Me suggests we’re being manipulated by blue-faced corporate trolls whose kitsch patter persuades us there is always something else we need. The endless dissatisfaction of consumerism is, according to her mesmerising, surrealistic vision, the most oppressive addiction of all.
Maybe, but I’m not convinced that phones and shopping are the same as substances that alter one’s consciousness and may, for all the risks, appear to expand it. Poets, artists and musicians have dangerous relationships with traditional drugs because they find some release or inspiration in them. An alcoholic filmed by Manchot describes the freedom and power he feels when he drinks. It encapsulates the kind of dangerous intoxication that has fascinated – and ruined – so many creative people.
This isn’t to say we are not addicted to phones. The terrible thought this exhibition invites is that, if the internet has made addicts of the entire human species, we haven’t got a recovery centre to go to. The new opium of the people is a club with no exit door. And you don’t even see visions.
• At the Science Gallery, London, from 21 September.