Suzanne Treister's new Science Museum exhibition HEXEN 2.0 is not easy to summarise. Loosely, it comprises a series of visual artworks which relate to various recurring themes in and around post-war developments in science and culture. Most prominently featured are the U.S.-run Macy Conferences of 1946-53, which were collaborative scientific efforts aiming to integrate various diverse fields across engineering, biology and psychology, and which were instrumental in developing the field now known as cybernetics. There's also a newly-designed tarot deck, and some of the most complex flow-diagrams I've ever seen.
Treister presents information about the Macy Conferences through various means, most helpfully a 'large-scale grid of photo-text portraits' of prominent attendees. Each attendee is given a moderately brief biographical sketch, though overall they are far too numerous to read in one viewing. This bewildering wealth of information exudes a sense of obsession, and hints at the idea that the conferences were somehow broadly sinister.
The exhibition's slight conspiracy-theory air is furthered by a series of 'Historical Diagrams' which attempt to chart abstract paths of ideas broadly concerning themes such as consciousness and technology. They are somewhat shrilly labelled with titles such as 'From MKULTRA via the Counterculture to Technogaianism' and 'From Diogenes of Sinope to Anarcho-Primitivism and the Unabomber via Science-Fiction', and though ostensibly tracing some sort of pattern through and between these concepts, they are (to understate it) somewhat hard to follow, being rather stream-of-consciousness-like and filled with elegant but small, untidy handwriting. The network of people and concepts is decidedly and profoundly higgledy-piggledy: one box begins 'WWII Fascism Anti-Semitism Fear of Communist World Revolution...', and another reads 'William Blake, Artist, Writer, UK, 1757-1827. Influenced Beat poets, 60s Counterculture, ANARCHISM & Huxley's title “Doors of Perception”.'
One of the exhibition's two rooms is given over entirely to Treister's tarot deck. The historical, canonic tarot is arguably complex enough as it is, with its dense symbolic web of mythologies, religions and superstitions, and the idea that Treister's own ideas have been freshly transposed on top of all this is arguably quite scary. Certainly, it requires a certain conceptual surrender, and there is no real way to grasp much sense of the whole of this work – each card is a provocative and baffling riff on that tarot card's traditional significance, and they range in subject from individuals such as Aldous Huxley ('The Fool') and Theodore 'Unabomber' Kaczynski ('The Hermit') to abstract concepts such as Ethics ('Judgement') or Computing 1957-1986 ('Nine of Pentacles'). The card known as 'The World' is represented simply by the text 'WWI, WWII, WWW'.
By the end of the showing I was reduced to scrawling nonsensical rambling notes such as 'Why is Thoreau the Ace of Chalices?' on my press release, lost in a ridiculous web of quasi-connections and pseudo-conjectures, and little more than a conspiracy theorist myself. To the extent to which the display's aim is to illustrate this tendency in the viewer – to highlight our futile natural drive towards unearthing intelligent design in complex systems – I am forced to conclude that the exhibition is successful. To the extent to which it is intended as an elucidation of post-war developments in cybernetics, it is as much use as an actual tarot deck, and probably about as good at predicting the future.
This exhibition is definitely worth a look if you enjoy conspiracies, occultism or quirky takes on recent world history – or if you happen to be in the Science Museum but don't particularly like science. However, don't forget to take it with a sizeable pinch of salt. This is not a healthy way to learn history.