Machine Age

Melissa Gronlund

Reviews / 21.09.2012
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Image%3A+Gianni+Colombo+%28part+of+Gruppo+T%29%2C+Spazio+Elastico+%28Elastic+Space%29%2C+1967%26acirc%3B%80%9468%2C+elastic+cord%2C+black+light%2C+electric+motor.+Installation+view%2C+New+Museum%2C+New+York%2C+2012.+Courtesy+the+artist+and+New+Museum
Gianni Colombo (part of Gruppo T), Spazio Elastico (Elastic Space), 1967—68, elastic cord, black light, electric motor. Installation view, New Museum, New York, 2012. Courtesy the artist and New Museum

The phrase ‘ghosts in the machine’ was first used in 1949 by the Oxonian philosopher Gilbert Ryle to reject the dualist thinking of René Descartes: rather than mind and body being separate, Ryle argued, the bodily – what we might call today the hard-wiring of the brain – affects the mind, allowing baser, earlier emotions, such as fear or hatred, to persist despite our logical dismissal of them.1 These biological hangovers are the infamous ghosts in the machine of our brain.

In a show of the same title curated by Massimiliano Gioni and Gary Carrion-Murayami, New York’s New Museum explores the crossovers between art and technology, from the utopian promises that technology has held for artists to technology’s connection to a consumerist modernity – a world of cars, refrigerators, bicycles and TV advertising made desirable and for sale.2 The exhibition concentrates its significant historical base in different collectives from the 1950s to the 70s, such as the New Tendencies movement in Zagreb, the Independent Group in the UK, Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.) in New York, Groupe de Recherche d’Art Visuel (GRAV) in Paris, Gruppo T in Milan and Group Zero in Düsseldorf, who all variously viewed technology as a specific answer to post-War concerns – whether to conquer ‘the soul by means of calm, serene sensibilisation’ (Group Zero) or to critique the ‘aesthetics of plenty’ of new consumerism (the Independent Group). Richard Hamilton, Man, Machine and Motion, 1955/2012, exhibition reconstruction. Installation view, New Museum, New York, 2012. Courtesy New Museum Richard Hamilton, Man, Machine and Motion, 1955/2012, exhibition reconstruction. Installation view, New Museum, New York, 2012. Courtesy the artist and New Museum The show provided an opportunity to see some of the fantastic work that developed from this period: Peter Roehr’s films comprised of advertising clips, cut abruptly short and looped several times in succession, in a schemata that follows the logic of trauma (Film–Montagen I–III, 1965); Richard Hamilton’s installation Man, Machine and Motion (1955/2012), re-created in New York for the first time; Victor Vasarely’s proto-Conceptualist abstractions from the late 1950s and early 60s, made via machine without the artist’s intervention. The didactic presentation of Man, Machine and Motion, descended from Aby Warburg’s Mnemosyne Atlas (1924–29) – itself an early example of art’s intersection with the machine – links nicely to Henrik Olesen’s collage of images of Alan Turing (Some Illustrations to the Life of Alan Turing, 2009), also included in the exhibition. Olesen’s presentation critiques the homophobia that surrounded the British scientist who cracked the Nazi’s Enigma code during World War II, charged with ‘gross indecency’ for performing homosexual acts in 1952 (this and its ramifications on his career were arguable causes for what is thought to be his suicide, through poisoned apple, in 1954). Olesen, whose work often looks at homosexual identity and politics, here presents a series of collages that complicate ‘binary’ readings of Turing’s life – that is, of seeing Turing as a man either homo- or heterosexual, or one whose entire contribution can be read in the 0s and 1s of computer code.

Henrik Olesen, The Body Is a Machine, 2010. Oil on canvas, 100 x 80cm. Collection Kunstmuseum Basel. Courtesy the artist and Galerie Buchholz, Berlin/Cologne

Other strands in the show explored the perceptual effects of the use of technology – here drawing heavily on Marshall McLuhan – in 3D films, Op Art and expanded cinema. Stan VanDerBeek’s Movie-Drome (1963–66/2012) was installed on the exhibition’s top floor, as were two of Robert Breer’s Courrèges-like moving pods (Floats, 1970/2011), chunky chest-high objects that, skirting across the floor, created a play of shadows and worked as mobile screens. Only one of these was working when I visited – the other had not been charged up – and it was difficult to concentrate on its slow progression and the shadows it conjured. It is hard to properly summon the optimal conditions for experiencing the often minor and subtle (or ecstatic and hallucinogenic) shifts of expanded cinema in the by turns hectic and austere space of the gallery – the enclosed space of Movie-Drome allowed for that atmosphere to evolve, but the impact of other works relying on perceptual changes was diminished. (One artist, not in the show, who has harnessed these perceptual effects well in the gallery space is Dustin Ericksen, whose kinetic floor-installation Lazy Dustin [2009] could have been included as a younger exemplar of this more formal strand.)

While the historical portion of the show turned up a wonderfully broad spectrum of artistic reactions to technology, the exhibition unravelled slightly as it moved into the present. One problem is the basic, obvious fact that technology is now such an intimate part of our lives, and, even more so, of current art-making strategies, that nearly all contemporary artists could potentially be included. Indeed, one could sit here all day ungenerously thinking of other artists who could have been in the exhibition and come nowhere closer to a coherent picture of today’s ‘ghost in the machine’. According to Carrion-Murayami’s catalogue essay, a key theme was the relationship between the body and the machine – bringing us back to the title’s origin – but the grapeshot selection of younger artists given here didn’t add up to any clear synthesis on this topic.3 Seth Price’s Film/Right (2006), for example, touched upon the un-relatability of technology, but, despite the sensuousness of his piece, kept it firmly within the camp of ‘mind’. He took stock digital footage for corporate presentations and, manipulating it and transferring it onto 16mm film, made it into a unique, craft-based artwork – It sounds like an axe to grind but why no young female artists were included is mysterious, especially considering the nexus of moral and political issues that new technologies bring to bear on women’s bodies.a shift in meaning that’s slightly too intra-art world. But watching the rising and falling peaks of fake non-space conjured by Price made it clear why he has been so consistently good at capturing the very weirdness of technology, and its overwhelming adoption.

How does the body relate to the machine today, if not clouded by emotion: complete alienation combined with moments of almost total alignment? This, I would argue, is the great insight of Mark Leckey’s Made in ’Eaven (2004) – a video that circles a digitally constructed Jeff Koons Rabbit, in whose mirrored exterior the seeing camera is uncannily never reflected – or of his investigations into how two dimensions can adequately convey a sense of three-dimensionality. Leckey was represented here instead by the new video Pearl Vision (2012), which showed him banging on, and reflected in, a shiny Rabbit-like snare drum – a work that suggested synthesis among music beats, pixels and the performer himself. More like this – of the presence or notable absence of the physical body – needed to be said in the show in order to answer Carrion-Murayami’s valid question. It sounds like an axe to grind but why no young female artists were included is mysterious, especially considering the nexus of moral and political issues that new technologies bring to bear on women’s bodies. I would have liked to see something by Emily Wardill, for example, whose films are so much about the confusion between bodies and objects; Daria Martin’s Soft Materials (2005), a film about simulated sensation on the part of a performer and robotics; or Anne Collier’s photographs, whose use of subjectivity makes an interesting contrast to Christopher Williams’s photographs, which were here included.

Seth Price, Film/Right, 2006, 16mm film, colour, silent, 14min. Courtesy the artist and Friedrich Petzel Gallery, New York Price’s and Leckey’s connection between digital technology and the uncanny was particularly interesting viewed against the more even-keeled responses to technology of the artists of the 1950s and 60s. New media artists and collectives are still exploring technology as a political and sociological tool, and this vein of working could be productively seen as a legacy of the earlier collectives included by Gioni and Carrion-Murayami. Four Corners Books, for example, has recently published a monograph on Critical Art Ensemble (Disturbances: Critical Art Ensemble, 2012), a collective of artists and graphic and web designers who have investigated the impact of the internet and other technologies on daily life since the late 1980s, and it would be telling to look at their work in the context of the often didactic models of these forebears. ‘Ghosts in the Machine’ opened up many questions and gave them a solid historical footing, but the scope of art and technology today, as the curators themselves would probably admit, has widened beyond what even an ambitious show like theirs can adequately tackle.

Stan VanDerBeek, Movie-Drome, 1963—66/2012, dimensions variable. Courtesy the Estate of Stan VanDerBeek
Footnotes
  1. See Gilbert Ryle, The Concept of Mind, London and New York: Hutchinson’s University Library, 1949, available at http://archive.org/stream/conceptofmind032022mbp#page/n9/mode/2up.

  2. ‘Ghosts in the Machine’ is on view at the New Museum in New York until 30 September 2012. See http://www.newmuseum.org/exhibitions/view/ghosts-in-the-machine.

  3. See Gary Carrion-Murayari, ‘The Body Is a Machine’, in Massimiliano Gioni and G. Carrion-Murayari (ed.), Ghosts in the Machine (exh. cat.), New York: New Museum, 2012, pp.15–17.