Two museum shows opened in February about art and technology that, combined, span the last seventy years and present some of the different discourses surrounding the convergence of these two fields. I’ll Be Your Mirror: Art and the Digital Screen, curated by Alison Hearst at The Modern Museum of Fort Worth presents nearly every contemporary medium from paintings and installations to games and face filters in an expansive exhibition of fifty artists across twelve sections touching on some of the major psycho-social outcomes of our mediated landscape. Coded: Art Enters the Computer Age 1952-1982, curated by Leslie Jones at LACMA includes prints, video, textiles and sculptural objects that admirably present a historical trajectory of artists’ experimentations with the possibilities of computational devices across those early years, when design limitations foregrounded composition and structure. Those constraints also contributed, occasionally, to a kind of didacticism, for which the field of digital art remains frequently derided.
A defensive attitude pervades discussions of digital art because it has been accused of being too formal, too political, too abstract, too narrative, too dull, too hyper, too immaterial, too consumptive, too fetishistic and esoteric, too tied to military-industrial-platform-capitalism…the list goes on. Explaining itself becomes a kind of jittery dance that can’t win for trying. Exhibitions frequently have to articulate the socio-political, historical or material significance of the practice and projects. Discussing how a hardware or software operates is often relevant to the work itself as the artist is trying to reveal a facet of the technology that imbues our lives, but that can feel overwhelming or boring for many who “just want to look.” No one but conservationists and some artists ever really cared how paint, for example, is made but that’s also because paint itself didn’t materially transform society (despite being on the walls that surround us and sometimes carrying asbestos), so use of paint wound up being in dialogue with painting’s history of representation, whereas artists using digital technologies often feel an urgency not only to articulate how these technologies reproduce a gaze associated with hegemonic power but also why their very operations reinforce systems of power by inculcating a loss of agency—through such things as user-friendly design. It’s easy to position expressionism or politics on one side and formalism or abstraction on the other, though this is inaccurate for any artistic medium and far too easily still applied to the broad field of digital art. That phrase “if you see something, say something” was twisted to make us look in a racialized way, but we can reclaim it in the arts to emphasise the potential new thinking that can come from one’s own looking. Just looking is just fine.
The curatorial design of I’ll Be Your Mirror eschews chronology and many will want the wall texts to connect the works and ideas, though others will find that the art is spaced so as to encourage audiences’ appreciation and engagement at their leisure. Walking into the space with American Artist’s No State (2018), a dispersed pile of cracked iPhones, and Untitled (Too Thick III), a tower of mobile devices, made me think about the modernist design of these devices in relation to the urban development and social transformation of early twentieth century skyscrapers. The formal qualities of the object as well as the objecthood of the two artworks held me. Both artworks make beauty uncomfortable, before even beginning to consider assorted meanings they espouse. The quantity of cracked machines point to a culture oriented around replacing what is broken rather than repairing the inevitable damage of life with people and things, ie. society. From there, the artist’s context and politics expand. He uses iPhones to address the Black American experience, relating the transnational capitalist mobilization of these devices to the transAtlantic slave trade, and presents them “as counterpuntal and primordial to the whiteness of the screen” (as quoted in Omar Khaleif’s essay in the catalog p. 168-177).
Coded temporally progresses through a more defined narrative of creative development, with wall texts that explain the production of the works or the artist’s practice but mostly don’t address the politics that motivated the artists. The catalog, however, does some of that work, as for example explaining why the German artist Frieder Nake refused emotion in his early coded works, like the series Walk Through Raster of two-tone squares on display, as a position against the passionate frenzy of the Nazis, from which his nation was still recovering (see the essay by Patrick Franck, p. 145-157). Early plotter drawings couldn’t handle art paper, so the material sign of ‘art’ couldn’t distinguish these outputs from other print-outs. They don’t have the richness we expect from works on paper, and many of these artists weren’t necessarily concerned with the semiotics of value surrounding the culture of art. Artists steeped in their cultural context adopt a medium to produce something they believe worthwhile, and even chance operations can’t obviate the psychologies and politics materialized through their work.
The notes I took on both shows are extensive in part due to the largesse cultivated by both curators. For I’ll Be Your Mirror, I thought about the appropriation of online content as a kind of found object and how that challenges the immateriality of our digital lives. Penelope Umbrico’s 48,586,054 Suns from Sunsets from Flickr (Partial) (2020) glows on the landing leading into the show, a startling reminder how the proliferation of images over the last hundred years has created a normative culture of image production so that millions of people share their beautiful picture of a sunset that looks exactly like every other one. Gretchen Bender’s Total Recall (1987) using televised media, Cory Arcangel’s Super Mario Clouds (2002) reducing a popular video game, Jon Rafman’s Nine Eyes of Google Streetview (2008-2020) culling pictures from the corporation’s surveillance cams, Arthur Jafa’s The White Album (2018) pulling footage across media for a powerful description of whiteness, Molly Soda’s Me Singing Stay by Rihanna (2018) creating an orchestra of voices on social media, all serve different ends but highlight the information density of our mediated lives and the need to analyze that cultural production.
I thought about how interaction remains uncomfortable for many in the museum context, as people hesitated to play the choose your own adventure video game in Lynn Herschman Leeson’s living room-like installation, Lorna (1979-1984), which was in the second room of the exhibition. That faded and people were joyously moving with Kristin Lucas’ flARmingos (2017), as a companion would capture them using the iPad provided by the museum that showed them surrounded by animated projections of pixelated flamingos similar to the three sculptures in the space. In front of the screens where audiences saw themselves masked by Huntrezz Janos’s face filters, people danced as if attempting to throw off the software’s ability to grip each face.
And yet, beyond the museum space, interactions often face the police logics of governments and transnational corporations controlling what apps and services are made available to whom. Electronic Disturbance Theater 2.0’s The Transborder Immigrant Tool (TBT) 2009 aimed to provide people crossing the Mexico-USA border guidance for where to find water and songs of support, but could never be released as the group was investigated by assorted political authorities. An admirable example of shifting narratives was present in the curatorial choice to eclipse the conversation around NFTs rampant around Simon Denny’s work on blockchain mining machines by positioning it in the section “Ecology” about machines’ materiality, just past Tightrope Contrast (2017) by Elias Simes who repurposes used electrical wires commonly resold in the open air markets of Ethiopia to create abstractions based on weaving traditions of West Africa. The section on Digital Abstraction highlighted the permeation of digital tools in painting and the way the inherent abstraction of computation then represents visual abstractions, stylistically familiar to us from the twentieth century, and yet necessitating some other theorizing.
The exhibit is the first to tackle such a broad exploration of technology in Texas at a museum whose influence rolls across the region. Its superb overview of the way that artists are thinking about the widely accessible and ever present media devices of our lives since television’s mobile privatization will bring a new audience to accept, if not appreciate, these art practices. It will make evident why even screen-based works often depend on installation for their impact, which is why online images limit many of these works.
In contrast, Coded is hardly the first show to display art and technology in Los Angeles, given LACMA’s longstanding support of digital artists as well as cultural interest in media across the region, but the exhibition’s curatorial selection and catalog will introduce even those well-versed in these narratives to new works. Though the show opens with a strong design focus and the role of IBM familiar to most, inclusion of the first “snapshot” of Mars that is a page of zeros and ones because that was all that could be transmitted from the Marine IV is a timely inclusion as conversations around photography negotiate yet new technologies like AI; the nature of the photograph has long abandoned light as its means. Mid-century America had an obsession with mathematics humorously exhibited in Jonathan Borofsky’s Counting from 1 to 2,941,494 (1969), a pile of papers of his dashes. It’s in the same room as the Nake and Bridget Riley’s Op-art Polarity (1964).
Classic works like Studies in Perception I (Alpha Serendipity) by Leon D. Harmon and Kenneth C. Knowlton (better known as “the computer nude”), and popular pioneers of generative art like Manfred Mohr, Harold Cohen, Vera Molnar, Charles Csuri are there, but it was the use of computers for performance art in the section “The Computer and Politics/Open Scores” that helpfully broadened the narrative. Barbara T. Smith’s I Am Abandoned (1976), a conversation between two chatbots simulating a psychotherapist and paranoid schizophrenic, presented as documentation via photographs and the artist’s notes on the project, and Analivia Cordeiro’s choreography determined by a computer-generated score in M 3×3 (1973), revealed the clever adoption of computers to address social dynamics. Hans Haacke’s News (1968/2008) loudly prints political updates from English language newspapers meant to pile up over time as the paper ceaselessly unfurls, but which was ironically being collected and removed as I was in the museum, leading me to wish they would announce when this would occur as a kind of performance extension to Haacke’s work for our own era where information overload stands alongside information containment.
These two shows opened as I was thinking about AI’s radical impact on how we understand humans and legal persons (from corporations to robots to rivers), life and activity, creative products and critical information, authority and collaboration, agency and object relations, communication and connection; in retrospect, blockchain seems like an attempt at a solution for the problems AI would explode, by providing provenance where vast datasets obliterate identity. The second quarter of the 21st century seems likely to introduce ever more complex and influential technologies on and for our lives. The non-profit organization Gray Area based in San Francisco, CA partnered with the McLuhan Institute in fall 2022 to present a festival around Marshall McLuhan’s claim in 1964 that artists act like Cold-War era early warning systems, raising awareness of how artists continue to interpellate forthcoming crises.
Only 40% of the global population has access to the hardwares and softwares discussed but such an inequity is just more evidence that it isn’t technology we need to worry about but the socio-economic constructs that disable the global connectivity and compassion necessary for life on this planet. There’s a revolution afoot though we are seated at our desks.
I’ll Be Your Mirror and Coded offer metaphor and history to guide us through the making of our present and inform our understanding of what next. They present artists whose works designate technologies as imbricated in social mores and so the rampant anxieties we have about malignant machines seem likely to be fantasy projections of longstanding social systems that don’t work. That these shows arrived the same week of 2023 in different regions of the United States, as people are seriously discussing the impact of the last three years of digital immersion, sets a tone for this year that is then reiterated in MoMA's recently opened exhibition Signals: How Video Transformed the World, examining how artists used that personal technology over the last seventy years. Art isn’t a substitute for political action but it offers a context to muse on our lives, while so much else demands merely commercial validation. I find myself startled to be quoting Winston Churchill from 1940 but it seems apt in this moment: “If we open a quarrel between past and present, we shall find that we have lost the future.” We’ve wrought these technologies through our participation in their networks and these historical shows offer us the chance not to bemoan past choices for this questionable present, but to learn how to proceed.