I guess I should have known that I wasn’t going to be excited by the Ghosts in the Machine exhibit at the New Museum in New York. The exhibit is devoted to the intersection between art and technology, and I think it’s interesting that the art actually looks better online than I think it does in person. You can see a small slideshow at the NYT site, along with the caustic review by Roberta Smith included in the link. Maybe that says something about techno-art and the best place to look at it, that it may not be museum-ready. The exhibit, what for me was the failure to connect to it, says a lot about me, I suppose, and also something perhaps about the limits of science and technology vis-à-vis more human frames of reference. These limits are especially poignant in light of all the recent attempts across the culture to promote the interface of science and technology with everything –art, literature, philosophy, politics, and religion. Because sometimes the interface doesn’t quite grip.
A lot of the art is old and already archaic, from the 1960s and 1970s. So there was a historical quality to the show. There was the 1963-1966 Movie Drome, a small hemispherical room in which old movie clips and slides circulate endlessly. Cushions are arranged on the floor to invite a more prolonged and relaxed visit inside the Drome, but personally, I am by now too phobic about bed-bugs to take advantage. There was also lots of Op-Art, which, with all due respect to the great Bridget Riley, is intended to make you feel disoriented and nauseous. There was a mockup of the torture device in Kafka’s “Penal Colony,” a pretty floating blue chiffon held aloft by strings, weights, and a fan, as well as lots of strobing video projections, diagrammatic drawings, and works related to the automobile; and let’s not forget Jeff Koons’ vacuum cleaners encased in vitrines. It was all very Bauhaus meets Surrealism meets Marshall McLuhan.
I think I learned a lot from this exhibition. I walked away with the realization that a lot of what makes up the technoscientific-human interface is repetitious, monotonous, visually brittle, un-textured. It’s also noisy, impassive, and disorienting (and not in a good way).
Perhaps part of the aesthetic problem with the early works from the 1960s and 1970s is ideological. I’m guessing it’s the combination of Marxism and Heideggerian techno-phobia. We’re supposed to feel alienated, dis-membered, and de-humanized in our relation to technological machines. But are we? I tend to think most of us, especially “non-intellectuals,” are generally more comfortable with machines, and that the discomfort we are supposed to feel is more along the lines of an aesthetic contrivance or illusion. Or maybe we shouldn’t feel too comfortable and the artist’s job is to make us see the error in this comfort. I think there’s still some truth to that perspective, but it’s a partial one at best insofar as it remains just as true that the art falsifies the sense of our lived reality with machines and human-machinic hybrids.