Cyberspace Was Never a Place

In ‘New Order: Art and Technology in the Twenty-First Century’ at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, the definition of ‘technology’ is intentionally loose

The border between art and technology is notoriously hard to define. Recently, Silicon Valley sold the narrative that technology was a benevolent revolution that exists outside of ideology. But the progressive visions of a software-mediated utopia, where everything is ‘smarter’, connected and easily accessible, have given way to corrupt platforms, constant surveillance and structural unemployment. As the project of Apple, Amazon, Google and others has unravelled, the so-called ‘intersection of art and technology’ – a perennial topic of panels in the US and Europe – has likewise met its reckoning. Art that fetishized programming, networks and technical novelty has met a critical turn. The most interesting works about technology are those that illustrate our encounter with a world that is increasingly administered beyond our control.

Leslie Thornton, Luna, 2013, video. Courtesy: the artist

In ‘New Order: Art and Technology in the Twenty-First Century’ at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, USA, curator Michele Kuo has assembled 25 works from the museum’s permanent collection. The definition of ‘technology’ in ‘New Order’ is intentionally loose, and the result is a broad sample of the tools available to artists in the new algorithmic regime. Some works are explicitly built with software, like Tabor Robak’s richly detailed video gaming dashboards Xenix (2013), or Ian Cheng’s AI-powered digital ecosystems, Emissary Forks at Perfection (2015-2016). Others are loosely tied to processes of engineering and the manipulation of media. Mark Leckey’s Made in ‘Eaven (2004) projects eerie, 16mm film footage of a reflective, digitally manipulated Jeff Koon’s rabbit. A wider range of moving image media – phonography, broadcast television, digital video and more – are employed throughout Leslie Thornton’s Luna (2013), a mashup of ghostly shots of a defunct structure from the 1939 New York World’s Fair. Other works make expansive, thematic reference to our new digital weirdness in ways that transcend their material support. Jacolby Satterwhite’s 12-minute video animation Country Ball 1989-2012 (2012) depicts a neon dance party; its mix of 3D modelled software avatars and archival videos pulsate as the frame of view moves smoothly through a virtual world. Anicka Yi’s Shameplex (2015) spreads ultrasound gel into several neon vitrines. Metal pins prick the surface in what appears to be a cyborg menace about to take form.

Trevor Paglen, It Began as a Military Experiment, 2017, ten pigmented inkjet prints, each 34 × 26 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Metro Pictures, New York

Kuo divides the show in two sections: ‘Reverse Engineering’ and ‘Stranger Things’. In the former, works explore the physical materials that underpin a networked world, like copper ore – the unseen rare earth metal that runs many of our devices. In Sam Lewitt’s Weak Local Lineament (2014), it’s the shimmering material for a serpentine etching that hangs from a mounted rack. Josh Kline’s Skittles (2014) are plastic-bottled smoothie blends comprised of the commodified detritus of our attention economy. For Altar/Engine (2015), Tauba Auerbach 3D-printed a series plastic helix forms and laid them out on a blue table. The complex arrangement reads like an archaeological presentation of an extra-terrestrial toolset.

Other artists’s works make more explicit, didactic critiques of digital surveillance. Trevor Paglen’s It Began as a Military Experiment (2017) includes 10 inkjet-printed portraits of US Department of Defense employees with facial recognition measurements faintly traced over their surface. Harun Farocki’s Eye/Machine I (2001) is a two-channel video installation of documentary-style footage of military/industrial machine vision experiments. These two works are in different rooms but complement each other. It Began as a Military Experiment describes an origin story of much of the consumer technology we use today: the foundational structure of the World Wide Web was a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA)-funded project, as was the research that would go on to found Google. Simple robots for office use, as Farocki shows, are tied to the larger project of more efficient war making.

Harun Farocki, Eye/Machine I, 2001, video installation. Courtesy: Committee on Film Funds © Harun Farocki Filmproduktion

Each work in New Order, when taken together, advances one of the more critical arguments of our post-internet age: while networked society often appears virtual, weightless and magic, it is physical all the same, tied to material processes in ways that are as obvious as they are unsettling. To be a good, critical citizen in the age of digital technology means to question our acceptance of these tools as natural, inevitable or separate from the dominant ideologies of their foreground. Cyberspace was never a place. It was always just more things, connected in new and more extractive modes. As Kuo states, ‘Technology is never given; it’s made.’

 'New Order: Art and Technology in the Twenty-First Century' runs at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, until 15 June 2019.

Main image: Ian Cheng, Emissary Forks at Perfection, 2015–2016, live simulation, video still. Courtesy: the artist

Mike Pepi is a New York-based writer on art, culture, and technology. Find him at @mikepepi

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