Artist Kenny Irwin, Jr. and his mixed-media installation work “Have Yourself A Happy Little Robotmas” (2013) (collection of the artist, photo by Shawn Levin)

Forget Damien Hirst’s cut-up cows in formaldehyde, Tracey Emin’s messy bed, condoms and dirty panties, Madonna hitchhiking in the buff along a Florida highway (documented in the controversy-courting popster’s 1992 photo-book, Sex), Chris Burden shooting himself in the arm or any performance involving orifices, paper scrolls, or yams.

For when it comes to supposedly transgressive conceptual art at its most grandiloquent, nothing comes close in ambition or scope to that super-high-concept, super-top-secret, unsettlingly artful project of Uncle Sam’s that came to light last year.

Revealed to the world by Edward Snowden, the whistle-blowing National Security Agency contractor, it was, of course, the US government’s use of eavesdropping technology so sophisticated and far-reaching that it could — and still can and does — monitor, ’round the clock, the telephone calls, e-mail messages and credit card transactions of many millions of Americans (not to mention those of swaths of other populations overseas and their highest-ranking leaders). Even the most inventive conceptual artist, the kind who specializes in imagining the unimaginable, would find it hard to realize a project with such daunting shock value or resonant effects.

Against such a backdrop of artistic, technological, political and social developments, the American Visionary Art Museum (AVAM) in Baltimore is presenting Human, Soul & Machine: The Coming Singularity! (on view through August 31, 2014). Timely and full of surprises, it is an exhibition that exudes a sense of urgency unlike that of many other museum shows of, say, the past decade in the US.

Conceived and curated by AVAM’s founder-director, Rebecca A. Hoffberger, the exhibition takes for granted that viewers know — and respond to the realization with varying degrees of indifference or anger — that not only is Big Brother watching, but that governments and corporations are listening, too, constantly monitoring the movements, purchases, tastes, and conversations of citizen-consumers everywhere.

Human, Soul & Machine also assumes that, nowadays, almost everyone is glued to computers, smartphones, or other hand-held devices, or is otherwise engaged with buttons and glowing screens on everything from thermometers to dishwashers. Similarly, the exhibition seems to suggest that, for better or worse, what was once quaintly referred to as the “virtual world,” engendered by the arrival of the internet, has become the real world for which the old real, physical world — the one of pretty sunsets, pleasant walks in the park and cute kitty cats meowing and purring (not playing the piano in endless video loops) — is now something of a distraction.

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Artist-composer Neil Harbisson’s “Colorblind Cyborg Installation” (2013), mixed media, including some of the artist’s goemetric-abstract paintings (courtesy Neil Harbisson and the Cyborg Foundation, photo by Dan Meyers)

Human, Soul & Machine offers a lot to be inspired or deeply disturbed by, depending on one’s view of the ever-expanding role of technology, and especially of artificial intelligence and all things digital, in so many aspects of human life. In a recent walk-through of the show with the curator, Hoffberger summed up its themes with this observation:

Thanks to many incredible technological advancements, the times we’re living in are both exciting and scary. This exhibition proposes that we can either use technology to empower or to diminish what it means to be human. The choice, as the art and information on display suggest, is ours to make — and it’s one we have a responsibility to make wisely.

According to one of its promotional texts, the exhibition considers whether the production of some two billion personal computers and the mapping of the human genome have put humankind “on the road to becoming […] better healthier, happier [and] less warlike.” Referring to a key word in its title, the text quotes Kevin Kelly, a co-founder of Wired magazine, who once defined “singularity” as “the point at which all the change [that has occurred] in the last million years will be superseded by the change [that will take place] in the next five minutes.”

Human, Soul & Machine presents a wide-ranging exercise in connecting the dots — social, cultural, political, historical and economic facts and ideas that link up in various and unexpected ways. The show’s artworks and wall texts convey a wealth of information — everything from details about how the U.S. government spends taxpayer dollars to the soulful musings of Rumi, the 13th-century Sufi mystic. With apparent free-association, it documents the evolution of technology, starting with humankind’s first use of fire (in drawings by the self-taught artist Chris Roberts-Antieau), all the way through computer-chip implants that already have made cyborgs (bionic humans) of more than a few men and women around the world.

Example: the British-born, Spain-based artist-composer Neil Harbisson, who was born with achromatopsia, the inability to see colors. He wears a cybernetic eye that is attached to his brain; it allows him to “hear” the frequencies of different colors through bone conduction. A video on display describes his condition. Harbisson’s geometric-abstract paintings show how he expresses his understanding of color visually, through art.

Other works in the exhibition, such as the Portuguese-born Rigo 23’s drawings on paper of unmanned killer drones (2010), and Frank Warren’s “PostSecret” project, in which people anonymously send the artist postcards confessing hitherto unrevealed personal secrets (including, chillingly, “I’m Facebook friends with my rapist”), directly or indirectly examine how advances in certain kinds of technology have affected humans’ capacity for empathy and compassion. Elsewhere, Alex Grey’s series of mixed-media paintings, “Sacred Mirrors” (1980), whose four tableaux feature complex compositions, appears to ruminate on the theme of where the human soul — that old, romantic-spiritual thing — might fit into a high-tech future that is already here today.

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Artist Alex Grey’s “Sacred Mirrors” series of paintings, left to right: “Material World” (1985–86), lead silhouette and leaded, etched mirrors; “Psychic Energy System” (1980), acrylic on linen; “Spiritual Energy System” (1981), acrylic on canvas; and “Universal Mind Lattice” (1981), acrylic on canvas (collection of the artist, photo by Dan Meyers)

Looking at Grey’s paintings and other works on display, Hoffberger said, “Given the way technology is moving, do we want to become like machines? With each new high-tech invention, how do you download a ‘you’ into an ‘it’?” Grey’s powers-of-the-universe paintings, with their images of trees as fecund bodies, along with choruses of prehistoric animals, suns, eyeballs and planets, evoke an eternal, all-unifying, omnipresent spirit. Grey’s art seems more all-embracing than the ecumenical posturing of those praying, chanting, bead-rattling leaders of so-called organized religions who sometimes pause to look beyond their own belief systems and pay a little lip service to the dream of world peace.

Also on view are the sculptures of the Virginia-born carver Fred J. Carter (1911–92), whose works reveal a soulful touch in their maker’s handling of one of nature’s most basic materials, wood. They depict Native Americans, Appalachian coal miners and ambiguous mythological figures. Carter, who created his carvings partly as a warning against industrial pollution’s effects on the environment, once observed, “Man is becoming so dehumanized and desensitized. … It’s just the destruction of man by himself.”

Quotations and citations of economic, scientific and other kinds of data appear as wall texts throughout Human, Soul & Machine. “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience,” reads a quote from the French philosopher and Jesuit priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881–1955). Other wall texts cite American cultural anthropologist Margaret Meade (1901–78), who observed, “We must devise a system in which peace is more rewarding than war,” and theoretical physicist Albert Einstein (1879–1955), who once cautioned, “I fear the day when technology will surpass our human interaction. The world will have a generation of idiots.”

The largest artwork on view is the Southern California–born, Sufi-convert artist Kenny Irwin, Jr.’s “Have Yourself a Happy Little Robotmas” (2013), a room-filling, mixed-media essay in sensory overload. Its components include a lavender spaceship topped with carousel animals; thousands of red, blue, yellow, and green plastic balls; a Cyclops Santa standing atop a kind of bull-reindeer-bison tank, with a team of reindeer popping out of toilet bowls; and a collection of bizarrely adulterated nutcracker figurines that look like artifacts from a Bladerunner-era archaeological dig.

An art-maker since his early teens, Irwin has described his visions of long-ago and future events as “lucid dream immersion experiences of our galactic realm,” which he has seen “in perfect, memorable detail.” A graduate of the California College of Arts in Oakland, Irwin has long been interested in robots and gained renown years ago for creating robot sculptures with recycled materials and thousands of lights.

One of the Portuguese-born artist Rigo 23′s drawings of unmanned drones, “MQ-9/Reaper and Yemen” (2010), ink on recycled, elephant-dung paper (courtesy Andrew Edlin Gallery, New York) (click to enlarge)

One of the Portuguese-born artist Rigo 23′s drawings of unmanned drones, “MQ-9/Reaper and Yemen” (2010), ink on recycled, elephant-dung paper (courtesy Andrew Edlin Gallery, New York) (click to enlarge)

Not everyone’s vision of the high-tech present and higher-tech future is dystopian. If Irwin’s wacky nutcrackers look like relics from the meltdown of a nuclear reactor’s core, wafting through his phantasmagoric cacophony of colors, shapes and textures one can sense a yearning for a time and place in which humans just might find their souls and their machines coexisting in perfect harmony.

In such a time and place, it is possible that the prognostications of the 66-year-old inventor, author and futurist Ray Kurzweil, a director of engineering at Google, whose many inventions include the first flatbed scanner, could become the new new reality. In The Singularity Is Near (2010), a film on view in the exhibition that Kurzweil made with Anthony Waller, Ehren Koepf and Toshi Hoo, the well-known trend-watcher foresees a not-so-distant future in which diseases will be cured through genetic manipulation, and humans will consult Google’s vast data storehouse via chips implanted in their brains.

However alarming — or irresistible — such a prospect might sound, Human, Soul & Machine easily stirs it into a rich mix of ideas and images. The exhibition’s organizers know that its viewers, unwittingly or avidly, are in one way or another participants in the technological developments the show examines. That’s a notion — and a reality — with which even the most provocative forms of high-concept art might find it hard to compete.

Human, Soul & Machine: The Coming Singularity! continues at the American Visionary Art Museum (800 Key Highway, Inner Harbor district, Baltimore) through August 31.

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Edward M. Gómez

Edward M. Gómez is a graphic designer, critic, arts journalist, and author or co-author of numerous books about art and design subjects, including Le dictionnaire de la civilisation japonaise,...

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