In the years when I taught an undergraduate art history survey course, I would invariably encounter a student who wanted to know how ancient builders could have produced structures of such precision as the Giza pyramids without the aid of laser devices. On occasion the question would be accompanied by citations from writers suggesting extraterrestrial intervention in the ancient world as a possible explanation. Such technological chauvinism is one of the better indicators of our enduring human nature. Due to our active and potent imaginations, we come to believe our digital devices are as basic to our existence as water and air.
Attitudes pertaining to the holy grail of technology — the development of artificial intelligence — can range from enthusiasm to deep concern. Look to Ray Kurzweil’s 2005 volume, The Singularity is Near, for arguments that support the idea that nanotechnology will advance to accelerate and redefine our evolution as a species. The less enthusiastic among us are likely to cite the narrative given to us by Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick, in which a computer is led by his artificial yet all-too-human intelligence to paranoia and homicide.
This month at the Art Gallery on the City University campus of Kingsborough Community College, located at the southernmost edge of Brooklyn, you can consider all this and more in a truly challenging exhibition called Return to Tomorrow that addresses issues pertaining to Kurzweil’s prognosis through a dialogue of art, reproduction, and cultural forecasting. In the college’s impressive 2,000 square-foot space, gallery director Brian Hack has installed eleven sculptures, one painting, and a projected video, all by Ashley Zelinskie, a Brooklyn artist well-versed in computer coding, modern art history, and notions of touchy-feely hard drives. In her own words, Zelinskie wishes to address our coexistence with machines by suggesting we, “… prepare them [the machines] not only to be accurate and efficient, but also cultured.” “Robots need magic,” she assures us in a statement on her website.
Each sculpture in the show is made up of planar shapes that look like screens, which when approached reveal themselves to be inscribed with numbers and letters. They are in fact strings of hexadecimal expressions (binary computer code compressed into six-digit numbers) describing the shapes on the faces of each sculpture. Some shapes are basic geometric polyhedrons, the smaller of which are plastic objects the size of a basketball. The largest, called “Hexahedron” (2013) is an aluminum cube balanced on a seventh side (sliced off its corner) that rests, at least in appearance, somewhere in the 1960s, between Tony Smith’s proto-minimalism and Sol Lewitt’s conceptual space frames.
Zelinskie’s process, however, renders her work uniquely contemporary, reflecting a shrewd use of 3-D printing. Like the digitally processed video and photography work of Jason Salavon, Zelinskie’s computer application is not a gimmick. The substance of each piece is inseparable from the character of the technology used to create it. This in itself is an achievement, considering how most art-related applications of 3-D printing these days look suspiciously like cost effective substitutes for hiring studio talent.
Because the artist’s intention behind her work is so spectacularly hypothetical, I had to set it aside for fear of rendering my opinion impertinent — and what critic is prepared to accept those terms? By ignoring her hypotheses, I found the most intriguing piece in the show to be her “Mona Lisa” (2012): an accurately scaled 30.3 x 20.9” image (perhaps I should say “image”) of Leonardo’s Louvre-bound masterpiece, represented only by the computer code required to reproduce the image online. The painting’s reduction to a canvas stencil of its own computer code differs from Duchamp’s “L.H.O.O.Q.” (1919) and Warhol’s “Mona Lisa” (ca. 1979) insofar as Zelinskie’s version leaves the original image, in a manner of speaking, intact. I’ll leave it to the reader to decide which version of the three may be the most subversive.
Though I question the artist’s vision of the future, I found the work serious, visually compelling, and like all significant art, thought-provoking. In the catalogue essay, Hack balances the show’s unsettling predictions by pondering on their credibility: “Will we ultimately lose our humanity? Will reliance on a digital world bring about the abandonment and eventual destruction of the physical one? Or is the move to a digital reality to be warmly, if somewhat bemusedly and with a certain amount of trepidation, welcomed with open arms and an even more open mind?”
That Zelinskie believes a genuinely artificial intelligence to be both inevitable and welcome is so difficult to accept that it becomes almost impossible to resolve in one’s mind and still look at the work as art. As I see it, you can either accept her premise or not. I don’t see any middle ground. Her vision is smartly and honestly presented, the work is elegant and consistent — and in the end utterly unconvincing. Though I can remain safely agnostic regarding the inevitability of a clearly dystopian prophecy, I cannot share in an optimistic attitude toward a conundrum like post-human existence. If machines equal in ability to our intelligence — or to our imagination, which is the real issue here — and manage to work their way into our biology, their opinions regarding the art of the High Renaissance will be the least of our problems.
Return to Tomorrow continues at the Art Gallery at Kingsborough Community College, CUNY (2001 Oriental Boulevard, Brooklyn) through April 14.