SAN FRANCISCO — In Agbogbloshie — also known as one of the world’s top polluted places and an e-waste dumping ground, located in Ghana along the African coast of the Gulf of Guinea — a young man by the name of Mohammed Camara scavenges for metal to earn money. His furrowed brow and pensive gaze are captured in one of Kevin McElvaney’s photographic portraits, featured in Earth Machines at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. One might surmise that the hazy background in the photograph is the burning of discarded electronic devices and heaps of synthetic material. Depending on your entrance to the exhibition, curated by Ceci Moss, McElvaney’s portraits serve as either a startling introduction or apt, inevitable conclusion to a show focused on our collective obsession with technological devices.
At the opposite end of the exhibit is Spiros Hadjidjanos’s 3D alumide print sculpture “Displaced (Smartphone).” For the sculpture, he created a physical topography of his phone through a process called displacement mapping, which is a method used to create texture in computer graphics. “Displaced” represents the arduous digital process of transforming high-definition graphics into three-dimensional works. We often attempt to capture what we see through photography or video, but our attempts to capture the world around us falls short. Texture and tactility have long been proof of reality, which is why Hadjidjano’s translation of the digital into such a grandiose form reifies our dependence on electronic devices.
In Steven Shaviro’s “Twenty-Two Theses on Nature,” the 19th thesis — “Nature involves a continual web of causes producing effects which in turn become the causes of further effects, ad infinitum” — speaks to our inextricable relationship to and consumption of electronic and digital devices and their direct effects on the environment. We yearn for nature, but we push against it with our desire to connect, which produces an endless cycle of technological innovation and destruction — including faster connections, higher resolutions, and computing systems — that is becoming all too unruly.
In Alisa Baremboym’s “Parasorbal Systems” (2014), tubing, mylar, and contorted steel — some of the materials used to create industrial and digital infrastructures — are assembled in such a way that each piece seems to rely on the other parts to make a whole, serving as a metaphor for our own relationship to the material world. Specifically, her work reminds us of our dependency on natural resources, in particular when it comes to our digital life, which we often think of as invisible. Digital creations are far more material than we might like to think. Each of these everyday objects used to create our technology becomes a poetic gesture and the metals and plastic are bent, pushed, and molded to mimic curvature that is uncharacteristic of the materials themselves.
In the main gallery, “Cloud Farming” (2014) by Addie Wagenknecht hangs steadily above the heads of gallery goers and signals quietly through its foreboding blinking green lights that the digital mechanisms running in the background of our day-to-day lives is ever-present. In Revital Cohen and Tuur Van Balen’s piece, “D/AICuNdAu,” the duo extracted artificial ore, which is essentially the material pulled from electronics, to create an organic, rock-like form. The artists combined this ore with lava rock from the data center, where the artists also obtained unused hard drives. The resulting rock formation is a simulacrum of the natural world. But the fictitious material further supports one of Shaviro’s theses that nature results in cause and effect relationships that ripple out into effect upon effect.
Leslie Shows’s work is probably the most recognizable, traditional art form besides McElvaney’s photography. Shows’s set of paintings represent organic forms similar to those of the abstract expressionists. She incorporates aluminum engravings, plexiglass, mylar, sand, and ink, reflecting a world similar to Revital Cohen and Tuur Van Balen’s. While seemingly natural in their aesthetic, the works are completely man-made.
Earth Machines spans a range of artistic practices, all of which challenge our understanding of the production of technological devices, old and new media, and their effects on the environment. In looking at our relationship to the earth, each work grapples with how nature and technology overlap and converse.
Shaviro’s 12th thesis claims that nature “comprises multiple processes of individuation. These must all be understood in two distinct ways: in terms of energetics, and in terms of informatics.” I understood Shaviro’s idea of “energetics” as a reference to the intangible, wondrous, and inexplicable side of nature, while the “informatics” refers to the data, chemistry, and science that we use to explain nature’s existence. But he quickly reminds us in his 14th thesis: “I fear that our excessive concern with informatics has gotten in the way of proper understanding of the importance of energetics.”
Throughout Earth Machines is a plea to pay more attention to modes of production that are harming the earth and livelihood of others. Ironically, we use the earth’s resources to make devices, like the oculus rift, so that the virtual world becomes more meaningful than our physical world. This idea should cause discomfort and change the way we consume. The show forces us to confront the narratives, bodies, and synthesis of materials embedded into our everyday electronic objects that are not readily seen and oftentimes left unspoken.
Earth Machines continues at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (701 Mission Street, San Francisco) through December 6.