Art

Between Body and Machine, a New Humanism Is Imagined

In this exhibition regarding the intersection of art and technology, instead of work that feels automated or detached, viewers are confronted with works that directly reference the body.

Lauren McCarthy, “SOMEONE” [detail], (2019) performance and installation with custom furniture, software, and electronics in Refiguring the Future, Hunter College Art Galleries, 2019. (photo by Stan Narten and courtesy the artist)
Refiguring the Future, a group exhibition at the Hunter College Art Galleries, presents works by 18 artists whose practices engage with the intersection of art and technology. Yet, instead of encountering works that feel automated or detached (a familiar manifestation of the art of the internet age) viewers are confronted with works that directly reference the body. However, what is most unexpected is these artists’ evocation of what it means to be human. Working in a diverse array of media including video, performance, digital media, and text-based practices, they imagine a feminist, queer, decolonial, anti-racist, and anti-ableist future. Some artists search for individuality and empathy within the homogeny and sterility of tech products. Others replace cyborgs with spirits, offering mythology and poetry as alternatives to the Western figures who occupy the world of Silicon Valley start-up tech culture and mainstream science fiction.

In Lauren McCarthy’s installation, “SOMEONE” (2019), viewers take on the role of a human intelligence device, similar to Amazon’s home automation technology, “Alexa.” Four laptops have been placed on a square wooden table. Pink dividers separate each station giving the whole the feeling of a communal workplace (think WeWork or The Wing).  The suggestion of privacy here is ironic, considering that each viewer is surveying one of four remote participants’ homes installed with cameras and mics via a command center in the gallery. Functioning as a smart home, the “at home” participants may call “someone” to request a task be completed. The visitor may respond to these requests, such as resetting things like lighting, temperature, kitchen devices, and even selecting mood music.

Lauren McCarthy, “SOMEONE,” (2019) performance and installation with custom furniture, software, and electronics in Refiguring the Future, Hunter College Art Galleries, 2019. (photo by Stan Narten and courtesy the artist)

The work’s reference to Amazon is timely, considering their recent decision to cancel plans to move their second headquarters to Long Island City. The original proposal faced great protest, due to HQ2 (as it was named) threatening to push out the already limited affordable housing and the resources supporting working-class residents in the area. Amazon has already adversely affected the personal lives of many Americans in cities like Seattle, where they applied economic pressure that ultimately forced out less affluent residents and welcomed wealthier people in their places. McCarthy’s work can be understood not only as a direct response to the desensitizing effects of technology, but also to the dehumanizing attitudes of big tech companies at large. She touches upon the very real desire for human connection in an increasingly disconnected world.  “SOMEONE” poses the possibility of a human-driven interface between person and device that seems absent from reality today.

Other artists in the show focus on religious, spiritual, and mythological figures as a means of projecting the body into the space of the future. In the installation “She Who Sees the Unknown: The Laughing Snake” (2018), artist Morehshin Allahyari tells the story of the Laughing Snake, a mythological and monstrous figure found in the Book of Wonders. The Arabic manuscript details an account of a woman who goes on a murder spree and takes over a city. She reaches her demise only when she sees her own reflection in a mirror — causing her to laugh so hard that she dies.

Morehshin Allahyari, “She Who Sees the Unknown: The Laughing Snake,” (2018) 3D-printed sculpture, touchscreen with hypertext narrative, mirrors, and sound; installed in Refiguring the Future , Hunter College Art Galleries, 2019 (photo by Stan Narten and courtesy Upfor Gallery, Portland, Oregon and the artist)

In her installation, Allahyari suspends a 3D sculpture of the Laughing Snake housed in the center of a hall of mirrors. When moving through the space, visitors are confronted with reflections and refractions of both the Laughing Snake and themselves. The work is also accompanied by a net art piece which connects the myth to a semi-fictionalized poetic retelling of the artist’s adolescence in Tehran, Iran. In these poetic vignettes, images of the Laughing Snake crawl through and over words recounting the artist’s early experiences with sexuality and self-discovery. In one scene, Allahyari describes an experience in which a man sitting next to her on a bus begins rubbing his elbow into her breast. This is an all too familiar scene for any woman who has ever felt unsafe in a public place. Viscerally articulating the feeling of being outside of her own body, she prevails by sticking a pin into the man’s leg until he bleeds and actually disappears. Allahyari interestingly writes this passage in the future tense with the phrase “I will” appearing in almost every line. It reads, however, with what seems to be a painful longing to go back in time and protect her younger self with her present knowledge. The snake figure weaves in and out of this story and others, as Allahyari channels its fearsome energy to confront the oppression she experienced as a young girl.

Morehshin Allahyari, “She Who Sees the Unknown: The Laughing Snake,” (2018) 3D-printed sculpture, touchscreen with hypertext narrative, mirrors, and sound; installed in Refiguring the Future , Hunter College Art Galleries, 2019 (photo by Stan Narten and courtesy Upfor Gallery, Portland, Oregon and the artist)

Allahyari’s ongoing series, She Who Sees the Unknown, builds an army of monstrous jinn (Arabic for genie) figures from Arabic and Persian mythologies which are refigured and used to resist contemporary injustices. By appropriating figures from her own cultural heritage, Western Asia figures and dynamic female bodies, she offers an alternative to the archetype of the westernized cyborg of Hollywood science fiction which is largely dominated by white males.

Refiguring the Future is a unique exhibition, ushering in new and surprising ideas about the relationship between humans and technology. It illuminates the inextricable connection of the body to technology in some unexpected spheres like gentrification, spirituality, and gender. The show offers a diverse lineup of intergenerational and transnational artists — a refreshing arrangement considering the generational and racial divides that continue to plague contemporary feminism and social activism. Artist Mary Maggic references second- and third-wave feminist histories in their video, Housewives Making Drugs (2017), a comical, but poignant commentary on transgender and non-binary-identifying people’s access to estrogen. The work evokes Martha Stewart and Martha Rosler in a TV show kitchen set where two femme hosts create homemade “do it yourself” hormones.

Mary Maggic, Housewives Making Drugs, 2017. Vinyl installation and video, 10 min. 12 sec., sound. Courtesy of the artist. Installed in Refiguring the Future, Hunter College Art Galleries, 2019. Photo by Stan Narten

These are just some of many works that reclaim the very technology from which queer and disabled communities and people of color are often excluded. Through interdisciplinary methods, they re-establish autonomy and representation in the spheres that continue to exclude them, such as Silicon Valley, Big Pharma, and Hollywood. While the works grapple with some complex and serious issues, I left the gallery feeling empowered. The exhibition presents a fresh and nuanced perspective on the longstanding binary between body and machine – suggesting a new kind of humanism for the post-human age.

Refiguring the Future organized by Eyebeam and REFRESH in collaboration with the Hunter College Art Galleries, continues at 205 Hudson Gallery (205 Hudson Street, Tribeca, Manhattan) through March 31. It was curated by Heather Dewey-Hagborg and Dorothy R. Santos.

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