Interviews

Love and Craftsmanship in the Relationship Between Machines and Humanity

A conversation with the artist Elias Sime, whose work interrogating our bond with electronic media is now on view at the Wellin Museum.

Installation view of the exhibition Elias Sime: Tightrope at the Wellin Museum of Art (photo by John Bentham, courtesy the Wellin Museum of Art at Hamilton College)

Tracy Adler is telling us that, “… this is why you need to experience the work in person.” Adler is the director of the Wellin Museum, and she is talking about the work of Ethiopian artist Elias Sime to a small clutch of writers, including me, who have come up to Clinton, New York, to see a survey of his work that she has curated. It’s true. One does need to see this work in person — in order to get the full impact of it. From across a wide open gallery expanse the assemblages (let’s call them that for now) look like elegant modernist compositions of vibrant pigments that tend to resolve to discrete fields of one dominant color. But then crossing that space and regarding them at a finer resolution, one notices that they are stubbly, variegated surfaces containing intricate and convoluted arrays of wires, buttons, keyboards, circuitry, or yarn. They tend to be divided into rectangular quadrants that fit together in a grid — we find out from speaking with Sime and his working partner, curator, and anthropologist Meskerem Assegued — which make the work easier to both transport and store. As Sime tells us (in his native Amharic, with Assegued translating to English), sometimes it takes years to make a piece because upon initially finding a few strands of wire coated with plastic of a particular hue, he has to hunt and and look for more, in marketplaces, at auctions, in order to find that color in enough quantity to become part of a large composition.

Elias Sime, “Tightrope 8” (2009-2014) reclaimed electronic components on panel, 44 1/16 x 70 13/16 in; private collection, New York (© Elias Sime; photograph by Adam Reich Photography)

His tendency to incorporate discarded technology has led to art critics (me as well) talking about his work in terms of recycling waste. Assegued firmly puts that idea to rest: “It has nothing to do with recycling … In fact, from the get-go we have been insisting that this is not recycled work.” She should know. With Sime, she has founded and designed the ZOMA Museum which opened earlier this year in Addis Ababa. ZOMA is the only contemporary art museum in the capital. Having been fascinated by these sculptural pictures since I first saw them at James Cohan gallery years ago, I wanted to followup my writing on Sime’s work with a conversation with him on this occasion of his first mid-career survey. Assegued also translated my questions to Sime and his answers to me. Having heard Assegued’s answer on how this work has to do with repurposing electronic waste, and having said that it’s about humans’ relation to technology I began my questioning there.

Elias Sime (photo credit: Brett Moen Courtesy of the artist and James Cohan, New York)

Hyperallergic: We’ve been discussing how your work is not about recycling. It is about telling a story about the kind of close relationship between humans and the electronic, the digital. So what is that relationship?

Elias Sime: There is a very tight relationship between humans and the machine. Sometimes it worries me. It becomes so much a part of us that we can’t even disconnect from it. It actually takes us from being human, connects us to becoming selfish, to exemplifying selfishness. Because we talk just with the machine the entire conversation, with the machine. If you don’t talk to people face to face, you won’t understand complex issues, complex personalities, love, relationships. You don’t because it gives you the information, you accept what it gives you. It’s a one-way conversation.

H: You mean the conversation between you and the machine?

ES: In the past you had to add three plus three in order to get six. Your mind calculates that. Now you don’t do that anymore. You don’t use your brain to sort out that problem. It gives you the answer. How could you go the next [level of] thinking? How could you become creative? It takes you away from human relationships; your relationship is with the machine. As long as you’re touching, looking, feeling when you look at another person’s eyes, it takes that away from you. You become the robot. I’m not trying to oppose technology, [but] we have to stop and think.

Elias Sime. “Tightrope: Noiseless 2” (2019) reclaimed electrical wires and components on panel, 101 x 158 in. (courtesy of the artist and James Cohan, New York; © Elias Sime; Photograph by Christopher Burke Studios)

H: Two questions on that topic. One is, given that you have reservations about our relationship with electronic media, with our devices, with the digital world, why is it that your work is so beautiful and one might say, hopeful? There is very little I can see in the work that has that sense of dread, or that sense of something is wrong here, that sense of, you have doubts about what our relationships to our machines are doing to us.

ES: Yes, you’re right. There’s a saying, water takes you as it makes you laugh. How do you say it? There is a saying that, flood can take you into danger; as well, it makes you laugh at first. When you’re playing [in the] flood, you think it’s fun. You’re just enjoying the water, but it can take you too. It looks like it’s something you can play with, you can have fun with, but it is also like a flood. It will take you away.

If you make [the work] beautiful enough so it doesn’t scare people, it doesn’t take you away, but it draws you to it. You ask questions, that same question you just asked. But if I give you that worry, you won’t see it. When you scream, only half of the people understand. But if you show [the idea] with love, there is a possibility that people stop and think — if you show them its beauty. Because love can change you. So what we need to learn is how to give love, even with the art. The artwork doesn’t scare you, doesn’t shock you, but it poses questions, without disturbing you. That’s how I see it.

Elias Sime, “Tightrope: Whirlwind,” (2017) reclaimed electronic components on panel, 109 3/4 x 142 ½ in. (© Elias Sime; image courtesy the artist; photograph by Christopher Burke Studios)

H: Okay. The second question I want to ask is [about] this conversation in the art scene in the last 10, 15 years about the cyborg — essentially the combination, the interface of machine and human. Several artists have used the work of theorists like Donna Haraway to talk about this figure of the cyborg in very positive ways. The idea is that humans moving towards melding with machines is essentially a good thing, a net positive, because we will gain capabilities that we don’t have now.

ES: Just think about this one, what you just said. [It’s] possible that it may make life easier, but you yourself [are] lost into that. This is why we’re here. That’s why you’re here, because it’s a challenging world. Yeah, it makes life easy for you, [but] think about how long you have to live. You can count how many years you can live. It may decrease some of the fight you have within the short span of life, but it’s at the exchange of you as a human being.

I think that’s why we need to scream about this. If you don’t give love to your child, can you receive love from your child? It’s not possible if the machine is interfering. When you give him a machine, the child has the capacity to become the machine. Because it takes what you give him. If you sit him over there and give him the machine to play with, that’s a heartbeat he is familiar [with]. He will find the heart of the computer. So we scream about this.

H: So in the work moving forward, thinking about what you want to say about the possibility of humans interfacing with machines, how that is essentially dangerous, do you imagine your work changing in the near future, in terms of the strategy that you’re using ? Can you imagine it taking a darker turn?

ES: I don’t think you’ll ever find anything dark in my [work] dark in negative terms. Whenever you say something, whenever you present something negative, a lot of people will hear it because it’s power. It’s hard to make change when you are presenting work that’s negative. You can probably get hundreds of people to look at it quickly, but … sustainability is hard. You can’t sustain that. People can listen to you when you slow down, and talk to them with love. That’s emotional, it takes a lot of emotion. But this impact that you have by throwing an angry voice: You can have hundreds and hundreds of people to look because there is an anger to it. It’s high emotion. And the changes are temporary. But you can slowly change.

Installation view of the exhibition Elias Sime: Tightrope at the Wellin Museum of Art (photo by John Bentham, courtesy the Wellin Museum of Art at Hamilton College)

H: So just on that, do you think that people get that sense of love in your work from seeing the detail and the craftsmanship? Because all these pieces take an incredibly long time to make. Do you think that people get a sense of, at least a sense of devotion from the work?

ES: Yes, I really think that they would. Because they think about the wire and the detail of the stitches, and all the weaving and everything. When you see it it humbles you. I try not to make it messy. I made it with lots of love. If you want change, that’s what changes people.

Elias Sime: Tightrope continues at the Wellin Museum (on the campus of Hamilton College, 198 College Hill Road, Clinton, New York) through December 8.

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