The Body Electric, an exhibit at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts through January 2020, is striking in its high-tech/high-touch duality.
Contemporary artists work with the mediums and tools of the times: screens, video, film, photos, digital and analog devices, 3-D fabricators, artificial textiles or synthetic materials, VR, AI, and more. Even so, paint, clay, glass and other traditional materials are not replaced as much as combined with screens and projections resulting from input from GPS, RFID, data-mining algorithms, collaborative filters, genomics, biometrics, coding, and other intangible but real techie constructs.
The abstract entry points and often boxy materials used by more than 45 artists in over 70 works find deepest human expression in multimedia installations that weave new technology with old-fashioned principles of painting, print-making, design or sculpture. Introducing sound or scent — a hacked fog machine hisses and emits testosterone-inhibiting herbal mist — or inviting live, tactile interactions — visitors can climb on an exercise bike and ride in one of the works — the art is kinesthetic, visceral. What in an office is Silicon Valley-style ephemera scales up in interactive works addressing gender, sexuality, race, and class.
A walk through the exhibit originally organized by the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and curated by Pavel Pyś with Jadine Collingwood, makes its strongest impression with images that include faces, something touched or encountered daily by practically every person and able to convey strong emotion. The eyes of a man embracing a second man shown only from behind, burn out at a viewer as if calling for help in Ed Atkins’ Happy Birthday!!. The disembodied cool of an avatar forces see/be seen contemplation due to reflective orbs replacing the eyes in Sidsel Meineche Hansen’s DICKGIRL 3D(X). Harsh lines and numbers drawn on a woman’s fashion-style photo indicate cosmetic corrections and read as judgmental graffiti or critical tattoos in Lynn Hershman Leeson’s Roberta Construction Chart.
While The Body Electric earns well-deserved attention for presenting work by artists of color and women — people often overlooked or downplayed in technology and art history — the complexity of mounting a high-tech exhibit begs questions: How tough is it? Did The Body Electric require YBCA to add special servers, boost electrical supplies? Is it curated to avoid the dreaded “dead zones” that plague wifi reception in urban settings?
Curator of Exhibitions Susie Kantor provided an unexpected response in an email: “We didn’t actually build much in terms of the tech aspects. The Walker sent all of the equipment with the exhibition — projectors, speakers, monitors, etc. We did build walls, but that is pretty typical for any exhibition.”
Of course, the technology used by the artists is often incorporated into the work, like a TV arriving already encased in concrete. Adding a layer of drywall over an existing wall in the Glass Passageway to insert 96 DVDs in Anicka Yi’s Nuit de Cellophane, was simple; hoisting and attaching the “incredibly large screen” for Marianna Simnett’s The Needle and the Larynx, took the entire installation crew and was more complex, Kantor said.
Artist Zach Blas’s Icosahedron, a crystal ball with an embedded, elf-like AI avatar that predicts the future, was inspired by the Magic 8-Ball fortune-telling toy. Trained with a simple chatbot to speak like a sci-fi avatar — software imitates the 8-ball toy’s 20-sided die — it is not a marvel of engineering, Blas said in a phone interview from his London home. “We built it from scratch, but there are plenty of references to rely on,” he said. “The point isn’t to wow people by having created a chatbot. My interest is more philosophical and political.”
Even so, it took a team of 15 people to code the textual AI platform, network it so that visitors can interact with the elf, reduce complex speech and text into 5-second digital snippets that feel like natural, live conversations, and translate the gaming and computer graphic expertise into something visual and aesthetically compelling. Animating the mouth to pronounce consonants and vowels is just one example of the project’s time-consuming activities. “The engineering is always harder than expected,” Blas said. “You have to double the amount of time you first think a project will take.”
Installed in the Anteroom at YBCA with works from the 1960s and 1970s, when artists first started to use television as both a medium and a subject, visitors can text with Icosahedron. For Blas, who identifies first as a filmmaker, the artwork is most interesting because of the stories it tells and how it reflects multigenerational fascination with predictions. “I thought the eight ball was magical as a kid. I grew up in rural West Virginia and I remember asking it if it would snow and I wouldn’t have to go to school.”
Blas is a Lecturer in the Department of Visual Cultures at Goldsmiths, University of London. Asked to compare people in Silicon Valley with how his students respond to predictive technology like that used in facial recognition, location surveillance, and biometric predictive policing, he said, “Here in London, students are much more immediately critical of thinking that a technology might be truthful, that we’d believe that a biometric scan of your face is truthful about your face. In Silicon Valley, people drink the Kool-Aid.”
He cited an example, a new project he is working on involving nootropics, smart drugs that Silicon Valley is interested in because they allegedly improve people’s memory and cognitive functions. “A common promotional phrase you hear from companies developing or exploring nootropics is, ‘This is Nathan Blake. He lives in San Francisco and plans to live forever.’ I lived in California long enough to know that’s not an ironic statement. There’s a belief in technology. Think about it, why does Silicon Valley have interest in fantasy, magic and mysticism? Why do companies name themselves after wizards, oracles, crystal balls? Those names give you a picture of something that is incontestable. Predicting is about controlling the message.”
If that is true, The Body Electric prediction is clear: Biometric messages are not set in stone, but malleable, and governments or anyone attempting to kill the Internet or control storytelling are sure to fail, as long as there are artists pushing technology to new frontiers.