Setting the Trap
MoMA’s New Order: Art and Technology in the Twenty-First Century
By Louis Block
In a conversation with Paul Virilio, photographer Jacques-Henri Lartigue describes his childhood “trap for vision” as the following:
“When I half-closed my eyes, there remained only a narrow slot through which I regarded intensely what I wanted to see. Then I turned around three times and thought, by doing so, I’d caught—trapped—what I was looking at, so as to be able to keep indefinitely not only what I had seen, but also the colors, the noises.”
Artists are quick to associate early memories with a discovery of the effects of lenses and shutters, whether natural or prosthetic. That which distorts and filters—the unelected arbiter of the senses—seems a natural subject of fascination for the aesthetically inclined. Lartigue’s statement provokes a different course of thought for Virilio, though, who remarks that the photographer has “assimilated his own body to the camera.” Virilio is interested in the “luminous chaos” that stems from the conception of one’s own body as a fine-tuned machine.
To suggest that artists lay traps for their subjects at first seems rooted in descriptive work: draughtsmen train their hand-eye coordination to assimilate the scene before them, sculptors measure volume with calipers, and photographers tinker with their devices to obtain perfect exposures. If we imagine the artist’s conscious work as the construction of a matrix to contain a subject, rather than an envisioning of the subject itself, an expanding field emerges. Virilio’s “luminous chaos” becomes less optical miasma, and more calculated composition. When artists turn their focus to the structures that create certain phenomena, the artworks often take the form of a set of conditions, rather than a single end product. That those conditions look radically different from previous iterations—and seem to be mutating with exponential speed—speaks less to a crisis of form in the art world and more to the ever-accelerating technological developments of this century.
I found it helpful, in visiting MoMA’s New Order exhibition, to consider these parameters in relation to the divergent works presented. The exhibition, which consists of a selection of relatively recent acquisitions to the museum’s collection, is framed by curators Michelle Kuo and Lina Kavaliunas as an exploration of artists’ use and misuse of “tools and forms.” A fundamental tenet of the exhibition is that its artists investigate the space between technology’s seamless, invisible integration into modern life and the way that it is “still stubbornly tied to the physical world.” The assumption that technology should not be dependent upon the laws of the physical world is evidence of the privileged space reserved for human sensory experience in our current hierarchy of truth. Nevertheless, this framework proves successful: the artists surveyed do probe the liminal space that exists between the conception of new technology and its execution—an awkward space of misregistration and stutters. For these artists, what lies beneath technology’s sheen is messy: a knot that consumes desire and necessity and spits out something unfinished and uncanny.
The exhibition opens with a personality test. Josh Kline’s Skittles (2014) is comprised of different bottled smoothies in a refrigerator, each labeled with their constituent parts. The ingredient lists range from the organic to the theoretical. (How can minimum wage be an ingredient?) One pinkish bottle contains “big data, google glass, underwear, verizon bill, bacteria, omega-3 fish oil, purell, porn.” The conceit here—that consumption is not limited to caloric intake—is fueled by its viewers’ Instagram-thirst: these ironic smoothies become a horoscope-cum-census for the show’s crowds, viewers identifying the drinks representative of their vices and dependences. The appeal of the bottled concoctions does not lie in any gustatory or olfactory experience (their contents are either faked or toxic) but rather in their sleek marketing. Kline’s presentation of contemporary anxieties in familiar packaging—complete with handsome sans serif—exploits the viewer’s freedom of choice: why stop to consider whether you’re hungry when the menu is so appealing?
For Virilio movement is a series of collisions, which he describes as “traumatisms, some taking on the quality of slow but perceptible caresses.” Change as a series of wounds seems to be a symptom of entropic acceleration, but also begs the question: Who or what is inflicting these wounds? In which system are we ensnared? New Order’s artists offer a variety of answers, with varying levels of didacticism. Harun Farocki’s Eye/Machine 1 (2001) presents war footage and surveillance scenes—their resolution and form corresponding to different violent tasks. These images present motion as inherently destructive—but as a whole, the film is more concerned with vision itself. In this techno-voyeurism, we are afforded a view into images never meant for human consumption. This is data optimized for machines, not us. In humanity’s ever-increasing image bank, a growing percentage of content is created and consumed by computers. Soon—if not already—this portion will eclipse human production, and strings of code will become the most prolific authors of aesthetic experience. It is imperative that artists concern themselves with who writes this code. In the near future, sensory experience will be something to be infiltrated, just another casualty of progress.
Trevor Paglen’s It Began as a Military Experiment (2017) reveals the construction of a face-recognition algorithm. In portraits sourced from a database of military employees, superimposed diagrams are visible, marking the particular characteristics of an individual—dimples, the curve of their lips, the wrinkles in their eyelids. It is unnerving to imagine one’s own visual essence as a series of mathematically understood patterns, yet facial recognition is already widely implemented in smartphones. What nudges the viewer out of complacency is Paglen’s laying bare of the mechanism: unlocking an iPhone with facial recognition is second-nature by now, but staring at the process of the technology is arresting—individuality morphs into typology.
“Nice to meet you. We’re the second version of ourselves that we know of,” intones Sondra Perry’s avatar from her Graft and Ash for a Three Monitor Workstation (2016). On exercise machines, viewers watch a rough rendering of Perry’s likeness deliver information about its creation and limitations. Though the avatar is imperfect, it is also constantly morphing, able to evolve at an exponentially quicker rate than the human viewer in the faux exercise machine. Perry has said in an interview that blackness is a “space that moves and shifts constantly.” Blackness is also connected to technology in this country through the history of slave labor: “We were machinery. We were chattel. We were production spaces.” Against shifting backgrounds of rendered skin texture and Chroma Key Blue, Perry’s avatar asks: “How does your body feel inside of us?” Perry (+ avatar) claim this liminal space completely, its presentation demanding viewers experience it on its own awkward terms. Only by squeezing into one of Perry’s exercise machines can one view each screen from the correct angle. These pieces remind us that in most settings, both corporate and public, the human body is forced to conform to rigid boundaries; that which squishes and contorts itself is a marker of individuality. We exist despite these machines, Perry’s installation seems to affirm. The limiting factors described by technology do not match all our voids and overflows. For now, these machines fail to contain us.
Alfred Gell, in his 1996 essay exploring the parallels between contemporary art and animal traps, remarks that traps form models of both their creators and their victims. While a trap subverts “the outward form” or “parameters of the animal’s behavior,” it also holds the hunter’s knowledge “in objectified form.” This knowledge survives “even the death of the hunter himself.” Well-constructed traps can be considered “texts on animal behavior” as they convey “a nexus of intentionalities … via material forms and mechanisms.” New Order’s artists do not always have obvious victims in mind for their schemes, but this “nexus of intentionalities” seems consistently relevant. Thomas Ruff’s phg.06 (2012) appears as a large-scale photogram, but is actually a digitally constructed photograph mimicking the shadows of spherical objects placed on photographic paper. Evidence itself is the subject of Ruff’s image: it is unsettling that a supercomputer is capable of rendering an abstract image in such a believably analog manner, especially in the age of “deepfake” technology.
That machines are increasingly capable of tricking our human sensory input is cause for dramatic concern—and opens a vast territory for artists to explore. Mark Leckey’s Made in ‘Eaven (2004) is a deeply weird fly-over/examination of Jeff Koons’s 1986 Rabbit sculpture, which recently sold at Christies for over $90 million. In the looping reflections on the sculpture, projected from 16mm film, no camera is visible. Again, our search for truth in an analog medium is subverted, this time through digital transfer onto film. The viewer’s expectation of encountering a mark of the artist’s hand in these works draws them in just close enough to uncover the artists’ ruses.
The most viscerally engaging pieces in the show are also the most difficult to define. Louise Bourgeois’s holograms are absorbing dream sequences that verge on nightmares. Camille Henrot’s tar covered objects present a future archeology of technology, where consumer items become fossilized remains that blend with the wisps of dust accumulating from the gallery’s visitors. Perhaps the most terrifying piece in the show, Anicka Yi’s Shameplex (2015) leaves metal needles to rust and fester in baths of ultrasonic gel, a durational project where synthetic materials conjure biological horror. Why do we recoil at such an alien sight? Yi employs her materials to probe viewers’ subconscious disgust mechanisms.
Though it is afforded precious little wall space, Jacolby Satterwhite’s Country Ball 1989–2012 (2012) offers a refreshingly optimistic use of technology. Fusing 3D renderings of his mother’s drawings with constructed landscapes and live action-captured dance, Satterwhite envisions technology as a tool that enables new universes to emerge—landscapes free of physical restrictions. Satterwhite has mentioned the influence of Hieronymous Bosch on his work; both artists share a kaleidoscopic, uncompromising vision of humanity’s scope. In a way, Satterwhite queers technology to construct alternate universes. I am reminded of Meyer Schapiro’s analysis of Robert Campin’s Mérode Altarpiece. In the strange addition of Joseph to an Annunciation triptych, Schapiro finds a precursor to Bosch’s elaboration of the grotesquery of Gothic marginalia. Joseph, building a mousetrap, an “automatic mechanism … to catch the devil and overcome the passions” presages Bosch’s combination of the “diabolical, the ingenious, and the sinfully erotic.” The trap here reflects Joseph’s skills as a carpenter and role as Mary’s husband, as well as the mouse’s “concentrated diabolic and erotic meaning.” Satterwhite approaches technology with a refreshing playfulness and conviction. Unlike Joseph’s mousetrap, Satterwhite’s constructions make no attempt to contain erotic energy—rather, they propel it forward into another dimension. If Sondra Perry’s work is a poem on technology’s constrictions, then Satterwhite’s Country Ball is an anthem exploiting its potential for release.
Virilio’s “luminous chaos” is most visible in Ian Cheng’s Emissary Forks at Perfection (2015–2016), a visual simulation that plays out on a wall-sized screen. Through machine learning, Cheng’s characters—a human cadaver and a pack of dogs—play out different scenarios each time the program loops. The camera follows their uneasy motions, each glitch in the program magnified by its spontaneity. Eventually, the camera gets stuck in a boulder, the screen dissolving into a strobe of blue and gray trapezoids. Cheng’s program has been set in motion—its wall label lists the runtime as “infinite duration.” Soon, digital simulations will close in on perfection. With increased processing power and resolution, as well as advancements in machine learning, simulations will become so infinitesimally close to reality that we won’t be able to tell the difference. For now, their sharp edges and stutters pull us out of the reverie—we escape their confines.
Out the window, just behind Cheng’s screen, steam is being vented from a street level ConEd stack. Museumgoers stare, silhouetted against the glass, as the white plumes billow into the sky. Scaffolding lines the street, a promise of gleaming new construction to come. A few visitors remain at the window, enraptured by the steam, its tangibility and dimensionality—holding together just long enough to catch us for a moment.
1 Paul Virilio, The Aesthetics of Disappearance (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2009) 21.
2 Virilio, 22.
3 Virilio, 112.
4 Sondra Perry, “Adrift in the chroma key blues: A chat with Sondra Perry on black radicality + things that are yet to happen in Typhoon coming on,” interview by Tamar Clarke-Brown, AQNB, May 1, 2018. https://www.aqnb.com/2018/05/01/adrift-in-the-chroma-key-blues-a-chat-with-sondra-perry-on-black-radicality-things-that-are-yet-to-happen-in-typhoon-coming-on/
5 Alfred Gell, “Traps as Artworks and Artworks as Traps,” Journal of Material Culture, Vol. 1 (1996): 27–29.
6 Meyer Schapiro, “‘Muscipula Diaboli,’ The Symbolism of the Mérode Altarpiece,” The Art Bulletin, Vol. 27, No. 3 (September 1945), 186–187.
Louis Block is a painter based in Brooklyn.