Ghosts in the Machine at the New Museum, New York

by Stavros Pavlides, September 2012

The anthropomorphic robot is obsolete. What was once the mascot of technological evolution has become a signifier of speculative antiquity. Today, our tech fears have become disembodied things, nebulous clusters of data as legion as they are anonymous. In light of this, the New Museum of Contemporary Art’s exhibition Ghosts in the Machine constitutes a valuable retelling of the “prehistory of the digital age.” The exhibition reexamines the ways in which artists have interpreted our relationship to machines and technology, tracing the evolution from psychic robot (“influencing machine”) to digital non-corporeality.

Offering an examination of “the dreams and nightmares of machines/humans,” the show, with a few exceptions, largely eschews work from the past decade in favor of a decidedly historical treatment. And while the featured art often permitted multiple interpretations, it was usually defined by a single dominant trait. Therefore, I have separated the pieces into three main categories: work defined by minimalism and symmetry, work concerned with “machine aesthetics” and work that examines our symbiosis with machines.

The vast majority of the paintings on display were minimalist, abstract paintings. Given that most of them herald from the Op Art aesthetic camp, this should come as no surprise. Bridget Riley’s Movement in Circles is a black and white painting of small black circles that converge and collapse on the golden ratio of the canvas, creating a sense of three-dimensional warping. Vasarely’s similar black and white paintings employ minute, logarithmic variations in line and space much to the same effect. Similarly, Otto Piene’s sculptures stack rotating spheres of chrome one atop the other, emitting small pinpoints of light into the surrounding environment. Minimalism, symmetry and simplicity therefore constitute mechanical attributes. If nature and the “organic,” as the antitheses of the mechanical, host a complexity of information that is inimitably asymmetrical, the design and specification of any human object necessitates simplification, and machines represent the logical conclusion therein. Minimalism could also arguably be seen as the aesthetic descendent of binary code and the simple pattern-combinations of electric circuits.

This visual expression of binary code and technology is taken to its extreme in the Nouvelle Tendance movement, samples of which were on display, which celebrates the rhetoric of technology over self-expression, exalting the pristine contours of geometric shapes over the evocative swath of the brushstroke. The exhibition included some of the earliest computer generated “artworks,” such as the color graphs and geometry of George Nees and David Gamison, as well as the font prints of Marc Adrian, where type is arranged graphically on paper in an aesthetic way, prophesizing the future impact of letter design in everything digital. The importance of these works is that, by embracing and pushing the visual reaches of technology wholeheartedly, these artists have contributed to the expansion of our visual vocabulary, a trend that has only grown stronger today.

Nevertheless, the most dominant undercurrent of the show by far was the examination of our relationship to machines. Critiques on the role of technology ran from the hopeful to alarmist tech-demagoguery portending the end of man. Richard Hamilton’s Man, Machine, and Motion, for example, consisted of a large installation of archival photographs documenting advancements in the technology of transportation. Boats, airplanes, rockets, hot air balloons and cars are all gloriously juxtaposed with images of Olympic athletes and proud adventurers. Hamilton, whose work largely inspired the show’s conception, is hopeful in his celebration of technology as advancement of man’s reach and ability. This dream, however, can just as easily devolve into nightmare, and pieces like the powerful recreation of a torture machine from Kafka’s The Penal Colony, depict machine domination in its most sadistic, horrific and dystopian form. Paul Sharil’s Seizure Comparison video also strives, unsuccessfully, to emulate the experience of a technologically induced epileptic seizure.

Other artworks, such as the fetishistic paintings of Konrad Klapheck, the sexually exploitive photographs of provocateur J.G. Ballard and the overtly libidinous video of Mark Lerkey marry our most biological of functions to circuits and steel, sometimes as master and sometimes as slave.

Experimental workshop Jikken Kobo deserves special mention in my opinion, for their commissioned bicycle video Ginoin. The video featured a sweeping, lush string-instrument soundtrack, dipping and undulating like the country hills it echoes, set against footage of the bike and a ride through the country, seen through color filters, distortion and other visual effects. This strongly evokes the sense of a serene, summertime bicycle ride. The fact that this enjoyment of nature is transplanted into the technological realm through visual effects is ingenious. It attributes to technology, and specifically the bicycle, some of nature’s noblest characteristics, and instills the spokes and wheels with dreams.

The value of Ghosts in The Machine is the value of history itself; by showing the history of technologically minded art, it succeeds in tracing the evolutionary patterns in art. This provides an important lesson, both in assessing current technologies and aesthetics, and in predicting future ones as well. We are given the gift of reminiscence and prescience simultaneously.

Ghosts in the Machine
18 July–30 September, 2012
New Museum
New York