TECHNE, ART and BEYOND
What is the first thing that comes to your mind when you hear the word “automation”? Robotic assembly lines? Industrialization? The overtaking of the human race by intelligent machines? Depending on the degree of enthusiasm or pessimism that one is willing to invest in the interpretation of this notion, the connection between humans and machines results in either the emancipation of mankind or in its extinction. However, one thing remains the same: the fact that we no longer tend to think only about the economic and physical aspects of automation. Instead, we are beginning to actively consider how the human/machine interaction affects cultural development as well as the social order.
This comes as a big step forward from the past, when people’s attitudes towards technological objects were measured on an instrumental or user/tool scale. Nowadays, we start recognizing machines as complex mechanisms that enable us to function more like them instead of the other way around. Multiple developments in the field of automation throughout the twentieth century ensured a better productivity, quality control and reliability of labor while gradually diminishing the need for manpower. The rise of the internet and digital technology use has eventually sealed the complex relationship between human and machine.
What we used to call simple “tools” present more appeal to users as they incorporate fresh possibilities beyond our ephemeral bodies and minds. We now call machines intuitive because they can be programmed to anticipate our needs and desires. This humanizes them in a way that was not imagined before. Kunsthalle Wien looks at this potential in an exhibition titled The Promise of Total Automation. It chronicles different layers in the dialogue between organism and machine, both on the technological and artistic level.
Five historical inventions function as points of reference in the chronicle of automation and in the exhibition: a Jacquard-loom, an arithmometer, a Morse code apparatus, a cybernetic model from 1956 and an early portable computer. Mixed with contemporary works from over 30 international artists, these objects serve as friendly reminders rather than nostalgia machines. Beyond their importance as markers of progress, they show that technology is omnipresent in our everyday lives.
Visual markers are extremely important in this process of reflecting on our relationship with technology. This is why the exhibition emphasizes works which explore the aesthetic qualities of scientific objects. Sometimes, such items translate deeply personal or reflective attitudes on the part of artists. Take for instance Nick Laessing, whose replications of processes and scientific objects – although strikingly retro-aesthetic – speak optimistically about the potential of different technologies.
Other reactions invite a more activist stance, as in the case of New York-based artist Tyler Coburn. His works investigate meaningful historical tensions and methods of resistance against technological advancement. At the more radical end of this spectrum, artists such as Canadian Melanie Gilligan take a dystopian approach to the human/machine dialogue. She examines a fictional, “new design for the human being” that goes sideways instead of enhancing human capabilities. In a world defined by digitalization and interdisciplinarity, such artists push for a reconsideration of attitudes and reactions to technological progress.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the exhibition is its focus on the subjective qualities which we now attribute to objects. Curator Anne Faucheret states that she trusts the items displayed in the big hall. She prefers to let visitors imagine their own narratives of the “promise” of automation rather than guide them through the artworks. Above everything, this humanizing quality is omnipresent in the exhibition, from a piece of furniture by Julien Prévieux that teaches itself how to play Noughts and Crosses to the organic sculptures produced by a machine and exhibited by artist Judith Fegerl. As British artist Steven Claydon explains, such works “operate as interfaces between the hidden realm of an object and the narrative, anthropological realm of Man.”
Beyond giving an individual voice to objects, The Promise of Total Automation operates on a much larger, synesthetic level. Animate and inanimate organisms are thus allowed to fully reveal their dialogical potential, going beyond organic, ethical and hierarchical realms. This expansive feature is especially striking in the works of artists such as Daria Martin, who follows machines from an Artificial Intelligence lab in a physical and emotional study of human behavior.
The diversity of critical positions in the exhibition hosted by Kunsthalle points to the inexhaustive potential of the artistic realm. Why should art mediate our perception on technology? Because it provides entry points into technological concepts through a myriad of aesthetic narratives. It therefore has the potential to allow a deeper understanding of the changes suggested by restrictive terms such as “technophilia” and “technophobia”. It also has the ability to provoke questions about how reality and subjectivity are experienced and understood. As such, it incorporates and constantly modifies the intersecting realms of reality, representation and subjectivity.
Exhibition is on till May 29.
Interviews with Artists: