Portrait of the Robot As a Young Man

07/25/2012 4:00 AM |

“Ghosts in the Machine”, the current exhibition filling up three floors of the New Museum (through September 30), attempts to tell the history of mankind’s changing relationship with technology through a snapshot. Though it deals with a theme that stretches from the Industrial Revolution to the present—the threat and promise of man’s replacement, augmentation, or destruction by machines—it tells its story almost exclusively through artworks and cultural artifacts created between 1950 and 1975, seeking to provide a kind of in-depth, lateral catalog of possible reactions to the machine at a single point in time. It is at times disjointed and at times indulgent; taken as a whole, however, it paints a portrait of cybernetic thought at the point of its first full maturity.

Most of the art from before 1950 is the work of “outsider artists,” clustered in a room, on the second floor, devoted largely to terror and insanity. In a series of works made by various schizophrenics, humans are shown to be encased in wires, tortured by invisible rays, or connected by radio transmissions. A string of delusions play out the possible relations between human and machine in exhaustive permutations: there is the human-as-machine, as in the child mental patient referred to only as “Joey the Mechanical Boy”; machine-as-weapon, as in the horrific “air loom” that appears in the early 19th-century thoughts of James Tilly Matthews and torments him with magnetic rays; and benevolent cybernetics, as in the community imagined by Robert Gie where individuals are connected by electrical wires. There are base fears here, and boundless dreams; it is the emotional guk from which many of the other artists throughout the show distill their works.

Along one wall hangs Henrik Olesen’s “Some Illustrations to the Life of Alan Turing” (2009), a poetic account of the life, thoughts, and death of the father of modern computing. In a series of letter-sized collages, Olesen inserts phrases like “How do I make myself a body?” and “The body is a machine” atop photographs of Turing at various stages of life. As we near the end of his life, we endure with him the punishments foisted on homosexuals by the British government: forced hormone therapy that rendered him impotent and wreaked havoc on his body. On one page, pained handwriting cuts across a portrait: “I am growing breasts.” Olesen ties together Turing’s interest in cybernetics with the oppression of his own body in a way that never actually happened, and improves the story in the process: as the theorist Terry Eagleton has written, “Real life sometimes gets things hopelessly confused or just plain wrong.”

These early works, filled with fear and wonder, lead quickly into rooms of the comparatively cold work of Optical art, which reached its height in the mid-60s. The body-as-machine is here no longer a dream but a practical affair, to be examined under the light of science, and the mechanisms of the eye become the focus. It seems like a sudden break, but the most incongruous figure in the room, Günther Uecker’s worryingly organic “New York Dancer IV” (1965), ultimately serves to tie it together. In a room of Moire patterns and gee-whiz spirals, it is a roughly human-sized form of cloth covered in nails, standing moodily in the corner. When activated by a foot pedal, it spins furiously, seemingly warming up to pepper the audience with spikes. To interact with “New York Dancer” is to instinctively re-learn a few things key to Optical art: your presence as a viewer matters; your position and motion as a viewer matter; and black-box machines (including the eye) may well be reliable, but they are not to be trusted. Inputs can be controlled, outputs can be observed, but in human and machine alike, everything gets confusing in the middle.

The most interesting work in the show, though, doesn’t ask what it would be like if humans were machines, or machines were humans. In a few works, the question turns to humans with machines, and how they behave. A series of advertisement-artworks by the science fiction author J.G. Ballard, in particular, is stunning, grouping found images of women with paragraphs written in the style of his experimental short stories. In one, a pointedly unerotic photograph of a woman in bondage gear is coupled with two sentences at just the right level of unhinged: “In her face the diagram of bones forms a geometry of murder. After Freud’s exploration within the psyche it is now the outer world of reality which must be quantified and eroticised.” The dormant sexuality here—and the fact that it resides more in the objects than in the woman—recalls Ballard’s novel Crash, in which the protagonist stumbles into a technosexual cult that fetishizes car accidents.

Ballard’s work stands out because it could not have been a permutation of what came before. His wild leaps of logic would not have emerged from the methodical research of Op art or plotter drawings, and the nuance of his fetishism would have no place among the wild hopes and terrible fears of the schizophrenics. Ballard instead drew on a uniquely human kind of insight into what parts of the totally absurd still lay within human nature, and, after the coming of the machines, which parts of human nature would survive. It was an insight based on experience, and it was a sign that our visions of radical technological change were all grown up.