07/25/12 4:00am

“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.

07/11/12 4:00am

Nine years ago, the respected Peruvian economist Hernando De Soto published a book with a lightning-rod subtitle, The Mystery of Capital: Why Capitalism Triumphs in the West and Fails Everywhere Else. In it, De Soto argued that one of the main difficulties of life in the developing world is purely conceptual: in many places, it’s not the immediate threat of starvation making everything suck, it’s the fact that you can’t get an accurate deed to your house. You might think you own a house, a car, or a farm, but if you can’t get the right paperwork, it’s impossible to use those as collateral for a loan. Without loans, good luck going to college, starting a business, or adding on a room for the kids.

De Soto’s key insight is that there’s nothing real about the issue. It’s a problem of words, that can be fixed by diligently applying accurate terms to things: the antidote is someone with a clipboard and a rubber stamp saying, “This is a bedroom, that is a fence, this is a certified piece of property.” Words are powerful things.

I wonder if a similar problem won’t affect abstract art, especially as technology marches forward. Contemporary art’s holy grail is the irreducible artwork, the painting that can’t be described or transmitted, only experienced in the flesh. The art theorist Rosalind Krauss described this as art’s “will to silence, its hostility to literature, to narrative, to discourse.” The rule of thumb, for most of the art world, seems to be that if you can accurately describe a painting over the phone, it’s probably derivative. Historically, artists and writers alike saw that as a challenge: at the height of abstract expressionism and the old New York intelligentsia, theorists and critics were coming up with new terms as quickly as artists could defy them. The writer and art historian W.J.T. Mitchell claimed that Charles Altieri once wrote 75 pages on Malevich’s “Suprematist Composition: Red Square and Black Square,” a work whose title is description enough for most people (spoiler: the red square is tilted).

At some point, writers’ interests changed. Theory wandered off in esoteric directions, and never cemented into everyday language. While psychoanalysis managed to get us talking about Oedipus and the id, and pasta-makers managed to get us differentiating between capellini (0.8mm in diameter) and spaghetti (1.5mm in diameter), the terms of abstract art never caught on. Nobody today thinks to use “painterliness”, “theatricality”, or “openness” as tumblr tags.

That’s a problem. The internet is pretty much run on words, whether they be tags, search terms, or blog text, and abstraction is in the tough position of having spent the past century waging a public war against language. Check out the website of Gerhard Richter, perhaps the best-respected artist since Andy Warhol: you can sort through dozens of categories of figurative painting, from “cars” to “apples”, “flowers” to “rural landscapes”, but his huge body of abstract work is simply broken down by date. If you like a painting, and want to find similar ones, your best bet might be searching by color; if you want to find other artists making similar work, you’ll have to ask your neighborhood art critic-or, if you’re a collector, a dealer.

If it’s hard to see why that’s a problem, consider this: everyone has a story that goes something like, “When I was thirteen, my brother/sister/boyfriend gave me a record by the Ramones/Depeche Mode/Wiley. I liked it. I found out that this type of music was called ‘punk’/’new wave’/’grime,’ and then I tried to find all the punk/new wave/grime music I could! It was a good summer.” Labels help us develop real taste, borne out of choice rather than limitation or authoritarianism, and they’re essential to how we discover new bits of culture. There is no analogue for this story and contemporary abstract painting.

When it’s difficult to find works for their actual qualities, we start to rely on name recognition, and the most famous painters simply build their brands. We keep buying Ramones albums, or (if you’re a Sheikh) Gerhard Richter paintings, and our taste starts to be determined by whoever has the best promotion.

We’ve watched for nearly a year as pundits have invented, from whole cloth, their own definitions for the Occupy movement, slanted towards whatever purpose was needed for the case at hand; the movement was systematically punished for its refusal to define itself. Perhaps abstraction is headed down the same path, doomed to success only when it can be backed by the concentrated branding power of a blue-chip gallery. Our consolation might be De Soto’s insight: it’s only a problem of words.