Is that thing on the left a genetic experiment, a Martian philodendron or a futuristic Barbara Hepworth sculpture?
Say you’re driving down the street in your hometown and your phone rings-beeps-chimes. You answer and hear your Dad’s voice tell you that you are now just passing the site of the restaurant where he took Mom on their first date; that she was shy and the conversation was awkward, but there was a second date. Not much of a story, except that your Dad has been dead for a decade. He recorded that message to your “future” mailbox, tagged it with the proper GPS coordinates, set the time delay at 10 years, pushed enter, and paid some company $20 to make sure the message got delivered to whatever phone (or smart car) you might be using, with some contingency plan in case you never went back to the old hometown.
Work of art or a clever app?
Either way, it leverages the very real and un-learned emotional power of your auditory memory, especially your memory for voices. This was one of the first commercial appeals of sound technology. The image of RCA’s cute little terrier with its head cocked was originally seen in His Master’s Voice, an 1899 painting turned advertisement for the Victor Talking Machine Company. The dog and the record player were posed atop a coffin, presumably master’s.
Do familiar cultural forms always express themselves through the latest technology? Or, does new technology generate new aesthetics (and new markets) and “creatively destroy” the old?
You want music? In the 1880s, early backers of Alexander Graham Bell imagined people would go to the nearest concert hall and listen to the New York Philharmonic coming to them live through a giant telephone speaker. That idea was reinvented more profitably over the decades in radio, TV, movies and now virtual reality. If, in hindsight, orchestras, and music in general, seem logically suited for the latest media wizardry, this can be devilishly difficult to predict. Do familiar cultural forms always express themselves through the latest technology? Or, does new technology generate new aesthetics (and new markets) and “creatively destroy” the old, as Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter theorized?
The easy answer: Both.
Better to ask: How can any technology or chains of technologies amplify some existing aesthetic experience to such an extent that it changes in kind, not just in measure—and invites or demands new artistic content and contexts?
How can any technology or chains of technologies amplify some existing aesthetic experience to such an extent that it changes in kind, not just in measure—and invites or demands new artistic content and contexts?
For centuries, sculpture in the west mostly utilized the muscle-powered technologies needed to carve wood and stone, or the more advanced technology of bronze casting, to create visually unified, self-contained human (or occasionally animal) figures. Sculptural contours extended only as far as the structural strength of the chosen material. Add steel and welding to the toolbox and things change dramatically. Welding was invented in 1881 but seemed irrelevant to art until the late 1920s, when Julio Gonzales taught the “art of welding” to Pablo Picasso. Abracadabra!! Welcome to a century-sized supermarket of artistic possibilities.
Welding accelerated sculptural production and increased the artist’s freedom to improvise. If you don’t like that appendage sticking out here, cut it off and re-attach it there, then add another to stretch the contour farther than wood, stone or bronze could support or anatomy might allow. That freedom invites, practically requires non-figural aesthetics. Although abstraction had been percolating through painting for 20 years before Picasso met welding, abstract sculpture was still stuck in ersatz figuration, or at least assembled configurations. Once artists began to truly test its capacities, welding extended sculpture’s reach to embrace empty space as an integral compositional element (rather than a neutral backdrop). Two generations later, sculpture left the crafted object behind as it spilled into the environment, needing only the raw terrain and a bulldozer.
Such evolution may seem obvious in hindsight, but it meandered in hops and loops from Picasso to David Smith to Alexander Calder to Anthony Caro to Judy Pfaff to Robert Smithson to Michael Heizer and Ann Hamilton and many, many others. Along the way, sculpture devoured any number of other aesthetics, from theater design to landscape architecture to political showmanship, et al. Good art is always a conceptual mash-up, descending from aesthetic royalty and accountants, cowboys and horse thieves. Technology doesn’t care; it unlocks aesthetic doors with promiscuous enthusiasm.
Good art is always a conceptual mash-up, descending from aesthetic royalty and accountants, cowboys and horse thieves. Technology doesn’t care; it unlocks aesthetic doors with promiscuous enthusiasm.
Certainly, artists can always use new technology to make old art, to Photoshop the Mona Lisa, as it were. But that can appear maudlin unless, by adding other technology, Mona opens her lips and starts to giggle. Occasionally there is room for a provocative anachronism (e.g. The Artist, the 2011, Oscar-winning silent film). And there is plenty of interesting aesthetic space for artists to add new technologies to mostly traditional, gallery-friendly forms—as seen in Synthesis, the current exhibition at Indianapolis Contemporary featuring Victoria Manganiello and Julian Goldman’s installation of bubbled-tubing fabric, another hanging fabric installation by Manganiello, and Lauren Zoll’s explorations of electro-sensitive dyes. Manganiello and Goldman present two long swaths of light-colored fabric suspended in a casual horizontal drape. A computerized water pump sits on a lower platform connected to the drape with thin clear tubing like an artistic IV sending regiments of blue bubbles marching back-and-forth across the weft of the fabric, forming no particular image or pattern, vaguely resembling a well-regulated ant farm. There is enough here to entertain the eye and fascinate the mind without quite evoking a specific metaphoric or allegoric realm. That may come. Certainly, the work has potential to allude subtly or directly to technological or natural systems: circulating blood, traffic flows, railroad networks, bubble computers (Google that), etc., and many possible applications, functional or simply poetic, as clothing, architecture and décor.
Zoll’s work is less imposing visually but more attuned to potential technological resonance simply because it makes electricity, eking a modest voltage from sunlight falling on a thin, glass-sandwiched smear of black bean stain. Like a science experiment in search of an aesthetic, the work is technically and intellectually interesting but seemingly unworried about larger meaning. Perhaps none is needed. Perhaps it is meaningful enough to hang suspended at the intersection of nature, art and technology, where “what you see is what you see,” to quote Frank Stella. This might make sense: seeing requires light, and light is the prime mover of this work. Still, it feels like there could be, should be, more to come aesthetically.
If art can make electricity, shouldn’t electricity do…something? Even if that something isn’t understood as aesthetic—at least not yet.
As the 21st century dances and blunders along, we should expect any number of techno-aesthetic hybrids, hippogriffs and unanticipated species to emerge (or re-emerge from earlier experiments), or aspire to greater heights than their origins in functional applications, spectacle and popular entertainment (not that there is anything wrong with entertainment). How about giant animated images “video mapped” on institutional buildings (Google it). Or a novel texted in 100-word chapters to your phone, appropriate for stop-light pauses. The Japanese love them. Or genetic art: Eduardo Kac’s “natural history of the enigma”, a new strain of petunia crossbred with DNA from his own blood—a work of art that begins in microscopic space and ends up in a museum, or perhaps your garden.
A fundamental function of art has always been the dislocation, then relocation, of a sensory experience from its point of origin to the place of consumption. That landscape on the wall brings the grandeur of Rocky Mountains into your living room, whether as a painting, a Sierra Club calendar or a Jeep commercial in 70-inch HD. Technology simply extends the translocation as far as its meaning requires.
A fundamental function of art has always been the dislocation, then relocation, of a sensory experience from its point of origin to the place of consumption.
At the high end, at the Whitney Museum of American Art, Kevin Beasley’s installation of a cotton gin in a sound-proof glass chamber (while the machine’s roar is heard in a nearby listening room), dislocated sight from sound, evoking a layered metaphor of historic echoes. The most non-elite demonstration of technological translocation as aesthetics can be seen on a daily basis as graffiti-festooned railroad cars rumble across the country – seen for a few seconds then vanished, but not lost.
Although currently confined to corporate conferencing, sophisticated videotelephony systems have achieved a high degree of emotionally resonant telepresence (the feeling that the other person is really right there). We can speculate that it is only a matter of time before a politically focused artist, or maybe Starbucks, offers consumers an emotionally convincing interaction blending here and Tehran, or Caracas or Beijing.
Art or commerce or street-level diplomacy? All of the above.
Indeed, technology invites artistic ambition to rise astronomically: Makoto Azuma’s magnificent floral bouquet lofted by balloons 100,000 feet into the stratosphere, preserved in photographs before its cold-crystallized flowers blew away into the heavens. Earthworks become spaceworks.
Or Orbital Reflector by Trevor Paglen. This is a 100-foot silver balloon, based on decades-old NASA technology re-incarnated as a “post-minimalist sculpture”. The $1.5 million project was funded through Kickstarter (another technology) and successfully launched into low-Earth orbit. However, bureaucratic befuddlement during the 2018 governmental shutdown prevented Reflector from being accurately tracked. It’s out there now, a tiny point of light visible to the entire planet even if no one knows exactly where to look. It has become the most viewed (if unrecognized) work of art in human history.
Steve Mannheimer has been a professor in the IU School of Informatics and Computing, IUPUI, since 1992. Before that, he taught painting at the Herron School of Art and Design for 24 years. From 1982-2000, he wrote a weekly column on the visual arts for The Indianapolis Star and directed public art projects, including the Kennedy-King Memorial “Landmark for Peace” at 17th and Broadway streets. For the past dozen years, Mannheimer has researched audio and tactual cognition with the blind in Indiana and India, work supported by the Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust, the National Science Foundation and Google Research Awards.