Virtuous Realities: Art(ists) On the Verge 9

Group exhibition of work by Maxwell Hoagland, Meena Mangalvedhekar, Areca Roe, Stephanie Lynn Rogers, and Ziyang Wu

Rochester Art Center; Rochester, MN; October 6, 2018 - January 2, 2019

Program Essay by Russ White

Of all the complaints you are likely to hear about the ethical dangers of technology (and there are a great many with truly dire consequences), the one you’ll probably hear most often is from the scolds: that we have created an entire generation of screen-addicted narcissists. If our politics have been Trumped, the fear is that our culture is being Kardashianed. I’m less pessimistic; I think we’ve always been terrible. You might worry, though, that all of these newfangled gadgets and gizmos could end up doing real damage to capital-A Art, overwhelming craft and concept with trendy indulgences like mobile devices, social media, and VR goggles. That may be the case on occasion, but while those technologies are all a part of this exhibition, they exist here as an antidote to disengagement. The installations presented by these Artists On the Verge are very much of the world, not apart from it. 

There are those who argue that our reality is in fact already virtual, that we are living inside a simulation, a thought experiment playing out for the amusement of some advanced alien overlords. That might actually explain some of the more absurd and disconcerting developments of the past few years, although it’s cold comfort: “real” or not, we still have to live here. But these five artists have created simulations of their own for us to experience—of the future, of the present, of ecosystems both urban and arboreal, and, more subtly, of our homes, our gardens, and our governments.

In many ways, we are all on the verge—of the next breakthrough, of the next calamity, of the next tweet. But these installations, for all their futuristic components, are an invitation to stop and experience the present moment, bodily: through sight, sound, smell, and touch. All is not yet lost, my friends. You are, after all, still reading this in a book.*

Stephanie Rogers, Security Blanket

It seems fitting to begin with the installation most rooted in the past. Stephanie Rogers’s Security Blanket is a multifaceted meditation on state-sponsored surveillance, using the home as both the stage and the battleground. Projected onto the wall is a live-feed thermal image showing the viewers’ real-time heat signatures in ghostly whites and grays. It’s unclear who is doing the watching or why, but there is no doubt that you, the viewer, are being surveilled. Surrounding the projection are modest objects that convey a muted sense of homeyness: a shelf of small handmade pouches, some cross-stitched throw pillows mounted to the wall, a couple of comfy armchairs, and a quilted blanket hanging on a rack.

You might think, given the blanket’s digitized camouflage pattern, that it too is an artifact of military apparatus, same as the camera, but in fact the opposite is true. Picking up and wearing the blanket in plain view of the thermal lens will make the viewer disappear, their body’s heat signature rendered invisible to the all-seeing eye. The blanket, perhaps the most archetypal source of warmth and comfort outside of an open fire, has been upgraded to trap heat and provide an extra layer of security. Coziness has been weaponized.

When you’re done swaddling yourself like some combination of Harry Potter and Joseph Beuys, you can take a seat in the armchairs, where you’ll be able to listen to three interviews with activists and victims of real-life state surveillance. One interviewee tells of his parents being blacklisted for the crime of Communism in 1970s Chicago. Another recounts the FBI infiltration of the RNC Welcoming Committee, an anarchist organization protesting the 2008 Republican National Convention in St. Paul. The third details similar harassment as a local organizer with the Black Lives Matter occupations of the Minneapolis Fourth Precinct and the Minnesota Governor’s Residence. These audio recordings feel like a fireside chat, a private bull session in the living room with agitators and intellectuals.

It so happens that Rogers is drawing on the deep traditions of community engagement and social activism she found in the Religious Society of Friends, better known as the Quakers. Having spent the past decade as an active member of a Quaker church, Rogers has quietly steeped this installation in its values and aesthetics, even seeking help from her fellow congregants to construct the blanket. This element of handicraft also exists in the pouches (lined with EMF-blocking fabric to render your phone untraceable by Big Brother or Ma Bell), the throw pillows (one replaces the usual “Bless This Mess” with a troubling email the artist received from PayPal about a government review of her purchase), and a zine giving instructions on how to make your own cellphone pouch and blanket.

This Do-It-Yourself ethos, familiar to doomsday preppers and sewing circles alike, is itself a sly sabotage of capitalism: why buy when you can make? All together, Security Blanket situates radical resistance not in the streets but in the home, certainly a good place to start in the age of the all-hearing Alexa.

Areca Roe, Founder Effect

Every generation likes to think they are living in the endtimes—it can help give a dull life a little more dramatic flair. But how many before us could legitimately claim to preside over the next great extinction event? It’s a dreadful distinction, and, in truth, humans set these wheels in motion a long time ago. But now the chickens are coming home to roost in the form of melting ice, rising seas, deforestation, plastic pollution, and ocean acidification. These are not happy chickens.

But Areca Roe’s Founder Effect takes what you might call the long view. This installation presents a hopeful interpretation of nature’s ability to adapt, in the form of animals who have physically evolved to thrive in the harsh realities of their new ecosystems. In this fictional future (to paraphrase a fictional doctor), life has found a way.

Upon entering the installation, though, we are alone, standing inside a tranquil winter forest projected in panorama onto three large walls. The scene is so calm, so serene, you might not even realize it’s a video until you notice a few snowflakes drifting past the tree trunks. An ambient soundtrack of birds chirping fills the space, causing just the slightest bit of cognitive dissonance. This is no silent spring, but where are the animals? Dangling in the middle of the room are three VR headsets, inviting the viewer to go looking for answers.

Inside the virtual world, the snow has melted and the forest has come back to life. The greens are lush and vibrant as you look around and take it all in. But something is amiss: six people are standing in the distance, in all directions around you among the trees. They move in quizzical, staccato rhythms, back and forth as though they’re stuck in a gif. And then you see them, Roe’s new fauna, appearing as slightly transparent cartoons hovering in the foreground: a bear with the humps of a camel, a coyote with pulsating organs, a bird that’s . . . holding a lighter? 

The animals fade in and out of sight like apparitions, leaving the viewer looking around while the virtual performers continue their slow, portentous dances. As you come out of the VR, back to the placid winter, the accompanying text explains what you just witnessed: six newly evolved species of North America. The Humped Black Bear has developed two large fatty deposits on its back to store water and nutrients to survive the now-common droughts. The Pouched Salmon can now remove plastic garbage from its stomach into an external sack that will eventually be jettisoned. The Flint Crow, with its enlarged brain, has figured out how to use the matches and lighters it finds to start forest fires and cook its food. 

These are flights of fancy, to be sure (except for the fire-starting birds, it turns out, which actually exist in Australia and carry burning wildfire embers to other locations to flush out prey). It’s a humorous approach to an utterly unhumorous set of circumstances. The great ingenuity of human industry, when paired with political cowardice and short-sighted greed, has created a truly global crisis, and it remains to be seen if the flora and fauna of the world will be able to adapt with ingenuity of their own. Roe’s human actors, dressed in contemporary clothes while they fumble in the forest, point us to the ugly truth: this future is now. 

Maxwell Hoaglund, The Shallows

It’s clear from the start that The Shallows is the product of an organized mind. Twenty short white plinths sit in a tidy grid on the floor, each one acting as a fine art pedestal to a seemingly random object. On either side of this display are what appear to be crude computer terminals, industrial and utilitarian, their open sides showcasing an utter contempt for sleek design and shiny veneers. Kiosks invite participation through both a tablet and instructions on paper. There seems to be a game afoot, but it may take a few moments to decipher.

Maxwell Hoaglund has essentially created a cavernous system of variables, long since out of his control, as a means of pondering objects and our relationships to them. While it may seem like a puzzle without a solution, a perpetual game of surrealist Battleship, this installation is actually one large archive of its audience: our whims, our proclivities, our engagement, and maybe even our mischief.

At the heart of this piece are the objects on the platforms, none of which Hoaglund chose himself. Instead, he assembled a workshop of close to a dozen participants, some of whom were perfect strangers to him. Collectively, with a minimal set of parameters and prompts, they came up with a list of about twenty things that somehow made sense—emotionally, intellectually, or instinctively—in this array.

Months later, viewers are now tasked with responding to those decisions with decisions of their own. Each participant is prompted to submit what Hoaglund calls a “change order,” a directive to move an object of their choosing from one plinth to another, switching the positions of, say, a rotary phone and a garbage can. Another viewer will be tasked with physically executing that change order, although the artist will be on hand to see that the change orders are completed if they, to use his word, “languish.” Perhaps you lose interest. Perhaps you misunderstood the instructions. Perhaps you are physically unable to move an object. Your change order will still get executed. Or perhaps—and here’s where it gets really interesting—you move the wrong thing instead! Or you pocket the object and make a hasty retreat. 

I had a difficult time reconciling that this highly orchestrated and organized system could teeter so hopelessly into chaos at a moment’s notice, that it was potentially helpless against human error. But then Hoaglund suggested I abandon game theory. The Shallows isn’t intended to be a flawless system, and it certainly is not meant to be “won.” It is instead a democratization of spatial dynamics: if not letting the inmates run the prison, Hoaglund is certainly letting the shoppers organize the grocery store. 

And so though this may not be a game, it is play. For the artist, it would seem that this is an exercise in archiving, essentially documenting the butterfly effect with a paper trail. But for the audience, the experience is much more visceral. You have your decision, which is yours alone, and you have your moment with the objects: feeling their weight, their texture, maybe smelling them, regarding them up close. Take a moment, as you fulfill your change order, to consider your choice and relish its consequences. Soon enough it will be just another data point logged in the terminal, remembered and forgotten.

Ziyang Wu, Smarter City 2

In my experience, one of the best ways to get to know a city is to ride its public transit. Over time you’ll learn something of its geography, its culture, its pace, and its politics. Every time the doors open onto a subway car, you gain access to an individual ecosystem of new characters, overheard conversations, mystery smells, maybe even budding relationships between passengers who have been on the train a few stops longer than you.

So it is that Ziyang Wu’s Smarter City 2, which gives us a seven minute peek into an outlandish subway car from the future, is at first surprisingly familiar. Projected larger than life onto a single gigantic wall, Wu’s digital tableau is equal parts Sims and Tron, bursting with colorful characters in a world of their own. The train has stopped at LosJing Station (a mashup of Los Angeles and Beijing that hints at the shifting lines of our cities’ cultural identities), and the passengers, iridescent and otherworldly, are just hanging out, waiting for the doors to close. 

As we move through the installation, infrared motion sensors trigger dialogue boxes to open, divulging intimate details about these strange commuters. One VR-wearing woman named “Beauty Wang” is “thinking of using the Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats to edit human embryonic genes to ‘Engineering the Perfect Baby.’” Other windows share equally esoteric information, from the status of your phone’s battery to a child suffering from “internet intolerance.” One man is named simply “Groper,” and we learn his sordid history of sexual assault. The viewer has become an unwitting voyeur, bombarded by this sudden swirl of personal data about strangers but unwilling to turn away. 

Eventually this information overload is interrupted: a blaring siren goes off, the lights go up, and we’re told that this real-time monitoring cannot continue because the “intelligent dust needs to be exploded again.” A massive human finger reaches out and begins the sequence, resulting in a properly hilarious explosion worthy of any big budget action film. When the smoke clears, we are left alone at the LosJing platform, where another train soon pulls in and restarts the entire sequence.

It’s hard to know where to begin unpacking this science fiction. You put together soon enough that this “intelligent dust” is what allows us access to all these characters’ secrets. On the opposite wall is the subway station itself, complete with posters for the artist’s future show at MoMA (a nice touch). Using iPads outfitted for augmented reality, viewers can see another trove of hidden data lurking in the subway tiles, visible only through the tablet’s screen. Perhaps the “intelligent dust” is not such a far-off fiction after all. Here in Wu’s City, secrets hide in plain sight, and no one’s information is safe. We are given a vision of the future in which the mechanisms for this data-mining are colorful, fun, and insidious. I wouldn’t be surprised if we’ve already agreed to the Terms of Service.

Meena Mangalvedhekar, Mind the Harvest

Of all the five installations, Mind the Harvest seems the most optimistic about the role technology plays in our society. Meena Mangalvedhekar likens social media to a garden, a creative space where we can cultivate both our public image and our social networks. Judging from the smell of fresh soil wafting through the gallery, she is very close to taking the metaphor literally. 

But this installation is far cleaner than even the tidiest garden: the moist dirt is all trapped inside white slatted platforms, laid out in four long plots displaying neat rows of pristine tablets. It’s earthy and antiseptic at the same time, as though the Apple Store had a Home & Garden section. Each tablet presents a perpetual slideshow of simple, brightly colored line drawings on a black background. If this is a garden, then these drawings are the plants. They appear for a few seconds and then dissolve into the background, creating a temporary haze of visual memory. The artist calls this the “mulch,” a visual nod to the communal nature of this project.

On the wall, we’re offered a diagram explaining where these drawings originated: Mangalvedhekar asked eighteen individuals (many complete strangers and none from her personal social media feeds) to submit photos to initially seed this project. Portraits, landscapes, random snapshots, all from Instagram or Facebook, have been run through a digital filter: simplified, reprocessed, and reborn as these ephemeral, childlike doodles. They’re quite lovely in their simplicity, actually. The standardized filtration strips them down to their bones, asserting a commonality onto all these different moments from anonymous lives. The audience is invited to submit their own photos as well, uploading them to an online queue where they will be algorithmically scanned for naughty bits (this garden is SFW only), translated into a line drawing, and displayed on a tablet for their one moment of glory, like so many crowd-sourced corpse flowers. 

The images are not archived outside of the mulch; they simply come and then go. Perhaps this is a reminder not to hold on too tight. Everything gets the same treatment, the same few seconds in the sun, regardless of the content of our “content.” We’re not shamed for our selfies; neither are we in competition for likes or follows. Our contributions are welcomed, embraced, included, and then dissolved in a matter of seconds. The natural conclusion—maybe a logical leap, but an honest truth on any farm—is that we are all going to die. 

But this particular reaping is not so grim, perhaps to the cynics’ dismay. True, the rough edges of internet culture have been rounded over here, the daily depravities and desperate vanity ignored or filtered out. But don’t worry—they’ll still be there when you get back. This is instead an experiment in sharing. At its roots, Mind the Harvest is about physically manifesting the digital experience, allowing you to stroll through a thousand unknown Instagram feeds with chance as your algorithm, happen upon the lives of people you may never meet, and share that fleeting experience with the person standing next to you. What a strange and profound privilege it is to be alive right now. No fooling.

Special thanks to Will White and Sarah Faye McPherson for research assistance. 

*Editor’s note: This essay was originally published in the exhibition program, available upon request from Northern Lights.MN.