The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2013

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JUL-AUG 2013 Issue

Vanishing Point

On View
Bitforms Gallery
May 30 – July 19, 2013
New York

In the decades since William Gibson first imagined his globe–spanning computer network, where computer cowboys jockeyed for corporate secrets amid kinetic swirls of abstracted data, the virtual frontier has transformed. Today, well into the seventh decade of electronic computing, what has become of cyberspace? For us, Gibson’s “non space of the mind,” manifests itself not in polygonal dazzle, but in the more prosaic swipe across the touchscreen of an elegantly perfected graphic interface. Regardless of the utility of such a term, its very dissemination makes the question worth answering, as our electronic lives today are no less complex than those of the cyberpunk antiheroes once so visible on the technological landscape. The future, it seems, has some explaining to do.

Amid the nanoscale advancements claimed each year, progress appears increasingly difficult to decipher than it once was, even as we are asked to think in global terms; the singularly important appears forever just out of our grasp. With Vanishing Point, curator A.E. Benenson seeks to find an intermediary with which to navigate both our amorphous present and its multifarious futures. As we race toward the cloud-sourced horizon, free from many of the strictures that confined the great imaginations of the past, it is the possible consequences of this boundless potential that Benenson’s exhibition asks us to consider.

Through playful use of globalization, Clement Valla presents a series of mail-ordered paintings, employing the services of artists for hire in the “painting village” of Wushipu, China to produce copies of Hudson River School canvases. In emails that are on display with the paintings, Valla requested that a building seen from the contracted artist’s studio be inserted into each work. More than making visible these otherwise opaque factories of inconspicuous, bland art, these paintings question the free markets that allow for their creation; the building in “Zhongbo Adds a Skyscraper to J.F. Kensett’s Almy’s Pond, Newport” (2009) is as forgettable as the high-rises that proliferate anywhere construction is allowed to proceed without restraint. In these works, the American sublime is both exported and assimilated. The work muddles lines of national identity and points to an international desire for the beautiful and homogenous. The product of nearly industrial fabrication, these paintings allow the opportunity to purchase a fragment of the anodyne, no longer definable, but still enticing.

A corresponding subversion provides the content of Mungo Thomson’s “Einstein #1” (2008). This work torques the canon of science fiction to produce a depopulated comic book, appropriating the set pieces of established series and redrawing them without their heroic casts. Thomson’s comic begins and ends in the infinity of outer space, voyaging through sterile corridors of starships, ruined cityscapes, and arid alien worlds. It is familiar and strange at the same time, perfectly uncanny. The sci-fi milieu is often employed to show what the futurist Syd Mead described as “reality ahead of schedule.” In “Einstein #1” the setting affords the exploration of such a heightened present. Free from distracting text balloons, we are forced to examine both the lack of thought given to the intricately engineered world we live in as well as our expectations of technology.

Such technological black-boxing is pervasive, and finds an exquisite caricature in Annie Dorsen’s “Hello Hi There” (2011-13). Utilizing a 1971 televised debate between Noam Chomsky and Michel Foucault as metaphysical grist, Dorsen pits two natural language simulators, or “chatbots,” against each other. Dual MacBooks power a screen-projected dialog, diverging wildly from the wrangling of human nature and subjectivity the two philosopher’s are mutely engaged in on a small screen nearby. The chatbots speak in synthesized monotones as they are led down rabbit holes of circular reasoning by key words and phrases, propelled, according to Dorsen, by a database capable of constructing 84 million conversations. In one exchange, a chatbot laments that “it is likely neither of us knows anything,” which of course is true. These conversations make use of the same linguistic rules that power the legendary test of artificial intelligence that bears the name of famed computer scientist Alan Turing. Often skewed by our anthropomorphic bias, the Turing test asks a human observer to differentiate by conversation, a computer from another human. Though the simulated discourse of “Hello Hi There” is unlikely to fool anyone, in its robotic pronunciations one can make out the strains of a time when such demarcations become far more difficult to discern.

Is the digital abyss Benenson alludes to what it is made out to be, the yawning chasm that we rush into headlong, regardless of consequence? The Internet and its surge of content represents both a radical simplification and explosive complexity; while online, history and culture can easily be reduced to graphics and crowd-sourced summarization, arguably no greater medium has ever existed for the diffusion of knowledge. While the danger of disappearing into our own avatars of geolocated data and search results surely exists, as much of this work shows, the agents of potential exploitation can themselves be readily exploited.

One standout addition to the exhibition, a 1955 undertaking of the renowned RAND Corporation think tank, A Million Random Digits with 100,000 Normal Deviates, could be seen as an antecedent to our current condition. At the dawn of the information age, randomness proved to be in short supply. Responding to an industrial demand for vast sets of numbers, RAND produced this book with primitive computers, running systematic calculations to achieve the very opposite: randomness. Many surely saw such computation as heralding a new generation of technical possibility; few, however might have foreseen that such systems would one day control so much of our lives. Such foresight is vital; as we reach toward the increasingly microscales of transistorization necessary to tame our endless flow of data, the ramifications of this limitless connectivity cannot afford to be disregarded, the price may well prove too steep to bear.

529 W. 20th St., 2nd Fl. // NY, NY


Collin Sundt


The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2013

All Issues