Month of June, 2011

hysterical machines

Bill Vorn's Hysterical Machines

The Wood Street Gallery, in lovely downtown Pittsburgh, is an awesomely awkward rhombusial early 20th century building with a T-station on the first/underground. There now is this Bill Vorn exhibit, Hysterical Machines.

From Vorn: "The aim of this project is to induce empathy of the viewer towards characters which are nothing more than articulated metal structures. The strength of the simulacra is emphasized by perverting the perception of the creatures, which are neither animals nor humans, carried through the inevitable instinct of anthropomorphism and projection of our internal sensations, a reflex triggered by any phenomenon that challenges our senses."

Initially, it can be intimidating. From the elevator, there is a wave of sound and deep red light, and the viewer can see nothing until she turns the corner into the main gallery space.

A group of robots hang from the ceiling in two tight rows, like factory models, assembly line workers, or, given an anthropomophic read, like bats in a cave. Naked, undressed in plastics, they are wires, pneumatic, LED-flashlights, aluminum rods. They remind me of nearly every "intro to circuit bending/robotics/building your own _____" final class project I've ever seen. A four channel soundtrack, mixed for maximum cinemographic effect, enhances the sound of the pneumatic arms as they snap. Like lobster claws, very percussive.This, to induce empathy, I wonder? The lighting–all purples and pinks–is cool and distopian. The machines react to human movement, but their actions are limited and quickly become demystified. They are soon revealed to be empty signifiers, vessels for projection. The staging seems to be working maximally to induce angst, but done so with the staging that feels like such recieved wisdom as to be kitsch. Know that deep synth sounds and deep purples equal sinister, know that an arm reaching towards you equals aggression. PS: There were no smoke machines when I was there, but if there, that would have been even more ridiculous.

And then there is the "hysteria" of the machines. A feminine sexual disorder, curable in 'pre-modern times' by pregnancy or manual stimulation. What of this for our machines - are they having somatic expressions of stress or trauma? Are we projecting our expressions onto them, or is the whole practice of reading machines as bodies the projection itself? How can we cure this - do we need to tame them somehow, to diagnose them, to educate them?

I wanted to feel this a question of what humanness is, given our world of low-intelligence, high effieciency  (human redundancy) machines. Are we indimidated because we are the redundant ones, we are hysterical?

I felt in Vorn's work a failure to address these more complex questions. The project was impressive but hollow. I got the feeling, as I did at the neighboring gallery SPACE for Eric Singer's musical instruments, that these were programming projects given context in a gallery. To call one's self a "robot artist," as Vorn does, seems to be an apology - why not just artist who uses robotic technologies in expression of something else? 

Perhaps that is the unintentional meaning of the exhibit's title. We are in perpetual technological hysteria, and it seems like fine art is one of the few places taking serious stock of the changes to our selfhood and living that have come from it. But this exhibit feels like a buy in, or at least collusion, of the mystification, not part of the critical inquiry.

A final thought: Bill Vorn's Hysterical Machines sounds like a hilarious post-human circus sideshow, but what would it be if it were a woman's name: Rachel Miller's Hysterical Machines? Juliet McCarthy's Hysterical Machines? Lola Hernandez's Hysterical Machines? That sounds like a 6th Avenue special. Maybe the Ellen Willis test can be applied to exhibit titles too.