Young digital artists, concerned with … technology

Digital art at Sotheby’s? The auction house is better known for selling paintings by Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat for more than $100 million than for showing what many collectors still consider ephemera.

Yet the Sotheby’s S2 gallery in New York, normally used for contemporary art exhibitions, is currently the location of an exhibition featuring mostly young artists who rely on digital technology and who are not exactly familiar names. Surprisingly, most of the works on display take on a physical form. More importantly, they also betray a broad generational concern about the technological future and the role of humans in it.

The catalyst for the exhibition was a curious sculpture nestled in the Art + Technology lab at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

A sleek black plinth with a black screen in front and a record player perched incongruously on top, it was designed as a prototype for a 21st century memorial. When David Goodman, the Sotheby’s executive in charge of digital marketing and development, saw him a few months ago, his screen displayed the social media posts of a 25-year-old Miami bike enthusiast who had was killed in a road accident. and run. A vinyl record played synthesized chimes, their pitch determined by computer analysis of the emotions expressed by those messages – a major pitch if they were positive, a minor pitch if they were negative.

“I was quite blown away by the piece,” Mr. Goodman recalled recently in his office at Sotheby’s headquarters in New York. “It also made me sad. I can’t ——

“Let me put it this way: it struck a chord.”

The sculpture, “Monument I”, had been created for a show about the Hereafter Institute, a fictional organization that now lives only online. It claims to organize a digital afterlife for its “clients” – preserving their online presence and, thanks to virtual reality, even the memory of their physical existence. On its website, the institute greets visitors with deadpan sales pitches such as, “What will death mean when our digital souls outlive our physical bodies?”

In fact, the sculpture and the institute were the work of Gabriel Barcia-Colombo, a 35-year-old New York artist and teacher in New York University’s Interactive Telecommunications Program. Working with a grant from Lacma, Mr. Barcia-Colombo invented the institute as a way to explore death rituals in the digital age.

Now, at Mr Goodman’s invitation, he curated the digital art exhibition at Sotheby’s. The young artists on the show, including several ITP graduates, tend to share, despite their digital immersion, a deep ambivalence about where it takes us. They also seem to share the ‘Black Mirror’ sensibility behind the Hereafter Institute: the perception, endemic to the satirical British TV series, that technology has led us into a house of digital entertainment where nothing is as it seems and everything is as we fear it might be.

The exhibition at Sotheby’s, titled “Bunker”, runs until August 10. It features Jeremy Bailey, a Toronto artist who fuses Snapchat with art history, portraying individuals through an augmented reality lens in poses reminiscent of famous portraits from the past. A digital C-print of his wife as she gazes at a tablet that seems to come to life is reminiscent of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s ‘Lady Lilith’ looking at herself in a mirror.

“It’s the idea of ​​looking at yourself through the technology of the day,” Mr Bailey said over the phone. An adjacent self-portrait shows him in the guise of the persona he has adopted – that of an obnoxiously exuberant naive who proclaims himself a famous new media artist. “He deeply believes that technology can help, and yet technology constantly lets him down,” Mr. Bailey said of his alter ego. “So the hell, why doesn’t he deliver?”

Elsewhere in the show, you can don a virtual reality headset to navigate the childhood home of Sarah Rothberg, who reconstructed her experience growing up in Los Angeles from old photos and home movies. Or admire Ashley Zelinskie’s metal lace sculptures – self-portraits whose surfaces are made up of the letters that spell out her genetic code. One piece – in a series called “Android” – has a cube built into the face; the surface of the cube is made up of the computer code that was used to generate it.

Ms. Zelinskie’s human-digital mash-ups are about “how we become one with our technology,” she explained in her studio in Bushwick, Brooklyn – a small loft crowded with NASA flyers and posters. Star Trek” pasted on the walls. In theory, the computer code on the cube’s surface means the cube could be “read” by a computer – which is why she sometimes says she makes art for robots as well as humans.

In fact, like the label on a can of pet food, the code on Ms. Zelinskie’s carvings is for humans. Aliens too, maybe. “I like to take ideas that have been reiterated over and over” — the human face, geometric shapes — “and put them in a time capsule made out of math,” she said. “For me, it’s preserving human culture.”

Another Brooklyn artist in the show, Carla Gannis, seems less concerned with preserving human culture than documenting its degradation. In “The Garden of Emoji Delights,” based on the early 16th-century triptych by Hieronymus Bosch, she reimagines one of the best-known Northern Renaissance paintings as a cheerfully pirated computer file, her figures frolicking and its hellish beasts morphing into cartoon-like characters. There are two versions – a 13ft by 7ft C footprint (roughly the same dimensions as the Bosch) and a smaller electronic variant that powers up like a video game. The electronic version features a deliriously animated tableau that ends with disaster across all three panels – Eden annihilated by a plane crash, Earth overtaken by forests, hell frozen. It’s fascinating, in an edgy way – but instead of depth and enigma, we get candy-colored titillation and a nagging sense that nothing exists below the surface.

The show’s most haunting work is Jamie Zigelbaum’s “Doorway to the Soul,” which consists of a white plinth topped with a 16-inch-tall video monitor that stands at average human height. On the screen, a face every 60 seconds. You might not realize the stream is live or the faces belong to workers at Mechanical Turk, Amazon’s micro-job site, who are paid 25 cents to watch their computer’s webcam for a minute. .

“That archetype of looking into someone’s eyes — it’s a very powerful moment,” Zigelbaum said.

But in this case, the other person is disembodied, and the moment you share is mediated by technology – by video cameras, by digital networks, by Amazon’s “microtasking” platform. “You look into someone’s eyes, but you don’t know if they can see you or who they are,” Zigelbaum said. The technology that makes Turkish Mechanics workers visible also makes them intangible. Communication is enhanced and hindered at the same time.

What is not visible at Sotheby’s is something of Mr. Barcia-Colombo himself. After seeing his ‘Monument I’, Mr Goodman asked if he wanted to bring the Beyond Institute to Sotheby’s. “And I said great,” Mr. Barcia-Colombo recalled, “but it’s a complicated show, and it’s about death, so your clientele might not like it.” With the show he put on, he added, “Some people are like, book this room – I want it! And others are like, is this Sotheby’s?

Mr. Barcia-Colombo’s Lacma installation was indeed complicated. For two days last August, visitors to the museum were offered a free consultation on their digital afterlife. To ensure a fully personalized experience, they were asked to pre-register and share access to their Facebook profiles.

When they showed up at the museum, they were greeted by actors in white coats and given a 3D body scan which was used to generate a life-size digital avatar. They were shown a virtual reality commemorative film like the one Mr. Barcia-Colombo made about his grandfather, a Spanish poet who fought against Franco and ended his days as professor emeritus of Spanish literature in Los Angeles.

Afterwards, they were able to attend their own funeral, with a eulogy based on their social media posts. At the end of the eulogy, their avatar appeared on screen, only to turn around and walk away into the clouds.

As it suggests, Mr Barcia-Colombo is actually less concerned with death than with the memories of life – with what happens to people’s Facebook pages when they’re gone, for example. It’s a common concern, so much so that two years ago Facebook began allowing its users to name a “legacy contact” to manage their profiles after death. But is it enough?

“I wanted to design a digital urn — some kind of object, some kind of memory machine that you could walk into,” he told NYU, where he teaches animation and video sculpting. “What if Facebook goes down? »

An unlikely prospect at this point – but if that happened, he stressed, “there would be no trace” of the billions of lives and trillions of “likes” that have been recorded with so many casualness, confidence and innocence. “The goal is to make that data physical,” he said, “so that there is a record of that person’s life.”

Tombstone makers and turntable makers, please take note.

Marilyn M. Davis