Time + Space: Futures at Bemis
by J. Fatima Martins
August 5, 2016
Futures, a multimedia and experiential presentation, featuring the work of eight Bemis Artists-In-Industry participants, is the second chapter of Sci-Fi and the Human Condition, within the yearlong Time + Space exhibition series. It follows Beginnings, an exhibition of earthbound materials, clay and ceramic sculpture.
The artists in this presentation are: Ting-Tong Chang (2015), Micol Hebron (2016); Aaron Jones (2015), Gabriel Martinez (2015), Nova Milne (2012), Kambui Olujimi (2009), Robert Pruitt (2015), and Jessica Segall (2015).
The exhibition is sensory-intensive and requires slow deliberation. As expected, it presents a range of contemporary practices and media. There’s four videos, two large-scale mixed media, multi media installations, a number of works on paper as well as photography that are parts of larger comprehensive pieces, and an amusing totalitarian robot bird - a key element in the show. There is also a graphic novel soft-cover book, Soledad, by Gabriel Martinez, which tells the story of Tomas, a lonely space delivery man, hauling sensitive cargo, who makes a critical life and death choice at the end. Visitors to the exhibition can take the book home for free.
What’s intriguing about Futures as an exhibition is its tone. It’s not optimistic. It functions as a directive, or warning, instead of a dialogue with the audience. Although back-and-forth exploratory talking does occur as important features of the work, it’s not democratic. Futures isn't seeking open-ended seeking audience interpretation. The subject and themes are firm, and the presentation is focused. The works on display are statements from the artists’ perspective based on observation, study, and experience, of what will happen in the future, not what could happen. The grounding theme is the characterizing condition of our contemporary time: life as fragmented, confused, artificially-intelligent, unfocused, memory-driven, and controlled.
To understand that the exhibition functions as a type of Warning, you need to keep the definition of Sci-Fi in mind as you experience and engage with the works. Sci-Fi is Science Fiction which is fiction presented as factual influenced directly by what is happening with technology and science right now.
The curators tell you exactly what to look out for explaining that the artists' pay “special attention to social criticism or protest - the dream of a new social order expressed in terms of magic, the fantastical, dystopian and utopian futures, post-apocalyptic worlds, artificial intelligence, futurist architecture, and the location of self within an imagined future.”
So, what’s going on today? In the 19th-century, the future was seen looking ‘steampunky,’ a mechanical and hard world where it was easy to differentiate between flesh and metal, with Jules Verne as the philosopher-artist of the time. At that time, human culture still dominated the world. One hundred years later, the future was atomic, computerized, and space-age, with Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” providing cold and clean aesthetics sometimes influenced by conscious robots. A new fear began to rise up. Humans were no longer in control of progress. Today with the fast development of cloud digital technology, distant media surveillance and communication, video games, and biological cloning, we project our future as being an anxious amalgamation of tangible up-cycled robotics and segmented amorphous conditions in which the artificial is vastly similar to reality. We are controlled by something invisible or ‘godlike’ inducing in us a primitive fear. We are bombarded with information, yet have no idea what’s real and true. In the past, people welcomed and were optimistic about the future, having faith in progress, but today we move cautiously towards a place at the dichotomy of safety and danger.
As a result of human fear of stagnation and ultimate death, and because humans are naturally and easily bored, the desire to project into and experience space-time is our ultimate motivation. The last time in our known history that we felt such profound fear was during the Great Dark Ages. It is no wonder, then, that contemporary art today is mostly concerned with concepts, possibilities, fantasy, abstraction, dislocation, and new-age spiritualism.
Living in or launching into air/cloud/space is the subject of the two large-in-scale installations that bookend Futures: Kambui Olujimi’s three-part video, sculpture, and print install, and Aaron Jones’ architectural futuristic living/ housing model Telematic Structures, 2016. Both of these take on the same ideas: the unification of biology and technology; geometric/mathematical controlled arrangements; defying gravity and harnessing the power of physics; inter-dimensional movement; public/private condition; and insecurity.
In the center of the gallery, Olujimi installed a sculptural geometric multi-stepped platform and futuristic dancing stage painted metallic gold that has a vaguely retro and vintage aesthetic. It’s not exactly a new concept. The sculpture is called The Luck We Draw and it functions as an example of three dimensional abstraction as well as a functional architectural construction. The design is similar to a series of eight vivid multicolored abstract serigraphs that hang on the wall that can be viewed as diagrams or schematic studies.
In this work, Olujimi is connecting past to present. The connection to our recent historical past is explained in the exhibition label: “The serigraphs chart time and space as well as gestural concern by considering 1930s endurance dance contesting.” The inspiration for the work is fascinating, but why exactly did Olujimi select the 1930s as source material?
The look of the stage platform is reminiscent in many ways of the grand dancing and theatrical sets of the Great Depression era when drama and glamorous productions and movies were created as a way to entertain the public and distract them a way from harsh economic realities. It’s fascinating how popular culture becomes more and more outrageous and glamorous as society become poorer and poorer. When times are tough people want to be entertained. We want joy; we want to rise above and float away from trouble and danger; we want to dance. We also become innovative in how we make money. The art division, Federal Art Project, of the Works Progress Administration (WPA, 1935) employed creative individuals in the arts in a variety of areas including entertainment.
To bring this point into focus, Olujimi brilliantly created a nearly 2-minute video, Staying Afloat, of a dancer in urban-street/athletic clothing skipping rope on the gold platform. The video is cleverly edited to present the illusion that the performer’s feet never touch the platform surface; he is literally “floating.” The metaphorical message here is ‘he is working hard to stay afloat, but it’s not real; one wrong step and he’ll fall.'
Living on the edge of danger, being watched, recorded, and controlled by borders, and the possibility of falling off the edge away from utopian living is the solid statement of Telematic Structures a collaborative installation by Aaron Jones, Wesley Taylor, and Mike Demps. This work engages the idea of the ‘silver lining,’ ‘cloud dream,’ and ‘heavenly bliss.’ The problem here is that it’s artificial and constructed to provide an illusion of freedom. It’s a controlled and monitored utopia. There is no freedom here.
The installation depicts an exploration in engineering and infrastructure. It presents as a type of maquette for a futuristic alien planned community suspended on a platform in the air or clouds. It features eight foldable geometric white pod houses arranged on a manicured landscapes evoking a suburban environment. Within this environment are model figures of people, plastic trees, and individual translucent mounds imprinted with a spiral motif and a vague human face structural imprint that is not immediately visible. The entire installation is uncomfortable. Appearing at first as whimsical and peaceful, we soon realize that this utopian community is being monitored and recorded by security cameras. On two walls the images are projected. One wall divides the views into four segments: cityscape, plaza train, cityscape, and reflective ball. These views show close up and odd angled views of the community.
Telematic Structures spotlights an ugly reality and engages important questions: why are we interested in watching each other? Why is surveillance necessary? Are we animals requiring control? The answer seems to be a firm Yes. Telematics is a branch of long-distance information technology in which computerized information can be sent to control movement such as GPS. Think about what GPS systems have done to our lives. They’ve provide easy movement and have altered our ability to think individually and problem solve humanly and logically. We have become robotic. The danger of distance surveillance and control is depicted in Archangel by Robert Pruitt. The mixed media drawing/painting is of a drone helicopter holding a black bag onto which the now iconic words “Can’t Breath” are written in white. This work is a form of protest art. Drones are missioned, long-distance via computers, by unknown persons who have the power over life and death. To understand this important work we need to delve into history and mythology. The Archangel Michael, who is recognized in Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, is a complex character. Depicted as a winged figure holding a sword, something flaming, he/ she arrives to lead God’s armies against demons. Taking the place of Michael is the military drone. At any point, for whatever reason, it can move in to watch, record, and if necessary kill you. Didn’t the great angels do the same thing once upon a biblical time? What’s more distributing than the reality of drone warfare is that people either don’t care, are not aware of what’s happening, or want more detached control of each other. Technology changes brain chemistry and we are being programmed to not think independently. The shift has already happened.
Pruitt points to our complacency and lack of independence in a militarized capitalist world. Jessica Segall also takes on the same theme. In her two-part presentation, a video called Zzzzzzz, 2016, and five color photographs depicting the same performance she documents and imagines a future of industrial biological reproduction and food sustainability with honeybees as subject. The video depicts the subduing of honeybees by smoke, in their hives, to harvest honey as product. Since ancient times the honeybee has been directly associated with female reproduction. Melissa was a nymph who taught humans how to use honey as a food and healing medicine. Segall’s performance which is depicted in the video as well as photographs does not require interpretation. The exhibition label clearly explains what’s happening. The woman gets into a bed which represents the hive, “the bed’s platform rests a set of draws that functions as working beehives. A commentary on the bed as a site for the stinging pain that intimacy and privacy can bring, the piece also draws inspiration from and attention to the global plight of disappearing honeybees.”
Human reproduction and robotics/automaton creatures is also explored by Ting-Tong Chang in four ink drawings from the series Society of Spiritual Beings. His Animatronic Baby depicts a child attached to medical equipment; The Woman from the Future is a drawing of an animatronic woman; Apocachopsticks speaks of a multicultural cultural dystopia, perhaps a commentary on the industrialization of Asian culture; and his Spaceman warns us of the lost self and the explosion of meaningless knowledge. His most interesting work in this series is Black Pigeon, a taxidermic bird that announces the days of the week, every 30-40 seconds, in a low-toned, emotionless, robot voice. Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday etc...is repeated slowly echoing throughout the exhibition space. Black Pigeon plays the role of time keeper.
Chang explores fragmentation, communication, and the Human Self. The same themes are depicted in two video installations: Nova Milne presents XEROX MISSIVE, 1977/ 2011 a three-channel performance by the late author Philip K. Dick and Tessa B. Dick, and Michol Hebron with Michael Hanson offer Who Are You, and What Do You Want?, 2012. In Milne’s video installation fragmented memory, aging, confused communication, and altered narratives are explored to expose the physical condition of “collapsed time and space.” The idea in XEROX MISSIVE is to conjure up the properties of inter-dimensional existence and a type of virtual living.
In their video, Hebron and Hanson attempt to engage the same idea of together/ alone. They are seen against a background image of an ever shifting cosmos. Facing each other, they are vulnerable and topless, although we only see their shoulders. While looking into each others eyes, they take turns repeating the same question ‘what do you want?,’ while the other answers the question with responses that range from the whimsical to the serious and uncomfortable. The entire presentation is voyeuristic. We are watching a private moment. The video is suppose to induce “ a utopian and universal need for better intimacy and communication,” and ironically or consequently it activates a pop culture reference.
While watching the exchange between the man and woman, the lyrics of the British girl group, the Spice Girls, Wannabe, 1996, filtered into consciousness achieving the past/ future collapsed time theme of the exhibition: “If you want my future, forget my past, If you wanna get with me, better make it fast, Now don’t go wasting my precious time, Get your act together we could be just fine. I’ll tell you what I want, what I really, really want, So tell me what you want, what you really, really want...”