Imagine a device that allows people to engage in cultural exchange through the distribution of videos and images. Users can create media libraries and share them via telecommunications technologies. Sound like the internet? Artist Stan VanDerBeek envisioned it in the 1950s. Comprised of seventy contributors whose work spans fifty years, the New Museum’s new exhibition Ghosts in the Machine is a “prehistory of the digital age," in which artists use simple technologies to imagine our technological future.
Among its stellar roster of artworks is a twelve-foot-tall recreation of Stan VanDerBeek’s Movie-Drome, a dome-shaped theater where images are projected on the interior while viewers lie on the ground to watch 360-degree “immersive media environments.” The artist created the ad-hoc theater from the half-spherical top of a grain silo (the museum made sure to use the same farm supplies manufacturer for utmost accuracy). The dromes were meant to be erected around the world as knowledge-hubs to serve the public good, but only one was actually built. Well-known in experimental film circles but rarely seen during its brief time on view in the sixties, the work marks VanDerBeek’s pioneering combination of collage and new technology (the artist would later instigate CGI films, some of which are screened in the exhibition). Museum visitors can enter the structure and lie down to view the constantly changing collage of slides and video projections, with subjects ranging from politics to anthropology to visual art.
The exhibition is a historical survey of the intersection between man, machine, and art, and it includes pseudo-scientific objects as well as artworks. Some works, like the Movie-Drome, envision technology as a savior and a healer. In one room, for example, artist Emery Blagdon’s mystical healing constructions are juxtaposed with scientist Wilhelm Reich‘s Orgone Energy Accumulator. Reich’s iron-lined box was touted as having healing properties (he even enlisted Albert Einstein to help verify his claims). Shortly thereafter, the FDA declared the box ineffective and banned its sale. Here, the room highlights the curious intersections between science and mysticism that sometimes arise with new technologies, highlighting the often overly optimistic expectations humans have for the saving graces of technological progress.
Most of the works, however, express a tension and anxiety over a world where human experience is mediated by machines. Harley Cokeliss’s Crash!, car-crashing destruction porn, expresses the violent nature the artist sees at the heart of digital innovation. Philippe Parreno’s The Writer features an eerie eighteenth-century writing mannequin, whose mechanical clicks betray it as a hollow approximation of a human. Artist Henrik Olesen states it most simply: “The body is a machine. Machines are slaves.”
On the way out at the exhibition’s press preview, curator Massimiliano Gioni turned on Günther Uecker‘s New York Dancer IV, a spinning column of nails attached to a cloth. As the spiky fabric splayed out like a dancer’s skirt, Gioni wiggled his hands and looked on in mock-terror before promptly switching it off. Looking back on the early years of technology and art, the bogeyman of the soulless man-machine looks downright silly in an era where we maximize our social interactions and democratize cultural production through the wonders of technology. It seems that VanDerBeek got things right fifty years ago.
Ghosts in the Machine is on view at the New Museum through September 30.