Article by Miranda Seaver
Venue: San José Museum of Art
I love my robots.
There’s an Amazon Echo in my bedroom who fills my room with lo-fi hip-hop beats on nights when insomnia has the best of me. There’s a second Echo in the living room – we call her “Computer” to prevent any miscommunication between her and her sister – and a Google Home in my parent’s room. We talk to them several times a day, to ask questions when we’re stoned and curious or hungry to win an argument. It’s a strange relationship between us and our new artificial assistants. Yes, they’ve been proven to listen to their surroundings at all times, so we’ve essentially volunteered to bug our house in the name of Capitalism. But it’s 2019, and that’s just the type of thing people are willing to do now.
This is the world of Almost Human, from the permanent collection of the San José Museum of Art. Black Mirror, eat your heart out.
If you have your finger on the pulse of the SJ art scene, you might notice that some pieces from Almost Human were featured at the San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art a while back, but the exhibit has truly been given the chance to flourish in the new and larger space. They’ve also added some interactive elements, including Ian Cheng’s Emissary Forks for You, a self-described “neurological gym” starring a virtual dog (A Shiba, for those who want the full picture) who guides you through the gallery from the screen of a Google Tango tablet.
I’m always a fan of any art that pulls me from the muck of the everyday, and that’s exactly what happened as I circled the room, head down to the tablet in my hands, and watched in wonder as the environment shifted around me. Each reset of the simulation is a different route, and you could potentially play ad infinitum, following the occasional demands of your tiny pupper until you get bored, or dizzy, or until the tablet freezes like it did for me after ten minutes of wandering. Which doesn’t come as much of a surprise if you consider the limits of basic game design, and it certainly doesn’t take away from the experience as a whole.
What I believe to be the most outstanding, and most relevant theme of Almost Human is the overlap between technology and humanity. It’s seen in more literal ways, such as in Jim Campbell’s duo piece Photograph of My Mother and Portrait of My Father, where he presents two photos of his parents that blur and turn clear following the rhythm of the his body. You can stand in front of both of them and watch his life echo over their own, two generations phasing in and out over each other. It’s like watching life without life. Truly a surreal experience.
I found the most enjoyment, however, in the chance to watch what appears to be technology in the process of learning, and doing so in a way that’s almost childlike. I saw it in Diane Thater’s Untitled (Butterfly Videowall #2), five flat screen monitors arranged in a star-shape on the floor, each showing a single shot of a monarch butterfly. They’ve stretched the shot over all screens, giving the image a disjointed and hazy quality, similar to how it feels to try and recall a memory from infancy. It’s there, yes, but your brain holds it a different way, distorting the image slightly and bathing it in the faint glow of nostalgia.
My favorite work in the whole exhibit is Listening Post by Mark Hansen and Ben Rubin. It’s a massive wall of LED modules on support beams, along with speakers hanging strategically around a near-black room. The piece’s main feature is its algorithms and custom software that pulls data from online chatrooms and organizes them into “movements” that are then displayed on screen and narrated through the speakers, creating a soundscape that travels around the space.
I sat there for a long time, in the dark, watching this massive machine displaying statements from its massive cache of uncensored internet data. At one point it was just spelling, scrolling through letters to make words. I could’ve sat there for a lot longer, if nothing else then to see how much information this software had gathered.
Because, strange as it may seem, we’re rapidly approaching a time when that’s all we can do. We’re in an age where we’re no longer “surfing the web” with chunky desktop computers and cacophonous dial-up modems. Technology is creating a new form of art that feels entirely present to the now, an elusive, yet constantly-present moment that is born, aged, and dead all at the same time. It’s art that’s ageless and constantly evolving. And it’s only going to grow – but into what, I can’t say.
All in all, Almost Human is definitely an exhibit worth experiencing. Bring your Echo if you have one. I bet she’d like it.