Ghosts in the Machine at The New MuseumExhibition
If the Enlightenment was our coming of age, we'd barely entered young adulthood before industrialization started mashing our cultural dreams in its gears. After a century of studying the virtues of human achievement, the Machine Age showed us that along with its glories, the mind can be a wilderness as well. In the most intelligent way, Ghosts in the Machine is about this human struggle with technology.
If you're expecting a high-tech science fair this show is its opposite; in fact, it might even be described as quaint. Stan VanDerBeek's Movie-Drome looks more like Edward G. Robinson's euthanasia scene in Soylent Green than the breakthrough it actually was. And the 1969 video commissions by trailblazers Nam June Paik, Otto Piene, Allan Kaprow and Aldo Tambellini for Boston's WGBH come off as curatorial afterthoughts. But there are plenty of gems, like Thomas Bayrle's Madonna and child made of Xeroxed luxury cars (Madonna-Mercedes), the brilliant Channa Horwitz movement scores, Gianni Colombo's elegant elastic grid installation and Hans Haacke's poetic Blue Sail.
The quiet winner of all the galleries, however, is the one focusing on the alienating effects of the machine age, as described in Viktor Tausk's 1919 essay On the Origin of the ''Influencing Machine'' in Schizophrenia. This cathexsis is spelled out in the fantastic diagrams of mental patients like Jakob Mohr, Robert Gie, James Tilly Matthews, and in the amazing embroideries of Johanna Natalie Wintsch, who believed energy systems connected her body to the universe. But if there can be one profound metaphor for the uneasy bargain we strike with the machine, it's articulated in Henrik Olesen's portrait of the man who cracked the Enigma code, Alan Turing, a gay man who in 1952 was convicted of gross indecency, and sentenced to chemical castration. After two years of estrogen injections, Turing committed suicide. The man who laid the groundwork for modern computer science, and kickstarted the idea of artificial intelligence, was trapped in the society we construct on the rigid basis of computer science itself, the simple binary.
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