Too often we think of technology as being weightless and ethereal, composed of invisible waves and algorithmic codes that all just simply work. The reality of course is that it’s a vast physical infrastructure of fibre optics, underwater cables and satellites, requiring warehouses filled with computers that drain huge amounts of energy and water. Such misconceptions are typical of our failure to comprehend how technology functions whilst we allow it to gradually take over everything from our financial markets, medicine and now even our criminal justice system.

An excellent exhibition currently on at MoMA, “New Order: 21st Century Art and Technology” focuses on this uneasy coexistence between technological networks and materiality. With nearly all of the featured artists confronting the basic paradoxes of technological power in the modern age. According to the curator, Michelle Kuo, without properly understanding technology we will never be able to “contest them or change them.” Or in other words, investigating the material dimensions of technology allows us to properly examine their effect upon our world.
 Harun Farocki, Eye/Machine I, 2001. Two-channel video installation. © 2019 Harun Farocki Filmproduktion

This exhibition could not have come at a better time. Advanced autonomous technology is quietly seeping into governmental institutions and the databases of private companies. In It Began as a Military Experiment, Trevor Paglan’s strangely poignant critique of facial recognition technology, he culls ten deadpan portraits from the US military’s first biometric identification database. Without knowing it, these military personnel are now a contemporary artwork, but of far greater concern is the fact that their faces are still freely available on an algorythmic library. That lack of regulation, of course, is the big issue.

Nearly half of US adults, regardless of whether or not they have a criminal record, are part of FBI facial recognition databases. In Britain, an office worker is taking the police to court after facial recognition cameras captured his image after he popped out to grab a sandwich. We are all, according to Paglan, part of a vast and “exponentially expanding image archive that we are helping populate, willingly or unwillingly, with our workout routines, our embraces, our memories and behaviours.”

Installation view, New Order: Art and Technology in the Twenty-First Century at The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Digital image © 2019 The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Photo: Jonathan Muzikar

Many of the featured artists are not accepting “technology as it is but confront what it does”, tackling the threats to our social freedoms being posed by the military-industrial complex, mass surveillance and social networks. Back in 2015, a software engineer realised that the image recognition algorithms in Google Photos were classifying his black friends as “gorillas.” Google issued an apology and said it was “appalled” at the mistake whilst promising to fix the issue immediately. But it appears that rather than fix the problem, they simply blocked its algorithms from identifying gorillas in the future. 

Google’s process is fundamentally invisible to humans, although it is an operation that’s taking place on our personal images. Sondra Perry’s examination into race and technology investigates how black bodies are both circulated and policed online via networks. Turning two exercise machines into interactive sculptures, it is only on mounting the bicycles that you realise the pedals have been put on backwards. The machines are rogue, refusing to perform as expected. Behind the installation, grotesque footage of the artist’s digitally manipulated skin is projected onto an enormous screen wall.

Tauba Auerbach. Altar/Engine. 2015. 3D printed nylon and plastic on table of aluminum, wood and paint. © 2019 Tauba Auerbach. Courtesy Paula Cooper Gallery, New York

The repurposing of military technology takes a more unsettling turn with Harun Farocki’s video installation Eye/Machine I, 2000. Utilising a vast collection of image sequences from archives and libraries, he explores weapon technology whilst meditating on the degree that reality has been formed by military image-making machinery. Some of the shots are drawn from the footage of projectiles homing in on their targets during the 1st Gulf War. Highly controversial at the time, not necessarily because of what they depict but in how they were perceived – in the eyes of the civilians watching on their sofas back home, bomb and journalist became one of the same.

Wade Guyton’s imposing black print on plywood brings an imposing physical presence to the exhibition. Repurposing the inkjet printer into a tool for painting, he exposes the limitations of digital technologies, reveling in the unplanned errors and unforeseen glitches. The paradox of course, is that these imperfections are often beautiful and humanising. Meanwhile, Josephine Pryde’s superimposed MRI scans of a human embryo against arid landscapes brings up pointed questions about the impact visuals have on the political debates surrounding a woman’s right to choose.

Left: Thomas Ruff. phg.06. 2012. Chromogenic color print. © 2019 Thomas Ruff / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Germany. Right: Wade Guyton. Untitled. 2009. Digital print on plywood. © 2019 Wade Guyton

We often think of art as being profoundly distinct from technology: art is “free, creative, spontaneous”, whereas technology is “rational, applied, anonymous”. To Kuo, they are inseparably tied to experimentation and progress. Their interrelation is brought into unsettling focus by Louise Bourgeois’ red holograms. With their small cages and chairs, they turn their bell jar containers into miniature cells of torture and testing. It is one of several experimental pieces turning the second room into a kind of biomedical laboratory. A fitting reminder that technologies are embedded in machines and bodies of silicon, flesh and plastic.


New Order: Art and Technology in the Twenty-First Century can be seen at MoMA through to the 15th of June.