I am not a robot.
How can I be sure?
These questions cut to the core of a mind-altering exhibition this spring at Paris’s Palais de Tokyo, one of the world’s preeminent sites for contemporary art. Sculpture, film, objects lost and found, howling human wolves, a grand sun-drenched room filled with "cooked" branches facing midnight, an undulating table surrounded by dancing chairs, and a giant inhabitable taxidermist’s bear: all these ask us to reflect and meditate on the commodification of daily life under the direction of a machine driven culture.
Seven contemporary artists drawn from all over the world have come together under the rubric All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace. None of the works intend to demonize the machines on which our daily life rests: MacBooks, Galaxies, walk timers, remote microwaves, espresso capsules, talking GPS car guides or pre-programmed solar panel “turbines.” The pieces here aim to illuminate how thoroughly we are all formed and implicated by the universe of machines.
Japan’s leading bad boy artist, Taro Izumi, loves to take the banal objects of everyday life—chairs, ladders, soccer balls—and re-imagine them as the legs, arms, heads and butts of professional athletes. Taking film clips of the jocks in action, he creates finely honed wood and metal structures that both conform to their gestures and serve as cage-contraptions into which live bodies can insert themselves. Or, as curator Jean de Losy, tells us, “[The Tricksters] slip into familiar spaces and make havoc of our lives and habits, and this is just what Taro Izumi, trickster-artist, ‘enfant terrible,’ conceptual rogue, does while deliciously imaging that everything could be so different.”
Turn a corner and descend three steps and you enter the world of Abraham Poinchaval, a performance technician who spent 13 days living (hibernating?) inside a giant wooden bear. Dreaming, eating, urinating, Poinchaval took himself, and us in our imaginations, “inside the belly of the beast,” a beast that like most of the world we inhabit is governed by intricate machines. A few feet away a large plaster “stone” has become a hollowed out egg into which he installed himself until it “hatched,” breaking apart to permit his birth. As a visitor you too can slip yourself into the gestational stone.
While you’re looking at kids hopping in and out of the egg, you may well hear a group of air-compressed electronic chairs banging about wildly as they surround an undulating, twinkling table, all designed and crafted by Dorian Gaudin, a young Frenchman transplanted to New York. The chairs seem to petitioning the table to calm down for dinner, alternatively sending out psychic waves of anxiety or contentment, or as curator Julien Fronsacq explains, Gaudin’s “narrative” actions call us to remember how object fetishism and techno addiction increasingly frame and govern how we as humans relate to the world around us.
Sculptor of found, “cooked” and restored wood, Emmanuel Saulnier covers four bright, white walls and the floor with tree branches that come to life if we allow our eyes to relax with them. He calls it Around Midnight, a tribute to Thelonious Monk’s signature jazz composition. Porpoises, birds, serpents, foxes seem to spring into motionless movement. “The violence of our era,” he writes, “is such that we need to break with what exists. We need to destroy everything so as to rebuild everything. I felt the need for a new rhythm, to produce a set of forms which would be very different from what I used to do. I thought back to Mikhail Bakunin for whom destruction was also creative and I got down to work, in delight, looking for a new energy."
In another smaller, but not too small, space Californian Mika Tajima presents a series of intense electronically generated tapestries, recalling at once on humans’ earliest handmade tactile creations that can and are now being created by computer algorithms that appear to be colorful sound waves programmed into reality. If there is any single inspiration for the whole complex of pieces addressing man’s integration with machine, it is the late American poet Richard Brautigan's short poem about Nature and the Machine entitled, “All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace.”
I like to think
(so it has to b!)
of a cybernetic ecology
where we are free of our labors
and joined back to nature, returned to our mammal
brothers and sisters
and all watched over
by machines of loving grace.
Algorithmic grace may or may not be gestating just beyond the horizon, just as the 19th century inventors once promised that conventional mechanics would soon liberate humans from the dirty burden of work. It’s a worthy dream, and it is surely idle folly to retreat to those 19th century Luddite weavers who smashed the new machines rather than submit. The machines survived; the weavers did not. Yet the white lung disease that brought them early death steadily declined. We will not be separated from our machines nor they from us however long and loud we protest that we are not robots.
The robots, however, are neither the enemy nor the problem, even if robot copulation is, as threatened, the next big distraction. What we have to fear is algorithmic distraction -- not a culture of machines, but the relentless self-generating culture of spectacle that lulls us into a perpetual insomnia of passivity.
Frank Browning © 2016
Frank Browning was an editor at Ramparts Magazine and later a science reporter for NPR. He has lived in Paris since 2000. An earlier version of this article appeared in the Huffington Post.