This summer marked the centennial of the birth of Alan Turing, the one-of-a-kind mathematician and computer scientist who is known as the godfather of artificial intelligence, and who gave birth to the hypothesis that computers would one day be more convincingly human than actual human beings. Turing serves as an appropriate patron saint of sorts for the New Museum’s latest exhibition “Ghosts in the Machine,” which opened yesterday. With works dating back as early as 1810, the show traces the evolving relationship of man vs. machine over the past two centuries, from initial fascination, to the uneasy equilibrium we have reached with them today.
Curators Massimiliano Gioni and Gary Carrion-Murayari approach the subject from all angles, pulling together works that not only comment on the rapid pace of technological progress over the past century, but often incorporate it as well. The centerpiece of the fourth floor, for example, is a rebuilt Movie-Drome by Stan VanDerBeek, a small hut in which a screaming, wailing, collage of film clips and appropriated art flashes by in an endless, dizzying cycle. VanDerBeek intended for a wide-ranging network of these installations to be established across the world, an idea that, had it come to fruition, would have constituted an early version of the Internet. The piece also plays off the central tenet of Marshall McLuhan—perhaps the exhibition’s other lodestar—that “the medium is the message.” After all, what better response to the increasing bombardment of imagery people experienced even back in the ’60s than full-on immersion complete surrender?
The show moves, as Carrion-Murayari noted in his opening remarks at the press preview, “from the mechanical to the optical to the virtual,” as pieces of kinetic art, like Hans Haacke’s hypnotizing billowing Blue Sail with fan, and François Morellet’s Sphère-trames of welded rods, give way to the Op Art of Victor Vasarely’s pulsing dots, and Bridget Riley’s wriggling lines. Despite a throughline of obvious discomfort with the growing obsession with machinery—see Jeff Koons’ reliquary of vacuum cleaners—there is still a discernible optimism to the early works, an EPCOT-era hope that technology can solve all the problems of the future. Those dreams are dashed in pieces like Harley Cokeliss’ 1971 short Crash!, based on a JG Ballard novel about car-crash fetishes, and an unattributed late-’70s recreation of the execution machine from Kafka’s short story, In the Penal Colony. Even the playful comics of Rube Goldberg are marked by a disdain for the overly-complicated inventions of Professor Lucifer Gorgonzola Butts, which add dozens of steps to simple processes that could be better completed in just one.
Still, those contraptions can be fascinating. Witness the sparkling and mesmerizing two-wheelers in Jikken Kobo’s short film Ginrin, an experimental advertisement commissioned by the Japan Bicycle Industry Association; or the twisted wire sculptures of Emery Blagdon, strung up in a corner like angry ancient chandeliers; or Petar Milojevic’s intricate computer-generated graphics, faithfully detailed recreations of natural forms. Even Bell Labs engineer Herb Schneider’s schematics for Rauschenberg’s 9 Evenings series—which featured performances by Rauschenberg himself along with John Cage, Lucinda Childs, and Yvonne Rainer—reach a sort of transcendental clarity of composition, reminiscent of Dan Flavin’s preparatory drawings for his neon sculptures seen at the Morgan earlier this year. And Goldberg himself couldn’t have done better than Peter Fischli and David Weiss’ thirty-minute film The Way Things Go, in which fire, water, ice, and smoke, play bit parts in a seemingly endless chain of household items sparking, launching, bursting, and melting in a steady progression of movement from which it proves difficult to turn away. There may be ghosts in those machines, but they are just as capable of entrancing as they are of spooking.