A video montage of nautral scnes, installation scenes, an image of a rober, a hand holding a block of ice.

The 2023 LACMA Art + Technology Lab grant recipients apply art to technology, experimenting with new ways to address climate, obstacles, and ethics.

Artlab Editors:

The artists of the original LACMA Art and Technology Lab, undertaken at the end of the 1960s in the throes of radical global change, insinuated themselves at the fringes of culture and technology. LACMA paired these artists, including Andy Warhol and Claes Oldenburg, with think tanks, steel mills, and technology companies, where, with mixed results, they pressed their formal and political ideas. LACMA revived the program in 2014, in a much different world and since 2015 it has been a part of a ten-year partnership between LACMA and Hyundai Motor. Each year, the Art + Technology Lab puts out an open call for proposals from artists that engage emerging technology, encouraging experimentation and new ways to address social and environmental matters— many of which remain as urgent as they were four decades ago.

The 2023 class of Art + Technology Lab grant recipients—Patty Chang and David Kelley, Tristan Duke, Haleigh Nickerson, and Gala Porras-Kim—have markedly contemporary concerns. Far from enamored with “technology” for its own sake, inured to fast and pervasive internet and computing power unimaginable in the punch-card days of yore, their visions all range to more-than-human or non-human perspectives: revising and expanding postcolonial history, intervening in the systems of art itself. And there is the climate.

All four projects, to some degree, account for the impending collapse of the environment and/or our species with it. Some see technology as our salvation. Instead, these artists treat technology as a means for exploration; to see these urgencies in different, skeptical, poetic ways; in applying “art” to technology, they add the needed caveat that human striving often falls beautifully short.

Patty Chang and David Kelley

For their joint Art + Technology Lab project, 2023 grant recipients Patty Chang and David Kelley will research the implications of the United Nations International Seabed Authority’s upcoming decision to permit deep sea mining, weighing both the legal and ecological considerations with the project Stray Dog Hydrophobia.

A white round plastic coffee lid with text written on it that reads "Law of the Moon Law of the Seas Law of the Tides" placed on a white background, surrounded by rocks.

Patty Chang and David Kelley, Stray Dog Hydrophobia, 2023. Photograph.

Courtesy of the artists.

Your project seems to cover a lot of ground, so to speak—from the deep ocean to the La Brea tar pits to LACMA. What links all these areas together for you?

David Kelley: I had been doing a project about rare earth elements and their use in the green economy in inner Mongolia called Rare Earth Image Bank, and Patty had been collaborating on the project, Learning Endings, about marine mammals and ocean health with a feminist ecological scholar and a wildlife pathologist. Deep sea mining brought these two things together: extraction and the ocean. We attended the International Seabed Authority (ISA) Conference in Kingston, Jamaica where delegates were drafting the mining regulations for the seabed. The ISA was created by the United Nations Law of the Sea and has the authority to control all mineral resource related activities in 2/3 of the world’s oceans. What they plan to mine are called polymetallic nodules, which have manganese, copper, cobalt, and a number of other minerals useful for making car batteries. Polymetallic nodules sit on the bottom of the sea—they’re described as a “field of potatoes”—on the abyssal plain two miles down. But these minerals are also a substrate for numerous life forms, like worms, octopuses, and other creatures.

Patty Chang: A substrate is a surface for organisms to grow on. It can also be considered a support, holding life forms. Can we think about museums as substrates as well? These complicated spaces are constantly becoming. Something that’s living and not living at the same time. It's hard for humans to even consider something beyond the living. It’s hard for humans to comprehend death, much less becoming mineral or cycling from one energy to another. How can we help humans arrive at a more complex perspective?

How can art help us relate to the nonhuman world, or what you call the more-than-human?

DK: We’re interested in how we can account for things that are difficult to represent, which are dynamic systems and entanglements between animals, plants, minerals, and humans. We humans aren't very good at thinking dynamically about how these things interact with one another, but that's a really important thing for us to begin to do, as we consider, for example, beginning a massive mining campaign at the bottom of the sea. In the 19th century, the HMS Challenger, the first British oceanographic expedition around the world, found polymetallic nodules in the Pacific Ocean. They sawed them in half and found shark’s teeth and whale bones at their core, which means animals that died and sank to the bottom of the sea formed these nodules of metal deposits over millions of years. Mining companies and ISA member countries now covet these to produce batteries, profit, and to fight the effects of burning fossil fuels.

A white metal disk with the red caption "CORPORATION IS AN ULTRABEST" set against a tropical background.

Patty Chang and David Kelley, Stray Dog Hydrophobia, 2023. Video Still.

Courtesy of the artists.

PC: The nodules are a type of fossil. We’re thinking about ocean time and geological time. The deep sea is two miles down and in complete darkness. How can we visualize the ideas or emotions related to a place that is so remote to us? The fossils are a way we can look at what is close to us to think about what we can’t see.

I’m curious about the title of your film in progress, “Stray Dog Hydrophobia.” What form or forms do you imagine your project taking?

DK: In thinking about long cycles through history and interspecies mingling, we started talking about zoonotic diseases like Rabies, viruses that jump from animals to humans. In Gothic novels like Dracula or Frankenstein, the fear of a human / animal / technology hybrid, becomes the monster.

PC: The systems that a virus travels is a way to think about intelligent forms. Rabies, at one time referred to as hydrophobia, induces a fear of water when the virus takes over your nervous system. It enters into your body if you get bit, through saliva. It works through the nervous system – at the site of entry people often describe a tingling feeling because all the nerves right on the surface are activated by the virus. The virus starts moving through the peripheral nervous system to the brain where it can supermultiply. Then it needs to escape from its closest exit points, which are the salivary glands. This is why rabid dogs salivate. It’s fascinating how these other intelligent life forms function, and perhaps those are the more-than-human systems to learn from.

Gala Porras-Kim

For her Art + Technology Lab grant project, artist Gala Porras-Kim will respond to gaps in institutional cataloging systems through the development of new fields of operation within the database, which allow for multifaceted methods of registration, conservation, and display that decenter existing taxonomies with the project Expansive Data Fields.

Exhibition in a gallery featuring rocks, a vase, and framed artworks hanging on the wall and laid out on a table.

Gala Porras-Kim, Installation View of Made in L.A. 2016: a, the, through, only, June 12-August 28, 2016. Hammer Museum, Los Angeles.

Photo by Brian Forrest.

So, will registrars be able to add custom fields as they arise?

GP: I’ve been looking at the subcategory of objects that were supposed to have an ongoing, infinite function. How do you even categorize that in a catalog today? You can’t. That was the root of the idea. For example, with bodies, the entry needs to incorporate different conservation notes about coroner procedure or cemetery rules, or how to deal with a body that is not just wood or metal.

Like you said, the museum catalog isn’t set up to think about the future of objects, because there’s a kind of finality there, too, as if the object is going to be in the system forever.

GP: That’s also very temporary. Just because we’re not going to see it happen in our lifetime, doesn't mean that 200 years from now an object is not going to turn into something else.

What draws you to human remains in museum collections? What responsibility do we bear to the dead, and to the not-yet-living?

GP: It's not so much about the future, but recognizing that these objects have a multiplicity of content. For example, an encyclopedic museum has not just artworks, but a variety of objects that were not supposed to be shown as cultural objects. Those objects bring their container with them. The museum transforms all of those materials into cultural objects once they get accessioned. But also, the object changes the shape of the building. Once a body is accessioned into a museum, it also turns the museum into a cemetery.

This makes me think of the work you did at the Hammer with objects in the collection that were basically unidentified. When there are unknown variables or lost or omitted information, should these gaps be filled?

GP: The goal is not necessarily to fill in the information, but I think the beauty is the impulse to try to fill it. For example, with the Hammer project, the objects in the Fowler Museum's collection lost their cataloging numbers so people didn’t know what they were. They had post-it notes from generations of institutional workers—the registrar, the conservator, or the curator guessing what the object was. Then a generation later, someone would cross out the notes because of new information. My goal is to understand the psychology of museum workers who try to conserve something forever when we all know it’s impossible.

What does it mean to move beyond a human perspective? To what extent is this even possible for us, as humans working with human institutions, human bodies, human limits?

GP: I was thinking about overflow storage. You have the museum, then you have the climate-controlled storage, and then you have the off-site storage that is further away. Is this stuff ever going to be on view for us? The answer most likely is no. Many museums don't have a deaccession policy, and so the objects are stuck. So who is that stuff for? This is an institutional burial ground. Those objects go from being just for humans alone into what their actual life might have been before they got dug up, decaying in the ground.

An art exhibition displaying a collection of rocks, a vessel/scultpure, and framed artworks on the wall.

Gala Porras-Kim, Installation View of Made in L.A. 2016: a, the, through, only, June 12-August 28, 2016. Hammer Museum, Los Angeles.

Photo by Brian Forrest.

Haleigh Nickerson

2023 LACMA Art + Technology Lab grant artist Haleigh Nickerson will share and revive the empowering legacy of the Sojourner Mars rover through local community engagement and explorative youth education with the project Sojourner’s Rovers. In collaboration with Watts Community Core, Nickerson will create a series of re-imagined, free-roaming rover artworks.

You plan to build and launch a number of robotic rovers based on NASA’s Sojourner, which explored Mars in 1997, in collaboration with the Watts Community Core. What does it mean to redirect the idea of space exploration back into terrestrial communities—to imagine Nickerson Gardens as essentially Mars or the Moon?

A photograph of the Sojourner rover next to a portrait of Sojourner Truth, with a Mars rover image in the background.

Haleigh Nickerson, Sojourner Notes Scan.

Courtesy of the artist.

Haleigh Nickerson: In terms of Black and Brown communities, the project is largely about seeing ourselves in the future, in opposition to being left behind. What are ways that we can cultivate life here? What are ways that we can dream here? What are ways that we can build worlds of expansion and freedom here and now instead of thinking it’s somewhere else?

Before the Sojourner Mars rover made history, there was a youth contest to name the rover. The winner was a twelve-year-old Black girl named Valerie Ambroise, who said it was a “no-brainer” for the rover to be named Sojourner because it can move over obstacles. In this way, I’ve been interested in how this technology is Black-coded and connected to Sojourner Truth’s legacy as a radical activist and abolitionist.

What might it mean to overcome obstacles, as NASA’s rover did, in this context?

HN: That rover was the first of its kind. It was able to roll over obstacles and trailblaze an entirely new path in terms of technology and NASA’s missions. I was interested in what this means in terms of blazing a new path, and grappling with the notion of this Black navigational strategy of moving and roving over the obstacles we face. That’s what Sojourner Truth did, and that’s what many historical Black icons have done. We do it every day. What does it mean to envision a future when historically it appears as if there isn't one? When the world continues to tell you that your life does not matter or exist, what does it mean to transgress that? There’s an element of Black continuation where we continue to roll over and move forward, making a way out of no way.

A yellow plaque titled 'Sojourner's Revival 070497' is displayed with red arrows pointing towards it.

Haleigh Nickerson, Sojourner’s Revival.

Courtesy of the artist.

How does this project relate to your previous work in film?

HN: Film is a foundation to my practice, whether that’s actual film or installation. I’m interested in character, narrative, and storytelling. In the reimagining of this iconic technology and the Sojourner Mars rover, we’re in control of the narrative. We’re unraveling Sojourner Truth’s legacy while also asserting ourselves into this space narrative and envisioning the future. Everybody doesn’t view it this way, but for me, filmmaking is building a community. I want to drive home that filmmaking is an act of continued world building. World building is all about imagination and envisioning something that might not already exist.

So the project is about building the rovers, more so than what the rovers will go on to do?

HN: I see it as both. Half is engaging with the technology and seeing how far you can get in terms of innovation with these reimagined rovers. And then there’s also this larger community element. In terms of how I’m structuring the project, part is me working with engineers, teasing out what's going to work and what’s not. But the other component of the project is a series of workshops with the Watts Community Core and the youth that they serve. We’re trying to mirror NASA’s actual rover launches. Each student will have a role in the same way each person has a role at NASA. I’m imagining the Nickerson Gardens Skate Park as Mars, where we’re in a classroom working together to see if the rover can drive over obstacles, maybe gather footage of the terrain. There’s an ultimate goal, but the trial and error of being able to get to this launch has the capacity to be deeply empowering for students involved. It’s like a space camp, but it’s for art making.

Tristan Duke

For his 2023 Art + Technology Lab grant project, artist Tristan Duke will explore the unlikely intersection of high-tech imaging, neutrino astronomy, and glaciology, using a technology he invented in his art practice—a camera with a lens made of ice—with the project Glacial Optics: Cold Cutting Edge.

A blurred photo of a sea with a ship, encompassed by large snowy mountains.

Tristan Duke, Antigua Weighing Anchor, 2022. Image made in the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard, captured using a modified digital camera fitted with a lens made from glacier ice.

Courtesy of the artist.

Your project involves making photographs using a lens made of ice. I’m curious about the technical aspects here. How do you fashion a functional piece of optics out of frozen water?

Tristan Duke: The first things that I had to overcome in this project are these basic questions: How do you make a lens out of ice? And then once you make a lens out of ice, how do you actually attach it to a camera and work with it?

The ice lens molds are a two-part aluminum cylinder that slides on guide rails. I warm these up with hot water so the cylinder soaks up heat. Then, when I place ice in between the two parts of this mold, it melts into the shape of the lens. It’s tricky to attach and hold on to an ice lens, because it’s melting, and it’s slippery. But in fact, the ice lens has to be melting in order for it to work. To address this, I made a fixture so the lens is cinched inside of elastic stocking that forms a spiraling aperture. It works fantastic.

Do you make the lenses on site?

TD: Not only do I form the lenses in the field, I am often collecting the ice from the environment from where I am working. In the case of the photos I made in the Arctic, glacier ice, under the right conditions, can be the most clear substance found in nature— even more clear than diamond. This has to do with the immense weight and pressure of the glacier, which pushes all of the air bubbles out of the ice.

What formal qualities do you get with an ice lens?

TD: People often ask: what’s the advantage of making a camera that big or, what's the advantage of making a lens out of ice? I’ve come to realize that photography is deeply embedded in the narrative of technological progress. The ice lens is not about progress and technical recording, but shifting perspective. This project was all about exploring the gaze of the glacier. There’s a poetic vision that is grounded in very technical challenges. When you undertake something that seems impossible, or maybe ridiculous, it leads to interesting discoveries. It’s like the argument for pure research in the sciences.

A person standing in front of a large tent camera, focusing on attaching a glacial ice lens, whilst sporting a striped headgear with red lights.

Artist Tristan Duke attaching a lens made out of glacier ice to his giant tent camera.

Courtesy of the artist.

On a conceptual level, what does it mean to make pictures of ice using ice?

TD: The glacier is an entity that has massive power. It can shape entire continents. It can preserve entire wooly mammoths. But it also has this massive fragility. Part of the project was my own response to living through a climate disaster. You read the news and you see an article that says, “Oh, a chunk of ice the size of Manhattan just broke off of the Antarctic ice sheet.” I certainly struggled with how to even process or comprehend that. Creating a glacial perspective was about being able to look this thing in the eye to try to understand it.

Can you tell me about how scale is important to your project? The IceCube array you describe, for instance, takes readings through a cubic kilometer of ice—and thinking about glaciers and climate change and these other hyperobjects—but also the size of your camera, which can make these basically body-sized negatives.

TD: The negatives I’m working with are roughly the size of a human, creating a sort of personification. At that scale, I wanted something that invoked the massive scale of the glacier. Part of that involves scales that are beyond the human, including deep time, planetary scales, and entire landscape scales.

IceCube is a cubic kilometer of crystal clear ice that sits beneath the South Pole, in which they've embedded an array of neutrino sensors. It’s a huge engineering feat just to get the sensors there and make this whole thing work. If you can imagine the globe of the earth, the IceCube array is buried in the ice directly under the South Pole, but it’s looking through the earth towards the northern celestial sphere. This is because neutrinos can pass through the Earth like it’s not there, and there’s not much else that can do that. They're essentially using the Earth as a giant filter. On a certain level, technically and optically, IceCube is using this cubic kilometer of ice as a giant lens. It’s about being able to look through the Earth and see the larger cosmos beyond. It’s a vision that’s able to penetrate the smoke and fire of the Anthropocene to see the bigger picture beyond the folly of our current human moment.

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