A digital art image showcasing multiple three-dimensional, rectangular shapes in varying colors. Each shape is labeled with different text, all within a composition titled "World on a Wire".

World on a Wire Website, Yehwan Song, 2021.

Image courtesy of the artist.

When we encounter art and ideas, our thoughts and understandings of the world change direction. Artlab Editors reflect on these refractions, and how art reveals the malleability of perception.

How does art refract life?

Many of today’s most compelling artists are refracting ideas in some way, allowing us to witness this moment of time where the distinctions between analog and digital lives are dissolving. And just as refracted light changes color, refractions of the digital can change the ways we move through spaces online and off.

We see our role at Artlab as one of refraction as well, bringing together visionary artists and global audiences in ways that give rise to new ways of seeing and understanding our world. We are grateful to the artists, collaborators, and friends who have shared their rigorous thinking and ideological generosity to bring new ideas to new audiences around the globe. Here, we look at projects that refract both the present and the future.

How “real” is real?

Hyundai x Rhizome of the New Museum: World on a Wire
(Online, Hyundai Motorstudio Moscow, Beijing, and Seoul)

Throughout modernity, the digital world has been secondary to the physical one. Now, things are changing, and the rapidly dissolving distinction between virtual and IRL experiences promises to change how we see ourselves, each other, and the world around us. World on a Wire maneuvers within this expanding humanity to explore the possibilities and limits of reality via a hybrid exhibition that bridges the physical and digital worlds. The show exists online at worldonawire.net, designed by South Korean artist Yehwan Song. Antithetical to the institutional white cube, Song’s exhibition space forces questions about the human/tech interaction that we think we know as fact. Hover over an artist’s name only to see it jump away or change size or bring you to a new page of fragmented text. Neural patterns are challenged, and so are the rules of reality—be it analog or digital. Rather than reducing a physical exhibition to images, World on a Wire becomes more expansive and generative when viewed through Song’s digital prism.

Idea, fact, or art?

LACMA Art+Technology Lab

When art and technology come together, entire new experiences of both can emerge. Science refracted through art opens new avenues of understanding while art refracted through science pushes experimentation to new heights.

Launched in 1967, at the dawn of the computer era, LACMA’s Art and Technology program was a trailblazer in exploring between art and science. That’s why its relaunch in 2014 is so important. By offering funding and support for artists to work closely with technologists, LACMA’s Art+Technology Lab fosters experimentation that can have long-term results. Among 2021’s grant recipients is American Artist, whose project Collective Head is inspired by science fiction writer and MacArthur “Genius” Octavia E. Butler’s ideas on rocket science. Artist’s research-driven work explores the relationship between race and technology and is conceptual but also applicable in daily life—much as their chosen name, which is both idea and fact, or as some would say “art” and “science.” With LACMA’s Art+Technology Lab artists and scientists no longer approach the world from different directions; now they work together, influencing each other’s thinking, work, and potential.

When is place political?

Life Between Islands: Caribbean-British Art 1950s–now
Research supported by Hyundai Tate Research Centre: Transnational in partnership with Hyundai Motor.

Do people create a place? Or is it the other way around? How does geography influence and determine someone’s creative impulse? Life Between Islands: Caribbean-British Art 1950s–now on view at Tate Britain, London includes more than 40 artists, but is intentionally not a survey. Instead, the show looks at issues like culture and decolonization, ideas of home, and the sociopolitical layers of life for Caribbean-British people, starting with those who arrived in the United Kingdom in the late 1940s to fill post-war labor shortages. It’s telling and meaningful that figures such as John Lyons (best known as a poet) and Michael McM

illan (who has worked most publicly as a playwright and academic) are included alongside younger names like rising fashion designer Grace Wales Bonner and visual artist Ada M. Patterson. The countless ways people experience Caribbean-British life is itself a refraction of place: what is glistening in one telling may be cutting in another.

Where will AI take us tomorrow?

The 4th VH AWARD Grand Prix Winner Lawrence Lek

The algorithms may not exactly be eavesdropping on all human interaction, but they are listening nonetheless. We know they are, but we continue to share all the details of our lives—maybe because we have nothing to hide or just don’t care or maybe because we are no longer capable of separating our digital selves from our embodied selves. This year’s VH AWARD, a biannual prize given to media artists from Asia, goes to London-based Lawrence Lek, who explores the psychological impact of surveillance and automation. Lek studied architecture but has just completed a practice-based PhD in filmmaking within virtual worlds. He explores worldbuilding, the creative approach of crafting entire fictional worlds, as a form of collage, incorporating elements from the material and virtual worlds to develop narratives of alternate histories and possible futures.

His project Black Cloud (2021), for which he won the 4th VH AWARD Grand Prix, revolves around a conversation between an urban AI surveillance system and their built-in therapist, seemingly the product of their own mind. By setting this dialogue within the ruins of the fictional smart city of SimBeijing, the video continues Lek’s exploration of the psychological impact of technological landscapes.

Much as light changes direction when it passes through a glass of water, our perceptions of reality change when we experience art. As we encounter art and ideas, our thoughts and understandings of the world change direction. We come to know entire ways of being, rarely pausing to consider them or where they come from. But occasionally something or someone forges an opening or forces a pause that allows us to observe these refractions. Science may show us how it happens, but it’s often art that pushes it open.

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