Commissioned by Hyundai Artlab, © Irene Suosalo
It’s the artist’s job to think about the future. From the streets of New York this spring, here are the results.
The light came in in sections.
– New York Times, September 5, 1882
September 4, 1882: Thomas Edison plugged in the modern era. That day, the Edison Illuminating Company opened at 257 Pearl Street in Lower Manhattan, using its dynamos to push direct current electricity into the homes and offices of dozens of customers, including The New York Times, which reported on the illumination the following day. The article, tucked into the pages of the paper, amidst accounts of horse races, stolen yachts, and solved mysteries, describes the illumination as “…soft, mellow, and grateful to the eye.” The vessels for this light are described as follows:
“At the top is a brass circle, from which are suspended the shade and the lamp proper. The latter is a glass globe about four inches long, and the shape of a dropping tear, broad at the bottom, narrow at the neck, in which is inclosed [sic] the carbon horseshoe that gives the light. The globe is air-tight, and the air has been exhausted, leaving the carbon horseshoe in perfect vacuum.”
This Times reporter is trying to explain something utterly new: an invention that would literally turn night into day. The lightbulb.
What strikes me is the strained poetry of this news item. The attempt to wrap our collective head around something fundamentally new, using our imagination. The bulb is a globe. It’s a teardrop. Inside, that thingy there? Think of that as a shoe for a horse.
Though this anonymous journalist would hesitate to call himself an artist, he’s fulfilling a central role of artists throughout history. He’s enlisting the imagination to familiarize the new and disruptive. Nowhere is this role as central to the arts as in New York city, a place of pressurized velocity, where industry, nature, and countless bodies have fused into an innovative mass as dense as the 450-million-year-old Manhattan schist allowing the skyline to bloom.
“It’s the artist’s job to think about the future,” is how Nam June Paik put it. The Korean visionary and polymath, who moved to New York in 1964, has left behind numerous legacies. Immigrant, futurist, prankster, high apostle of the information age. Through his work we witness the unfolding effects of technology as it transforms the natural landscape of our cities and countries, and shapes the bodies and subjectivities of those we pass on the street.
© Elliott Erwitt/Magnum Photos
"Moon is the Oldest TV," a documentary focused on Paik’s life and work, screened at Film Forum on Houston Street earlier this spring, and premiers May 16 on PBS. Whether adorning the human body with screens in “TV Bra for Living Sculpture” (1970) or visualizing a landscape mediated by images “Electronic Superhighway: Continental U.S., Alaska, Hawaii” (1995), the artist’s prescient vision has helped a generation come to terms with the existential overlap of technology, ecology, and biology.
Similar thinking took place at Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.), which was founded in 1966 by artist Robert Rauschenberg and technologist Billy Kluver to “assist and catalyze the inevitable active cooperation of industry, labor, technology, and the arts.” The organization noted that “artists and engineers are becoming aware of their crucial role in changing the human environment and the relevant forces shaping our society. Engineers are aware that the artists’ insight can influence his direction and give human scale to his work, and the artist recognizes richness, variety and human necessity as qualities of the new technology.”
Richness, Variety, and Human Necessity: here one finds the ethos of E.A.T.’s worldview. The program was characterized by its irreverent output, often in performance form, that matched the optimistic worldview of the time. Better living through chemistry. One word: plastics.
Courtesy the artist and Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York / Los Angeles
E.A.T. served as a precursor to LACMA's Art + Technology Lab program, which we explored in the last issue of Virtual Horizons. And turns out, an Art + Tech Lab alum currently has a show up at Tanya Bonakdar in Chelsea. Kelly Akashi’s poetic Infinite Body plumbs the deep horizon of time, presenting fragments of the human form—the artist’s own—amidst a geological and celestial diorama. Polished hunks of travertine marble, its orange and white veins glowing like incandescent gelato, sit atop pedestals and plinths of rammed earth, with bronzed and blown glass relics of nature.
Scattered throughout are Akashi’s "Seismograms": blown-glass petals bearing broken portions of friendship bracelets and globs of chewed gum. Upstairs, amidst photographs of nebulas, spins a celestial centerpiece. An impossibly delicate orb of borosilicate glass blooms with cherry blossoms. I spent a slow minute watching this sculpture rotate on its concrete pedestal, as raindrops tapped on the skylight above.
Akashi’s project, it occurred to me as I walked from the gallery down the High Line, resonated so deeply because of its embrace of a material and temporal continuum. Balancing scales between human relationships and the life cycle of stardust bring all into connection: emphasizing an interconnectivity between ourselves and the world expanding in all directions.
The High Line that morning was a wonderful extension of the show. The park never fails to amaze. As you walk its concrete path, your feet detect the hollowness caused by twenty feet of air below. You are both on, and off, solid ground. Native plants bowed under the weight of raindrops. Old railroad tracks emerged from fresh concrete like fossils. The High Line is industry, remade by nature, remade by art.
Photograph by Ron Amstutz
At the southern end sits the Whitney Museum of American Art, home of one of this spring’s most acclaimed exhibitions. Josh Kline’s is a chilling, enervating portrait of life in this country post 9/11, and a harbinger of things to come, unless we change our relationship to both technology and the environment. Over two floors in the museum, the Filipino-American artist shows us a world in which technological development, from medication to product design to logistics and artificial intelligence, is used not for the purposes of human development, but for extractive and exploitative capitalism.
Walking from the elevated park of the High Line into a gallery of hyperrealistic sculptures of disembodied limbs and the heads of minimum wage workers led my mind not to Akashi’s fragments of the human form, but to an earlier experience of dislocation, taking place in a dystopic version of the High Line. Visiting Hong Kong for the first time some fifteen years ago, I spent a Sunday walking the elevated walkways of Central. The walkways were hard to navigate, not for the crowds of tourists, but the picnicking groups of domestic workers, most of them from the Philippines, looking for a place to gather and relax on their day off. At the time it felt strangely dystopian—where was the public green space?—but now it seems oddly optimistic: some pre-Occupy intervention into the architecture of late capital.
I left Kline’s exhibition with two competing visions of the future. One, as evidenced in "Climate Change Is Personal Responsibility" (2023-), has us living in temporary structures, fighting over resources in a parched ex-urban hellscape. The other is more positive. "Another America is Possible" (2017) is the one piece in Kline’s show that veers toward optimism, even if its hope could read as satire. His aesthetic language is deployed to describe an America that could happen, a place of fecund unity at the barbecue. Another America is possible. Technology is agnostic. We possess both the tools for our destruction, and our salvation. They’re the same tools.
Film © Subash Thebe Limbu. Installation image courtesy of Canal Projects.
Citibiking down through the village, a jumbled interregnum to Manhattan’s grid, a place where, as Martin Amis put it, the streets have names, I pedaled south towards Canal. Canal, though it is hard to believe, was once water. At Canal Projects, a science-fiction epic by Subash Thebe Limbu looked to how the passage of time shores up against our experience of reality, at once giving it form, and eroding it before our eyes. "Ningwasum" (2021) follows two time-travelers from a future indigenous nation as they move through the sublime, fragile landscape of the Himalayas.
In the future, technology and indigenous knowledge will be combined, allowing for sustainable life. It’s the same line of thinking explored in his latest work, "Ladhamba Tayem; Future Continuous," which won the Grand Prix of the 5th VH AWARD earlier this month. In this work, Mikki, a time-traveler from the distant future meets the 18th-century warrior Kangsore: past and future coming together like warp and weft to weave the present tense.
“I come from a future you probably cannot imagine,” says one of the time travelers in "Ningwasum." And it’s how I felt, stepping out into the flow of traffic, an earlier work came to mind: an etching from a now anonymous artist, depicting the same stretch of landscape, now lost to all but the imagination. It’s a simple drawing, of a horse drawn crossing a bridge in 1811. The road is Broadway. The water beneath, Canal. How would this artist have imagined the future that we inhabit now? How do we imagine our own?