SUVAN GEER

RELAX,

RESISTANCE IS USELESS

From the beginning of time the mystery which is the spark of life has driven humanity to make images. Cave paintings of the hunt, tomb paintings and beaded pouches for a new infant's umbilical cord are different cultures' homage to the elusive life force. But life's anima in this technological age has a forged steel edge. We manufacture replacement skin in test tubes, articicially inseminate, build computers to think unprogrammed thoughts and catch mechanical dementia with self-replicating computer "viruses." The line between human life and artificial life is increasingly blurred.

Artists as social critics and visionaries have long commented on the slow meld between machine and society which began with the Industrial Age. The Dadaists and Surrealists used machine parts and mechanical processes to warn about the alienating influence of industrialization as a social model. Walter Benjamin cautioned about a loss of originality in a world rife with mechanical reproduction. But Andy Warhol embraced industry as a model, proclaiming his studio "The Factory" and declaring, "If I paint this way, it's because I want to be a machine."

Until now art, like society, presumed a vast separation between machine and humanity. Society could be compared to a machine, so could the body, but ultimately they were two dissimilar creations. Warhol embraced the machine as a metaphor without fear of assimilation. But as technology continues to pick away at the Gordian knot of life--cloning instead of reproducing, re-engineering genes and replacing body parts with plastic--for some artists the barrier seems to have already slipped. The mechanical works of Terri Friedman bring the messiness of organic processes to the inorganic machinations of timers and water pumps. Her delightful forays into artificial life squirt, gurgle, bubble and flush with enthusiasm, like science exhibits with a great personal pride in their pseudo-bodily accomplishments. Made of plastic tubing which circulates colorful water, and bedecked with homey fleece warmers or swirling glitter, Friedman's pieces are grand displays, sideshow spectacles of private, bodily functions charmingly without shame. Because what machine can feel shame?

 

Teri Friedman, "Phew,"
mixed media.

 

 

Teri Friedman, "Grandma,"
mixed media.

 

dona diCarlo, "Seduction
Machine #5: Mesmerizing
Pasties," steel/electronics/pasties,
(2) 6 x 6 x 6", 1995.

 

dona di Carlo, "Seduction
Machine #4: La Petite Morte"
(detail), steel/plexiglas/electronics,
4 x 4 x 50", 1994.

Astride the guilt-free bodily processes of Friedman's mechanisms rides a strong sense of the absurd-but-not-impossible real science filling the contemporary culture, Grandma is Pregnant is a sculpture with a title ripe from the supermarket tabloids. The form is a large sphere of clear plastic sporting a blue knit cap and periodically spewing a fountain of bright yellow water all over its illuminated internal surface. A feisty, bulbous expose of spasmodic urination, it seemingly delights in its visceral, glowing capacity to "make water."

Friedman marries banal bodily processes to indensible machines and gets shamelessess. Dona diCarlo unites machine with the male libido and gets the penny arcade equivalent of an anonymous gender. Her Techno- sensuality sculptures mechanize various portions of the female body into detached, titillating, inhuman parts which respond with a slavish twirl, jiggle or twinkling shimmy to the viewer's presence. DiCarlo's use of proximity sensors and manual buttons to achieve sexual stimulation is a perfect commentary not only on an age of electronic sex and e-mail relationships but, in a more subtle vein, on the meaning of gratification once machines become the ultimate sex object.

La Petite Morte is her elongated, bandy-legged table of carefully timed lights with a glowing red activation button which begs "Touch Me." At a poke the piece begins a hilariously prolonged, sequential cling to a buzzing, electronic version of a woman's orgasm. After the illuminated climax the machine automatically returns to the ready, prepared to provide continuous mechanical simulations of ideal female satisfaction. Like the other Technosensuality machines, this piece suggests just how accommodating machines can be to the human desire for stimulation in what appears to be a no-loser game of sexual gratification. Yet, while ostensibly serving up throbbing satisfaction, diCarlo's piece leaves viewers aware that they themselves are emotionally untouched. Stimulation by unfeeling sexuality machines gives an updated spin to the title's reference to an old French sentiment which prolaims sex a small death or loss of self.


 

Machines may be unfeeling but, in the technological age, they are still capable of robotic fingering. Angie Bray's motorized kinetic sculptures of the Shhh series make endearing poetry out of the blind pursuit which is purely mechanical touch. Bray attaches thin wires, long skinny rods, and fragile glass bulbs to small, lead-lined motors. She lets them explore space, responsive only to the tug of gravity and the peculiarities of the site they peruse. Without individual titles, and installed en masse along walls or in the center of a floor, these are unpretentious, utterly mechanical devices whose erratic but repetitous movements manage to suggest peculiarly human gestures of tentative touch, surprise, hestiation, resolve and even panic.

In a world already conquered, built on and known, Bray's scuptures are like vestigial, mechanical pockets of stubborn human curiosity. They tap their way across walls, roll doggedly around on floors, and jab the air like cautionary fingers in an unyielding refusal to accept surrounding space unfelt. What we no longer do, they proceed to do for us. In the process some of the wonder of exploration returns.

There is a curiously relaxed humor to the way these artists mix human process and mechanical means. Their robotic fancies and where they comment on the current culture are not the terrifying "False Maria" of Fritz Lang's 1926 film Metropolis, which pictured a humanity dominated by technology. Nor are they the rabid, techno-humanity of the hive-minded Star Trek Borg. They also differ from the video sculptures of Alan Rath, which encapsulate the body as a sterile, fragmented projection of human semblance. Rather than weaving a cautionary tale they seem to shruggingly accept and enjoy mechanical repetition and the singular logic of the machine, while they revel in the low charms of being human--the juices, the titillation, and the groping probe. In spirit they have more in common with the reverent irreverence of Andres Serrano. Like his photographic images they glorify and transfigure the base and mundane things of life. However, their glorified baseness is firmly and happily wedded to machines.

 

Angie Bray, "Shhhh" (detail), basswood/blass/brass/lead/motor,
50 x 36 x 36".

 

Angie Bray, "Shhhh" (detail), basswood/wire/brass/lead/glass/motor, 10 x 10 x 10".


As artists of the age of technology Bray, diCarlo and Friedman exude a comfort level with their media that has nothing to do with technical sophistication (most of their work isn't very) and everything to do with a complete internalization of the mechanical meta-phor. Not exactly what Warhol had in mind, but certainly more fun than Borg assimilation.