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Life and Tech

A new art show explores the uncertain boundaries between humans and machines

Colin Benjamin's "Broom Broom 3"

By Bret McCabe | Posted 3/10/2010

The problem with Mats Sivertsen's photographs, currently on view at Gallery Four, isn't readily apparent on first viewing. Well, perhaps "problem" isn't the appropriate word here. "Distressing" might be a more appropriate descriptor, but it's an unseemliness that sneaks up on you from behind like a consummately professional mugger in the night: Before you even realized you've been marked, you feel a calm breath on the back of the neck and a sharp blade pressed against the throat.

That impression is certainly not immediately apparent when viewing Sivertsen prints such as "iChamber I" or "iBorg IV." "iChamber I" offers an almost innocuous scene: a long shot of a white-tiled group bathroom, with showerheads dotting the wall on the right, a white trash can barely visible in the right foreground, and some odd, stainless-steel washing machine looking thing in the rear of the room. The image is sterile and mundane, kinda futuristic but not really, like a point-and-shoot snapshot from the set of Andrei Tarkovsky's Solaris.

"iBorg IV" complicates Sivertsen's universe, though: It's yet another almost pedestrian shot of a bathroom, almost voyeuristic as it peers from a hallway through a half-open door. A white tub and white shower curtain with light blue dots occupy the back of the frame, and the doorway just cuts off a white sink and its framing cabinet. The problem is that in that space between the sink and the tub where a traditional commode should be is a more upright, jet-engine-looking silvery blue contraption lined with something that distressingly looks fleshy and human. Is it a some newfangled kind of washing machine? Or a bidet on steroids?

It's not until the eyes alight to Sivertsen photos such as "Void" and "Quarantine I" that the true horror sinks in. "Void" features a jet engine lying on a bed, a pair of jeans tossed over a nearby chair. "Quarantine I" catches a sphere horned with orange lights and a circular window behind a kitchen counter lined with water bottles. But these presumptuously man-made objects aren't mere props or furniture in some high-tech house of the future. They're the subjects of these photos, the agents in this world. You're looking at portraits of them.

The photos come from Sivertsen's series "myBorg: a cyborg manifested," a response to and somewhat subversion of Donna Haraway's familiar 1991 essay "A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century." Just as Haraway's essay was an effort to transcend traditional epistemological dualisms--e.g., one that creates categories of "male" and "female" and no other options--Sivertsen's images defy notions of the so-called natural and artificial, where the human ends and the machine begins. If it's an unsettling prospect, it's a projection of the fears onto the possible world represented therein, and it's this visual consideration of the possible that runs through the works included along with Sivertsen's in this group show, Terms of Use.

Just don't expect the works to dialogue with one another. Each artist--Colin Benjamin, Benjamin Kelley, David Moré, and Sivertsen--creates his own cryptic world, but they don't overlap all that much, though Kelley's might be closest to Sivertsen's in well-crafted attitude. The sculptures of this current MICA MFA candidate are exquisitely made contraptions of confounding use. "Crichton Device .004" looks like a high-tech storage device. A single, elevated vinyl and aluminum housing contains a series of individual compartments containing dead house flies; the flies are contained in a drawer that rolls out from the housing, lending the piece the odd feeling of being one part of a factory floor or part of some surgical suite.

The piece comes from a larger "Crichton Devices" project, where the designs are explicitly for the examination and preservation of biological entities. Like Sivertsen's imagery, the resulting ideas here spring from a rather pragmatic intellectual place, one where the need and use for such a contraption exists. That's a world where human agency still prevails, which is not the sort of world where "But It Is Not Everything" exists. This mechanized sculpture features two opaquely self-contained machines connected by a clear plastic tube. The machines alter going on and off, taking turns sucking material in the tube back and forth between the housings. The purpose of this mechanical process is bluntly obtuse, but the place of the human body in that process is eerily suggested by the material passed back and forth as if saliva between two kissing mouths: They're small fragments of human bones.

Humans aren't necessarily needed in the world of Benjamin's creation, either. His daft sculptures--everyday household items animated into life by his choice of installation and configuration--recall those old "house of the future" cartoons where a series of mechanized domestic items would come to artificial life and clean your house for you. Only in Benjamin's universe, that will to activated power comes from the inanimate objects themselves. Long-handled, orange-bristled brooms stand at attention ready to sweep. A claw hammer stands erect mid way through removing a nail. A pair of scissors is spider-web trapped in yellow string and hanging from the ceiling. A centipede chain of clothespins shoots out of the wall and ends in a bottle cap that reads "meta."

That last piece--"'About' Something, Not 'On' Anything"--offers a different insight into Benjamin's visual world. All the pieces here have titles of such self-aware syntax--the string-encased scissors, "Wrapped Up 1"; the hammer and nail, "Enough Already, (that story's over)"; a purposely intimate piece hung low on the wall composed of a playing card, razor blade, and screw, "Sleepless"--that play the same sort of askew crab-walking logic with verbal information that his sculptures play with visual information. As evidence by the works here, Benjamin aims for a transporting temperament by rewiring the brain via rather mundane short-circuits--a curious broom, Mark Leyner verbal gymnastics--that gently entice you to consider the plane where such combinations make perfect sense. It's sort of a low-tech approach to Sivertsen's and Kelley's high-tech systems.

That low-tech approach to create pathways to another realm is the lone idea that links Moré to this show. The Chicago-based Moré's sound art is familiar to local experimental music devotees, as he's played the High Zero Festival before and has installed various sound-related pieces in local group shows and even the Transmodern festival. He's particularly keen on using ordinary objects to make unusual sounds and sonic environments, and approaches them with a mad scientist's wit and sense of play and, perhaps by controlled accident, he often arrives at some new kind of place-qua-space where the sound and visuals combine to yield a cheeky, irreverent joy.

That all of that is completely missing from Moré's installation here, "And I kissed Her on the mmm-mm," might only amplify the appreciation of his projects that work better. A smorgasbord of foam, sound, found boat, banjo (allegedly broken by tossing out an H&H building window onto the street below), fish tape, bicycle spokes, speakers, bottle, and a cut-out photo of former Guns N' Roses rocker Slash, "And I kissed Her" feels less like a completed idea and more like the raw materials for one. Some of its component parts cause a smile here or there, but the overall installation also doesn't feel like any decisions were made about the end result, and it looks like a hasty afterthought at best and an improvisational misfire at worst. But, you know, experimentation isn't a 100 percent guaranteed method, and like a baby with a machine gun, sometimes targets get missed completely.

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