Souls and Machines
“The fairest thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science”
Souls and Machines
The exhibition Souls and Machines explores the fact that, at the beginning of the 21st century, art and science move along parallel paths. And it does this through the work of a group of artists chosen for their ability to combine art, technology, mystery and beauty.
Its first presentation at the Reina Sofia Museum of Modern Art in Madrid drew more than 451.000 visitors, making it, probably, the most visited exhibition of Digital Art. It was exhibited during four months in the summer of 2008.
The crucial element in the new technological discontinuity is our humanity. Without it, everything else lacks meaning. Computers do not think; they replicate our thoughts. They do not feel; they replicate our emotions. As Sherry Turkle described them, they are the psychological mirror we gaze into.
“Souls and Machines” also maps the main conceptual strategies and routes crisscrossing the vast, interdisciplinary territory of new media. Through disciplines like robotics, software art and social tools for the web, information visualisation or biotechnologies, we encounter issues like the new dimensions of identity, privacy and control on the internet, the transformation of the concepts of property and collaboration, or the fascination for reproducing the mechanisms of life and intelligence.
The names featured in the exhibition stand at a very specific crossroads. In a way, they represent a generation of creators – not only artists – who have defined the limits of the discourse of new media, taking them beyond their speculative beginnings and constructing their strategic and linguistic bases. Their voices have grown in parallel to the expansion of the hybrid, fascinating space they inhabit.
Souls and Machines
Curators: Montxo Algora and José Luis de Vicente
Souls and Machines – ARTISTS
Since 1990 Theo Jansen is working on a new nature. All those who observe for the fist time the beauty of one of his creatures understand immediately that the work of this engineer, scientist and artist is something special. They were born inside a computer as an algorithm, but they do not require engines, sensors or any other type of advanced technology in order to walk.They move thanks to the force of the wind they find in their habitat of the Dutch coast.
Protrude, Flow / Breathing Chaos / Sculpture Garden
The extraordinary techniques that Sachiko Kodama uses in her projects have no precedent in contemporary art practices, either within or outside the realm of digital art. Her work illustrates how scientific research can expand the expressive vocabulary of artists today. Kodama’s projects are based on the study and manipulation of specific substances, ferrofluids, whose visual properties seem almost magical.
BEN RUBIN / MARK HANSEN
New York artist Ben Rubin and scientist Mark Hansen, a statistics professor at UCLA and an expert in environmental sensor networks, explore the creation of systems to visualise the processes and dynamics underpinning the net society, revealing information architectures which literally keep the world up and running.
DAVID BYRNE / DAVID HANSON
Song for Julio
Although David Byrne is best known for his musical career as the principal member of the legendary band Talking Heads, over the last two decades he has also pursued a prolific career as a photographer, film director and visual and sound artist. From this multidisciplinary position, Byrne has explored how media technologies are used to construct the aesthetics that identify political and economic power. David Hanson is the founder of Hanson Robotics, an innovative company that creates anthropomorphic robots capable of reproducing human facial expressions and understanding oral language.
CHICO MACMURTRIE / AMORPHIC ROBOT WORKS
Inflatable Architectural Body
For over 15 years, the group Amorphic Robot Works, founded by Chico MacMurtrie, an artist from New Mexico, has been creating anthropomorphic and animal-like robotic sculptures for use in its installations and performances to express the dilemmas and conflicts of the human condition through the sculptures’ movements.
The Enigma of Light / Spinors / Wave Function / Timeless Universe
Paul Friedlander has spent more than two decades researching all kinds of technologies and systems in an attempt to turn light into a malleable, flexible material capable of taking on any form and volume. His “kinetic light sculptures” are clearly influenced by the work of other great figures who have preceded him in the art of light or moving structures, from László Moholy-Nagy to Flavin and Turrell.
Circle Mirror / Weave Mirror / Trash Mirror
Daniel Rozin creates interactive installations and sculptures that have the unique ability to change and respond to the presence of a viewer. Although computers are often used in his work they are seldom visible. Mirrors and mediated perception of the self are central themes in Rozin’s work. In most of his pieces, the viewer takes part, actively and creatively, in the performance of his art.
Daniel Canogar’s work sits midway between the scientific and the humanist in that it explores the way in which our senses adapt to the new space/time coordinates of the electronic revolution. His work transcends photography. Light plays a fundamental role, as does the figurative representation of the body, both elements placing him in a fairly equidistant position between photography and painting.
Micrófonos, Subescultura 10
As an electronic artist, Rafael Lozano-Hemmer emerged producing large-scale interactive installations in public spaces, usually deploying new technologies and custom-made physical interfaces. Using robotics, projections, sound, internet and cell-phone links, sensors and other devices, his installations aim to provide “temporary anti-monuments for alien agency”.
History of Art for the Intelligence Community
The Serbian artist Vuk Ćosić was one of the first artists to use the net and the person who coined the term net.art. He is best known for his work involving the ASCII code, a medium he has used in numerous projects to explore the low-tech aesthetic, the ecology and archaeology of the media, and the intersections between the language of text and the computer code.
During the last two decades, the Japanese-American artist, designer and educator John Maeda has been one of the most important figures to explore the artistic and visual potential of the computer as a tool and computer code as working material. From his position as founder of the fundamental Aesthetics and Computation Group of the MIT Media Lab (1996-2003), Maeda has promoted a humanistic approach to technology that reconsiders our relationship with the digital media.
Evru (born Alberto Porta, known as Zush from 1968 and later Evru from 2001) has followed a decidedly personal career path in which all other concepts are subordinate to his determination to depict a reality that he himself has conceptualised in the Evrugo Mental State. Few artists can boast their own state, complete with a flag, postal stamps and paper currency, yet this is true of Evru and his Evrugo Mental State.
One Million Kingdoms
“No Ghost Just a Shell” was initiated by Philippe Parreno and Pierre Huyghe in 1999. They acquired the copyright for a figure called ‘Annlee’ and her original image from the Japanese agency “Kworks”, which develops figures (almost actors) for cartoons, comic strips, advertising and video games of the booming Japanese Manga industry.
The Lleida-born artist Antoni Abad has spent his extensive career exploring the artistic possibilities of the interactive media and communication networks. In 2003 he began his project Zexe.net, which focuses on the creation of digital communities by using mobile telephones equipped with built-in cameras.
On Translation: Social Networks
Antoni Muntadas is one of the most important names in Spanish art of the last four decades. His work investigates issues revolving around communication in the social and political arena and examines the way in which channels of information are used to promote or censure ideas.
Urban Space Station
Natalie Jeremijenko, engineer, artist and designer, explores different strategies to claim the use of technology as a tool for political and social intervention. The UrbanSpaceStation (USS) is a device designed to sequester the carbon dioxide emissions from buildings and return oxygen-enriched air to the building.
In his documentaries, films and video installations, the German filmmaker and artist Harun Farocki explore the ways in which film and other image technologies affect and modify our understanding of the world. His works address themes such as consumerism, war and the politics of the image.
Souls and Machines
Art must flow constantly to maintain its strength. And when the media through which it is expressed do not expand, almost by art of magic, it finds new channels that take it to a higher level.
Flanders, mid-15th century. Bruges. An enormous megapolis with over 45,000 inhabitants, reborn thanks to the wool trade. This is a historic moment. The appearance of a new technology – the printing press – will shake all of Europe. Private citizens will be able to store up knowledge and a new social class will emerge: an educated class, neither clergymen nor aristocrats, consisting of craftsmen and merchants.
Jan Van Eyck and his brother Hubert, with the commercial patronage of the Duke of Burgundy, stumble upon a new glazing technique in oil paint. By mixing the new pigments directly with linseed and walnut oil, they achieve what tempera paint had never been able to do. The brush slides almost magically, generating glazes and colours never seen before. Jan paints a portrait of the Arnolfinis, a prosperous Italian merchant couple; and he signs, ahead of his time, like a true graffiti artist: “Johannes de Eyck fuit hic 1434.” Just above the mirror. Virtual spaces of two-dimensional perspective.
Would the Italian Renaissance and the Spanish Golden Age have been the same without the creative genius of Leonardo and Velázquez? Undoubtedly no. Would they have been the same without the Van Eyck brothers, chance and the new technologies of the time? No again. In a few short decades, oil painting would spread like wildfire across the Old Continent.
Barcelona. January 1990. The multiple combinations of fate crash crazily into each other like neutrons escaping from the nucleus. Eighteen years ago, when we began that vague project called ArtFutura, the Internet as we now know it didn’t even exist. Tim Berners-Lee was still designing his World Wide Web and the scientific community who used the network barely outnumbered 100,000 people. A village.
Festivals like Ars Electronica and conferences like Siggraph created a new awareness in the art community and lead to the birth of festivals like ArtFutura, inspired by a new technology called Virtual Reality and guided by the ideas of a writer named William Gibson.
William visited Barcelona several times with his entire family (nanny included) and dedicated more time to Gaudí’s work and the long nights at the bar “El Otro” than to his new book-in-progress, The Difference Engine. An alternative novel – co-written with Bruce Sterling – that tells how the English scientist Charles Babbage could have realised his project for the Difference Engine. Something that would have altered the course of history and launched the digital revolution over one hundred and twenty years earlier.
London, summer of 1940. The “Eagle Day” operation begins. The German Luftwaffe perpetrates a massive bombing raid on airfields in English territory. On the 24th of August – some say by mistake – several bombs fall in central London. Two days later, Churchill orders the Royal Air Force to attack Berlin. The reprisals against the civilian population begin. Terror is served.
That same year, a British research group called Ultra creates the first totally electronic computer with the participation of Alan Turing and based on the experiences of Babbage, Byron and Boole. The computer is dubbed “Robinson” and it is designed to decode the German messages generated by Enigma, a cutting-edge cipher machine. Three years later the same group will develop the “Colossus,” which uses electronic tubes and runs one thousand times faster than the “Robinson.” The German messages are completely deciphered. The machine will play a decisive role in determining the war’s outcome.
Seven years pass and, in the middle of the Cold War, the first transistor appears. It is 1947 and the world is captivated by the popularity of a new medium – the television. But it would not be until the 1970s that computers reach a new level with the microchip. Goodbye tubes, goodbye transistors; from now on we will have a new magical element at our fingertips.
In April 1976, Steve Jobs and Stephen Wozniak – from a garage in Los Altos, California – found a new company bearing the same name as the Beatles’ record label. Their first project, the Apple I, is considered the first fully equipped personal computer in history. Jobs and Wozniak market 200 units. And they sell. One year later they introduce the Apple II, the machine that will change the world. They end up selling millions of units and putting technology in the hands of individual citizens, who are now able to store knowledge – and process it. Four years later, in 1981, IBM itroduces its own personal computer (PC) on the market.
Over the next twelve years, personal computers would spread around the globe, exponentially multiply their processing speed and be put to a wide variety of uses. In the early 1990s, with the appearance of the World Wide Web, a new era is ushered in: in another twelve years, the number of Internet users would jump from one hundred thousand to 1.2 billion.
February 2007, the sun rises in Trancoso, Brazil. An old fishing village on the coast of Bahia. Unspoiled beaches, golden sands, mangroves and palm trees as far as the eye can see. It is summer high season, right around when Sao Paulo’s tourists invade their beaches. Beside the Quadrado – the square built by the Portuguese four hundred years ago – is the local cybercafé, full of tourists eager to read their e-mails. Supposedly they are on holiday, but the cybercafé is something more than a computer and a cable that regularly fails. It is a social space. Where you say hello, where you exchange information, where you meet people.
From the offices-with-a-view of Wall Street’s skyscrapers to the narrow streets of Singapore’s Chinatown, from the nameless telephone booths in Madrid to the tropical cybercafé of Trancoso, computer networks complete and broaden our senses. They multiply ourselves and generate parallel lives. 1.4 billion human beings latched on to the udder of global knowledge and the endless chat. Machines that express emotions previously unknown to us. Emotions. Machines and emotions. Virtual spaces of three-dimensional perspective.
Boston, 1984. Sherry Turkle, MIT professor, publishes “The Second Self”, a crucial work for understanding the power of computers and their influence in the new era:
“The computer is a new mirror, the first psychological machine. Mirrors, literal and metaphorical, play an important part in human development. In literature, music, visual art or computer programming, they allow us to see ourselves from the outside, and to objectify aspects of ourselves we had perceived only from within.”
The computer goes beyond the industrial machine. Its ability to process information and its ubiquity have made of it a constant companion in practically every area of our lives. An industrial machine repeats mechanically the same function, but the computer’s virtuality makes its codes and its functions infinite.
And the crucial element in the new technological discontinuity is our humanity. Without it, everything else is meaningless. Computers do NOT think. They replicate thoughts. Computers do NOT feel. They replicate our emotions. They are, in effect, the psychological mirror in which we see ourselves reflected – mirrors where we play, where we feel, where we stretch our imagination, and also where we learn. Mirrors. And what about souls? Can they be replicated?
Japan, 1760. From the monastery of Shoin-ji, on the slopes of Mount Fuji, Hakuin Ekaku writes a letter to his feudal lord (another terrible politician with a penchant for art). Between recommendations to treat the peasants of the Hara Valley with honesty and human decency, Hakuin writes:
“The mind is heaven, the mind is hell and the mind has the ability to become one of them. People continue to think that they exist somewhere else, outside of them… But heaven and hell are not at the end of life, they are here and now.”
Here and now. Hakuin developed his painting style in the final years of his life, after he had already turned sixty. He created over one thousand paintings and calligraphies in twenty-odd years in such a wide diversity of styles that it is often hard to believe they were made by the same person. Hakuin was famous for breaking out into fits of laughter during his enlightenment experiences. He once said, “Meditation in the midst of activity is a thousand times superior to meditation in stillness.” In other words, inspiration should come while you are working. This was well ahead of his time. No wonder he burst out laughing.
Souls and Machines
June 2008, Madrid. Museo Reina Sofía. The exhibition “Souls & Machines” attempts to explore the fact that, at the dawn of the 21st century, art and science are travelling parallel paths. And it achieves this through the work of a group of artists selected for their ability to combine art, technology, mystery, emotion and beauty.
All of them use digital technology as a tool in multiple ways: as a medium, as a developing element, as a research method or as springboard to new sensibilities. But their computers themselves do NOT create. And without the emotion and creativity of its authors, digital art is nothing. It would be like talking to a mirror.
Sachiko, Paul, David, Theo, Rafael, Antoni, John, Evru, Pierre, Daniel, Vuk, Ben, Chico, Natalie… working from Tokyo, London, New York, Delft, Vancouver, Barcelona, Boston, Paris, Madrid, Ljubljana, San Francisco… they amaze me, they make me think, discover, ask questions, investigate, they make me feel, they move me… in a new way. Virtual spaces of infinite perspective. Here and now.
Paris in the 1920s. New York in the sixties. The capitals of art also pick up and move with their luggage, their artists, their galleries and their museums. But how do Internet and digital technology affect the art world? At the beginning of the 21st century, the neurological centre of the new Cultureburg seems a bit confused.
It is no longer necessary to walk the streets of Montmartre or the New York Soho to feel like an artist. We can’t even say that West Chelsea is the new global node. It isn’t. The centres and nodes have multiplied and are everywhere, from Shanghai to Berlin, from London to Tokyo, Barcelona, Los Angeles, Moscow… we are all here.
In “Concerning the Spiritual in Art”, Wassily Kandinsky wrote, “Every work of art is the child of its age and, in many cases, the mother of our emotions. In the same way that each period of culture produces an art of its own which can never be repeated.”
Why is it that we need new stimuli to move us in a new way?
The present constantly demands new ways of feeling, of asserting that we are alive. Virtual reality, Internet, social networks, synthetic images, artificial life… these are just the tip of the iceberg. The world we know will transform even more rapidly in the coming years. Our museums will be different, our art will be different, our ideas, our lives and our relationships will be different.
It is the vital impulse that drives us to generate new forms and new experiences, to grasp reality in a broader, more real way. Because, at the end of the adventure, that is what we are: souls yearning for new experiences and new emotions. Here and now.
And art? Where will art go from here? José Miguel Monzón, that other great philosopher of our century, once said, “Time is the perfect usher: It eventually puts everyone in his place.”