Seeking Silicon Valley is the opening gallery show of the Zero1 Biennial 2012. As co-curator Dooeun Choi discussed, the show attempts to explore the social and personal elements of technology after years of new media art being tied merely to the formal affordances. The central themes running through the work were excess, obsolescence, and access. The show brought together a wide array of artists from different cultural backgrounds and practices taking the forms of critical investigations, material interventions, and existential meditations.
In the process of “seeking” Silicon Valley, “contemporary art practice can re-imagine the idea, place, and experience” of not just a geographical region but the concepts, cultures, and habits that this technological industry has brought to our way of life1. What does it mean now that technology has invaded our everyday life and is no longer merely a novelty but a superstructure and an ontological underpinning of our social existence? As French new media artist Maurice Benayoun said, “We’ve spent 20 years trying to understand computers and now we want computers to understand humans.” While echoing the curators’ goals, he also speaks to the ways in which technology alters or enhances our cognitive capacities of analysis, communication, and social networking.
Maurice’s own project Tunnels Around the World (2012) utilized web-based video communication to have audiences speak across the globe, from San Jose to Seoul to Montreal. The work itself presents a series of art history images in which the viewer navigates through as they move their body left, right, or forward. Here the still object of art history becomes navigable, as the viewer is able to telescope through the temporal space of the art world and then eventually through the spatial dimensions of global communication networks. The images themselves were largely of western art though and when critiqued on this point Maurice claimed, “it’s dependent on access and who will allow us to use their archives”. Access was one of the central concerns in a number of pieces as the infrastructures of knowledge and information have become increasingly politicized in a year of SOPA, PIPA, and the ACTA treaty.
Stamen Design’s piece The City from the Valley (2012) was a critical urban investigation in the private bus shuttle routes that serve Silicon Valley by bussing in workers from San Francisco. Here the suburban-urban relationship is reversed as young urbanites are given exclusive access to the postindustrial production spaces of Silicon Valley.
Stephanie Syjuco’s FREE TEXT: The Open Source Reading Room (2012) dealt with access in the realm of knowledge production more directly, creating a physical library of seminal articles and books around art and digital culture that were found on free file-sharing sites. Each article was bound in a black booklet with the file url as the central title and the actual article title printed below. In addition there were was a wall of postings with tear-away strips of paper containing the url’s to take home and download the articles. So Stephanie’s work functions outside of the gallery space as an intervention to change (or reinforce) people’s consumption habits as they go home to download the articles and books rather then rely on the limits of publishing companies and rights holders.
The Gambiologia art collective from Brazil and Shu Lea Cheang’s Baby Work (2012) embodied other forms of direct interventions into the material uses of technology. As one of the Gambiologia artists joked, “by the time you get your iPhone 5 home it’s already obsolete.” So instead they battle obsolescence and consumerism by repurposing electronic materials from junk yards in order to make musical instruments, artistic objects, and futurist armor. In addition they run workshops in order to teach children how to repurpose scraps and even gum wrappers for electrical conduits.
During the Q&A section with all of the artists, multiple questions were raised around defining the relation of media art to innovation. As Jegan Vincent de Paul (artist and MIT professor) stated, “Innovation means nothing to me. It essentially just says does this have value? But the problem with defining value is for whom and for what purpose? …Innovation in one area could become a disaster when applied in another context.” Vincent de Paul’s courses at MIT deal with global crises and how to design in a culturally sensitive manner while creating technological objects to aid crisis relief. His own project Compare+Contrast: Codes of Conduct (2012) was a meta-commentary on the ways in which Silicon Valley in contrast to Washington DC are defined and analyzed in American popular culture and media. Through interviewing numerous theorists and analyzing large data sets of media coverage he found an overarching trend of praise combined with minimal technical critiques of Silicon Valley without any political or ideological critiques. This was in direct contrast to the constant ideological criticism found in coverage of Washington DC politics.
So in general there was a critical stance of this idealized space of Silicon Valley and the ways in which technology has taken on this entrepreneurial consumerism that has invaded our lives and redefined our habits. Lucas Bambozzi’s Mobile Crash v2 [obsolescence trimmer] (2012) was a very explicit attack on cell phones and their effects of alienating people rather than bringing them together. His project measured cell phone usage within a 7 meter radius and as the usage increased then video of cell phones being smashed by hammers would flash on the screen.
One of the most effective pieces in the show was Jae Rhim Lee’s Decomp Me (2012). The piece was actually one that purported to use technology (through scientific and artistic practices) for therapeutic ends in helping people to come to terms with death. Though the supplemental display boards seemed cold and scientific, the actual experience of the piece was very intimate, personal, and meditative. The participant lays down on a white platform with a hanging iPad in front of their face. They then take a photo of themselves, which slowly begins to decay as flies eat away the flesh and mushrooms grow out of the eye sockets and skin. Though it’s somewhat graphic, the slow pace (which can be slowed down even further) forces you to think about your own mortality in a very biological and cyclical sense. Especially in a world in which digital photos of the face and self-replication become the narcissistic end game to giving one’s life meaning and value, the process of decaying such a central existential asset becomes all the more disturbing.
Yet one of the most effective parts about the piece might not have been the form of representation of death itself but the actual form of interaction, forcing the participant into intimate space that isolate them from the gallery and allow them to lay quietly and peacefully. This is the larger issue with time-based media in the gallery is to really immerse and allow time to interact intimately with the pieces. Even during the Q&A with the artists, it was hard to communicate as we were left shouting over all the competing sounds in the background. So in dealing with the humanity of the digital we must find ways to create new spaces and materials that do not equally cause the same sense of alienation and excess to which we are critiquing.