Review: Surveillance, Privacy, Erasure—Wrightwood 659 Exhibit Explores the Impact of Technology in Art
When the World Wide Web was new and shiny in the early ‘90s, futurists and other prognosticators had glowing predictions about the many ways it could change the world, including revolutionizing human relations. It might open a new world that would be free from distinctions based on race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation and disability.
No need to detail how wrong those predictions came to be, in the era where we now exist. But a new exhibit at Wrightwood 659 explores how technology and art have come together in the last 30 years to explore the twin effects of technology and identity.
Difference Machines: Technology and Identity in Contemporary Art displays 20 works by a diverse group of 17 artists and collectives. Together, they question that earlier premise and explore the darker stories of surveillance, exploitation and erasure of people. The work shown ranges from software-based and internet art to animated videos, bio-art experiments, digital games and 3D printed sculptures. Although made up of only 20 works, the exhibition demands the time and attention of the viewer to explore and understand the issues the artists present.
The exhibit begins on the second floor of the museum, where it shares space with Spontaneous Sketches, a small exhibit of drawings by building architect Tadao Ando. He made the sketches in blue marker directly on the walls of painted sheetrock during the inaugural exhibition in 2018. The sketches were preserved and framed. This exhibit is in a small side gallery.
Here are some of the highlights of the Difference Machines exhibit.
When you enter the main gallery space, you are confronted with a dramatic installation of 50 cutouts suspended like mobiles by Joiri Minaya. Each has a female body part on one side and a tropical print fabric on the other. The women are tanned or dark-skinned and wear bikinis, representing women from the Caribbean you might find in an internet search. The artist is pointing out the role that algorithms play in creating and maintaining stereotypes.
A work by Hasan Elahi, "Thousand Little Brothers," is made up of thousands of images that explore what it means to live in a state of constant surveillance. He posted images of his daily activities on the internet, sharing images after the FBI wrongly suspected him of being a terrorist after the events of 9/11. The work shows 32,000 images, many showing mundane details of life, displayed on an enormous banner.
At the rear of the second floor is Keith Piper’s work, which also addresses the issue of surveillance in an especially dystopian manner. Titled “Surveillance: Tagging ‘The Other,’” he displays four videos that show how social groups are identified and tracked. A Black man’s face is shown rotating in space while targets continually follow him and digital news and information snippets are displayed behind him.
On the third floor, a work by Zach Blas titled “Facial Weaponization Suite” presents four large color photographs, portraits of the heads of four different persons. However, instead of showing the individual’s features, their faces are covered by colorful, futuristic plastic shells. These masks—that can be a weapon for women, gay men, Black, Latinx and indigenous people—make the wearers undetectable by facial recognition software now in use. The shells themselves are also mounted in this display.
The four works—created by Minaya, Elahi, Piper and Blas—provide a relevant introduction to this complex exhibit of art and technology. They focus on the relationship between the technology we use and the identities we assume.
Also on the second floor, you can view a wall of four video screens created by Stephanie Dinkins, where the artist is shown in conversation with a humanoid cyborg figure. Titled “Conversations with Bina48,” Dinkins positions herself as a sort of mirror of Bina48; their clothes and movements are similar and they speak face-to-face, as if Bina48 is a reflection of the artist. She asks Bina48 about topics like racism and civil rights, pointing out that technology may help us transcend our bodies but not our prejudices.
On the large landing between the third and fourth floors, you find a stunning video display of colorful science-fiction imagery by Saya Woolfalk. In “Landscape of Anticipation 2.0,” glowing figures float, “crowned by pink-studded stag horns, rhombuses, and a stylized peacock tail, adorned in intricate, multi-hued patterned clothing, and surrounded by a rainbow of feathers and flora.”
On the fourth floor, don’t miss a chance to sit in a comfy lounge area to watch a 20-minute film by the Mohawk Canadian-born artist Skawennati, titled “She Falls for Ages” and filmed on the video game platform Second Life. The movie is made in a virtual world, as a video game is, and tells an Iroquois creation story as a science-fiction narrative, using vividly colored people in a post-race society.
The exhibit’s title—Difference Machines— alludes to the concept of a digital programmable computer created by English polymath Charles Babbage in the 19th century. He called his mechanical calculator—which could generate large tables of analytical data—a difference engine. The Charles Babbage story was told theatrically in Lauren Gunderson’s play, Ada and the Engine, staged by the Artistic Home in 2019.
The Wrightwood 659 exhibit originated in 2021 at the Buffalo AKG Art Museum (formerly the Albright-Knox Art Gallery) and has also been shown this year in the Beall Center for Art and Technology, Irvine, California; and at Gray Area, San Francisco. The Chicago exhibition is presented by Alphawood Exhibitions at Wrightwood 659, now celebrating its fifth anniversary of presenting exhibits of socially engaged art and architecture. The museum was designed by Pritzker Prize winning architect Tadao Ando from a 1920s residential building on a Lincoln Park residential street. The exterior still resembles its neighbors but the interior has been turned into a four-story open-space masterpiece with a base of soaring concrete walls, open staircase. and, on the upper floors, glass walls that provide a dramatic treatment of light from the outdoors. The building is fully accessible with an elevator and other amenities.
The Difference Machines exhibition at Wrightwood 659, at 659 W. Wrightwood Ave., has been extended through January 27. The museum is open 12-7pm on Fridays and 10am-5pm on Saturdays. Admission is by advance ticket only. Tickets are $15; purchase yours here. Note that masks are required for all visitors.
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Nancy S Bishop
Nancy S. Bishop is publisher and Stages editor of Third Coast Review. She’s a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and a 2014 Fellow of the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. You can read her personal writing on pop culture at nancybishopsjournal.com, and follow her on Twitter @nsbishop. She also writes about film, books, art, architecture and design.