Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
July 14, 2016
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Earth Machines Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 2015.
Exhibition schedule: Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco, August 14–December 6, 2015
Earth Machines. Installation view. Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. Photo: Charlie Villyard.

It is safe to assume that museumgoers in San Francisco, home to the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA), are as up on new technology as any public, and that the Bay Area’s traditionally progressive inhabitants are invested in balancing commercial profit and social justice. Yet as the exhibition Earth Machines quickly reveals, the local Silicon Valley high-tech industry propels a cycle of innovation and consumption that threatens to outstrip our ability to understand and manage its global, social, and environmental consequences. Curator Ceci Moss has convened an international set of artists—Alisa Baremboym, Spiros Hadjidjanos, Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe, Kevin McElvaney, Leslie Shows, Addie Wagenknecht, and the collaborative team of Revital Cohen and Tuur Van Balen—to explore the dimensions of this issue at sites as remote as a data storage center in Iceland and an e-waste dumping ground in West Africa.

Moss’s brief, poignant introductory wall text helps to identify, in digestible terms, the unifying theme of the small exhibition, which includes fifteen works in a range of media. She begins, “Through photography, sculpture, sound, and painting, Earth Machines considers the relentless stream of new technological products in light of their underlying material precariousness and profound ecological impact.” Perhaps taking care to avoid the term “Anthropocene” and the risk of alienating her audience with jargon, Moss lays out her ambitions to raise viewers’ awareness of their role as consumers who perpetuate an industry that marks one particular aspect of humanity’s influence on the planet. She expands on this concept in the exhibition pamphlet: “This movement from mine to factory to consumer to dump is obscured from the public, which usually only sees the finished commercial product.” One has to wonder, however, is this true of the public here? Someone working for high-tech companies must know where e-waste is shipped, for example.

Unlike the direct interventions of eco-artists like Mel Chin, Hans Haacke, Helen Mayer Harrison and Newton Harrison, Suzanne Lacy, and Mierle Laderman Ukeles, the contributors to this show focus on visualizing the interface between technology and sustainability within the exhibition’s overall framework of consciousness raising. Moss notes that each of the Earth Machines artists addresses a different aspect of the process of technology production, and she begins the installation with a direct reference to the role of the consumer, represented by Hadjidjanos’s transformation of the iconic iPhone into an enormous three-dimensional printed object titled Displaced (Smartphone) (2014). While the rough topographical print can be read as “geological layering, evoking the Earth’s strata,” as the wall text suggests, it also monumentalizes both the obsolescence of every cell phone iteration and our fetish for the newest model.

Entering the main gallery, one immediately registers that the paintings and sculptures within were created with what look to be high-tech products or the natural materials mined for the production of those products. Shows’s shimmering, faceted “paintings” are actually collages dominated by a palette of metallic samples and punctuated with vivid colors. The images evoke landscapes constructed purely from precious rocks and minerals, yet the lists of materials used—ink, acrylic, paper, aluminum leaf, plastic, Plexiglas, ground glass, and engraving on aluminum in Face W (2012), for example—quickly reveal the layers of manipulation embedded in the final works. Juxtapositions of sparkling and reflective materials create constant optical movement across the surfaces of the pieces, and their effects recall both the brushstrokes of gestural abstraction and the pouring of substances that solidify according to their natural characteristics.

With a clearer ethical dimension, Cohen and Van Balen explore the theme of transformation through the issue of rare earth mining in the sculpture D/AlCuNdAu (2015) and corresponding video From Below (2015), jointly commissioned by YBCA and The White Building, London. The wall text reminds us that electronics and batteries require rare earth elements, the mining of which has “irreparably polluted” a number of sites in China, the source for virtually all of the industry’s supply. Part of a larger series of “ores” created from decommissioned tech equipment, D/AlCuNdAu reverses the cycle, in a sense, by “mining” old hard drives from a data center in Iceland to create a small rock-like sculpture apparently imbued with rich minerals. The sculpture’s title reflects its composition of elements—aluminum, copper, neodymium, gold—which Cohen and Van Balen combined with lava rock from the local area around the data center. Nearby in the gallery, a collection of hard drive shells and pieces are scattered on a low platform, referencing the harvesting process. The video From Below comprises striking footage highlighting the dramatic color contrasts of the Icelandic landscape, almost always accompanied by some form of movement, such as a naturally flowing stream or rising steam, or the motion of the camera or a split screen.

While watching this silent video, one hears a roughly ten-minute sound piece by Lowe played continually through speakers in the gallery. He sampled sounds from nature and machines, mixing them with a synthesizer and vocals. Another work commissioned for the exhibition, the compilation of sounds creates an anxious atmosphere as the uncomfortable electronic noise builds, which is no doubt intended to make us aware of the networks of electricity and information that power the comforts of our digital age.

Hanging from the ceiling of the gallery is Wagenknecht’s Cloud Farming (2014), an installation whose title and blinking lights suggest those invisible networks that serve us—and serve us up. Similar to the way in which Richard Serra and Carlota Fay Schoolman’s video broadcast Television Delivers People (1973) used the medium of television to expose its inherent exploitation of the viewer, Wagenknecht’s “cloud” is an ironic visualization of the internet as a system that feeds our desires while harvesting information from us. The work consists of two clusters of tiled triangular black circuit boards tentacled with black Ethernet cables. Blinking green lights indicate their activity, which is to “intercept and log anonymous live data captured from surrounding Wi-Fi signals.” The interaction of the lights invokes the excitement of real-time monitoring and leads one to consider life under constant, often complicit, surveillance.

At first glance, Baremboym’s sculpture Parasorbal Systems (2014) seems to be constructed mainly of computer scraps, but on closer inspection, the strange hybridity of the organism and machine reveals itself. The object’s silk gauze and peach-colored tubing, which echo bodily systems, cannot be fully contained within the loose metal framework that creates the structure’s overall geometry. While this mangled metal implies the destruction of machines, the wall text explains that Baremboym was inspired by the “ingenuity she witnessed growing up in the Soviet Union, where the scarcity of materials resulted in unique hybrids and novel designs,” and recognizes the object’s uncanny references to “contorted conveyor belts” in an assembly line.

It is not until one reaches the last section of the exhibition, a corridor with McElvaney’s photographs of the largest e-waste dump in the world, Agbogbloshie in Ghana, that the human aspect of this provocation is brought to full force. This striking example of photojournalism witnesses the toxic conditions in which the people in Agbogbloshie live and work, and offers the most rousing images in the exhibition. Each photograph features a central figure, wearing Western clothing and perched on a makeshift pedestal, surrounded by a landscape of burning garbage. Adjoa (2013) shows a young girl in a light-colored dress and pink flip-flops; she stands balanced on top of a monitor sitting face down on the charred earth. Like a doomed caryatid, Adjoa balances a blue plastic bin full of ice on her head—ice that she sells to the men and boys who burn plastic off copper wires. The beautiful, tragic allure of this photograph may spark feelings of sympathy and responsibility, and incite viewers to take action. (In the lobby, the museum installed an e-waste collection box from a company that recycles within the United States under environmental and safety regulations.) As the most politically compelling works in the exhibition, for me, the images also raised ethical questions about the aestheticizing of Agbogbloshie that seems necessary to make people take notice, and, more broadly, about the efficacy of gallery art and “visualization” in environmental activism.

In an essay in which he argues that the Anthropocene cannot be visualized in the present paradigm of militarized conceptions of time and space, Nicholas Mirzoeff writes: “The flooded island nations of Oceania are the index of both the failure of modernist visuality and of the active development of the Anthropocene. In the current moment of globalization . . . it is essential to conceptualize such locations as ‘here’ not ‘there’: in the Anthropocene there is finally no there anywhere: it is all here. In short, the planet is now our backyard and no location can be relegated to the status of the ‘there’” (“The Clash of Visualizations: Counterinsurgency and Climate Change,” Social Research 78, no. 4 [Winter 2011]: 1206–7). After first situating viewers with reference to the tech industry, something familiar in San Francisco (“here”), Earth Machines moves rapidly between different mediums, issues, motivations, and locations (“theres”)—leaving the viewer to work hard to put together the narrative pieces. While Moss states in the exhibition pamphlet that “Earth Machines contemplatively expresses instances of a permanent transformation whose consequences are not fully understood,” the Agbogbloshie photographs tell us that serious consequences are here, now.

Rachel Middleman
Assistant Professor, California State University, Chico

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