Visitors congregate at a home in the far northern edge of Rogers Park on a mid-September evening as summer descends into autumn. The setting sun passes into dusk; day dissolves into night.
The visitors cross the threshold from the bucolic patio and gardens into a self-standing white-cube exhibition space, and are abruptly confronted by a mass of salvaged LCD monitors lining the entire floor, part of Iceberg Projects’ newest exhibition, Cryptids, by the collaborative duo of Beate Geissler and Oliver Sann.
Configured in an interstitial step-stone pattern that brings to mind Land Artists such as Smithson or Goldsworthy, the spread of monitors is transposed into a barren, techno-dystopian terrain. Walking upon this array creates a heightened sensory experience, conjuring the tactility and sound of crunching twigs or leaves underfoot in a forest, while also introducing entropic1 forces upon these screens that had, in prior incarnations, helped mobilize man’s imposition of order and control upon his environs.
The monitors no longer glow with any visualized data, or images of faces and places near and far. What minimal clues they provide come through cryptic etchings faintly discernible on scattered surfaces – references to notational scientific schemata (i.e. diagrams of the evolution of living systems) that also invoke aspects of ancient hieroglyphs or primitive cave paintings.
Transcending the screens, we reach the equally mystifying photographs on the wall – three large, framed archival inkjet prints: a horse, a bat, and a chrysalis, each individually photographed and illuminated against a stark black background in a manner akin to traditional portraiture. The presentation evokes a serialized taxonomy that might begin to index the planet’s vast assortment of life forms.
The inclusion of these figures follows pictorial conventions in which animal representations sometimes challenged the superiority of the human point of view, or referenced man’s domination over (and distancing from) nature. On the former concept, we can identify the bats (which, in some facets of Western thought, became associated with irrationality and intellectual void) in Goya’s famous print The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters (1799), alluding to his waning faith in the ability of reason to solve human problems. Meanwhile, what might come to mind on the consideration of man corralling nature is Dali’s Debris of an Automobile Giving Birth to a Blind Horse Biting a Telephone (1938), which lushly illustrates the contrivances of the industrial era and man’s machine-aided advance. Dali’s horse character appears as a liminal, biomorphic creature ensnared between technological forms – particularly the emerging transportation methods that diminished his proximity to humans.
In Geissler and Sann’s horse portrait, the composition is cropped very tight to the subject’s face, minimizing some of its equine physicality and drawing attention to an important detail: this horse also is blind, and thus cannot reciprocate our stare. He is subordinated by the mechanical gaze of the camera and, consequently, by the human gaze as well – a critical indictment of the anthropocentric bias (often loaded with ignorance and fear) that characterizes much of human cognition about the animal realm.
Through the historic rise of photography that reinforced the Renaissance notion of linear perspective and placed the human creator-operator at the central point of convergence, man became the privileged, positioned observer who can ultimately obtain “a fixing and systematization of external reality and…furthering of the individual ego which controlled this process.”2 That same phenomenon which ordained sight and images as man’s main channel for conceiving and grasping the surrounding world, is now leading the mechanical camera to triumph over the human eye: our biological vision is increasingly being supplanted by machine vision, which leaves us only with representations (i.e. the two-dimensional rendering of a horse here) to behold, and diminishes our perception through direct presence with the natural object. Joined with the dominance of capitalism and political economy, technology again marginalizes and distances animal/nature from man – and now, inevitable as it may seem, man from man.3
Taken with that idea of parallel marginalization, perhaps we can perceive Geissler and Sann’s animals with a more ancient relation – as spirit figures who possess secrets addressed to humans. The bat and chrysalis images, situated back-to-back on a column near the center of the gallery, combine to link a possible future with our notions of the past. Bats and butterflies have long been considered messengers of the dead, which bolsters their spiritual iconography here.
The chrysalis denotes beginnings or transformations in the cycle of life, and in this exhibition could allude to complex notions of metamorphosis – of course, the allegory in Kafka’s Metamorphosis is hard to ignore: his protagonist Gregor Samsa irrevocably morphed into a human/non-human hybrid, psychologically alienated from his loved ones and forced to reconcile the disconnect between his human thoughts and feelings versus his mutated physical body.
The chrysalis may also refer to a certain duality in our integration of new technologies: while those extensions sometimes serve a positive or evolutionary purpose, they always come at a cost. Even McLuhan spoke with slight trepidation about the “sense closure” that results from a user conformed to technology: “By continuously embracing technologies, we relate ourselves to them as servomechanisms. That is why we must, to use them at all, serve these objects, these extensions of ourselves…”4
In that context, Cryptids continues Geissler and Sann’s explorations of the myriad ways we interact with the world through electronically mediated tasks and experiences, including the first-person shooter games and LAN parties of the duo’s early work, to simulated settings for military training, up to the cybernetic strategies of computerized financial and economic activity. These projects elucidate how, through such a rapid proliferation of technology, we see man’s efforts at escalating himself closer to a God-like status. Our digital engagement has produced panoptic devices such as GPS or Google Earth which collapse space and reposition the human body, while other visual screen-based mechanisms offer immersive alternate or substitute realities, all at man’s dispassionate command.
But what are the consequences of crowning technology divine in order to propel the human quest for omniscience and transcendence? Paul Virilio counters that at some point, technology actually might challenge the metaphysical progression of humans: “All technologies converge toward the same spot, they all lead to a deus ex machina, a machine-God. In a way, technologies have negated the transcendental God in order to invent the machine-God.”5 [emphasis mine]
The purview of the deus ex machina also elicits the theoretical concept of technological singularity which potentially carries profound implications for future populations. Geissler and Sann seem to caution us that the deeper ensconced we become with machine intelligence, we must acknowledge the transformations of man and nature that could result. Do those transformations embody our hopes of a transcendent becoming, an evolution, into a more sustainable configuration? Or on the converse, do they take the form of entropy, some inescapable Samsa-esque undoing? Both thoughts insinuate modifications of the body and consciousness of living organisms, as well as the structural world at large (represented by the landscape of dead monitors). Through the works in Cryptids, Geissler and Sann provide no explicit answers – only to suggest the possibility of an altered course of civilizations in an altogether unknowable, unclassifiable, ever-changing flux of existence.
Cryptids is on view at Iceberg Projects, 7714 N. Sheridan Road, thru October 19th.
- “[E]ntropy is in the first instance a measure of something that happens when one state is transformed into another”, wrote physicist P.W. Bridgman in his book The Nature of Thermodynamics (Harper Row, 1941), which helped to detail entropy’s relation to equilibrium and evolution. Robert Smithson, in applying this science to art, believed that entropy also left open the feasibility of reclamation or regeneration (see Smithson’s 1966 essay Entropy and the New Monuments)
- Irit Rogoff, Terra Infirma: Geography’s Visual Culture, Routledge, 2000, pg. 96
- John Berger (in his essay “Why Look at Animals?”) and W.J.T. Mitchell (in his essay “Illusion: Looking at Animals Looking”) both detail how technology, capitalism, and political economy have contributed to the progressive marginalization of animals – and by extension, humans as well: “This reduction of the animal is part of the same process as that by which humans have been reduced to isolated productive and consuming units,” writes Mitchell, echoing Berger. (see Mitchell’s Picture Theory, University of Chicago Press, 1994, pg. 333)
- Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, McGraw-Hill, 1964, pg. 46
- from Virilio’s interview in “Cyberwar, God and Television”, via Timothy Druckery, Electronic Culture: Technology and Visual Representation, Aperture, 1996, pg. 326