F.A.T. Gold Brings Tech to the Artist’s Table
Located in the chic and trendy neighborhood of Chelsea, where brick-walled galleries line the quiet streets and artsy-looking people dash between fashionable boutiques and cool bookstores, you will find, at the end of 21st street, a Free Art and Technology (F.A.T.) Center called Eyebeam. I entered the warehouse and, at first glance, the harsh modernity and the absence of obvious beauty pushed me to rush through the exhibit– F.A.T. Gold– and ask myself, “Is this really it?” However, what appears sparse at first is upon closer observation clearly a rich anecdote on the direction that art — and on a grander scale, society — is taking.
New York City has always been a hub of hustle and bustle; New Yorkers survive and thrive on the “here and now” and base their lifestyle on the New York Minute. But until recently, that was not the reality for the rest of American society, let alone the world. For the first time in history, the majority of the world’s population now lives in cities, not in rural areas as it used to be. Matching that is the rise of the Internet Age which improves inter-connectivity but also shows us the fleetingness of our own thoughts and words. With 20 million tweets being put out per day, humans find themselves jockeying for a voice and the only way to keep up is to continually be producing output (generally aided by regurgitating– I mean, retweeting– others’ output). This tectonic shift is global and organic. One can no longer ignore its value and the permanent role it will play in our lives ad infinitum.
F.A.T. Gold has selected contemporary artists whose work acknowledges and embraces this shift. Upon entering, you are struck by Laptop Compubody Sock by Becky Stern, a mannequin with a blanket draped over his head, blocking out sight and sound, allowing him to focus solely on his laptop. The blanket also blocks out the face; the identity of the figure is lost as a result of his focus on the computer screen. The work represents disconnecting from the physical world and becoming fully absorbed in cyberspace. This representation is a common fear among those who see the rise of the Internet as a threat to society and “true” human relationships. It is no surprise that the figure is dressed in a youthful fashion. This fear is extremely prevalent in the older generation who may struggle to keep abreast of the constantly changing terrain of cyberspace– seen as a young person’s domain– and who sense a growing disconnect in interpersonal relations. However, the piece is placed at the entrance of the exhibit, suggesting the the roots of these anxieties may appear veritable at first glance, but are in fact superficial fears and notions that the rest of the exhibit attempts to break down.
Beyond the foyer there is a large open room. The moment before walking into the room, however, you are struck by “Occupy the Internet” by F.A.T. Lab, which features signs calling to action. I recently heard an interview on NPR wherein Clinton Galloway discussed the importance of communities and individuals– especially minority groups– “investing” in the Internet, or making it their own and utilizing the opportunities it provides. Television channels are currently owned mostly by a handful of broadcast corporations, meaning that the news we receive through TV is managed by a select group of people. “Occupy the Internet” is a call to action similar to Galloway’s that resonates throughout he rest of the exhibit and with the demands of this ever-changing world.
In the greater hall, you may be surprised to see that there isn’t much there. I was certainly perplexed by its seeming emptiness. But “waste not, want not.” The vastness of the space itself is, I think, a reflection on the vastness of cyberspace: waiting to be filled, with all its hidden rubies placed on the fringes, waiting to be uncovered and understood.
Moving around the hall, I found that the interactivity of the exhibit was a striking commentary on the demand placed on contemporary art to provide mixed media, redefine “artistic” mediums, and truly touch each of us as individuals. The largest and most obvious example of this is Pirate TED by Evan Roth, which gives you the opportunity to have your photo taken to make it appear you are giving a TED Talk. According to someone at the gallery, on opening night, “There was always a long line of people waiting to have their chance to give a TED talk.”
Another interactive work, adjacent to “Pirate TED,” is an LED screen of a man on a subway, titled Your Face Here by Kyle McDonald. As you approach the work, a video camera recognizes your face and imposes your head and facial movement onto those of the man. Similarly, a telephone in the foyer allows you to actually call someone and talk about your “existential crisis” (When I made the call, the person who picked up on the other end promptly hung up, only further leading me to ask, “Who was this man? What was he doing? Does he exist if he does not answer the phone? Where are these thoughts coming from? Who am I?”).
This “interactivity” theme also touches on the concept of the individual: you, the viewer, are now an important piece of the artwork. In our society today,
the individual finds their thoughts and words swimming in the massive amounts of output in the world. A great symbolic image of this is Every GML by Theo Watson and Pablo Garcia, the product of 40,000 Graffiti Markup Language (GML) tags. The work spans the entirety of one wall, shedding light (literally) on individual graffiti artists’ identities by showcasing each unique tag, but the piece’s scale makes it overwhelming. Without an understanding of the individual significance of the tags, we are overloaded by the information and it appears to be a foreign code (in fact, it reminded me a lot of Egyptian hieroglyphics or computer code).
Another piece that touched on this concept of the modern identity was a Facebook Identity station called Social ID Bureau by Tobias Leingruber. There were examples of identification cards that documented a person”s basic information, their photo, and a QR code that could redirect someone to theirFacebook page. There were sample letters explaining how to use your identity cards, a printer, brochures, and more. I was completely confused as to whether you could actually print your Facebook ID card or not, but maybe that was all part of it– who is to say an ID is not a part of art and that art cannot be functional, even as functional as a printer? Anyway, my identity has literally been changed by Facebook: through my Facebook profile I am able to create a fixed, premeditated image of myself through chosen photos, posts, and comments, and I can communicate with people from around the globe without them even seeing my face (besides my profile photo). Facebook and the internet are so pervasive in our lives that they have actually shaped the concept of our identity, so although it may seem to some like a joke, Facebook ID actually may make a lot of sense.
Moving on, I loved the work Venus Webcam by Addie Wagenknecht and Pablo Garcia which takes classic works of fine art and redefines them in a modern context and places great beauty on those who otherwise might not be considered “beautiful.” It appears the artist utilizes Chat Roulette (or some other similar platform) to reach out to those who use the internet as a medium to release their sexual desires. The artist then asks the subjects to pose in the way people are posing in iconic images such as Michelangelo’s “The Creation of Adam” or Botticelli’s “The Birth of Venus.” If you watch the short video clip from start to finish (try not to jump in at the middle!), you find yourself startled by these individuals’ great beauty (at first you may be shocked– I was a little– but then you will find yourself captivated, I promise). The final image of a trans individual posing as the Mona Lisa is hauntingly intimate, meaningful, and beautiful. I still cannot get her eyes out of my mind.
Watch the video here:
Finally, the interactivity of these works creates ephemeral art that, the moment you move, is different or completely gone. Each individual’s perspective, identity, and image morphs the art, creating something new, only to change again in an instant. The concept of ephemeral art isn’t new and one of its most common forms is graffiti, which seems to be a common motif in the exhibit. There is the large work of graffiti tags, mentioned earlier. There is also a wall of QR codes called QR_HOBO_CODES by Golan Levin which at first looks like meaningless, overwhelming code (just like the one on the tags) but if you read the description, these QR codes are actually stencils. When you scan the code you will find statements on your phone such as, “Great coffee,” “Dirty,” “Insecure Wifi.” These stencils can be used with spray paint to graffiti a statement that will warn you or aid you in making a decision. The history of this actually comes from hobo culture, when hobos would post coded symbols to help out others passing by. What’s amazing about this is that it is again taking a traditional and historical concept and reinventing it in a modern medium, just like in “Venus Webcam.” It is also taking modern technology like phone apps and QR codes, as well as popular crowdsharing information sites such as Yelp and Angie’s List, and moving it away from cyberspace and into the tangible world.
There is so much more to this exhibit than I first expected and this review does not even scratch the surface. I highly suggest checking out this free gallery and attending one of their free events. More information can be found here.