Visual Arts

Doesn't Compute

If you're not the sort of person who understands very deeply how your iPod downloads and manages all those songs, the work in "southwestNET: techno," a show of technological devices as art at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art, will leave you baffled.

To use a techno term, this exhibition is not user-friendly. You'll need the manual, which in this case is an eight-page brochure that explains each object and how its creator is trying to tell you about man's relationship to technology.

At one level, that's bad. The creators of these pieces -- artist-engineers from Tucson; Tempe; Scottsdale; La Jolla, California; and Boulder, Colorado -- are making some interesting points about how computers affect our lives. But they're making these points with creations so dense they miss their target audience: non-engineers who don't understand the ramifications of the digital age.

At another level, that's good, because it shows just how abstract the machines that are part of our daily lives are to most of us. We earn money to pay our mortgage with our laptop, but most of us can't do much more than turn on our laptop without consulting a manual.

See? There's a problem with our cluelessness about technology.

It's a dilemma "techno" bumps up against repeatedly, with its obtuseness.

Take, for instance, Tristan Shone's piece in which a robotic arm pokes a tube into a microchip. A camera films the arm's action, sending a magnified image of the arm's movement to a computer monitor. Your gut response is that the piece is vaguely sinister in a robots-rule-the-world sort of way, and that it's about the dehumanizing force of technology. Yawn. You can't throw a sci-fi novel without hitting some movie, book or TV show mulling that theme.

Let's read the manual for a more in-depth explanation.

According to Shone, who worked as a high-tech engineer before becoming a high-tech artist, the robotic arm is moving in violent, uncontrolled movements that are opposite the sort of meticulous motions the arm is supposed to make. The machine there in the gallery is running amok, and the magnified camera shot of the endless malfunctioning gadget heightens the tension a human worker feels working in such an automated environment.


Wait, there are more nuances of meaning you missed. According to the manual, Shone's creation mimics a robotic system used to fill chips with a medicine that fights prostate cancer. The chips are implanted into a cancer patient's body and release the drug at programmed intervals. If the human worker touches any of the medicine destined for the bio-chip, he'll become impotent. This is a riff on the way technology turns us into girly computer users who can't get it up.


Not all of the work in "techno" requires a manual.

Natalie Jeremijenko's pack of robotic dogs programmed to sniff out environmental toxins seems like something we've seen on a Star Trek episode. Jeremijenko enlisted kids from Phoenix's South Mountain High School to help make the poison-finding robo-dogs; the kids reconfigured those robo-dogs you can buy at places like Toys "R" Us. Yep, teenagers turned toys into robots that can find pollutants. Makes you feel very old and very dumb, doesn't it?

David Birchfield and Loren Olsen's installation Community Art features computer-generated projections of light dancing to a wind-chime-like sound across the floor of a darkened cubicle. Take off your shoes, wander into the cool dark of the piece and sit on the floor, feeling the light and sound flicker over your body. Is it your imagination, or does the light and sound seem to synch with your heart? The effect is mesmerizing; you'll want one of these at home to hide in when the kids are yelling and the dogs are barking and the cell phone is ringing.

According to the manual, which I checked after I stepped out of Community Art to see what nuances I was missing, the light is dancing to a computer simulation of a biological system. Those lights and rhythms are mimicking mating, death, mutation and other processes of evolution as determined by a mathematical formula.


Just thinking about that gives me such a headache that I need to go back in and sit on the floor beneath the dancing lights. Soothe me, computer.

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Leanne Potts