List Visual Art Center Massachusetts Institute of Technology
February 8–April 8, 2007
Sensorium: Embodied Experience, Technology, and Contemporary Art, Part 2 is the second of a two-part exhibition examining artists’ responses to the impact of technology on the human senses. A perhaps unintentional antidote to Super Vision, currently on view across the Charles River at Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art, Sensorium counters, with an explicit and programmatic attempt to dislodge vision from its privileged position atop the sensorial hierarchy, Super Vision’s paean to technological augmentation and the extension of the eye.
Sensorium ’s ambitious agenda of ocular interrogation and critique is laid out by Caroline A Jones in her lead essay for the exhibition’s catalogue. Revisiting and updating the final chapter of her recent book on Clement Greenberg, Jones situates the work in the exhibition (from a total of nine artists, including one duo and one trio) in relation to her claim that modernism, and the Enlightenment thought in which it is rooted, depend on and enforce a “segmentation” of the senses. Recognizing technology’s central role in this perceptual economy, she argues that rather than offering an “escape from technological mediation,” the body itself, the very means by which we acquire knowledge of the world, must be understood as a mediating apparatus, and that the mediation and control of this human sensory apparatus is fundamental to the constitution and maintenance of subjecthood.
The works in Sensorium, Part 2 probe this nexus of technology, sense, and subjectivity in a variety of ways. Significantly, all reject the impulse toward synesthesia or sensory overload, instead adopting strategies of dislocation and displacement. Christian Jankowski’s Let’s Get Physical/Digital (1997) is the earliest work on view and also one of the strongest. In the mid-90s, in the dark days before internet telephony and instant messaging, Jankowski and his girlfriend of the time found themselves in different countries for an extended period. Short on funds for physical travel or traditional phone conversations, they agreed to meet in internet chat rooms. Jankowski’s thirty-seven-minute video consists of the transcripts from seven such meetings, one for each day of the week, all performed in bland, anonymous stage sets by amateur actors Jankowski located online. The live actors’ re-staging of these self-conscious virtual encounters highlights the inability of the technology to convey such information as tone of voice, facial expression, and body language. The vocalization of typos and frequent discussion of technical difficulties (“Are you still there? I can’t see you” is a constant refrain) further emphasize the limitations of the fledgling medium. At the same time, however, one sees the couple adapting, developing the ability, for example, to remotely “sense” the other’s distraction or disinterest.
Anri Sala’s two-minute video Naturalmystic: Tomahawk #2 (2002) is a distilled meditation on the disparity between sight and sound. In the video, a lone, stationary figure, seated at a microphone in a recording studio, simulates the sound of a tomahawk missile. The sound grows increasingly loud as the phantom missile approaches, suddenly going silent for a moment before exploding. The work testifies to the power of auditory perception on subjectivity and traumatic memory, while the discrepancy between dynamic, affective sound and static, uninflected image undermines a faith in the primacy of visual communication.
Not every work in the show is so convincing. François Roche and R&Sie(n)’s proposal for MI(pi) Bar (2006), a tearoom where visitors would drink tea prepared with their own urine, is a case in point. The exhibition catalogue describes a project to utilize rainwater and the collective waste water of the entire MIT campus for a similar tearoom (provisionally titled MITea). But the shift in register from collectivity to individual (and from the bureaucratic to the scatological) moves the work from a plea for sustainability (somewhat threatening given the potential contents of MIT’s waste water) toward provocation for its own sake.
Natascha Sadr Haghighian’s Singing Microscope (2006) replaces the eyepiece of a vintage MIT microscope with a small speaker, frustrating one sense while unexpectedly opening up another. What the viewer hears (evidently a recent development, as the soundtrack was “still to-be-determined” as the catalogue went to press) are the lyrics to The Police’s “Every Breath You Take,” recounted by a computerized voice akin to the original MacSpeak program. Ostensibly inspired by Evelyn Fox-Keller’s groundbreaking essay “The Biological Gaze,” Haghighian’s witty piece ultimately says more about the song’s somewhat sinister undertones of surveillance and sexual control than it does about the gendered gaze of science or the “complex relationship between invisibility and visualization and the complex realities of the object under observation” invoked in her proposal, published in the catalogue.
Mathieu Briand’s UBIQ, A Mental Odyssey remakes the entrance to the exhibition as a spaceship entryway based on Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 sci-fi epic 2001: A Space Odyssey, outfitted with retro-modern seating, nonfunctional controls, and a computer-simulated Earth (complete with clouds corresponding to real-time meteorological conditions) visible through a “window.” Inside this elaborate set, visitors are invited to don helmets equipped with cameras and viewscreens. By pressing a button on a handheld device, the viewer is able to change the image on the viewscreen, randomly toggling back and forth between that generated by her own helmet-cam and those of other viewers. UBIQ is touted as a “new approach to deconstructing the concept of the subject” through the interchange of another subject’s perception, “and by extension their thoughts and emotions.” But rather than creating a stream of schizo-subjects à la Deleuze and Guattari, UBIQ never exceeds the status of a novelty, an overdetermined parlor game for the late twentieth century.
In the end, Sensorium is a medium-scale, relatively focused contemporary group show accompanied by a publication with the ambition of a major historical document. This ambition is underscored by the fact that less than a third of the 260-page catalogue is given over to discussion of the work in the exhibition. The lion’s share is given over to the “Abecedarius,” where a host of eminent scholars provide short meditations on topics both obvious (Martin Jay on “Ocularity,” Thomas Y Levin on “Surveillant”) and surprising (Caroline Basset on the “Yuck Factor”). These entries, and the catalogue as a whole, offer a particular, and circumscribed, view of both artistic and theoretical production. Foucault, of course, looms large over the entire project (as well he should), but Merleau-Ponty is nowhere to be found. Similarly, in the entry on “Control,” we get Norbert Weiner, but there is no mention of William S Burroughs — a disappointing lack of imagination for a project of such obvious interdisciplinary ambition (given the theme, a complementary entry on “Addiction” would also be a fruitful addition).
Sensorium is a collaboration between four curators (Bill Arning, Jane Farver, Yuko Hasegawa, and Marjory Jacobson) and Jones, who edited the catalogue, and part of its unevenness may stem from having too many cooks in the kitchen. But it also derives from the disparity in scale between aspiration and execution. Sensorium asks a small number of very recent works to cover a great deal of historical and theoretical ground, and it is almost inevitable that some will be unable to shoulder the burden. In this context, even otherwise strong works can end up feeling dry and over-interpreted, or simply out of place. Perhaps this is why, for all its rhetoric of embodied experience, Sensorium, Part 2 is not, in the end, a particularly sensuous exhibition.