Technology is irreversibly changing the way in which we interact with one another and the world around us. Connectivity and access come at the cost of truncated attention spans and addictive behaviour – the visible scars of post-computer generations. ‘Notes from Technotopia’ invites us to reflect on how technology is shaping us as humans, and how it might add to or subtract value from our experiences. The question, as stated by curator Andy Abbott, ‘is not one of how to live without technology but how to inject life back into tech’. One of the founding members of Black Dogs, Abbott has a history of promoting ‘real experiences’ in the form of DIY projects and initiatives, but is coming around to the idea that digital and the virtual might be productively put into the service of art.
A number of artists are thus brought together in Bradford University’s Gallery II, whose work comments on or critiques our current tech-addled age, and possible futures. Some do this by playfully sidestepping the presumed functionality of technology. Two interactive machines by Martin Smith, one that pulls party poppers, the other that bangs a heart-shaped gong to ‘demand the attention of the one you love’, are charmingly pointless, beautifully crafted machines. Similarly jocular in tone is Raquel Meyer’s retro animation ‘Fingers of Doom’ (2015), coded for Commodore 64 and set to a digital score by Dan Brännvall. Bit-by-bit its chunky grid is populated with monsters and ghoulish faces, what the artist describes as ‘brutalist storytelling about technology’.
Directly opposite the gallery entrance is a more demanding triple-screen video work by Shona Macnaughton, ‘When slaves love one another, it’s not love’ (2014). Two hyper sexualised 3D simulations (‘female model files’ downloaded from Turbosquid.com) act out the 1950s play ‘The Maids’ by Jean Genet while the artist, dressed in a flesh tone leotard as ‘Mme the Professor’, presides over the performance with talking-head observations. The avatars appear to diverge from the script with creepy anachronisms such as ‘get my tech ready’, and ‘let go of your mesh, it upsets me’. At one point in the dialogue an invisible hand (or cursor?) begins to pull at their vector points, distorting their bodies in a nightmarish scene of abjection that lingers.
The pastoral potential of AI is explored in Mika Taanila’s ‘ROBOCUP99’ (2000), a short documentary about the Robot Football World Cup held in Stockholm in 1999. Crude, boxy assemblages armed with decision-making power bump around in a harmless parody of the game. Engineers cheer them on whilst battles are waged behind the scenes over the importance of training robots to be completely autonomous, so they might one day care for the elderly and rescue people from disaster zones. More optimistic still is a research display by Rudiment, an organisation founded by Tom Longley and based at the University, which develops technology for human rights. Findings from its ARCADE project (Artillery Crater Analysis and Detection Engine) are presented as digitally printed scenes showing the blast craters left by unguided rockets fired from both sides of the Russia-Ukraine border in 2014. Determining the direction of blasts means that governments and militia might be held accountable for the killing of innocent civilians. Promoting technological progress with a conscience, Rudiment’s non-art contribution adds a reassuring clarity to the exhibition.
Other visions are less optimistic. The Frozen Music Collective’s ‘Souls as Software Objects’ (2015) filters sounds and visuals through software ‘stimulated by realtime conscious and subconscious brain activity’. Rendered fragments of flesh and flickering static are projected onto a model of a human face based on the Golden Ratio (but which looks unnervingly like a cross between Max Headroom and the Transformer logo). Giles Bailey shares four pages of his post-catastrophe novel ‘The Last Day of the Railway Lands (A novel in progress)’ in which the earth opens up and swallows a large area of London. A familiar cautionary tale of human progress curtailed by natural disaster.
‘Notes from Technotopia’ toggles between apocalyptic doom and a bright, technologically enhanced future, sometimes pausing to consider a place in between – perhaps where we find ourselves now. Far from coercive, the exhibition and catalogue (produced in collaboration with Black Dogs) presents a series of thoughtful meditations on what it means to be human in a post-technology age.