The six artists in Then they form us represent a widespread perception that’s also become an art world phenomenon. The show, organized by MCASB Associate Curator Brooke Kellaway, takes its title from one half of a statement that defines the widespread perception, “We shape our tools, and then they shape us.” Although the attribution of this quote to the popular philosopher of media Marshall McLuhan has proved to be a mistake, the concept is certainly his, and the observation has never been more trenchant. The tools we use to communicate and to act condition the things we think, say, and do. The recipient of a handwritten letter, delivered by a postal worker and paid for with a stamp, lives in a different universe than the person looking at a digital inbox full of emails or glancing at a smartphone to respond to a text. And pretty much everyone these days is aware of this — that’s the widespread-perception half of this equation.
On the other side loom the artists, many of them recent grads from the world’s top art schools and independent study programs. They’ve been trained to embrace this change, and to reflect on it, using every tool available to them, from traditional painting and sculpture to video, digital photography, performance, and even rap music.
Take Devin Kenny, whose 2014 series Alone We Play occupies the entire side gallery of the exhibition’s main room. Kenny grew up in Chicago, attended The Cooper Union, where he received his BFA, and went to UCLA, where he became an MFA in the university arts program’s New Genres department. Most recently, Kenny participated in the Whitney Museum of American Art’s elite Independent Study program in 2013-14. Alone We Play involves original music, digital filmmaking, and cultural critique. Viewers wear headphones in order to view enigmatic video loops while listening to the eccentric yet sophisticated music of Devin KKenny, Kenny’s rap persona. In the most provocative of these short and oblique vignettes, the screen shows a cartoon image of a girl slumped over the keyboard in front of an old-school video monitor. The image is still but for her computer mouse, which dangles off the edge of the desk, swinging back and forth. On the soundtrack, Devin KKenny raps “as Netlife BDSL” about “breathplay,” and “safewords.” It’s eerie in a wholly unfamiliar way, a fragment of retro imagery that nevertheless feels torn from someplace that’s about to exist.
There’s more video art in the main room, where Cécile B. Evans has installed her 2014 piece Hyperlinks or it didn’t happen, which also includes various objects and a backdrop that references the early computer ENIAC. Evans, who is based in Berlin but has been showing most recently in London, emerged from the undergraduate program in theater and performance study at NYU as an actress, and then switched to making art after moving to Paris. She cites her first encounter with the Fischli and Weiss film The Way Things Go as a critical moment in her development, and she has been an advocate of technology from the start of her career as a fine artist.
Using a digital camera and Final Cut Pro, she reimagines icons from pop culture and their work as operating on the same emotional plane as figures more identified with the intellect. To use her words, “in this world, Paula Abdul goes with Pina Bausch.” This work, which includes narration by a deliberately degraded CGI image of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, juxtaposes original digital media with the popular anime character Hatsune Miku. While it can be hard to know exactly what is going on at any particular moment, the video is weirdly beautiful, and Evans clearly has mastered her digital craft.
One of the ways that technology has affected our lives most deeply is through personal communication — and its surveillance. Constant Dullaart fills the back room of MCA with images of men who stand accused of aiding in the electronic crackdown on personal communication during the Arab Spring by providing governments with software and devices. A plastic surface layer blurs their features, as though these static portraits were somehow waiting for a browser to buffer them fully before resolving into clarity.
The three other artists in the show hail from widely divergent locations: Hayal Pozanti is from Istanbul, Julien Prévieux from Grenoble, and Xavier Cha from Los Angeles. Each of them has something to contribute to this fascinating collection of objects and images intended to reveal how “they form us.”