Cornell Art Museum Looks With Wonder, Concern at the “Tech Effect”

The images in photographer Antoine Geiger’s “Sur-Fake” series are all too familiar. In one, a group of teenagers are positioned around a cushioned seating area in the Louvre, each of their necks slanted downward at their devices instead of upward at the art. In another, a pair of visitors snaps a selfie in the front of the Mona Lisa. The most famous portrait in the history of art has been reduced to an Instagram prop.

Antoine Geiger

In each case, Geiger has manipulated the photo so that the faces of the distracted millennials are sucked into their phones, like something out of a David Cronenberg movie. Our phones are literally consuming us, while Rome burns and the Mona Lisa smiles.

This is but one example of what the Cornell Art Museum dubs, in its latest worldly and postmodern exhibition, the “Tech Effect.” The exhibit seeks to explore the ways our lives and our technology are intertwined, and how the art world is responding, in real time, to the quantum tech leaps that have altered our existences for the better or worse. It’s among the Cornell’s most ambitious shows to date, with more moving parts than a Rube Goldberg machine. Not all of them were working on the day of my visit—too many of its video monitors were either shut off or inactive—but this was a forgivable occupational hazard for an exhibition determined, to borrow a grammatically rogue slogan, to “think different.”

Sara Zahar

Curator Melanie Johanson made it a point to seek out artists representing a spectrum of viewpoints on both the benefits and dangers of technological progress. Of the 22 artists showcased in “Tech Effect,” Geiger is the show’s most ominous Cassandra. Other critics include Sara Zahar, whose “Lost Generation” series comments on social media’s invasive, isolating tendencies. In mixed-media light box works like “0 Followers,” that depressing numerical reminder of one’s insignificance in the digital universe is laid atop an image of a lonely road to nowhere. Walter Brown uses light box technology to illuminate the plastic and foil garbage polluting the planet.

Of the artists embracing technology’s forward motion, few approach it more jubilantly than Matthew LaPenta, whose oversized emoji sculptures slathered in automobile paint elevate these ubiquitous symbols of online communication into the realm of Pop Art, forcing us to respect them as more than just text-message ornamentation. It’s hard not to smile at his blindingly yellow take on the “sunglasses” emoji or his “kiss/wink face” in Valentine’s-candy pink.

Matthew LaPenta

Many of the show’s tech-positive artists suggest that the old, sacred barriers between art object and spectator are becoming flimsier, and that interactivity is being increasingly embraced. Constance Scopelitis’ equally delightful and pointed video animations allow audience to swipe her screens, revealing kittens and flowers underneath her signature hooded figures.

In Jonathan Rosen’s “The Future Is ___,” a two-way mirrored monolith is inscribed with the title phrase, followed by a lightning-fast rotation of more than 750 words on a constant cycle. The piece is designed entirely for selfies: You take a picture with the sculpture, and see what word represents your future. Even for the selfie-phobic like me, this was irresistible, and cheaper than a storefront psychic (Mine was “Outgoing,” by the way).

Speedy Graphito, a longtime Parisian street artist, is justifiably given an entire gallery of his technologically enhanced pieces in two and three dimensions. Graphito is a 21st century pointillist: His resin portraits of cultural figures like Bambi, Dr. Spock and Fonzie are composed of pill-shaped dots of color that, when the viewer stands far enough back, form the iconic portraits. But there’s a third layer to them: When viewed through a smartphone, they appear doubly vivid. Be sure to check out his giant mural wrapping around two gallery walls—a tribute to tech in which symbols and memes spring to life only under your phone camera’s heightened lens.

Speedy Graphito

Other artists in “Tech Effect” are more ambivalent about 21st century technology. Rosen, who created the two-way selfie mirror, is also responsible for arguably the show’s most ingenious series, “I Want …,” in which 48-by-72-inch light boxes mounted on the walls are filled with code for various websites, the online language snaking around central phrases: “I Want a Revolution,” “I Want a Second Life,” etc. When gazed through an app that unscrambles the code—provided on iPads at the Cornell—screenshots, images and videos spring to life in a collage of internet angst, desire and disinformation.

Jonathan Rosen

For instance, code from Breitbart News and a video of Alex Jones’ unmistakable gravelly voice fill the ironically named “I Want the Truth.” Meanwhile, Grindr profile images of phallic vegetables and rock-hard abs fill the furtive “I Want it On the DL.” This is the noise of modern life, the data filling our hearts and minds. Rosen is not so much criticizing its ubiquity as making sure we’re aware, in a form that is both overwhelming and enthralling.

But what happens when the technology gadget du jour becomes just another outmoded dinosaur? “Tech Effect” explores that, too, most prominently in Pia Myrvold’s “Light Hack”—a manic jumble of yesterday’s wires, projectors, media players, ladders and lighting umbrellas ascending from the atrium all the way to the second-floor gallery—and in Daniel Fiorda’s series of dead technologies like 35mm cameras, cassettes, flip phones and typewriters cast in snow-white plaster, and resembling half-buried objects uncovered from some frozen tundra.

Daniel Fiorda

Yet it’s worth noting that all four of these 20th century modes of art and commerce have, in fact, made comebacks. For many of us, augmented reality and selfie-assisted sculptures may represent the future of art and life. But for others, digging through the past can also mean looking forward.

“Tech Effect” runs through Feb. 16, 2019 at the Cornell Art Museum, 51 N. Swinton Ave., Delray Beach. Admission costs $8 adults and $5 students and seniors. Call 561/243-7922 or visit oldschoolsquare.org.