Sci-fi horror flick? No, a filmstrip documentary screened in my eighth grade Social Studies class, and based on Alvin Toffler's groundbreaking 1970 book, Future Shock. That mannequin's eyes made a stronger impression on me than anything I've seen in Hollywood sci-fi.
In a recent online interview, Toffler, commenting on the fusion of genetics, technology, and the information era, said: "The fundamental issue that [we're] going to confront... is how do we define a human being? Who do we include in that definition and what do we exclude from that definition? Because we are on the edge of playing with the future of evolution itself."
Consolidated Works' current exhibition, Artificial Life, confronts Toffler's question in a variety of mediums. Curated by Meg Shiffler, this accessible, (artificially) intelligent, (cyber) sexy show explores the intersection of human and machine, of bio-logic and techno-logic. To its credit, the show skirts the trendy fixation on virtual reality. Instead, Artificial Life opts to look at the more visceral -- and far eerier -- collision of machine and body.
The works of Artificial Life negotiate the borders between artificial and organic with a playful visual language. As one enters the gallery, a verdant pasture dotted with lush purple larkspur comes into view. A closer look reveals The Green House, one of Sandy Skoglund's witty, utterly surreal photo montages -- a scanned image showing a couple lounging in a living room textured entirely in green grass, and overrun by purple plaster dogs. Lauren Grossman strikes a similar chord with her installation Pastoral, where a herd of plastic sheep graze on tiles of plastic grass. To lesser effect, Jim Rittimann blends organic material (bones, feathers, leaves) to build sculptural hybrid species, and filmmaker Matthew Steinke creates a celluloid world populated with marshmallow rabbits and mechanized baby dolls with glowing eyes and spark plug bodies. The combination of kitschy sci-fi soundtrack, jerky animation, and pink, fleshy soft focus is appropriately supernatural.
Pop culture junkie Mark Bennett adds detailed blueprints of our fictional home sweet homes: Gilligan's Island, Mayberry, Fred and Wilma Flinstone's house. Along with several other photo montages, Sandy Skoglund offers the installation Shimmering Madness, with mannequins dancing in a mass of pointillist color against the sound of rushing water. Again, closer investigation divulges the components of this illusion: the color comes from thousands of jellybeans, the sound from the flapping Mylar wings of hundreds of motorized butterflies. I was mesmerized.
The smartest pieces belong to Shawn Wolfe and roboticist Mark Tilden. Wolfe presents big canvases drawn in the clean lines and lurid matte color of comic strip art. Scenes with titles like Too Much of a Good Thing and What Are People For? are crowded with the labor and leisure classes, governed by machines shitting giant tranquilizers -- graphic renderings of the mechanisms of capitalism.
Mark Tilden's work actually finds that edge of Toffler's "future of evolution" -- both scientifically and aesthetically. On the wall, circuit boards mimic the lines of art nouveau. On sandscapes encased in glass (a nod to the artifice of zoo environments), tiny robots blink, flex, and skitter on analog reflexes that Tilden calls Nervous Networks. In defying classification, these living machines embody a timely conundrum: How will we define life?
In his introduction to his novel Crash, J.G. Ballard wrote: "Science and technology multiply around us. To an increasing extent they dictate the languages in which we speak and think. Either we use those languages, or we remain mute." On that count, Artificial Life is beautifully fluent.