Labor and Materials
If the first machine age helped unlock the forces of energy trapped in chemical bonds to reshape the physical world, the real promise of the second machine age is to help unleash the power of human ingenuity.
Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies
A pile of hand-shaped bricks arranged on a bicycle seat, a life-size sculpture of a child and an upside down polar bear joined in a kiss, metal branding irons designed to imprint commercial logos, and detailed, anonymous portraits rendered on the fabric or wood of containers once used to gather or ship goods harvested from farms and factories: the forms and materials featured in this multi-media exhibition suggest a range of contradictions, anachronisms, and dichotomies. Exploring the evolution of industry in the 21st century, Labor & Materials presents a precarious balance between promise and peril. The scale, scope, and speed of technological innovation heralds unprecedented changes in what, how, where, and by whom goods and services are produced and provided. Economists describe the explosion of radically new platforms and products emerging in the digital age—robots and other forms of automated labor, self-driving cars, three dimensional printing, the explosion of bits and pixels transmitted across the internet, and the growing global network of trade driven by the shipping container—as an inflection point: a time in human history when how we live and work is utterly transformed. What does an inflection point look like? How will the widespread transformation of commerce and consumption affect access to goods and jobs, to information and infrastructure?
From photographs of today’s living and working conditions by Pavel Braila, Zhan Huan, Pieter Hugo, and Zanele Muholi to portraits of those laboring in 21st century fields, factories, and mines by Pierre Gonnord, Jorge Otero, Serge Alain Nitegeka, Alfredo Jaar, and Ramiro Gomez, to fantastical visions of a world defined by data and digitization by Karine Gibolou, Guy Limone, Dean Byington, Chen Jiagang, Gonzalo Lebrija, and James Clar, the imagery on view is both nostalgic and futuristic. As today’s primary means of production, the computer, becomes better, faster, stronger every day, more material and digital goods are made, shipped, transmitted, used, reused, and discarded, evoking concerns about environmental degradation and socio-economic inequities. Kara Walker’s figurative sculpture of a young 19th-century slave laborer and Marina Zurkow’s software driven animation of today’s shipping trade anchor the spectrum of this investigation into our contradictory era of concurrent abundance and scarcity. The African Boy Attendant Curio Walker sculpted in resin and molasses references the history of slavery, and the essential role slave labor played in the sugar industry, a product now consumed in dangerous excess. Within the labyrinthine code of export and import shipping tariffs that inspired Zurkow’s More&More (the invisible oceans): India, sugar, along with other former plantation crops like tobacco and cotton, constitutes a single category of classification, thus linking our agrarian past with production in the post-industrial present to envision creation, commerce, and consumption in the imminent, awe-inducing future.
What is the role of the artist in “unleashing the powers of human ingenuity” in this second machine age? Known to be early adapters of new technologies, artists such as Daniel Rozin use 21st century tools to engage and interrogate human behavior. Rozin’s Penguins Mirror is activated by a Kinect, a motion sensing device originally conceived for interactive gaming, here utilized to reflect viewers in the movements of motorized stuffed animals. Without audience interaction, the penguins’ choreography is controlled by an algorithm designed according to principles of Darwinian genetic evolution. Daniel Jackson and Russel Hulsey interrogate the artist’s solitary studio practice, appropriating found materials to question the potential and purpose of their toil, and creating art that requires the audience to work to decipher meaning.
Johan Thurfjell and Duke Riley go to work in the natural world, exploring history and memory to reveal how the past, both individual and communal, shapes fate and identity. Thurfjell reenacted a lost friend’s journey into an underground mine, recreating the site within a minimalist wooden sculpture, inscribed with words both personally and universally relevant: “…isn’t that something you say—that if you expose yourself to what scares you the most, you come out as a stronger person.” Taking risks to uncover intersections between history and mythology is a hallmark of Riley’s practice. His multi-part project addressing the US embargo of Cuba, Trading With the Enemy, took four years of planning, building, and training his animal collaborators to complete the work. Riley engaged fifty homing pigeons to execute a flight from Havana back to Key West, some carrying then-contraband Cohiba cigars, others outfitted with tiny cameras, defying law enforcement and technology to illuminate the facts and fictions that have determined destinies on both sides of the Florida Strait. “The smuggling of illicit cargo and people has played a significant role in shaping the culture as well as the economy of the Southernmost American city of Key West,” explained the artist. As illustrated by Marina Zurkow’s More&More series, today’s ever-expanding, often opaque shipping trade exerts an unparalleled impact on communities worldwide, and on the global environment. Much of the refuse of the post-industrial world—innumerable plastics, obsolete hardware—comes ashore in places like the polluted Agbogbloshie market in Ghana photographed by Pieter Hugo, and in the favelas outside of Rio de Janeiro, where Vik Muniz maintains a warehouse studio. Here, Muniz engages young residents in creating works such as Pictures of Junk: The Education of Cupid, after Correggio, transforming a world of waste into the raw materials for an art practice that fosters collaboration and ingenuity.
- Alice Gray Stites, Museum Director, Chief Curator