Can’t Stop: Happy Tech at Triennale Bovisa, Milan

Though the fields obviously aren’t mutually exclusive, technology and art have shared a love-hate relationship through the ages. At moments adversarial, art puritans fear drastic change in the application of new technologies to art disciplines, and staunch technologists fear a contamination of science by ‘softer’ art practices. However, at their most collegiate, art benefits from the potential of new technologies to both alter people’s perceptive capacities and to increase the efficiency of art processes, while technology advances through the creative applications provided by art. If considered from a cross-disciplinary perspective, the two have the potential to fuel each other.

Pipilotti Rist , Aujourdíhui (I Couldnít Agree With You More, version chaise longue), 1999, courtesy of La Triennale di Milano

As I encounter the Happy Tech exhibition on view at Triennale Bovisa from the position of someone primarily in the artist camp, I certainly have my biases. I am less interested in the technology vs. art debate, as it seems a bit reductive, and much more interested in the featured works of A-listers like Pipilotti Rist, Alfredo Jaar, Thomas Ruff, and Bill Viola, among others. The exhibition is ambitious, and approaches the issue with a utopian vision of the creative potential that technology supplies art. Though many of the pieces use new media, they at the same time manifest a cynical or conflicted attitude to aspects of technology and progress. This is counterbalanced by the relative optimism of the corresponding tech displays. But for me, the strength of the show lies in the interactions between the artworks themselves, rather than their reciprocal relationships with the complementing science exhibits.

One of the most arresting pieces here is a 16-minute video loop by Rainer Ganahl, Dal Vaticano a Piazza della Republicca Bicycling Roma, in which he rides a bicycle against traffic through Rome. The camera is situated from the viewpoint of the rider, so we see only the handlebars of the bike, often free of hands, and the bicycle’s forward moving trajectory through the city. Cars and trucks advance toward us, neglecting to swerve their paths, and we feel acutely impelled to go on watching. The artist-cum-cyclist continues, through intersections in which traffic is moving parallel, through oncoming truckage, through gridlock, squeezing his bicycle through the spaces between stopped cars and motorbikes facing him at stalled intersections. It’s an impending disaster, and deeply wrought with intensity, as we feel both the utter recklessness of this journey and the inability to stop as we experience the adrenalin of the moment coursing through our bodies.

Rainer Ganahl, Dal Vaticano a Piazza della Repubblica senza ritorno, Bicycling Roma, 2006, courtesy of La Triennale di Milano

Tearing myself away from Ganahl, I move on to the Tony Oursler piece adjacent. Blue Classic is two large, vaguely head-shaped, bulbous blobs on which are projected blue faces, disturbingly distorted by the shapes of the ‘screens.’ They move their lips, speaking a meditation nearly inaudible over the cacophonous street noises of the Ganahl piece nearby. It’s repulsive and at the same time deeply compelling. But I am momentarily distracted by the sound of the Bicycling Roma video, the artist is speaking to someone. I move back to watch. And again I’m drawn in. Once more I feel the intense anticipation of a calamity. I can’t stop. And then, I reluctantly pull myself away. Back to Oursler. I lean in to hear the blue creature’s utterances: “Don’t stop. I’ll die…Keep me alive with your eyes…Don’t look away…I’ll die…Don’t stop. Don’t stop…I’ll die. Keep me alive…” And it’s true.

Tony Oursler, Blue Classic, 2009, courtesy of Triennale di Milano

Both pieces need me. Both need my empathy as a viewer. Both will die without me. In the Bicycling Roma piece, the imagined catastrophe occurs if I’m not watching. I’m powerless to prevent it, but as I continue to ride along with the protagonist, it feels as though, by my presence, he is protected from harm. And the pathetic little alien character of Blue Classic is sustained by me as well. He is okay, so long as I’m there with him to share in his loneliness, his need for attention, to provide that necessary attention. Together, these artworks evoke both the estrangement and the seduction we experience through media technology. The intimate exchange of viewing these pieces is somewhat akin to how we consume news media or reality television. They present us with both the wreckage of life and the potential redemption inherent within it, through a heightened visceral experience. Though we are horrified, we can’t stop looking, because it’s us on that screen. Through this media we experience humanity, and by inclusion, some portion of ourselves. So we’re compelled to watch, to in some ways view ourselves through the projected lens of the media.