The Dream Life of Technology
- Series: Media Art
Inspired by Zoe Beloff’s new exhibition at Site Gallery, Sheffield, Duncan White considers the ‘dream life’ of modern media technologies.
“I am the Intelligent Camera”
On a wet and busy street in London last week I couldn’t help but be arrested by a talking camera! “I am changing everything!” it told me. “I’ve been built from scratch to revolutionise the way you capture your world!”
This may be the age of ‘smart phones’ but this is nothing new in the secret life of objects.
From The History and Adventures of an Atom by Tobias Smollet (1769), or The Adventures of a Corkscrew (1775) through to William Burrough’s talking turd in The Naked Lunch (1959), the inanimate object has been invested with a life of its own for at least two centuries, all in response, no doubt, to the ever-advancing forms of mechanical manufacture that, once switched on, work under their own steam, automatically and endowed, it must have appeared, with a life of their own, one that in some frighteningly sophisticated future would see the inanimate object become so animate it would begin in earnest to self-generate, to outstrip the poor performing human being and become itself more animate than the inanimate folks who once built it and now seek it in brightly lit shops and on brightly lit screens…
But have no fear. These objects – such as my talking camera – exist solely to make me feel better, to make my life easier, to advance the capacities of my otherwise limited physical attributes. For the time being at least.
Zoe Beloff, a Scottish born artist based for many years in the US, in contrast, has made it her vocation to inquire into what she calls ‘the dream life of technology’, to investigate whether these objects dream for and of themselves rather than on behalf of the dreamless individuals who ‘own’ them.
The Infernal Dream of Mutt and Jeff
Beloff’s new exhibition at Site Gallery in Sheffield, ‘The Infernal Dream of Mutt and Jeff’, wonderfully explores this uncanny terrain of the secret life of the animate object.
The installation includes a large three screen video projection, a looping 16mm cartoon animation and various physical props that appear in the films. In addition there are models of Frank and Lillian Gilbreth’s ‘Chronocyclographs’ from the 1920s and wall charts outlining the political history of ‘remediation’ from the cartoon-strip to the i-phone.
The three-screen projection brings together two found films, instructional films from the 1950s produced for the schooling of industrial workers in New York. The first is called Motion Studies Application and gives various examples of efficient working practices the other, Folie à Deux is a film for the diagnosis of a clinical form of ‘contagious paranoia’.
Here we see what Beloff calls ‘productive and un-productive bodies’ literally competing with themselves to work as efficiently as possible.
This out of body experience is represented quite literally in ‘instructional films’ as the twin double. In one sequence the operator on the right hand side waits for her less productive self to finish the same operation.
One is an example to the other of how to be a more perfect machine. Over time the motions become so efficient that the objects appear to take on a life of their own and operator and object almost appear to swap position.
For the three-screen projection Beloff made a third film in which the objects speak back – but not as objects of efficiency that enhance physical well-being such as the talking camera I encountered on a London street – but as convulsive, lively, unpredictable objects that collapse, hit back and breakdown.
No ‘smart’ phone here. Only the slapstick malfunctioning of a re-animate prankster!
Most beguiling is Beloff’s repurposing of a 1930s cartoon made for the children of the American Depression when ‘for a lot of people the world had literally gone to hell’.
Jeff and Mutt, two slapstick no-hopers, occupy a frozen hell where even the fire has run out and do their best to survive usually by outwitting each other and giving in to Tom and Jerry-like fisty-cuffs.
The cartoon character is at once a ‘thing’ and a ‘person’. This lends it special powers: they can endure seemingly endless bouts of punishment, for instance, or walk in mid-air, at least until they realize they are in mid-air, or until they realize they are a person and not just a free-floating object and plummet to their ‘doom’.
But it’s worth remembering that cartoons are often considered ‘safe’ because of their childish appeal but are able at the same time to get away with a bold critique of mainstream culture while at the same time remaining staunchly mainstream – see the Simpson’s or Team America for instance.
As Beloff points out, it was Walter Benjamin who ‘said that cartoons expose the fact that what passes as civilization is barbarism.’
The dream life of objects is then the infernal nightmare of working people who lose control of the things they make which in turn take on more value and have more control than they do.
For Adorno, when Donald duck took a thrashing ‘this was another way that people received training in punishment and got used to the idea that they were going to get beaten over the head by their bosses.’ (Beloff)
But this is perhaps the contradiction at play in this exhibition.
Cinema may be the animate object or commodity par excellence and as such Beloff asks the age old and forever pressing question:
‘Was cinema from its inception a medium of psychosocial control or does it contain the potential to experience the world in new ways? Can we awaken from the world of illusion or has our digital media sucked us down ever deeper?’
The dream life of technology is of course the dream life of us mere mortals displaced, repackaged and sold back to us as the hyper-articulate, adaptable, ‘smart’ commodity that knows us better than we know ourselves.
So what are you dreaming of this Christmas? Or is it: what is dreaming you this Christmas?