What comes after technology?
Technology. It will change your life, but not always in the ways you expect. After Technology considers how Australian artists have registered the rise of technologies since the 1990s.
Technology. It will change your life, but not always in the ways you expect. Since the 1990s, Australian artists have been chronicling the rise of various technologies and how they’ve influenced our bodies, cultures, communities and identities. Eleanor Zeichner explains.
A woman’s legs fill the frame, her manicured red nails in stark contrast to the white floor underfoot. At the heel, her bare feet morph into a fleshy pair of stilettos.
Overstepping (2001) was created by Australian contemporary artist Julie Rrap as a critique of the impossible body standards held up for women, and as a playful exploration of new forms of image-making borne from digital manipulation.
It was also the inspiration behind After Technology – an exhibition at UTS Gallery in early 2019 that explored how Australian artists have registered the rise of technologies since the 1990s; from the emerging science of genetic testing and the effect of military technologies on civilian life, to the bleed between life online and real life. The exhibition looked back at a ‘history of the future’, and considered how cultural responses to technology have shifted over time.
“We wanted audiences to consider the ethical, material and cultural dimensions of technology,” explains co-curator Stella Rosa McDonald. “It’s a provocative position to take, considering we work in a university of technology, but we want our exhibitions to speak to their setting and extend beyond to include diverse perspectives and unexpected methodologies.
“Whether we use technology to shape our own bodies or build new ones, make connections or disengage, the problem of technology remains a human one,” Stella explains.
Whether we use technology to shape our own bodies or build new ones, make connections or disengage, the problem of technology remains a human one.
Stella Rosa McDonald
Patricia Picinnini’s 1996 photographic series, Your Time Starts Now, envisioned a future of human reproduction manipulated by profit-driven multinational biotech companies. The series is an early example of the artist’s ongoing interest in the expanded possibilities of human and animal reproduction, foreshadowing the now familiar ethical debates related to gene-editing, celebrity and consumer culture.
A powerful work by Yhonnie Scarce, who belongs to the Kokatha and Nukunu peoples, looked back at the devastating impact of nuclear technology on the Indigenous community at Maralinga. Fragile glass forms shown in vintage neo-natal hospital cribs, reference the human toll of British and Australian atomic testing in the 1950s and 1960s.
The exhibition drew interest from academics from across the university who each saw it as an opportunity to expand their perspective as well as those of their students.
For Aaron Seymour, a lecturer in Visual Communications in the School of Design, technology is a prompt to consider the systems that govern our daily lives. “We encourage our students to think critically about how they use technology, and the underlying power structures in which it’s embedded. For many students, the technology they use is invisible to them, it’s just a part of everyday experience.”
Aaron was drawn to the work (re)scribing language, a sculptural installation by Brisbane-based Yawuru artist Robert Andrew.
“Before I knew anything about this work, I first read it as drawings or maps, and of course the written word is both map drawing and map,” says Seymour. “One of our concerns in visual communications is how qualitive forms of data can be made visible, how visualisation can work in ways beyond the didactic and instructional.”
The work does just that by converting the Yawuru word buru (translated into English as country, ground, soil, time and space) into data that controls the movement of burnt branches that gradually marked the gallery walls over the course of the exhibition.
For photography lecturer Yvette Hamilton, Grant Stevens’ algorithmically-driven CGI landscape The Mountain (2018) provides a compelling narrative for her students, who visited the show as part of their course Design Studio: The Digital Image. Grant uses video game software to create a real-time simulation of a mountainous landscape, which randomly generates weather patterns in an infinite number of variations.
His practice considers how technology mediates our experience of nature, almost to the point of replacing direct experience.
As Yvette describes it, “it’s like the sublime as a screensaver, or a screensaver version of the sublime.”
As a practising artist she also has insight into how the technology Grant uses opens out the possibilities for current photography students. “This is a great piece of work to reflect on as it presents a digital construction but it’s also very photographic. It’s offers a really good jumping off point for students in terms of transitioning into moving image, video, gaming, into all sorts of things. It’s also thought-provoking because it’s challenging authorship, and the idea of the photographer.”
For Eva Cheng, Senior Lecturer in the School of Electrical and Data Engineering, a piece by artist Tega Brain offered an opportunity to reflect on the possibilities and challenges of digital technology. The work Being Radiotropic (2016) presented three wireless routers manipulated by environmental systems, from moon cycles to candlelight. For example, one router is controlled by a plant that carries out network attacks on unencrypted websites, embedding images of itself like a weed finding a crack in the concrete.
“I love the idea of inanimate objects that are digitally active, that are surreptitiously changing your digital life, and possibly without your consent,” says Eva.
The work gave Eva cause to reflect on how artists can articulate the social impact of technology, “I would definitely send students to the gallery to give them a different understanding of technology, and think about how engineers and technologists can work together with artists. We need to consider the purpose, impact and consequences of our work, and from day one of the design process. Artists and designers are great collaborators for that kind of thinking.”
Experiencing this work also felt like an interesting reframing of expectations. “The objects don’t do what you expect, and that’s what I like about art. It can push the boundaries of what technology can do, and also question what technology should and shouldn’t do.”
The UTS Gallery hosts a number of exhibitions throughout the year, you can view their upcoming events by visiting art.uts.edu.au