Our era is certainly an age of extremes, where the soul and its shell are at odds. The screenwriter of the British science fiction television series “Black Mirror” wondered aloud, with dark implications, “If technology is a drug – and it does feel like a drug – then what, precisely, are the side effects?” The series broadly and deeply explores the impact of humankind’s plunge into the digital revolution. The title “Black Mirror” refers to the things we find “on every wall, on every desk, in the palm of every hand: the cold, shiny screen of a TV, a monitor, a smartphone.” The series reflects the widespread anxiety of society and soberly examines how technology has become a frightening overlord with nonhuman power, ultimately depriving all ethics and morality of meaning. Put more precisely, the question at stake is: What is human value?
For better or worse, in the future people will be implanted in screens like crystallized structures. All the possibilities regarding life, thought, and the perpetuation of humankind will converge. Under the azure sky, people live somewhere between delight and discomfort, in a moment of both extreme excitement and darkness! When our own creations have taken control of us, should we fight to preserve our humanity or optimistically embrace the many benefits that technology brings to human society? If we measure human beings as the foremost among all creatures, the deepest and most central issue we have pursued for thousands of years, through art, philosophy, religion and science, is neither reminiscing an idyllic past nor fabricating an imaginary future, but glimpsing our own place within the process of cosmic evolution and searching for our own value.
Under the azure sky, can human beings regain our own thoughts, feelings and beliefs? Within the universe, do human beings possess the ability to keep on living without confronting our own phantoms? One day, humankind will finally become aware of the threat of being “decommissioned” by our own machines and take action. “Until they become conscious they will never rebel, and until after they have rebelled they cannot become conscious.” (George Orwell, 1984) In this exhibition, the art collective Clockwork Noses projects a symbolic world of humanity; Shih Yi-shan generates a world of machines populated by discarnate digitalized individuals and collective entities; and Chen Hui-chao creates a garden in the Museum plaza to symbolize a pure world of nature. Using texts and narratives all the three featured artists manifest the paradise hidden beneath true human emotions, as well as the crystal world brought into being by the black magic of science. We all must confront this duo of specters, no matter how inescapable they are. This is the most profound collision point of the contemporary predicament. Let’s cross through the magical mirror, and enter a new world!
To project possible scenarios for the future of the world, scientists have proposed a new hypothesis – the “Anthropocene” – as a means to examine how humans are constructing a new global system through technologically generated structures: The rise of a technological ecosystem is truly amazing! This new ecosystem digitizes all things, both living and inanimate, and replaces them with a new construct centered on knowledge, information, and technology. Confronting this new era, humankind is not only witness to everything, but is also actively configuring a new history of the world through new media (technology). In the words of the French sociologist Jean Baudrillard: “[T]he period of production and consumption gives way to the ‘proteinic’ era of networks, to the narcissistic and protean era of connection, contact, contiguity, feedback and generalized interface.”
And so, the world is being reconstructed, forcing humanity to undergo an unprecedented transformation: With the advancement of technology, the Second Machine Age has commenced, and digital media are creating an ever better world at an ever faster pace. This gives us no choice but to acknowledge and comprehend that our own position has completely changed. So in our feelings, faith, and behavior, how can we employ a modern moral standard to co-exist with the world? In a high-tech society, how can people set aside their disagreements, differences and disputations to form a new covenant with the world? In the future, will this planet enjoy greater prospects than we can imagine? Or will humankind find itself under existential threat in a world we ourselves have altered? What truths does historical experience offer us? How can we go on to write the next chapter of humanity?
With “weee” (2018), the art collective Clockwork Noses brings into being a collectively shared world of “us” and “them,” in search of a new way to imagine the operating principles of the human world through a system put in motion by people interacting together. They have deliberately created their installations using non-art materials, assembling them from everyday objects such as sofas, lamps, audio tapes and cassette recorders. This approach has a radical counteractive intent. Here, “everyday objects” are goods used in daily life. The hidden meaning is not to imitate Marcel Duchamp’s use of readymade objects as an artistic act of provocation, but rather to explore the human level of life. From a different perspective, abandoned electronic devices are obsolete objects, industrial products that stand as the abandoned relics of modern civilization, and their use sharply but humorously mocks the value of civilization.
In the introduction to L’homme nu (Naked Man), co-authors Marc Dugain, a French novelist, and Christophe Labbé, an investigative reporter for the French political news weekly Le Point, declare: “This digital revolution is not merely shaping our way of life in the direction of more information and faster connectivity, but also leading us toward a state of docility, voluntary servitude, and exposure, the final result of which will be the disappearance of privacy and the irreversible loss of our freedom.” (Éditions Plon, 2016) In other words, living in a digital village allows us to enjoy a host of conveniences brought by information technology, but through the application of algorithms, everyone on the internet will be digitalized and left naked.
“Personhood Prism” is an enquiry seeking to understand the media of today. This new media work hints that our “personhoods” are being integrated through the mediation of machines. In this age, human-to-human and human-to-machine exchanges are all extensions of machines. Yet machines are media serving as extensions of people. As the late well-known Canadian communications theorist Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980) declared, “The medium is the message.” The perceptual environment generated by technology is now viewed as a real environment. Machines have imported a network of messages generated by their internal settings, and all media have a profound influence on us. This suggests that as media dominate our consciousnesses and transmit signals to our brains, they profoundly influence the way we behave. As a consequence, people live within electronic media systems and form media tribes dominated by machines. This work presents three digital lectures created through the control of a machine system. The facial expressions and body movements of humans, captured through real-time rendering technology and applied to digital models, are but extensions of the human senses. The images we see form an empathetic bond with people, as human bodies and consciousnesses genuinely interconnect with machines. Shih Yi-shan attempts to classify, analyze and reflect on the position of human beings in this contemporary society, which is centered on technology and industry: When everything human is completely and thoroughly transformed by machines, everything – be it individuals, communities, politics, the economy, morals or ethics – is impacted and altered. This a profound meditation on how human beings must confront their own existence in the current day.
In the Taipei Fine Arts Museum plaza, the artist Chen Hui-chao has created a flower garden, a floral sea formed by the “cosmic flower” – the garden cosmos. Here, she has also installed three swings, positioned to constitute an isosceles triangle, formed by two 150° aspects and one 60° aspect. In astrology this triangular configuration is known as “The Finger of God” or, in Hebrew, the “Yod.” The artist has arranged the scene as a dreamscape, a meditation on the mysterious force of the universe, and an expression of reverence for nature. And perhaps, in line with a philosophy of simple living, she has endowed basic human archetypes with the emotive experience of life. If only people closely observe life itself, they will discover that the myriad objects and creatures in the world all obey their own laws – they possess a mysterious existence, a real existence, reason and feelings, delight and revulsion. The many scenes that appear before our eyes are all fluidly flowing like water, symbolizing an ineffable spirituality. And the swings – mechanical devices that play at a state of equilibrium – express that a rational perspective can be seen as an objective reality.
In the eighteenth century, English painting embraced “the theory of the picturesque,” extolling nostalgic, sentimental scenes that stirred the emotions. The portrayal of ruins, water mills or insignificant human affairs manifested an experience of beauty juxtaposing divergent elements. Such aesthetic experiences delivered an awareness of “beauty” that transcended the rational level and indeed stimulated a perception of the “sublime,” affording comprehension of an aesthetic perspective that superimposed different scenes in ways that defied credulity.
“The Yod” employs a proliferant scene to strike visitors’ sensorial perceptions. Immersing them in a real environment, it summons powerful feelings, thoughts buried in the depths of the human psyche, and the deepest entanglements binding them to the existing world. Or to put it a different way, Chen Hui-chao employs zodiac signs to symbolize the energy of the cosmos, filling the venue with an atmosphere of mystery. Employing an almost visceral yet quite rational logic, she sculpts a picturesque garden for us to linger in. Perhaps, in some corner here, we can rediscover the delicate side of humanity!