Massimiliano Gioni and Gary Carrion-Murayari’s techno-aesthetic ‘cabinet of curiosities’ is the latest in a line of near-eccentric (as near as the general conservatism of New York’s museums can muster) New Museum exhibitions that take on big themes with big numbers and only limited respect for convention – Ostalgia (2011), After Nature (2009), Unmonumental (2008) being the others. But with Ghosts in the Machine, a show ostensibly about the ‘dream-like life’ that we share with our technology, it is exhibition making itself more than any rapturous engagement with our ever-evolving machine age that is on display.
The phrase ‘dream-like life’ belongs to (the currently modish) Richard Hamilton, whose exhibition Man, Machine and Motion from 1955 is both an inspiration and has been recreated here. A large lattice bearing archival images of humans on the move – in the air, through the water, over ground – and the bits of technical apparatus they have used to help them on their way, Hamilton’s installation offers an early example of the archive fever that gripped his own Independent Group and other artists of the early post-Second World War period, most notably J.G. Ballard, who is represented here by a suite of early spreads from Ambit magazine.
Gioni and Carrion-Murayari pay homage to other more and less well known curatorial forays into the always uneasy marriage of art and technology: Bruno Munari and Umberto Eco’s Olivetti-sponsored Arte Programmata (1962); William Seitz’s The Responsive Eye (1965, MoMA); Willoughby Sharp’s Kinetic and Programmed Art (1966, RISD; parts of which have been recreated for Ghosts…); K.G. Pontus Hultén’s The Machine as Seen at the End of the Mechanical Age (1968, MoMA); Jasia Reichardt’s Cybernetic Serendipity (1968, ICA); Maurice Tuchman’s Art and Technology (1970, LACMA); and Harald Szeemann’s Bachelor Machines (1975–7, various locations).
In this field, Stan VanDerBeek’s Movie-Drome (1963–5), installed on the museum’s fifth floor, looks less like an experiment in ‘expanded cinema’ and more like an early lesson in moving-image curating. But where, one wonders, is Billy Klüver, Robert Rauschenberg, Fred Waldhauer and Robert Whitman’s E.A.T. (Experiments in Art and Technology), launched via the art and engineering collaborations of 9 Evenings (1966)? Perhaps given E.A.T.’s tepid reception, both at the time and in more recent histories of the period, Gioni and Carrion-Murayari didn’t want to diminish the cred of their idols.
That the most affecting work in Ghosts isn’t a conventional ‘artwork’ at all, either official or outsider, but an unattributed reconstruction of the malign sentencing apparatus from Kafka’s ‘In the Penal Colony’ (1919) that was specially produced for Szeemann’s Bachelor Machines show, goes to the high level of curatorial self-regard at work here. But it also speaks to the trouble with the genre of the ‘art and technology’ exhibition in general, which is the fact that it is a genre, like genre fiction, SF or fantasy in particular. No matter how philosophically pungent the ideas or how contorted the manipulations of form, the art has to stand or fall on its own, which is why Ghosts… remains more curiosity than show.