The New Human, Moderna Museet
When speech, reason and vision cease to explain our present-day condition, we will abandon our human senses and embrace technological ones. And we will call this process the New Human. Moderna Museet’s exhibition is a year-long, rotating sequence of photography, augmented reality and new media, which proposes two coping methods for our profoundly changed world after the year 2K: one, a cold and critical sobriety, and two, a brisk escape into simulated environments.
Walter Benjamin first equated human dependency on the technological with self-alienation and estrangement. In his Work of Art in the Age of Technological Reproducibility, he states “every day the urge grows stronger to get hold of an object in close range in an image, or better, in a facsimile, a reproduction.” With the click of a mouse or the toggle of a knob—intimacy, death, and even our most traumatic memories can be accessed instantly.
Frances Stark’s My Best Thing (2011) is an animated rendezvous between the artist and an anonymous Italian man, from the user-generated entertainment site Xtranormal. Text-to-speech software masks their human voices, making the exchange humorous—and even absurd—when the conversation moves awkwardly from artistic commissions to sexual innuendo. The two avatars, represented by female and male Lego-like figures, quickly disclose personal and private information about themselves. Against the backdrop of a green screen, the shot-reverse camera angles lend a cinematic quality which gives their interaction an overstated drama. Re-imagining Adam and Eve’s transgression for an Internet culture, Stark places a green leaf icon over the characters’ sex organs, covering any hint of excitement. Whether the encounter is imagined, scripted or real is not important; like all online relationships, a desire for closeness underlies their meeting. Computing as the ultimate interface for connection: redirecting one’s search for fulfillment, building fantasy surrogates, and offering a balm to lubricate the loneliness of the user.
Nearby, an array of Hito Steyerl’s photo-calibration targets are mounted on steel tripods. How Not to Be Seen: A Fucking Didactic Educational .MOV File considers debunks the myth of the green screen as just a background canvas. A variation of the gray card used for white balance in analog photography, the checkered, black-and-white resolution targets buried in California’s Mojave sand act as sensitometric tests for aerial photography, reconnaissance, and worse—target practice. Steyerl defends the grainy, pixelated, and poor-quality pattern it utilizes, positing it might act as an object of disguise, a patch of camouflage for the hunted to disappear. Her characters dance, bend, and vanish, wearing pixels and sheer, Islamic gowns meant to subvert a watchful aerial eye. Steyerl yearns for an image that is in close range, in order to reveal its operator (a contemporary rehearsal of Benjamin’s screen actor who is controlled by an audience who is not yet visible). Steyerl insinuates the screen actor of today does not belong to the dramatic theater, but rather is an enemy of a different theater: defense. The monochrome, geometric targets on which her actors perform, also offer insight into machine learning: proprioception, image interpretation, anthropometry—the essential weapons of the camera-eye—all packed into a graphic, abstract tessellation.
New forms of simulation train the mind, allowing soldiers and pilots to re-live past experiences, to understand visual figments that recur as phantom images. At the entrance of the exhibition, automated glass doors hiss open to reveal Harun Farocki’s multi-screen installation Serious Games I-IV. Part of Farocki’s deeper exploration of how video game culture can constitute a political space, Serious Games analyzes the syndrome known as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which haunts many American military personnel. A husky male in camouflage fatigues wears virtual reality eyewear in a corporate office in Seattle, as he navigates the low-polygon landscape and pink-orange, crepuscular sunsets of Kabul or Kandahar. There are no mosques, museums, or city centers; only simplified avatars with pointed hands, and acts of violence which sustain the mediatized representation of the region.
The New Human pries into aspects of everyday life that are becoming more commonplace: the likelihood that online space might offer novel but awkward opportunities for remote romantic or sexual encounters; stratagems for Muslims or other immigrants, to distract or destroy government surveillance which monitors and quarantines; and more alarmingly, how software and computer-generated environments now act as the training arena for ideological and urban warfare.
With precision, Farocki’s exhaustive study of images tells an important consequence of our desire to automate simple actions, once the domain of the human: namely, the resistance of the human psyche. As his video nears its climax, the soldier—once the shining advertisement for human systems engineering—is pushed to the verge of tears by his psychologist, recuperating a human emotion that, for his machine counterpart, is unattainable.