Vermont Curators Quest for Technology in Art

Updated: Mar 2

"Wanderer above the Sea of Fog" by the painter Caspar David Friedrich in 1818 is often credited as the harbinger of a modern sensitivity to generalized uncertainty about the future.

Technology is fundamental to art though it is not always understood this way. For much of history technology has played the part of creative enabler, serving as both a medium and a tool of human expression. The evolution of technology has been in lock-step with the evolution of cultural expression in a golden braid of social interdependence -- from our mind's eye through our hands to the end of the tools we use, technology is inextricably bound to the activities of creativity.

The common disconnect with this interpretation of technology interdependence and the arts may arise from a too-narrow and contemporary association of "technology" with things that we plug in -- devices that have screens, are powered and involve clever bits of code. The reality, explored so beautifully in Kubrick's adaptation of Arthur C. Clark's 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, is that human evolution has exploded as a result of our awareness of technology adoption and subsequent ability to give it direction. From a dry bone to artificial intelligence, technology has accompanied every milestone of modern homo sapiens. This includes, at an essential level, the dimensions of our arts and culture.

One of a collection of images from the four-volume book, "Making of 2001: A Space Odyssey" (2012) published by Taschen, reproduced from Vanity Fair.

A group of Vermont curators has come together around the idea of a technology theme to give shared focus and shape to public exhibitions across the state in 2020. Seven Days reports that the group -- 70 curators representing 46 organizations and growing -- originally met in 2016 to share information, coordinate exhibitions and support one another professionally and socially in their careers. Enthusiasm quickly grew for the idea of a statewide exhibition that would galvanize broad interest and draw diverse institutions into a collaborative framework that would help visitors understand the scope of the project and where to access local instances of the show.

The result is "2020 Vision: Seeing the World Through Technology." Organizers hope that this catch-all theme will allow curators "considerable latitude to show how technology has changed life in the past or present, or might in the future."

George Tooker painted "Subway" in 1950, capturing the antagonism of modern existentialism toward women in a society increasingly prone to isolation and anxiety.

Modern art -- the most recognizable body of work to contemporary audiences -- is a direct response to technological influence in society. From John Goffe Rand's contribution of mobility to Impressionists' plein air work to the inversion of "ready made" works introduced by Marcel Duchamp, the early years of modern art were some of its most exciting -- before technology itself, and overt critique of its social impact, became a dominant subject of art. This has to include the affects of two 20th century wars and their ruins in the work of Dada, Bauhaus and the Situationists. It was Peggy Guggenheim who introduced the world to these voices in her landmark 1948 exhibition at the Venice Biennale.

The disruption, dislocation and anomie of technologically organized life is captured by George Tooker in his work, "Subway." Although Tooker did not make Vermont home until 1960, he is emblematic of the state's uneasy relationship to modernism. Earlier painters like Maxfield Parish and Edward Hopper had also come to Vermont, escaping what Tooker called the urban landscape's "denial of the senses" -- to renew them one had to "retreat" from modern living. Today the themes of rural grace and pastoral seclusion continue to dominate much of what is considered "Vermont art."

Much, but not all, of modernisms hope for and critique of technological impact in society changed with a remarkable 1965 show at the MoMA in New York, The Restless Eye. This exhibition drew, maybe for the first time, a direct link between how technology is applied and its impact on the human senses. Technology itself, and not its social processes and human impact, emerged fully grown as subject.

From there, an important discourse began to emerge about technology in and as art. The dialogue was given early shape through Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.) -- an overt and cooperative effort between artists and engineers to place technology at the center of artistic output. Since these early efforts we've become accustomed to the use of neon lights, television screens, projection -- even lines of code -- interchangeable as both a subject and tool of art. The dynamic nature of this work contributes to post-modernisms' ongoing, general refutation that any "new" art can be the subject of grand theories; it is a rejection of modernism's critique of, and efforts to improve, the human condition. The dramatic role that technology has come to play in art may have been most dramatically represented by David Hockney's 2012 showing of iPad drawings at the Royal Academy, the culmination of a life preoccupied with the problem of seeing.

Earlier this year Backpacker had the opportunity to view the exhibition Future Shock at SITE Santa Fe. It may be close in inspiration to the ambitions of the Vermont curator's project; Future Shock articulates -- much in the way critic Peter Fuller offered in Aesthetics After Modernism -- the "profound impact of the acceleration of technological, social, and structural change upon contemporary life." In Vermont these themes are not as prominent as they may be elsewhere; efforts to explore art and technology too often come across as exercises in effect over aesthetics. It is not surprising that a state with an active and tense dialogue between the past, present and future should find its artists both embracing and refuting -- and sometimes reproducing -- modernisms central tenets.

At different times, Vermonters have expressed degrees of enthusiasm for progress afforded by technological advancement, as this 1911 postcard shows.

Technology and Vermont are not often interpreted as symbiotic concepts. While Vermont has a long tradition of technological adoption through the middle of the twentieth century, at some later point the state's concept of itself began to shift; instead of an agricultural economy that embraced innovation and modern production methods, we became better known as a state with a deep pride for "traditional" ways, an arrested technological development more than its restless pursuit.

What could be said to be a discourse of Vermont as a haven from modern society emerged instead -- the act of moving to Vermont as "retreat,"though today that narrative may be on the wane. Organizations like the Vermont Technology Alliance represent companies in the state that rely upon rapid technological innovation for their competitiveness and survival. The numbers of Vermonters employed by these companies continues to rise, and so does, in a very real sense, our technological dependence.

The NewVistas planned residential development has sparked angry protests and earned a resolution against its vision by the Vermont State Legislature. Photo courtesy the NewVistas Foundation.

The Internet brings consumer behavior that is disruptive to traditional settlement patterns and offers new ways to connect across a rapidly evolving planet. An aging and economically powerful population that once fled cities and technology's Gorgon gaze now depends upon access to the best available innovations in health care. Vermont educators have embraced Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) as the dominant pedagogical paradigm; our energy profile requires the most advanced production and distribution methods and computational power to match supply and demand.

And while these technologies are adopted by businesses and consumers, there remain areas where Vermonters are squeamish about technology adoption. Genetically modified organisms remain contested; nuclear energy is forcibly resisted; freedom from the mobile phone, social media and networked living remains a point of pride for many Vermonters. Advanced military technology is rebuked while military contractors quietly provide a substantial share of Vermont's essential manufacturing jobs.

Eleanor "Bobbie" Lanahan's "Captain’s Workshop" was the second place finisher of Burlington's 2017 South End ArtHop juried exhibition. It is an enduring and familiar catalogue of vernacular Vermont technology.

"The year 2020 has often been used in pop culture as a shorthand for a distant, high-tech future," the curator's group has written. It is unclear whether that future is welcome in Vermont; technology is not, by itself, readily associated with generally valued concepts of fairness and justice in a free society. Northeast Kingdom filmmaker Jay Craven's adaptation of Craig Nova's dystopian "Wetware" stand among a few Vermont films to tackle such difficult themes as "biohacking" -- and their social implications -- head-on.

There are a few remarkably deep pockets of thought and creativity at the intersection of art and technology in Vermont. For example, astrophysicist and holography expert John Perry has mused on ways holograms help us to understand quantum mechanics and the origins of space. Inventor and master modeler Mark Prent of Pink House Studios has collaborated with artists like Yoko Ono to help them realize works of technical difficulty and startling moral power. (He has also pioneered anatomically accurate glass models of the human eye and produced forensic reconstructions used to catch a murderer.) The most significant home to Vermont's deep technology practitioners may be the Terasem Movement Foundation.

Vermont designer Lucy Leith provides a fitting for Terasem Movement Foundation's artificial intelligence BINA-48, an early "transbeman."

Terasem (roughly translated from Greek as "Earthseed") has funded notable forays into "transhumanism," an emerging philosophical, spiritual and aesthetic practice inspired by the idea that human consciousness can be preserved outside of the living body; one day consciousness will become "portable" into new -- and presumably "higher" -- forms of being. Technology's apotheosis as "God-like" in its power to redefine human individuality; from the point of "singularity" when human creations surpass human intelligence and in turn reshape the very essence of human existence -- birth, growth, death and the constellations of experience and emotion that lay between.

Beginning January of 2020, "Vermont museums, galleries, and cultural institutions will highlight some of the important ways in which technology has changed our world in the past and the present, and its potential for the future." The multiple, independently organized exhibitions are expected to open across the state at different times; they will be unified through branding, an exhibition map, coordinated communication, and specific events such as workshops and lectures.

As momentum for the exhibition builds, it will be interesting to hear and see the narrative that emerges. Here the curatorial process will be interesting as this group of professionals from institutions around the state select the works representative of Vermont's "voice" around questions of technology in our lives. Considering there is hardly a facet of modern life that is not impacted by technology in some way, the curator's task is monumental: giving significance to specific features of our lives through the act of inclusion necessarily gives shape, collectively, to a narrative. As Vermont navigates an economic, social and cultural "order making" brought about through technology decision-making in the years ahead, "2020 Vision: Seeing the World Through Technology" could be an important milestone along the way.


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