“Ghosts in the Machine,” an ambitious and fascinating compendium of artistic meditations on the thorny relationship between humans and machines, could have been a whiz-bang futuristic affair, all digitalia and virtuality. Instead, curators Massimiliano Gioni and Gary Carrion-Murayari chose to emphasize the historical over the contemporary and to highlight some of the more obscure and eccentric experiments that cropped up en route to our touch-screen present. Gioni refers to the nonchronological display as a consciously tangential wunderkammer and as a “minor history” in which highways and landmarks are bypassed in favor of overlooked or half-forgotten side routes. And while the result has one or two murky interludes—and necessitates a good deal of wall-label reading—many of these objects, images and texts are enlivened by absorbing backstories.
Even when the featured work is relatively well-known, the show’s thematic structure prompts a reconsideration of its origins and influence. Op and kinetic art, frequently dismissed as examples of gimmicky eye candy long past their respective sell-by dates, are positioned here as significant moments in the making of a new aesthetic designed to confront the warring implications of technology for the body. Jeff Koons’s high-’80s vacuum cleaners, still spotless in their acrylic vitrines, are tellingly juxtaposed with reconstructions of Duchamp’s Large Glass and a horrifying torture machine from Kafka’s novel In the Penal Colony. Even Rube Goldberg’s playful cartoons of absurdly convoluted gadgets take on a fresh seriousness here, seeming to portend a future in which even the most mundane activities enmesh us in nightmarish complication.
If, as suggested by Marshall McLuhan (whose 1951 book The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man is included in the show), every technological advancement is an extension of the senses, sex is at the heart of any man-machine alignment. Patron saint of this idea in its most disturbing implications is author J.G. Ballard, whose 1973 novel Crash is arguably the purest expression of his peculiar vision. A rigorous deconstruction of the hitherto unacknowledged erotics of the automobile accident, Crash was filmed in 1996 by (of course) David Cronenberg. The Crash! screened in “Ghosts” is a shorter, less glamorous version made by Harley Cokeliss two years before the book’s publication, but it has the same grim intensity, and features Ballard himself as protagonist and narrator.
But “Ghosts” isn’t all sex and death. One of the show’s most extraordinary passages explores various approaches to the idea of the machine as healer. Centered on William Reich’s notorious orgone energy accumulator, a kind of homemade TARDIS designed to amplify the user’s vitality, it also showcases the rarely seen likes of Swiss artist Emma Kunz (1892–1963) and American Emery Blagdon (1907–1986). While lovely, Kunz’s kaleidoscopic abstract drawings were conceived of as practical tools for use in mediumistic healing rituals derived from the study of radiesthesia—the divining of energy fields. The form of these intricate mind maps was also determined in a quasi-mechanical fashion via the use of a pendulum. Each intricate pattern was completed in a single marathon session, the artist transforming herself into a flesh-and-blood automaton.
Blagdon also claimed therapeutic powers for his art, but confined his research largely to the garden shed, archetypal domain of the amateur engineer. After spending some 15 years roaming the country, the artist returned home to roost in 1935 following news of his mother’s terminal cancer. He soon began to pack an outbuilding with delicate wire sculptures, adding, in the ’60s, power lines rerouted from the house that solidified the impression of a laboratory gone dangerously awry. Yet despite his best efforts, Blagdon eventually succumbed to cancer himself, his project unfinished. The mobiles that dangle from the ceiling of the New Museum derive a poignancy from their maker’s outsiderish trajectory but, like Kunz’s drawings, exhibit an undeniable visual (and in Blagdon’s case, perhaps also literal) magnetism.
The abundance of such stories in “Ghosts” makes this an exhibition that fizzes with oddity and surprise. It’s also a bonanza for geeks both art-historical and scientific. There’s a full-scale re-creation of Pop Art inventor Richard Hamilton’s strikingly contemporary-looking 1955 exhibition “Man, Machine and Motion” (is Kraftwerk still in town?) and a replica of the Voder, one of the original vocoder voice processors designed by engineer Homer W. Dudley at the radically innovative Bell Labs in 1939. There is a clutch of ethereal early work by Hans Haacke (operating in a very different mode from the stridently political artist we know today) and an eye-burning sequence of early computer animations by Pierre Hébert, Lillian F. Schwartz and others. But the show’s greatest achievement, aside from its sheer variety, is that such works don’t feel overambitious or even especially dated, but legitimately and boldly experimental.