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The Ghosts in the Machine and the Rise of Retro Techno Chic

“Ghosts in the Machine,” on view at the New Museum through the end of this month, tackles a boldface subject: the passionate emotions provoked by mechanical devices. The show is nothing if not relevant, arriving at a time when many people have an intimate relationship with machines, especially with their iPhones, enjoying how these elegantly designed little powerhouses fit the elegance of the human hand. We are in one of those periods—they’ve arrived, off and on, since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution—when the capacity of machines to expand human possibilities looks close to limitless, and the intellectual exhilaration takes on an almost erotic charge.

The speed of train travel once had this kind effect. Now it’s the smartphone that has the change-everything magic; it keeps you in touch with your friends, gives you advice about where to go to dinner, sells you a book, pays a bill, answers factual questions that come up in the course of a conversation. Machines can expand our possibilities, and surely that’s thrilling—at least until the machines take on a life of their own, with possibilities that outstrip or confound our own needs and desires. A mechanical utopia is not necessarily all that different from a mechanical dystopia. This, too, is a theme of “Ghosts in the Machine.” One of the presiding ghosts here, subject of works by Henrik Olesen, is Alan Turing, whose brilliant contributions to the history of computing could not protect him from the horrific medical practices marshaled to “cure” his homosexuality.

Massimiliano Gioni and Gary Carrion-Murayari, who together organized the show at the New Museum, are interested in both the romance and the anti-romance that artists have had with machines for the past 50 or 60 years, although they also reach back earlier in the twentieth century, including cartoons by Rube Goldberg and Duchamp’s Large Glass in a mid-century reconstruction. It is symptomatic of our anxious moment, and especially of the youngish crowd that flocks to the New Museum, that techno chic rapidly segues into retro-techno chic. The infatuation with the iPhone and sundry other contemporary wonders may be symbiotically related to a growing fascination with the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century cabinets of curiosities, those early attempts to put the whole world within one’s reach. Could it be that as eagerly as many embrace the next device, there is something consoling about the spent dreams of earlier technologies, at least for a generation that is constantly told it won’t do as well as its parents?

You see retro-techno chic in the hipster fascination with Victorian technology; in the enthusiasm at Brooklyn flea markets for typewriters and record players; and the same sensibility reaches a far wider audience with Martin Scorsese’s glorious salute to cinema’s early days, Hugo. All of this is somehow in the background, and maybe even the foreground, of “Ghosts in the Machine,” which Gioni indeed says was conceived as a Wunderkammer—a cabinet of curiosities. One theme in Scorsese’s Hugo was automata, and among the offerings at the New Museum is Philippe Parreno’s The Writer, a video of an antique automaton. At “Ghosts in the Machine,” fading technologies yield objets d’art—which can be understood as symptoms of decadence or as paths to salvation, depending on your point of view.

I’m old enough to have seen one of the precursors of “Ghosts in the Machine,” Pontus Hulten’s “The Machine as Seen at the End of the Mechanical Age,” mounted at the Museum of Modern Art in 1968. That show reached farther back than Gioni and Carrion-Murayari have chosen to do, but the exhibitions do interlock, so much so that some of the contributors toward the end of the 1968 show—Konrad Klapheck, with his faux-naïf paintings of typewriters and adding machines, and the kinetic artists Jean Tinguely and Robert Breer—also appear at the New Museum. My recollection of Hulten’s extravaganza, and admittedly memories can be unreliable, is that it was jolly and playful, where “Ghosts in the Machine” is a little mournful. Hulten, in the 1968 catalogue, spoke of machines in terms not only of “usefulness” but also “as agents of magic, marvel, and fantasy.” Perhaps Hulten thought that the mechanical past was magically turning into the technological future.

Flash forward nearly 45 years, and the fantasies, although still present, have more of a fin-de-siècle feel. At the New Museum Hans Haacke’s Blue Sail, a piece of chiffon held aloft by a fan, seems not larkish, as one might expect, but melancholy, evanescent. The revolving lights, shining surfaces, and Op Art effects featured in any number of works included here can strike a museumgoer as set off by quotation marks, souvenirs of Swingin’ London and Saturday Night Fever. But Gioni and Carrion-Murayari do not leave it at that. They do not shy away from the darkest implications of technology, including a full-scale reconstruction, made in the 1970s, of the killing machine from Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony,” which inscribed the condemned man’s sentence on his body.   

There is much that is impressive about “Ghosts in the Machine,” an exhibition that mostly bypasses reputations ratified by the blue-chip galleries. A couple of the larger works on display are reconstructions that strike me as acts of homage pure and simple, especially Stan VanDerBeek’s Movie-Drome, a sort of geodesic tent, concocted in the 1960s, inside of which a visitor, after lying down on the floor, looks up to discover rotating impressions of skyscrapers, toy robots, Ancient Greek statues, and Charlie Chaplin. Whatever the admittedly limited virtues of Movie-Drome, I’m glad for the curators’ desire to see what VanDerBeek was up to, with his multiple slide and movie projectors flashing earthly images on a celestial dome.

“Ghosts in the Machine” falls short when it comes to visual enchantment, but it is the rare thesis show that rejects pat formulations in favor of a genuinely inquiring spirit. In the catalogue—mainly a historical anthology of writings—Marshall McLuhan observes that “with the telegraph Western man began a process of putting his nerves outside his body.” For some, the smartphone is the device that puts not only the nerves but a considerable part of the brain outside the body. What interests me about “Ghosts in the Machine” is that the organizers do not subscribe to this line of thinking, dissatisfied as they are with McLuhan’s talk of techno utopia. Could it be that the New Museum is reflecting a realignment in contemporary sensibilities? Gary Carrion-Murayari’s essay concludes on a distinctly dark note, with “the ghosts of machines wander[ing] apocalyptic landscapes.” “Ghosts in the Machine” offers a riposte, at once melancholy and invigorating, to the steel-plated optimism of Silicon Valley.

Jed Perl is art critic for The New Republic.

Photo credit: Benoit Paley. "Ghosts in the Machine," 2012. Exhibition view: New Museum.