In the Loop

T here’s no question we now live in a digital age. But how is it changing us, and to what extent can we control those changes? “Without being fully aware of it, we may even be slowly evolving into a different type of organism,” writes Dan Cameron in the catalog for Artspace’s newest exhibition, Strange Loops.

Who we’re becoming in this digital landscape is the driving question behind Strange Loops. Its opening panel and the essays in its catalog put it in conversation with other exhibitions and with writings by the sociologist Émile Durkheim and the cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter, whose 2007 book I Am a Strange Loop lends the show its title. We’re in a strange loop, we’re told, in which we use technology to create a self that is, all the while, created by the technology we’re using.

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But you don’t really need to plunge into the priming provided by curators Johannes DeYoung and Federico Solmi in order to consider these works as both products of and comments on our digital world. Take, for example, Sam Messer’s large-scale paintings of old-fashioned typewriters that uncannily suggest distorted human faces. In Fear Not (2019), the artist uses big globs of paint to raise the machine’s toothlike keys into a three-dimensional keyboard. An orange space bar hovers like a tongue above a pair of hands pressed together that might as easily be feet. A carriage knob looks a lot like an ear, and the two rubber guides on the carriage bar are like little black eyes. The visual effect is comical, the underlying message sobering. Is this a humanlike machine or a machinelike human? The message typed (or scrawled in paint) on the paper in this contraption proclaims, “FEAR NOT.” But there’s a red target on the typewriter’s “forehead,” and it’s bobbing in a black-and-blue sea that stretches to an apocalyptically colored sunrise or sunset. Are we writing one thing and feeling another? Are we kidding ourselves? The typewriter appears to be both praying and screaming.

The most straightforward, and also the most viscerally disturbing, strange loops in this show are seen in two photographs by Ana Maria Gómez López. In Punctum (v4) (2017), we see the artist’s hands punctured in multiple places by intravenous needles, which, through a tangled series of tubes and connectors, feed from one hand to the other, a literal loop of her own blood out of and into her own body. Anyone queasy about needles will have to avert their gaze, but even those who aren’t may find this artistic exercise uncomfortably extreme. Seen through the lens of questions about technology and how it defines us, López’s work serves, at least in part, as a metaphorical critique of the way in which we put our most intimate parts on display for everyone else to see.

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Strangely compelling is a slide projection titled Romantic Love (2018) by a pair of artists known as Blinn & Lambert (Nicolas Steindorf and Kyle Williams). Two 35-millimeter slide projectors take turns showing images of a bright-colored pink, blue and yellow plaid shirt in various folded configurations. As one image fades, the next one emerges. What makes this piece using analog technology so mesmerizing is its speed, nearly as slow as watching ice melt on the sidewalk. Sit on one of the custom-made padded cubes (their inner supports mimic the folds of the shirt) or sit on the floor directly in front of the projection wall as I did, and feel your day slow down.

This strange loop is 23 minutes long, an ebb and flow of cuffs, sleeves, pocket seams, buttons done and undone. After a minute or two, when I’d begun to adjust to the relaxed pace, I realized the projections were having the opposite effect: teaching me to anticipate the next slide. Just as one image solidifies, you hear the clatter of the projector behind you switching to the next, and you’re primed to anticipate what’s to come. I practiced paying attention to what was actually in front of me, but I found myself scanning the blank parts of the violet-lit wall, watching for the next shirt piece to emerge like a photographic image on paper in a tray of developer fluid. Even in Romantic Love’s old-tech world, it’s hard to slow down. Is this an effect of digital technology on my brain, or is it simply human nature? After a while, the shirt itself seemed to be trying in vain to tell me something as it waved its arms and shifted positions, to unsettling effect.

In a related exhibition in the Project Room, local artist Cynthia Beth Rubin’s Do Plankton Have Feelings? provides a beautiful and thoughtful counterpoint to Strange Loops. A painter by training, Rubin first went digital in 1984, making her one of its earliest adapters in art. Better positioned than most artists to understand the marriage of digital and analog, Rubin plays with both in five vivid, much-larger-than-life renderings of different species of plankton printed on fabric. She starts intentionally with low-resolution images of real plankton retrieved from an oceanography lab at the University of Rhode Island, then draws them not as detailed scientific records but rather using her training in traditional gesture drawing: quick sketches meant to capture the form of a model. She then layers them up with electric color and energetic lines, making these vital creatures vibrate with life.

In a strip of wallpaper that travels the entire length of one Project Room wall and around two corners, Rubin has also created a colorful and imaginative digital landscape of layered photographs suggestive of the deep ocean. Pick up a nearby iPad and scan the wallpaper to find codes that bring up hidden plankton: drawings created by local artists, scientists and library patrons who participated in one of Rubin’s plankton-drawing workshops. Both the wallpaper and the large fabric prints draw on what Rubin believes is “the next phase in digital,” a swing back from art that’s entirely computer-coded, -drawn and -generated to work that combines elements of digital technology with the age-old experience of drawing with a pencil or painting with a brush. These pieces, Rubin says, were looped “in and out of the computer several times” as she layered them up and then erased portions to reveal previous layers.

That interplay of analog and digital, old world and new, can be found in many of the pieces in Strange Loops as well. But there’s something particularly poignant about Rubin’s aim: to help us see plankton with “empathy,” to connect with them in order to care more about what happens to them because, after all, we depend on them for our very survival. With this reminder, she drills down past the chatter of social media, the lines of computer code, the hyper-obsession with ego and self and reminds us of the most basic principles of life on Earth.

Strange Loops
Artspace – 50 Orange St, New Haven (map)
Wed-Sat noon-6pm through Feb 29
(203) 772-2709 | [email protected]

Written by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Images 1 (of a moment in Blinn & Lambert’s Romantic Love), 2 (taken during the opening reception) and 3 (of Jon Kessler’s It Takes a Global Village Idiot) provided courtesy of Artspace. Image 4, featuring Cynthia Beth Rubin in the Project Room, photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.

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About Kathy Leonard Czepiel

View all posts by Kathy Leonard Czepiel
Kathy Leonard Czepiel is a writer and communications pro whose perfect New Haven day would involve lots of sunshine, a West Rock hike, a concert on the Green and a coffee milkshake. She posts twice-weekly content for book clubs in her Substack newsletter, Better Book Clubs.

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