Threat Model (2018)

Artist: Martine Syms

In cybersecurity parlance, a “threat model” maps a digital system’s vulnerabilities to anticipate possible threats from hacking. But in the hands of Martine Syms, Threat Model (hanging until June as part of the Uncanny Valley exhibition at the de Young Museum in San Francisco) is a charting of the ways that a Black self—herself—is shaped by technology and the ever-present eye of social media.

Simultaneously vulnerable, funny, and confrontational, the piece fills an entire room with a threat model of Syms’s own psyche, doubling up on the idea of insecurity to illustrate and emphasize the humanity (and inhumanity) of the Black experience. Syms lays bare her weaknesses and flaws in oversize vinyl letters, mapping out what she describes in the exhibition’s catalog as her “shame space.” Her spiral of painful and relatable doubts and self-recriminations touches on everything from sex and relationships to money and weight.

Art like Syms’s is critical to our understanding of how new technologies shape our interactions not just with them but with our fellow humans. Syms often co-opts the language of technology in her work, using the industry’s words against it to comment on the impossible expectations Black women are subject to in a world (and a field) designed by and for white men. She also interrogates the efficacy of the threat model itself. The artwork asks if any single algorithm is “capable of grasping complex systems, human beings being the most complex one of them,” says de Young curator Claudia Schmuckli.

cyanovisions 2018—, tiare ribeaux
© Tiare Ribeaux

Cyanovisions (2018—)

Artist: Tiare Ribeaux

“Life on our planet began with slime, and will likely end in slime,” writes Tiare Ribeaux in an article for Women Eco Artists about her ongoing series Cyanovisions. The Oakland-based artist’s project incorporates design, performance, and bioplastic fashion to present a meditation—part sci-fi, part spiritual—on our relationship with the world of cyanobacteria that both surrounds us and inhabits us.

These ancient life-forms were one of the first organisms able to photosynthesize. Ribeaux uses them to represent a powerful good in the world: the original source of the oxygen we breathe and the ancestors of the chloroplasts that plants use today to create energy. But in too-high concentrations, the same organism can cause skin rashes and intestinal distress—a painfully apt metaphor for the profound chaos humans have wreaked on their environment.

For the various pieces that make up Cyanovisions, Ribeaux grew five bacterial cultures in her studio, using them to produce a playful yet thoughtful fashion line that ranges from globular and organic to shiny and hyperfuturistic. The resulting mix of fashion, installation, and bio-art blurs the borders between animal and plant, asking us to consider where we end and the natural world begins—in the face of climate change.

It’s unusual to find a new-media artist who combines humor with “thinking deeply about the impacts of technologies on us as social, environmental, spiritual beings,” says Southern Exposure’s Valerie Imus, who curated a show by Ribeaux at the San Francisco gallery in 2018.

Ribeaux’s project asks us to consider our relationship to life on a cellular level, as we work to save our species’ only home.

d brane 2018, harvey moon
© Harvey moon

D-Brane (2018)

Artist: Harvey Moon

In his dance-technology opus, D-Brane, Harvey Moon introduces a new kind of art performance, one in which live movement and technology are interwoven as never before. The key: custom software that allows a dancer to interact with a digital projection of a many-sided object—twirling, nudging, jostling it—in real time and without goggles.

It’s augmented reality writ large: a kind of performed interactive digital sculpture, in which a dancer, a visual artist, and a sound artist take cues from one another to create a single, multilayered piece. “Unique and interesting feedback loops emerge as the artists respond to each other and produce new sensory experiences,” says Moon. Composed of five chapters, D-Brane follows a dancer as she investigates an ever-more-complicated array of three-dimensional shapes. First presented in 2018 at San Francisco’s Obscura Digital, the performance (which now lives online) culminates in an investigation of a dodecahedron, a 12-sided form, meant to represent the shape of our universe. Moon has programmed the chapters to grow increasingly complex, a crescendo whose chaotic climax is a cautionary tale of “creation outgrowing its creator.”

Moon learned many of the techniques he used for D-Brane from artists who share their uses of technology online and build on one another’s work. This is in contrast to the tendency of companies or competing governments to keep their innovations secret. “It’s irresponsible to not make art that invites others to better understand these systems,” Moon says.

bitcoin futures 2018, anxious to make
© Anxious to make

Bitcoin Futures (2018)

Artist: Anxious to Make

In Bitcoin Futures, the new-media collective Anxious to Make (also known as Liat Berdugo and Emily Martinez) creates a mock ATM that thumbs its nose at the mythos of cryptocurrency by accepting deposits of American cash and dispensing sassy-solemn fortunes in return. The two artists use their piece (exhibited in 2018–19 at San Francisco’s Telematic Gallery) to disrupt the glow that surrounds technology in general and cryptocurrency in particular. Bitcoin is celebrated as a progressive, egalitarian innovation that exists outside of politics, Berdugo says. But she maintains that spending it requires a belief in the power of technology to shape our world for the better. Bitcoin Futures seeks to “separate from this idea that these technologies have no agenda,” she says.

water work 2020—, ben lerchin

Water Work (2020—)

Artist: Ben Lerchin

Deep in the barrens of the desert on the outskirts of L.A. County, Ben Lerchin has built a meditation on technology’s ability to silently and invisibly transform our world. Water Work, a site-specific kinetic sculpture in Antelope Valley, is part of a larger project that seeks to highlight the scale and folly of development in some of the driest places on earth.

To create Water Work, Lerchin hung an overhead image of one of the area’s many aqueducts on a continuously moving set of rollers. The movement causes a series of connected cinder blocks to sway jerkily from side to side, in an unsettling but ultimately self-sustaining balance.

Together, the two components represent and comment on what Lerchin calls the “machinery that sustains L.A.,” the enormous infrastructure that slakes the city’s thirst. “It is impossible to imagine anything like the California we know without this sort of life-support machinery,” they say, pointing out that this technology is invisible or ignored most of the time. The technology they used to create Water Work, including 3-D printing, drone photography, and custom image-processing software, is similarly designed to escape notice.

Instead, our attention is directed toward the cinder blocks, whose chaotic movement challenges our ideas of infrastructure as something immobile and static—rather than as an ever-evolving system of many parts requiring constant upkeep. For Lerchin, Water Work’s success lies in the way it unexpectedly turns that chaos into balance and harmony. •

Alissa Greenberg is a staff writer at PBS NOVA; a contributing editor at Bay Nature magazine; and a freelance journalist covering stories at the intersection of science, culture, business, and the environment.