massimiliano gioni on ed atkins exhibition at the new museum

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from june 30 to october 3, 2021, the new museum presents a new commission by british artist ed atkins that focuses on the ways bodies and technologies are intertwined, particularly in relationship to digital communication. as always in atkins’ work, the exhibition get life/love’s work analyzes technology as a theoretical and allegorical interrogation of itself, rather than in any literal terms. through high-definition CG animation, theatrical environments, elliptical writings, and syncopated sound montages, atkins’ complex projects consider the relationship between the corporeal and the digital, the ordinary and the uncanny. the exhibition composes what the artist describes as an ‘essay about distance’ and reflects on the ways in which technologies designed to facilitate connection paradoxically underscore separation.

 

‘we had chosen atkins because of the ways in which his work has been deeply invested in understanding the transformations of the definition of the self in a digital world, and because of his ability to interrogate technology in its existential and philosophical ramifications,’ massimiliano gioni, the new museum’s artistic director told designboom. ‘little did we know that many of the questions that atkins’s work had been exploring for years would find new urgency in a world which has been confined behind screens by the pandemic…’

'it's almost confessional' — massimiliano gioni on ed atkins exhibition at the new museum
ed atkins, production still, 2021 (also main image)

 

 

installed in the fourth floor gallery at the new museum, the exhibition debuts a new body of work made with technologies that profess to ‘capture’ life. presented within an estranged domestic scene of embroideries, paintings, and text compositions, the central piece is a CG animation recorded using motion-and facial-capture technologies, documenting an interview between the artist and his mother. the conversation was shot during the isolated months of lockdown that have defined the COVID-19 pandemic. ‘atkins composes what he calls an ‘essay about distance’, reminding us that technology promises the comfort of presence but often just delivers ghosts,’ gioni continues. combining computer data and concrete matter, atkins tests the borders of digital simulation while looking at the ways in which technology shapes human relationships. ‘I think of it as augmented and simulated sentiment, comparing and supplementing it with those objects and materials we might more familiarly expect to surrogate our love,’ the artist explains.

 

the exhibition marks the culmination of a series of shows produced in collaboration with scientists, engineers, and researchers from the experiments in art and technology (EAT). this partnership also builds upon nokia bell labs’ support of the EAT track at NEW inc, the new museum’s cultural incubator.

 

ahead of the exhibition’s opening, designboom spoke with get life/love’s work curator and edlis neeson artistic director, massimiliano gioni.

'it's almost confessional' — massimiliano gioni on ed atkins exhibition at the new museum
ed atkins, production still, 2021

 

 

DB: what initially drew you to the work of ed atkins, and why was now the time to premiere this project at the new museum? 

 

massimiliano gioni (MG): the new museum and I have been entertaining an ongoing dialogue with ed atkins for a few years now. I included his work in the 2013 venice biennale and even named an entire exhibition in beirut after one of my favorite works of his, the trick brain. ed has also shown in the 2015 new museum triennial and was also included in the group show ‘the keeper’ in 2016, and in our exhibition ‘strange days’ at the store X in london in 2017.

 

this time, the occasion to work together started out in a very special context, which gradually became more complex as the piece ed was preparing for our show had to confront the changes that have occurred in the world during the pandemic, in 2020.

'it's almost confessional' — massimiliano gioni on ed atkins exhibition at the new museum
ed atkins, good baby, 2017 (still), from the series old food, 2017–19 | HD video, sound, color; 16 min
image courtesy the artist; galerie isabella bortolozzi, berlin; cabinet gallery, london; gavin brown’s enterprise, new york and rome; and dépendance, brussels

 

 

MG (continued): so, to quickly summarize the genesis of the project: I invited ed in 2019 to develop a project to relaunch the legendary experiments in art and technology program, which in the 1960s had brought together engineers from bell labs and legendary artists such as john cage, lucinda childs, marta minujin, robert rauschenberg, stan vanderbeek, and many others. we had been collaborating with nokia bell labs on various projects at the new museum, and we decided that a new commission by ed atkins could be the perfect culmination of this reflection around art and technology, in a landscape that clearly is very different from the optimistic 1960s…

 

we had chosen atkins because of the ways in which his work has been deeply invested in understanding the transformations of the definition of the self in a digital world, and because of his ability to interrogate technology in its existential and philosophical ramifications. little did we know that many of the questions that atkins’s work had been exploring for years would find new urgency in a world which has been confined behind screens by the pandemic, underscoring the solitude of the millions of our avatars and talking heads who have been speaking into the void of endless zoom calls for more than a year now.

'it's almost confessional' — massimiliano gioni on ed atkins exhibition at the new museum
ed atkins, good man, 2017 (still), from the series old food, 2017–19 | HD video, sound, color; 16 min
image courtesy the artist; galerie isabella bortolozzi, berlin; cabinet gallery, london; gavin brown’s enterprise, new york and rome; and dépendance, brussels

 

 

DB: a newly commissioned video will be presented alongside embroideries, paintings, and text compositions. how does the exhibition unfold across the museum’s spaces? can you introduce the staging of the show?

 

MG: the exhibition takes place on the top floor of the new museum, our most theatrical space, which is a large cube with 8-meter-tall ceilings. the centerpiece is the new video in which atkins’s digital alter ego — one of the generic white men who populate his videos — interviews his mother about her past. the piece is atkins’s most personal piece: it’s almost confessional. but then again what we see is a fictional character — really just a bunch of data — speaking to a voice, which we assume must be human, but that could also just be a simulation of a person…

 

as I was watching the video, I kept thinking of what it really meant to see a digital creature speak to its mother…it’s a work that engages not only with that combination of technology, distance and isolation that has defined our lives in the past year and a half — I haven’t seen my mother in person in one year and a half, and atkins hasn’t seen his in two years — but it’s also a work that imagines forms of affection for beings that are no longer human. the video is projected on a large, drab plywood box, which makes me think of bruce nauman’s ‘room with my soul left out’: a vaguely minimalist space that again hints to the inability of art to capture life.

'it's almost confessional' — massimiliano gioni on ed atkins exhibition at the new museum
ed atkins, neoteny in humans, 2017 (still), from the series old food, 2017–19 | HD video, sound, color; 16 min
image courtesy the artist; galerie isabella bortolozzi, berlin; cabinet gallery, london; gavin brown’s enterprise, new york and rome; and dépendance, brussels

 

 

MG (continued): on the walls there two new paintings and three large canvases onto which texts have been embroidered. the texts include an alphabetized version of the diary atkins’s father kept as he was dying of cancer and variations on the works of french playwright antonin artaud and japanese court lady sei shonagon, whose writings have been reinterpreted and developed by an artificial intelligence software specialized in advanced language recognition. all together, between this ‘automatic texts’ and the video, atkins composes what he calls an ‘essay about distance’, reminding us that technology promises the comfort of presence but often just delivers ghosts.

'it's almost confessional' — massimiliano gioni on ed atkins exhibition at the new museum
ed atkins, good smoke, 2017 (still), from the series old food, 2017–19 | HD video, sound, color; 16 min
image courtesy the artist; galerie isabella bortolozzi, berlin; cabinet gallery, london; gavin brown’s enterprise, new york and rome; and dépendance, brussels

 

 

MG (continued): it’s also worth mentioning that originally atkins wanted the piece to consist of a series of interviews with people living in isolation, but the lockdown began literally as he was completing his second workshop with the engineers at nokia bell labs, and it soon became apparent that isolation was going to be the basic shared condition for large portions of humanity in 2020. he decided instead to focus on familial proximity, which had also been pushed to new, unprecedented distances…

'it's almost confessional' — massimiliano gioni on ed atkins exhibition at the new museum
ed atkins, untitled, 2018 (still), from the series old food, 2017–19 | HD video, sound, color; 16 min
image courtesy the artist; galerie isabella bortolozzi, berlin; cabinet gallery, london; gavin brown’s enterprise, new york and rome; and dépendance, brussels

 

 

DB: what new perspectives on human and technological relationships can be gathered from the exhibition? what do you hope visitors take away?

 

MG: this might be one of atkins’s most personal works and most introspective, but paradoxically it is a work that dwells in the distance that technologies — and particularly technologies of telecommunication — constantly try to fill in an attempt to bring us closer. ultimately it is a work about what is lost in translation between affect and effect, in a sense, between human contact and its technological surrogates.

'it's almost confessional' — massimiliano gioni on ed atkins exhibition at the new museum
ed atkins, untitled, 2018 (still), from the series old food, 2017–19 | HD video, sound, color; 16 min
image courtesy the artist; galerie isabella bortolozzi, berlin; cabinet gallery, london; gavin brown’s enterprise, new york and rome; and dépendance, brussels

 

 

DB: what role has nokia bell labs had in the show’s production, and what resulting exchanges between art and technology has the partnership produced overall?

 

MG: nokia bell labs has been an amazing partner in this collaboration. first of all, there was the great legacy of the experiments in art and technology, with their legendary projects from the 1960s: the fact that nokia bell labs was able to reanimate that history and adapt it to the present, was in and of itself already quite remarkable. that history provided such a sense of responsibility and humbleness: it was just incredible to be working in the path of amazing innovators, both artists and engineers, who had collaborated on the original incarnation of EAT.

 

secondly, there was the collaboration with the experiments in art and technology team at nokia bell labs, led by domhnaill hernon: the team introduced atkins to various engineers and discussed various avenues of research that could be of interest to him, and then helped facilitating a series of conversations with engineers about telepresence and the creation of avatars and technologies of communication, which greatly enriched the project from a philosophical and conceptual point of view.

 

thirdly and most pragmatically, nokia bell labs made available incredibly generous resources for atkins to develop and produce his new work, really to a level that was unprecedented for us.

 

 

exhibition information:

 

title: ed atkins: get life/love’s work
dates: june 30 – october 3, 2021
location: new museum, new york



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