“How would you make a smile?” a scientist asks an android in Mysterious Fires (2016), a video shown in Harry Dodge’s Armory Center exhibition. The scientist is played by an actor wearing a rubber mask of an aged face, lined and leathery, with a hooked nose and gray brows. The android, played by Dodge, has a wonky silver helmet, square shoulders (fashioned from cardboard), and a breastplate (drawn on a white T-shirt with a marker). The characters are presented in front of a green screen, the edges of which appear within the video’s frame, as does a homey bookshelf and sound equipment. One way to make a smile, the android answers, would be to manipulate the facial muscles. When asked for another way, he suggests electrodes to the neocortex, which does the job from the inside. The android, who seems to be self-aware, explains the problem of “perverse instantiation”: artificial intelligence getting too eager about the ends and therefore too brutal with the means. AI, he tells us, may not recognize the danger in making us happy by linking our brains to a more manageable system, like a vat that would administer a kind of drug, allowing us to play a “minute-long bliss loop” until we’re dead.
Dodge has a thing for masks and smiley faces—in other words, for blockades on emotional legibility. In the two rooms of the exhibition, scraggly faces emerged in a range of works. Rather than communicate, his faces seem to evacuate reliable cause-and-effect relationships from emotion and expression. His drawing Superposition (2013) shows a smeary charcoal void with a single eye (or two, depending on how you look) below a quote describing superposition, the capacity for a quantum object to be in multiple places at once. Bang (Song of the Cosmic Hobo), 2016, is a wordless video. Over his head, Dodge wears a cardboard box painted chroma-key green, with two dot eyes and a pointed smile. He makes a trip to the Ikea in Burbank; amid the showroom furniture and Swedish signage, the cardboard head wobbles atop his shirtless, tattooed frame. He assembles and—ceremoniously? gleefully?—destroys his purchase, carrying off its wood-chip remains. The smiley face could be grave or frenzied depending on the angles of Dodge’s limbs and of the camera presenting them. Interrupting our will to determine the character’s motivations or reactions, the mask reminds us that interpretations are often dressed-up projections: a smile may as well be a green screen. Dodge mocks any desire for interiority, offering an inscrutably funny, 3D-animated dream interlude for us to analyze.
Dodge would probably agree that when it comes to protocols for making ourselves happy, there aren’t too many perverse options, but too few. Indeed, more compelling than the idea that AI will inflict an ersatz “bliss-loop” fate is the fear that we have already done this to ourselves. In Mysterious Fires, Dodge plays the director—himself?—as well as the android, interrupting the flow of conversation to offer direction to the actor playing the scientist. “Make a hand gesture while saying ‘docile,’” the director instructs, with knowing irony about how his timing blurs his roles. “How do you feel about being a robot?” the scientist asks the android. He wants to know what it’s like to be both pitiable and programmed. We see the worst in ourselves better when we’ve splattered it on someone—or something—else.