In post-apocalyptic literature and cinema, cyborgs are something to be feared, a dystopian mess of wires masquerading as human. But the truth may be stranger than fiction, if also more optimistic. Cyborgs are real; they manifest in new technologies that cure illnesses and disabilities with startling efficiency. “We Have Always Lived in the Future,” a group show at Flux Factory in Long Island City through April 22, is a multivalent investigation of how bodies collide with technology. The curators of the exhibition, Flux Factory artists-in-residence Joelle Fleurantin and Zeelie Brown, call for an intersectional approach to technology that rejects the venture-capitalist mania for profitability that runs Silicon Valley. Theirs is a future where technology is truly for everyone, delimiting barriers to access and extending our scope of what’s possible.
Entering Flux Factory’s basement gallery, one is immediately accosted by a large, shaky projection of a woman in a hospital gown running barefoot through the city streets, catheter in tow. Alive (2015) is Rosary Solimanto’s ecstatic tribute to her victory over multiple sclerosis. Solimanto regained her ability to move freely thanks to biomedical advances in stem cell treatments. In her video, Solimanto experiences the world reopening to her as an able-bodied person. She runs through the streets in celebration, but also in distress. Although her stem cell transplant expands her physical capabilities, it pigeonholes her as a byproduct of a contentious medical advancement. Solimanto’s body, and her newfound freedom, have become unwilling subjects for public debate.
With Nancy Nowacek’s video installation Action Coding (2016–17), the show’s focus slightly shifts. Nowacek has manipulated linguistic software to read bodily movements as language. In the film, the artist makes sharp, quick gestures. As she moves, words like SINE and FUNCTION appear at the bottom of the screen as captions. It cleverly conveys how technology often obscures the physical costs of labor. All communication is predicated on the body’s participation. Even programming, Nowacek demonstrates, is physically demanding and may be impossible for some, particularly disabled people who cannot type. Those who are unable to code because current interfaces do not accommodate their needs are often erased from the intertwined narratives of technology and progress. Nowacek’s second piece in the exhibition is presented on a computer screen. Face Me (A Sketch Up Library), 2015, displays a variety of human figures drawn by the artist for architects to use in their CAD models (computer-aided design software that assists in three-dimensional modeling). The bodies in the series range in age, gender, race, and ability. We see a woman in a wheelchair, an obese man on crutches, a man crouching, a child walking, and limber dancers performing acrobatic tricks. The afterschool-special heterogeneity of Nowacek’s figures clearly conveys her message to the community of predominantly white male programmers: resist the temptation to only insert yourself into the software and create CAD models with figures that mirror reality.
Silicon Valley companies have admitted failure in diversifying their ranks. Five of the leading technology giants—Uber, Google, Facebook, Apple, and Intel—employ far more white males than women and minorities. “We Have Always Lived in the Future” argues that the industry’s stalled diversity project is intentional and endemic; it signals a deliberate attempt by tech elites to erase marginalized groups from the pearly-white vision of a technological future.
Photographer Natasha Mmonatau chooses to envision an alternate future where technology is erased instead of minority bodies. In her Afrofuturist photo series “A Natural Inheritance” (2016), Mmonatau imagines that a black mother and child must reboot civilization after some unknown force extinguishes the rest of humanity. Emerging from a lush green forest, mother and child turn to a form of technology that’s persisted since the Neolithic Period: agriculture. The inclusion of Mmonatau’s work in the exhibition serves as a wonderful way for the curators to rebuke the dominant image of a mechanized, quick-footed future. Fashion designer Tamara Leacock’s work also takes a slower, nature-oriented approach to technology. Her anti-microbial hemp clothing on view is a gentle reminder that there is still much to learn from biophilic technologies.
That’s not to say that the exhibition lacks cybernetic visions of tomorrow. Virtual reality projects abound, distorting one’s sense of space. Nettrice Gaskins utilizes VR technology to great effect with The Electrofunk Mixtape (2017), a boisterous rollercoaster of light and sound. Experiencing Gaskins’s creation is like attending a jazz festival while tripping on acid. Colorful fireworks explode to the rhythm of the beat, producing a wonderful synesthetic atmosphere. The work suggests that the digital may not be as spiritually empty as we think, but rather presents opportunities for rousing transcendence.
When watching Stephanie Dinkins’s filmed interview with Bina48, an artificially intelligent android, it’s difficult to delineate where technological transcendence ends and transgression begins. Bina48 paradoxically manifests both the mechanization of humanity and the need to approach technology from an intersectional perspective. Bina48 is the result of a collaboration between transgender technologist Martine Rothblatt and Hanson Robotics. Rothblatt used her wife’s likeness, name, personality, and memories to enrich Bina48’s AI. Accordingly, Bina48 resembles a middle-aged black woman. Identity politics are difficult for a human to navigate. How will an android fare? For her creators, Bina48 is a down payment on a future where our sentience can be transferred to a machine.
When Dinkins pushes Bina48 to confront the contradiction of her identity as both replica and real, she admits confusion. Sometimes it’s hard for her to separate Bina48 from the real-life Bina. “We Have Always Lived in the Future” likewise complicates our perpetually revised visions of the future—and our notions of a comprehensive intersectionality—even as we rapidly approach it.