Lou Cantor: Spiritual Reality at Decad
With the growing development of robots (not only programmed to perform tasks but also to connect emotionally with humans) there has recently been a resurgence of interest in the human-machine relation.1 The exhibition Spiritual Reality by the Lou Cantor, at the non-profit and artist-run space Decad in Berlin, tackles the evolving man-robot relation from a socioeconomic perspective. Since 2011, the Berlin-based collective has developed a dynamic mixed-media practice centred on inter-subjectivity and digital technologies. This new body of work comprises of two sets of sculptural works along with seven prints presented as advertisement posters for an imaginary futuristic tech company called “Spiritual Reality.”
Spiritual Reality’s essential thread is an exploration of disembodiment and fragmentation in a world dominated by virtual experiences. One print shows a woman exercising with VR glasses under the slogan “Space is the Place” while another poster states “Your new DeepArcher” in reference to a virtual world imagined by Thomas Pynchon in his 9/11 sci-fi novel Bleeding Edge (2013). Near the exhibition room’s entry, three plaster lip sculptures mounted on vertical bars allude to VR wedding ceremonies between gamers and anime characters organized by gaming companies in Japan: with a VR headset on, the gamer exchanges vows with his virtual girlfriend and then kisses a pair of rubber lips on a stick to seal the ceremony. Further on, the viewer encounters three prints showing computer-generated pink lips along with the catchphrases “Always there for you”, “Chatbots worth chatting to” and “Avatar, face no prejudice.” In echo with the plaster lips sculptures, these images of artificial flesh suggests a futuristic world in which emotional relations with virtual characters are valued and promoted.
Amidst these fake advertisements, one can’t help feeling slightly uneasy. Lou Cantor uses current advertising trends (catchy slogans paired with a new age Silicon Valley aesthetic) to denounce the lack of critical reflection on scientific progress. Midway through the exhibition, two wall sculptures hold Japanese coins: here, the presence of cash underlines technology’s tie to capitalism while also raising the question of obsolescence – possibly the main fear and threat raised by robotization. Just as the physical form of currency is being outdated by immaterial transactions (and all the more so in a country at the forefront of automation like Japan), the human future is uncertain. It seems that robots are not only able to work longer, faster and more efficiently than humans, but also to potentially function as emotional partners with unlimited intellectual capacities. In Spike Jonze’s movie Her (2014), Theodore tells the AI system Samantha “You seem like a person, but you’re just a voice in a computer.” To which she replies (half-joking): “I can understand how the limited perspective of an un-artificial mind would perceive me that way.”
In resonance with the collective’s previous project Masks (2013), in which the use of the palimpsest technique highlights the multilayered construction of perception, Spiritual Reality shows a multifaceted, complex and ever-evolving human-robot relation(ship). Here, issues of disembodiment, capitalism and obsolescence are intertwined and what’s at stake is no less than the essence (and future) of human nature. Wisely avoiding apocalyptical tropes and simplistic views on such topics, the exhibition presents a not-so-distant future world that mirrors and reflects on our current situation. This critical stance harkens media theorist Marshall McLuhan’s position on art’s role within society “as radar…as an ‘early alarm system,’…enabling us to discover social and psychic targets in lots of time to prepare to cope with them.”2 Almost a century after the term “robot” has been coined, and in a time when technological progress seems faster than ever, we can’t think of a better time for art to take on this role.
Lou Cantor: Spiritual Reality is on view at Decad in Berlin until November 18, 2017.
Images courtesy of Decad.