Isolation in the Age of Machine Art
Artweek, June 1997
I recently had the opportunity to see the US premiere of Japanese Artist Kenji Yanobe's "Survival System Train" and other work at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco. Yanobe's work, made from industrial salvage, is designed to serve as the artist's personal survival gear as well as tools for conquest and protection in the event of nuclear accident or other disaster. The train consists of several connected rail cars, each self-contained and fulfilling a distinct purpose such as food production, water and air purification, and transportation of matching yellow radiation suits, one for the artist and one for his dog.
Looking at this assortment of personal survival suits and protective vehicles made me keenly aware of the isolation caused by our technologically aggressive culture. This armor of radiation-proof lead and glass seem to suggest that in spite of the wonders of science and technology, we are still essentially alone in the world, perhaps even more so, except maybe for the dog.
This emotional response of isolation is a common reaction I have to a great deal of the "machine" art being produced in the Bay Area. Survival Research Labs offers an of apocalyptic mix of hell-bent tractor pulls and radio-controlled street riots, suggesting that a dog-eat-dog fight to the death is the ultimate thrill show for the jaded and detached. Allen Rath's digital/video based sculptures more elegantly convey the notion of the ghost in the machine, capturing small facets of our humanity seemingly trapped within a mechanical frame. Even Frank Garvey's radio-controlled "beggar" aggressively panhandling for change reinforces our sense of alienation and detachment in a technologically mediated society.
At a recent talk, Yanobe suggested an underlying difference between how technology is viewed in America and Japan. He believes that in the west, historically we were often guinea pigs for technology and industrial development. The inevitable disasters, nuclear accidents and environmental damage has fueled a distrust of technology and the big business behind it. In Japan, Yanobe states, technology is often seen as a benevolent force helping the nation develop and expand. A connection can be made between the high percentage of industrial robots in Japanese manufacturing, and the number of robot characters on Japanese TV, movies, and especially in the illustrated "manga"(comic magazines read by nearly every man, woman, and child in Japan). Many of these robotic characters and mascots are cute and friendly, often shaped like children or pets. They are frequently indistinguishable from the human characters around them, except perhaps for some super-human ability. The cultural view is a level of intimacy and comfort with technology. My personal view is that the younger generations of Japanese and Americans share this view of emerging technology, having been raised hand-in-hand with it.
My generation is the first to live entirely in a post-industrial culture. While I may be slightly off on the dates, my impression is that I was born in parallel with the birth the digital age. Digital clocks, Pong, Apple computers, these things were all part of the foundation of my childhood, as firmly a part of my world as if they had always existed. The proof may be that I am the 1st generation of my family able to program the VCR without instructions, while my young nieces and nephews instinctively comprehend electronic devices with even an greater level of comfort and ease.
No part of our physical, emotional, and spiritual lives goes untouched by technology in some form. There is even a web site which allow you to leave an prayer at Wailing Wall in Jerusalem via email ( However the most significant impact technology has on our lives compared to previous generations is how we communicate. Modern methods of journalism, entertainment, marketing and sales have all become so aggressive and forward thinking regarding technology that I for one become overwhelmed by the sheer volume of information I must process each day. Phone calls and junk mail I'm used to, but now in addition to unsubscribed magazines and a seemingly endless torrent of computer catalogues, I have a dozen or so junk email messages everyday, while my other phone line (I need the 2nd one for the email) keeps ringing from a auto-dialer suggesting I hold the line for a special offer on cable TV service. The only way I can process this amount of information each day is by maintaining a near clinically short attention span. And while I may been raised on soundbites, MTV, and the arcade life-span of 25 cents, still the chatter of a thousand Lexus commercials, movie reviews, and free America Online offers begins to drown out my own thoughts. I find myself "media fasting", as William Gibson calls it, more and more frequently just to hear my own voice.
This growing need for isolation in our thoroughly modern world is reflected in much of Yanobe's work, especially "Tanking Machine", a salt-water filled metal sphere, complete with deep sea diving portholes and propane heaters, all of which serves as a safe and private man-made womb. This struck me as a metaphor for human interaction in a technologically mediated society, in particular the evolution of anonymous methods of communication, such as email and faxing. Many of these newer choices for personal expression offer access to the outside world while maintaining discrete distance from it. I now conduct more of my personal and professional business electronically, interacting with people daily whom I have never actually met, seen, or spoken with. There is very little by which to know these people as individuals. I can't hear the tone of their voice of see a look in their eye. No clues are gleaned from handwriting, stationary or other evidence, only the standard 12 point Geneva text in the standard Netscape window. While I might sound as if I am complaining about the impersonal and buffered exchanges offered by email, I admit to using these features to my advantage from time to time. The anonymity is just too seductive to a reclusive artist like myself. I can stay in touch, yet remain unreachable. I can represent myself however I choose, create entire personae online with real relationships, yet remain anonymous.
Why the need for simultaneous conductivity and isolation? Successfully navigating through modern life requires the savvy of knowing how to work the system you're engaged in. Winding your way through downtown traffic, conducting online researching, or negotiating an apartment lease is often like a battle, and fortune favors the prepared mind. If you are going to master the modern world, you have to jump in head first and accept the learning curve. You must constantly absorb new skills and adapt to new paradigms. There may be no discernible end in sight, but after a while you find your own absorption rate. A calm and safe place, a decompression chamber which allows for mental digestion is practically a requirement to balance the effects of modern life. Kenji Yanobe's work seems built upon this need for privacy and escape, giving us a clear example of where we may be headed as individuals in a society we keep at arm's length.