It is assumed that people have a fetishised fascination with digital technology and its ethereal nature; everything immaterial though not irrelevant. However considering all the advertising posters and people flaunting ‘devices’ on the train I came across on my way to the Holden Gallery it is more likely that digital technology is as tied to material goods as we have ever been, the status symbol combined with a sense of ownership and community. Why else in 2017 would excited buyers have queued for a full week to be the first to buy the new iPhone X (pause for reverence).
Cory Arcangel and Paper Rad’s collaborative work ‘Super Mario Movie’ (2005) holds court in the centre of the parquet floor. Pride of place, visible not hidden, is the vintage Nintendo console running the decomposing video image, the physical object integral to the workings and work. The slowly deteriorating image allows us to witness the sluggish death of old technology as those with enough buying power move on and the rest of us are slowly forced to catch up disregarding our old possessions for something new, on trend and ‘up to date’.
From old possessions to the far future ‘Molten Media’ (2013 – 2018) by Rosemary Lee encapsulates Mad Max’s wasteland within two cabinets of ‘future fossils’. Burnt, discarded electronics settle in the sand, superseded, perhaps the sands of time or the sands of desertification caused by climate change and human over expansion. These works seemed too literal in their presentation, cased objects alluding to an archaeological dig seemed more film set than critical commentary.
From dumpsite to dominion, two dull grey photographs hang on the wall, Emma Charles’ ‘Surfaces or Exchange’ (2012) and ‘Fragments of Machines’ (2013). The physicality of the internet, the domain of the domain name, all the data we understand to be ephemeral housed in vast chambers of binary code. The unassuming images, one the grey side of a large austere building and the other a dark interior of cables reaching in to the far distance, feel like snapshots of frozen moments in the finite lifespan of buildings and materials.
As analogue forgets naturally digital does not, a cassette tape will eventually fade and grow mute, digital decays in distress creating noise, glitches and errors. Rosa Menkman’s ‘To Smell and Taste Black Matter’ (2009) details through video the over-compressed file of a Skype recording, pastel colours and hazy sound glitch and ripple across the screen. Information overload as the material struggles to hold itself together. Similarly in the first work of the exhibition, Shinji Toya’s ‘3 years and 6 months of digital decay’ (7th April 2016 – 7th October 2019) explores the presumed expiration date of a CD-ROM. Video overlay played from a web page will track the decay of a digital file in action across the lifespan of the exhibition.
In Machines will watch us die we are in fact witness to the death of machines, the obsolete and the failed. Our limited attention span the killer more than any technical issue. As our average 81 years on the planet run out the material components of machines will cease to work even if they are still in working order. The lifeless cases of iPhones will never biodegrade – discarded on the earth forever – with no user to interface with they will be left to watch as the sands drift in.
Machines will watch us die, Holden Gallery, Manchester.
09 April – 11 May 2018.
Abi Mitchell is a writer and programmer based in the North of England, co-founder and member of SPUR, an arts commissioning collective, and Programme Coordinator at Centre for Chinese Contemporary Art in Manchester.