Navigating Our Brave New Art World

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I did it. I finally did it. And I’m glad my first time was in the context of art. I’m not a gamer, have never played Wii, don’t give a damn about Pokémon Go, or any other such things. I’m not a Neo-Luddite, just wary of “the new” in general. But I had my first encounters with Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR)—I didn’t really understand the difference until today—and feel good that they were experienced in the form of art. 

Most people feel the other way around, that art is the thing to mistrust, while video games and other forms of digital culture are harmless fun. But for me, it’s artists who push the limits of the latest technologies while also putting them to task. Artists do not passively accept technology as mere frivolity, but actively engage with them as the powerful tools they are, tools that can shape (and even mis- or re-shape) the future of humanity. 

In Tales of the New World, a multimedia installation currently on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art Arlington, Brazilian artist Johab Silva takes both his subject and his tools dead seriously. What is Silva’s subject? Well, nothing less than the global cataclysm we find ourselves in—from the lingering effects of colonization, to sustained war and genocide, environmental degradation, and rampant consumerism—Silva is deeply concerned with the most pressing issues facing humanity, but as revealed through the lens of our most advanced technologies. Using the new media tools of Artificial Intelligence (AI), AR, and VR, Silva takes a high-tech approach to exploring the complicated history of the New World.

Johab Silva, “The Reconfiguration,” 2022 - 2024 Virtual Reality (VR) Dimensions variable, photo by Johab Silva

If Silva’s tools are high-tech, his source material is not. Tales of the New World is inspired in part by a “16th-century letter written by Pêro Vaz de Caminha with visual sources that range from the flora and fauna of Brazil’s jungles to the colonial architecture of Salvador, Bahia.”

In Tales of the New World, old and new, past and present, the low-tech and the high, commingle in one space. A low-tech, historical document, written centuries ago, informs a high-tech concept for a contemporary art exhibition on the ways settlers from the Old World engaged with that of the New. Like Silva’s “Tropical Whispers” series, the concept of the show forever loops back in on itself.

Climbing the stairs to the second level of MoCA Arlington, where New World begins, we first encounter a large, colorful animated sequence projected above the landing. The scene is of an elegant-looking window through which we see a large ship moving across a blood-red body of water.

Animated, however, isn’t quite the right word. Although the picture moves, it isn’t like a cartoon. Its motion has an otherworldly quality to it. It’s hypnotic. The lattice work of the window is framed with blue and white azulejos—Moorish-Iberian tiles—a motif repeated throughout the exhibition. As globally traded commodities, originally imported to the Iberian Peninsula when that region was colonized as a Moorish caliphate and then later used by Spanish and Portuguese settlers in architecture across the Global South, Silva regards these tiles as potent symbols of globalization. 

According to the show’s curator, Amanda Jirón-Murphy, this is the first time an artist has incorporated this part of the building, which was originally a school. Coincidentally, behind Silva’s projection of a window, there is an actual window, which would fill this area with natural light if not covered with the screen upon which “In Between the Cross and the Sword: The Intercourse” (2022–2024) is projected. Seeing as all the pieces in New World glow in one way or another, the darkened space makes the work feel brighter.

Johab Silva, “In Between The Spectator’s Sanctuary,” 2023 ‘01’ min ‘40’ sec, mp4, single-channel projection-mapping, Image courtesy of the artist
Johab Silva, "In Between The Spectator’s Sanctuary," ‘01’ min ‘40’ sec, mp4, single channel Digital 3D model, animation, generative media, site specific video projection mapping Site Specific projection mapping 156x107 inch
Johab Silva, "Between the Cross and The Sword: The Intercourse," Site Specific projection mapping, Augmented Reality (AR), Dimensions variable, 2022-2024

Moving into the main gallery, four large flatscreen LED monitors hang vertically, like portraits, two to a wall facing each other. Different animated sequences moving in eternal loops appear on each screen, visually similar to the projection above the landing. But these moving images are slightly different, more abstract. They move like liquid and sparkle with a metallic sheen.

Each of the monitors displays a variation on a theme. “Tropical Whispers No1” and “No2” ooze like lava lamps, while “Tropical Whispers No3” whirs like a fine-tuned machine, contrasting the mechanical with the vegetal, both equally mesmerizing. The longer you look, the more difficult it is to look away. Of course, in the end I did, but the idea of a work of art so enthralling made me think of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, in which an eponymous video captivates to the point that all who view it cease eating, defecate themselves, and eventually die, literally being entertained to death. The mesmerizing AI-derived visuals in this series feel a bit like that.

All four screens of the “Tropical Whispers”are framed with the same kind of azulejos seen in the stairway projection, but in physical actuality. Concealing the plastic edges of the monitors with ceramic tiles makes the series feel like windows or, better still, portals to other worlds.

What are these worlds? They are brightly colored, hypnotically moving realms unto themselves. They are abstract potentialities made visible, hypothetical “somewheres” that are really nowhere. Though each suggests dimensionality, it is a shallow space displayed on the screens, a world not so much flat, but limited. In “Tropical Whispers No4,” a horizontal band slowly moves up and down the screen at the pace of a flatbed scanner, making the tropical-looking image behind it appear pixelated, then un-pixelated in its wake, over and over again, like watching raindrops collect on a windshield before the wiper washes them away again.

There is another large projected image on the main wall but this one does not move, also framed in traditional tilework that here conforms to the capital T-shape of the wall. (Two doors on the far left and right create an irregular shape.)  At the center of this projection, staring out from the middle of the wall, is a bizarre, organic-looking form. Somewhere between a sci-fi alien seed-pod and a digital Rorschach test, this odd shape, floating in a sea of purple, grabs our attention, piquing our interest.

Johab Silva, “Tropical Whispers 2,” 2022 - 2024 LED monitor, media player, digital 3 model, animation, generative media, ceramic, mp4, single channel video 15min. 10 sec. Ceramic frames in collaboration with Susan Scollon, photo by Vivian Marie Doering
Johab Silva, “Tropical Whispers 1,” 2022 - 2024 LED monitor, media player, digital 3 model, animation, generative media, ceramic, mp4, single channel video 15min. 10 sec. Ceramic frames in collaboration with Susan Scollon, photo by Vivian Marie Doering

An iPad sits on a small table in the center of the gallery. Only after picking it up and aiming the device towards the projection do you get to fully experience “In Between the Cross and the Sword: The Intercourse (still),” (2022-2024). While moving the iPad across the projected image on the wall, the screen reveals other forms floating around the central organic form of the projection, revealing additional details that enhance the projection. To me, this was much more nuanced than finding some elusive cartoon creature on my smartphone in a public park while other people are just trying to read a book in peace. Here, I could experience the same technology but as a work of art.

A small bridge leads to a back room and the final section of Tales of the New World. This room is also low-lit with projections of pixelated landscapes on two walls. A twin console of wooden chairs with side tables sits in the middle of the floor. On each table is a VR headset. I informed Jirón-Murphy, as she placed the apparatus onto my head, that this would be my first experience with VR. No turning back now…

I was plunged into a bright tropical place with tall palm trees swaying in the air above me. Through their branches loomed giant colorful creatures hovering in the middle distance like parade floats. Though they were somewhat ominous, these floating entities never came near me. They kept their distance. If I looked around, I could see this new world in 360 degrees, even when I looked up into a bright blue digital sky. 

This place slowly moved towards me and away from me at the same time. A tree trunk collided with me and dissolved into nothing. If I put my hands out, I could see icons of them moving around in the air. They could even make certain gestures like putting my thumbs up or the heavy metal sign. 

It felt a little lonely inside there after a while, not a place I’d like to stay for too long. The scenery was like that of early racing video games, kind of clunky and flat. I can only imagine that as the technology gets even tighter, more seamless, it will become ever more engrossing. 

As if waking from a dream, I removed my headset and reentered the real world, which is to say, the new Old World.

* * *

Johab Silva, “The Reconfiguration," 2023-2024, 02’ min ‘00’ sec, mp4, single-channel projection-mapping Virtual Reality (VR) Image by courtesy of the artist

I’ve written on the subject of art and technology before, here and elsewhere, expressing both fascination and concern. I have to admit, I’m a rather late adopter when it comes to technology. I’m still writing on a laptop I bought in 2011, the first (and thus far, only) time I bought such a machine. And while my smartphone is one of the latest, my digital SLR is from 2007. The point is, I’m wary of new things, especially high-tech gadgets. I’d rather let others play with them first. Let them work out the kinks.

So, needless to say, I’m still not fully convinced that our headlong rush into this brave new art world of high-tech media such as AI, AR, and VR is a good thing… But I’m relieved to discover that their most imaginative possibilities are being worked out by incisive artists like Johab Silva. 

Johab Silva: Tales of the New World is on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art Arlington through Sunday, May 26th.  

Johab Silva, portrait of the artist via MOCA Arlington

Header image: Johab Silva, Tropical Whispers No4," LED monitor, media player, digital 3D model, animation, generative media, ceramic mp4, single channel video 4

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