Consider Ourselves: A Review of “Difference Machines: Technology and Identity in Contemporary Art” at Wrightwood 659

Hasan Elahi, detail of “Thousand Little Brothers,” 2014/Photo courtesy Wrightwood 659.

There is perhaps no other topic in the art world that is currently as examined as the convoluted and ever-growing relationship between technology and art. A global pandemic that brought the world inside and glued to our screens resulted in a surge in the popularity of digital art spaces and NFTs. Blockchain quickly became a favored buzzword, and most recently the contested debate regarding the growing popularity of AI art, particularly in its popularity on social media, has taken center stage. “Difference Machines: Technology and Identity in Contemporary Art,” currently on view at Wrightwood 659, however, despite technology being its driving force, does not feature any of these aforementioned topics. Rather, it asks us to consider a different, perhaps more complex layer in the relationship between technology and art—it asks us to consider ourselves. Though oftentimes subconsciously, technology now plays an undeniable and instrumental role in the shaping of our own identities. Featuring the work of seventeen prominent artists exploring this technological shaping and differentiating of identity at the hands of various digital means, “Difference Machines” exposes the way technology often exploits marginalized communities while also showing the ways in which the digital sphere can be repurposed to increase inclusivity. Visually dominating the first floor of the exhibition is Hasan Elahi’s work “Thousand Little Brothers.” Following a false anonymous accusation of terrorist activity, the artist became the subject of a six-month FBI investigation. Choosing to voluntarily self-monitor, Elahi began to photograph the monotonous details of his everyday life and email these photographs, hundreds of them a week over the span of several years, directly to his FBI agent as part of an ongoing work titled “Tracking Transience.” Featured in “Thousand Little Brothers” are approximately 32,000 of these photographs. Arranged according to the day of the week they were taken, and overlaid with the seven colors that make up the SMPTE (Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers) Emergency Broadcast System test, the work is incredibly intricate and layered. Upon first viewing, it is nearly impossible to fully grasp the scale of the complexity and detail of what you are looking at. A more careful examination of the work reveals snapshots of mundane moments including several photos of plates of food akin to the type of imagery found on an Instagram feed. “Thousand Little Brothers” brings to light not only the stark violation of rights that occurred in the surveillance of immigrants, people of color, and Muslims following 9/11, but also asks us to question our passive mindset regarding our own self-imposed surveillance via social media.

Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley, installation view of “WE ARE HERE BECAUSE OF THOSE THAT ARE NOT,” 2020, at Wrightwood 659. Courtesy of Alphawood Exhibitions LLC, Chicago/Photo: Michael Tropea

Featured on the same floor is the standout digital game “WE ARE HERE BECAUSE OF THOSE THAT ARE NOT” by artist Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley. Serving as an interactive digital archive preserving and centering the stories of Black trans people that have continuously been buried or erased, players navigate the virtual archive in a choose-your-own-adventure style reminiscent of early text-based games. Each player is taken on a different journey depending on their expressed gender identity. The game creates a space in which Black trans people are centered and uplifted, and players identifying as cis are asked to confront their oftentimes performative and lacking allyship. The graphics are visually stunning and complex, and the importance of the inclusion of this work in the context of an exhibition that seeks to explore technology’s ability to help preserve and amplify often erased voices cannot be overstated.

For anyone interested in the growing relationship not only between technology and art, but the manner in which we differentiate and identify ourselves through this relationship, “Difference Machines” should absolutely not be missed.

“Difference Machines: Technology and Identity in Contemporary Art” is on view at Wrightwood 659, 659 West Wrightwood through December 16.

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