Review: ‘All Watched Over’ Contemplates Art’s Relationship to Technology

One of the weirder cultural products to emerge from the age of early cybernetics was a 1967 poem by Richard Brautigan titled “All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace.” It imagined mammals and computers living together in “mutually programming harmony,” freed from labor and “joined back to nature.”

We have not achieved that utopia. But this show, organized by Tina Kukielski, features art based on systems that generally support Mr. Brautigan’s vision rather than reject it.

Some of the best works here were created during the same era as the poem. The German artist Ferdinand Kriwet is represented by three vertical banners from 1970, with bright letters that function as concrete poetry. Lee Mullican’s abstract painting from 1972 is based on a cosmology developed by the West Coast surrealist group Dynaton, while Paul Laffoley’s 1973 painting describing the “telenomic” process of the universe looks like a giant game board cum zodiac chart.

The newer works are good, too. Brenna Murphy’s archival-pigment prints explore how natural systems are recoded by computers. Shannon Ebner’s photographs of electronic letters and punctuation highlight how language is a shifting message system.

Doug Ashford’s series of paintings done on copies of the front page of The New York Times from Sept. 12, 2001 (that is, the day after Sept. 11) points to the global circulation of images and information. And a painting by Nonggirrnga Marawili, an aboriginal artist from Australia, has visual codes that were developed by her ancestors.

Like Mr. Brautigan’s opus, which used poetry to consider technology’s relationship with mammals, “All Watched Over” skews toward the traditional: painting, sculpture and photography. More notable, perhaps, is that Mr. Brautigan wrote the piece while a poet in residence at the California Institute of Technology — which makes you wonder what might be generated in our own moment, if innovation were treated less as a business opportunity, and more alliances between art and technology existed.

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