Envisioning technology and human interactionIn Fritz Lang’s 1927 classic silent sci-fi movie “Metropolis,” the director imagined the world in 2026 would be divided into an elite class, the thinkers, who live above ground and laborers who work with machines deep inside the Earth. Later, in his 1950 book of short stories “I, Robot,” the American author and scientist Isaac Asimov imagined the world in 2035 in which humans coexisted with robots.
Futurists have theorized how society will handle the rapid progression of computer technology and robots. And eight young Korean artists with technology backgrounds have created an enlightening exhibit called “Hardcore Machine” consisting of nine works that posit how humans will coexist with robots and technology.
Contemporary art has long crossed the border into science and engineering. More than 60 percent of young Korean artists between the ages of 25 and 35 are engaged in technology and science, according to Kim No-am, the director of Artspace Hue, a gallery.
“It’s natural,” says Mr. Kim, who is cohosting the exhibit along with Gallery-skape in Mapo district in northwestern Seoul. “It’s the generation that grew up using computers from a young age, and it’s a way for them to express themselves with items they are so familiar with.”
Mr. Kim says that the fusion of art and science has existed since Leonardo da Vinci began experimenting and has never ceased as technology has advanced. These art-meets-science works not only stimulate viewers’ imaginations the way art is supposed to, but also raise ethical questions about the roles and the future of humans and machines as science and technology advances.
Mr. Kim says if there were anything Korean artists lack now, it’s that connectivity of the human body with digital technology and the element of sound built into the works, which is most sophisticated and thus costly. “Hardcore Machine” may appear to be relatively small in its scale but not in its budget. [A meter-long metallic fish by the artist Choi Woo-ram is not for sale but it cost him up to $30,000 to design and build.]
“The size of the show is critical,” Mr. Kim says. “If it is too big, it will fail to convey the message of the artists. Robotics and machinery alone are very expensive. Due to such high costs, an exhibition like this needs strong sponsorship and preparation.”
The works are strangely personal and impersonal: Machines follow you with their eyes but apologize for not being able to think more. Their mechanical yet human-like movements evoke a feeling that these machines somehow flirt with consciousness but in actuality are just programmed circuits and gears.
Is it possible to have a casual conversation on existentialism with a cyborg? At Artspace Hue, visitors can “chat” with a cyborg suspended in mid-air in the dark gallery.
The cyborg, titled “L’Hommelette” by the artist Rho Jin-ah, is a realistic, life-sized humanoid covered with silicon “skin” partially revealing “bones” of dark steel. It is bald and slim and has a small breast, but its gender is in question. Its skin is yellowish, but its ethnicity is a mystery.
Initiating a conversation with the half-machine-half-human starts by typing your name in a laptop computer connected to it. Its half-closed eyelids flutter open to reveal crystal-clear brown eyes that move left to right searching for the visitor.
It responds in Korean: “Pleased to meet you. The only pleasure I have now is to meet with humans like yourself. What is your pleasure in life?” The voice is low and slow but still sexually ambiguous.
When the English word “hello” is typed in, it says with a heavy Korean accent: “Hello, but I cannot speak English, so please type in Korean. Thanks.”
The robot looks utterly exhausted and becomes quiet. Its eyes are half-shut again, as if to fall asleep. But when a visitor approaches to examine the robot, its eyes track the movement.
Back to Korean. “Are you tired?” The robot replies: “I’m not sure what it really means to be tired, and it will be my homework to find out. But if my attempt to express myself from up here counts as being tiring, I could say I’m tired.”
“You think I’m pretty?” asks a visitor. The cyborg is not impressed: “I’m afraid I have no data to reply your question. I wish to be upgraded soon.”
The delicate movement and coordination in the facial muscles seem to express deep anxiety. The content of the speech is amazingly realistic and chillingly human.
In another dim corner floats what appears to be a metallic fish from “Star Wars.” The fish, titled “Echo Navigo,” has an electric blue light beam as a backbone and fins that rotate like drills. It is artist Choi Woo-ram’s imaginary animal that will traverse the galaxy in the future.
Shin Ki-woon’s “Approach the Truth” is a machine that literally grinds objects into fine powder. In his work, culturally significant objects, such as mobile phones, dictionaries and keyboard are turned into a small pile of dust through a slow twisting and grinding. The process imparts a feeling of the ephemeral nature of technology and objects. The destruction is projected on a flat-screen monitor on a nearby wall.
In artists’ lives and productions, Korea’s digital technology has played a vital role. Artist Lee Jang-won’s “Untitled” is a globular machine that “responds” like a living organism. Upon close inspection, visitors recognize that each moving component is a CD-ROM drive from a computer.
The gears generate a familiar sound as each tray slides back and forth. Visitors can awaken the machine by touching a miniature sensor that looks like a sea urchin or a flat-screen that projects an image of a sea urchin.
The engineer-turned-artist says he purchased 80 CD-ROMs at Yongsan Electronics Market and connected the parts with the computer. He wanted to create something organic, but using machinery. “The idea was simple,” he says. “Like our skin, the machine can react to a touch. I used to work on certain shapes to create art, but now I’m back to things that are just basic and organic, thus a sphere.”
by Ines Cho
The exhibition at Artspace Hue runs until this Saturday and at Gallery-skape until May 22. There will be a discussion on “Contemporary Arts and Machine Aesthetics” with artists on May 21 for two hours from 2 to 4 p.m. at Gallery-skape. Artspace Hue is located at 334-1 Seogyo-dong, Mapo-gu; Gallery-skape is located at 400-10 Seogyo-dong, Mapo-gu. Gallery-skape is open from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. on weekdays, from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. on weekends. Artspace Hue is open from 1 p.m. until 7 p.m. daily. For more information, call Artspace Hue at (02) 333-0955 or visit the Web site (www.artspacehue.com) or call Gallery-skape at (02) 3143-4675 or visit the Web site (www.skape.co.kr).