Survey exhibitions foregrounding technology at major museums are quite rare and are often self-reflexive — speaking to the medium’s functional features like interactivity, connectivity and coding, or situating its art historical context. That is why an exhibition like Difference Machines: Technology and Identity in Contemporary Art at Albright-Knox Northland (October 16, 2021 – January 16, 2022) looks so exciting. Co-curators Tina Rivers Ryan and Paul Vanouse are working to create a discursive space for technological artworks around the timely topics of race and identity. Their critical approach exposes systemic inequities in our digital tools and the societal forces that shape them. I had the pleasure to speak with them via Zoom on July 15, 2021, to learn more about the exhibition.
Farah Yusuf: I’m interested in how this exhibition came about, as a curatorial collaboration between an art historian and bioartist. Could you talk about how you came to work together on Difference Machines?
Tina Rivers Ryan: I knew about Paul before I moved to Buffalo and met him. He’s long been a big name in the media art community, and I was familiar with his artistic practice, which explores how our concept of identity is shaped by technologies like DNA analysis and fingerprinting. Over the past few years, I’ve been hanging out with him and checking in on the work he is doing at Coalesce, the center for bioart that he founded at the University at Buffalo. After seeing his solo show, Labor, at the Burchfield Penney back in 2019, I realized that he not only has a passion for art that takes a critical approach to technology but also really understands how to install media art in physical space — and has a great eye. I was eager to get a chance to work with and learn from him, and then it all fell into place when we started talking about this show early last year.
Paul Vanouse: I heard that Tina was coming before she actually arrived in Buffalo. Somebody said, “Oh my god, there’s this new curator who's been hired by the Albright-Knox, and she’s specifically interested in new media and an incredible theorist with a real critical mind.” And then we met not so long after, and I got to see several of her exhibitions and read her writing in places like Artforum. So it was great to have a chance to have a serious collaboration because I've been working on this topic for twenty years and talking through it with Tina has clarified all kinds of things that I've been trying to think about. I also feel this show has a real opportunity to contribute to the field. I've always thought there needed to be more surveys that go into depth on topics like the intersection of race and technology and that include more emerging and experimental forms in them.
FY: At its core, the exhibition is about being in relation to technology — especially from the vantage point of inhabiting a body or identity marked by difference. Can you talk about the range of representation within the exhibition?
I’m interested in hearing about the artists and how their perspectives inform their relationships
PV: Let me backtrack slightly. In my own work, there's a piece I did called The Relative Velocity Inscription Device (2002) where I first tried to demonstrate that while there is no genetic basis for race, regardless, we still have racism and genetic essentialism that subdivides and differentiates humans to a great level. The concept of difference first gets articulated in the European Enlightenment, when to differentiate becomes a virtue. For example, you have the work of Linnaeus, who invented modern taxonomy: he thought that most similarity was superficial and that if we probe deeper we find these essential differences between things — and, by extension, between humans. This looking through similarity to find differences, of course, translated into the colonial enterprise that was the darker side of the Enlightenment. One of the earliest works in the show, Surveillance: Tagging the Other (1992), is by Keith Piper, who is a British artist of Caribbean descent working since the 1980s and whose work portrays the way that technologies can categorize people, always with
the logic of Empire.
TRR: I want to underscore something you're saying here. We've tried to be so nuanced about how we understand the concept of “difference” in the context of this exhibition. We wanted to be very clear that we're not really talking about individual identity, as in the expression of one's own personality through social media. We're talking about our collective identities and the way in which our bodies are “tagged” — to borrow from the title of Keith's work — according to preexisting categories. And, so, it's about the way in which the gaze of power — including, as Paul said, the colonial gaze — has always operated by articulating our identities for us. This is exactly what Paul’s practice is about. It's not about his individual experience of racism, it's about the very construction of the idea of race. And this exhibition is really about the role that technology plays in the production and perpetuation of these social categories.
PV: We also wanted to be clear that these categories are not always essential, right? Nevertheless, the identities based on them can be mobilized — sometimes for us, often against us — in ways that are incredibly powerful, as we’ve seen recently with the rise of hate crimes. Again, this show looks at “difference” as a verb: how people are “differenced,” or categorized, in ways that can be mobilized in a negative way but also in a positive way as well.
TRR: For example, think about metadata. The digital profile that's generated by all of your online interactions is going to be tagged. Who comes up with those categories? And how is your experience of the world then shaped by the way that you've been tagged? If the system figures out that I have a disability, how will that change the information that it shows me — and in turn shape my sense of my identity and my community? And what possibilities do we have to negotiate these systems?
Some artists in the exhibition draw our attention to the relationship between our technologies and the production of difference, like A.M. Darke’s game ‘Ye or Nay? (2021), which forces you to think about how we qualify and quantify the bodies of Black men. Other artists ask the question: How can we use technology to claim space for identities that have been marginalized — often in the name of technological “progress”? For example, Skawennati makes machinimas [videos made in virtual environments] that tell Haudenosaunee stories and help us imagine indigenous people as belonging to the future and the present and not just the past. So, in terms of their respective attitudes toward technology, they run the gamut.
And in terms of the range of “representation,” one of the things that we wanted to be clear about is that this show is not about a particular identity. It's not about Blackness, it's not about disability, it's about the meta question of the very concept of difference. That’s why it was important to us that the show include artists who come from diverse backgrounds and can speak to the experience of technology from many different perspectives — but without demanding that these artists also “represent” particular communities.
FY: I think there's also a parallel conversation here with just the white cube and its publics as well. We're seeing this evolution in museums and galleries now thinking of programming for those who were previously excluded or self-excluded. I feel like this exhibition is part of that evolution.
TRR: One of the things we had to talk about were our objectives for this exhibition. And there are a couple of different ones. One of them is to tell an important part of the history of digital art, which often is wrongly assumed to be exclusively white and cis-het and apolitical. Another objective is to contribute to conversations about the role of technology in our lives. Every single day, new articles come out about algorithmic bias and other ways that digital tools contribute to inequality. I just saw an article last week about the digital redlining of indigenous communities in New York. It’s a practice that also impacts people living in municipal housing: internet companies won’t invest in the infrastructure there.1 The perils and the promises of digital technologies are not being distributed equally.
And so we wanted this exhibition to help facilitate conversations about how the most marginalized and vulnerable communities are being impacted by digital technologies in ways that are only starting to get talked about more publicly. We were told that computers and then the internet would be these utopian tools and great democratizing forces, but technology itself, simply by existing, will not solve our problems — and can cause a lot of new ones. We hope this exhibition will amplify and open up the dialogue on this, and also help people think about becoming creative problem-solvers or imagining a different way — instead of just being totally fatalistic. Paul really reinforced the importance of that to me because he wanted to emphasize the agency that we have in our relationships with these tools.
FY: I want to backtrack and revisit the topic of histories. Technologies do change very rapidly and tend to be of a moment, but they're not ahistorical. You've touched on this a little bit throughout our conversation. I’ll add that “history” is still contested for many equity-seeking groups here in North America. Could you point to some of the earlier works in Difference Machines that may have a renewed relevance in the context of this exhibition and the contemporary moment?
TRR: One of the things that Paul and I talked about explicitly early on was that we wanted to emphasize that technologies do have a history. That was an important point for us, politically, because if they have a history, it means they can be changed. They’re not immutable structures.
PV: One of the older pieces in the show, Heritage Gold (1997), is a piece of software by the group Mongrel, which was a British media collective that formed out of a space for people who had no access to technological tools. Mongrel was trying to democratize these tools, but at the same time, they were also being very critical of them. It looks like Photoshop 1.0., but when you go to the drop-down menu, it’s been hacked: the options include editing someone’s skin tone or income.
TRR: On the one hand, it’s this completely historical artifact — it's even shown on vintage hardware — so it helps people remember that digital tech does have a history. But even though the aesthetics are obsolete, what could be more relevant than the idea of a face filter? Mongrel’s work can now estrange us from these filters, which have become normalized, and ask: What does their popularity say about our concepts of identity and of difference?
FY: I sense that while this exhibition holds up a dark mirror, there's an underlying optimism in how you describe the project as a laboratory for a more equitable future. What do you hope visitors will take away from their experiences?
PV: That we don't necessarily have to be just “end users” of technology. There are all kinds of ways of using technology beyond being consumers. It can be as simple as a small hack, an elegant gesture, that fundamentally changes our understanding of that product — like Lior Zalmanson’s work, Excess Ability (2014), in which he runs Google’s automated transcription software, which was supposed to help members of the Deaf community and hard of hearing people, on the video of the press event announcing the software. The generated text shows how limited the software is, which in turn suggests how problematic the rhetoric of Silicon Valley can be.
Artists also can make technically complex projects that take years and a lot of collaborative work to develop on a scale that typically only scientists or technologists can accomplish. Rian Hammond has been working over the last five years to explore the synthesis of estrogen in vitro — to understand not only how to synthesize it but also all the legal and ethical issues surrounding both the privatization and open-sourcing of science. Throughout the show, you get this range of ways in which people can intervene in techno-culture and techno-science.
TRR: I would only add that in addition to wanting to contribute to the conversation about the role of technology in our lives that I mentioned before, I think another story we want to tell is about the possibilities of digital art as art — not just as technological innovation or social critique. We really wanted to emphasize the variety of aesthetic experiences that fall under the (often contested) term “digital art.” These projects manifest as sculptures, as photos, as interactive games, as websites, as videos, etcetera. And the mood of each of them is different. They are angry, contemplative, mournful, playful, and even funny. I think many people tend to think of digital art as being this very cold thing. So we wanted to try to show people who may not be necessarily familiar with digital art what that term might mean and to help make sense of it — since both digital technologies and digital art are here to stay.
1 See, for instance, Nate Benson, “Seneca Nation internet nearly non-existent as providers chose to redline Cattaraugus Territory,” WGRZ, July 10, 2021, https://www.wgrz.com/article/news/local/seneca-nation-internet-almost-non-existent-as-providers-chose-to-redline-cattaraugus-territory/71-a29b9eda-7a4c-45e2-8434-a48ff8fb017f, and Shara Tibken, “The broadband gap's dirty secret: Redlining still exists in digital form,” CNET, June 28, 2021, https://www.cnet.com/features/the-broadband-gaps-dirty-secret-redlining-still-exists-in-digital-form/.
Farah Yusuf is an independent curator based in Toronto. Her practice explores themes of cultural identity, hybridity, language, and technology. Yusuf holds an MA in Experimental Digital Media from the University of Waterloo and a BFA in Criticism and Curatorial Practices at OCAD University where she was awarded the Curatorial Practice Medal and Governor General’s Academic Medal.