The Wolf at the Door, artist and University at Buffalo professor Matt Kenyon’s extraordinary requiem for humanity, conscripts us the moment we walk into Buffalo’s storied Big Orbit Gallery. Masked due to COVID-19, our identities effectively obscured, we ourselves become unwitting objects in Kenyon’s indictment of hegemony. The trappings of social distancing amplify every work in the exhibition, driving home its poignant central theme: our most vulnerable have been consigned to the periphery, and those of us with the privilege to be visiting an art gallery during a pandemic are implicated.
Sheep do this. In herds, the strongest burrow into the centers of the tight clumps of wool and flesh that quickly form in reaction to external threats, relegating their weaker members to the edges to appease the circling wolves. It’s a simple survival instinct, untainted by retrospective guilt. But when it comes to humans, the specter of complicity is harder to evade, and the external threat is almost always a wolf of our own devising. In making this point, Kenyon’s kinetic and mechanistic works display a profound sense of affinity with their audience — and what a rarity it is to find humor (albeit dark), sincerity, and empathy embodied by metal, plastic, glass, and wiring.
Artists have engaged in innovative mechanical investigations since well before the time of Leonardo da Vinci, the most familiar example of the polymath archetype. In Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, the geographer Jared Diamond ponders the chicken/egg relationship of invention to necessity, pointing out that although societies often accord use and relevance to innovations long after they’ve been introduced, the basic instinct to contrive exists outside of this dynamic. Historically, when the artistic and inventive muses congregate around figures brave or confident enough to engage with both of them simultaneously, these individuals seldom shy away from the burdens of living before their time and often seem to relish the friction.
Twentieth-century examples of technological art and its makers are rife with tension: the precarious oscillations of power dynamics that inhabit machine-based artistic production are often the focus of the work itself. A few notable examples: David Rokeby’s uncomfortable early incursions into virtual and surveilled space, such as Very Nervous System (1986–90), parade Rokeby’s anticipatory anxieties as amplified rather than assuaged by their digital medium; the robotics projects of Mark Pauline’s Survival Research Laboratory satirize militaristic and reactionary rage from 1978 to the present with spectacularly violent, self-bludgeoning stand-ins for international superpowers that owe their ironic existence to military technology transfer; and Stelarc’s chilling bodily augmentations, like Third Hand from 1980, which seem to signal an enthusiastic resignation to human obsolescence and our eventual hybridity with machines.
These technologically transcendent fusions, fraught allegories for the Frankensteinian relationship between creator and created, reflect a certain envy of the purported power and omniscience of our invented Gods, and lure us at disfiguring speeds toward precipitous horizons. Italian Futurism had nothing on these guys. But in contrast to Filippo Marinetti’s heated paraphilias (“a roaring motor car which seems to run on machine-gun fire, is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace.”), much
of their work feels cold, possibly due to their some-what detached, dissociated eyes as artists. What then, if Frankenstein’s monster was smarter than his creator, and displayed more humanity? Are we on a collision course with some sort of cyborgian Freaky Friday in the Singularity? Amid all this testosteronal flexing and fusing came Donna Haraway’s 1985
“A Cyborg Manifesto,” a theoretical, refreshingly femi-nist polemic describing her wildly prescient comfort with technological osmosis.
In the twenty-first century, artist and experimental geographer Trevor Paglen’s relentless inquisitive-ness has sucked him into risky and contentious subject matter for most of his career, and his latest AI-generated work, Bloom (2020) — lush, gorgeous, and bizarrely romantic — is no exception. In this series of large-scale photographs of flower-esque forms generated by algorithms trained on images of real-life flowers he explores artificial intelligence’s capacity to subsume the artist completely, a shadow that’s been hovering about since William Gibson’s “neuromancing” Boxmaker forged its first Cornell assemblage in Count Zero and kicked humans out of the sublime-slinging business. The implications of Paglen’s new work are imminent: Google’s burly Deep Dream Generator may still be stuck in a tacky, fluorescent-on-black-velvet aesthetic, but it’s only a matter of time until that machine grows a taste bud. In perpetually seeking dominion over nature, humankind seems unable to refrain from destroying our own safety mechanisms. As a good friend of mine once said, “humans have a fetish for course correction” that we indulge at extreme costs. This is nowhere better illustrated than by our ecstatic bond with technology and the power structures it reifies and maintains.
Kenyon is far from the only contemporary artist to wade through this charged conversation, even locally. Currently, Buffalo is also home to artists Paul Vanouse and Stephanie Rothenberg, who both investigate the problematic correlations between human labor, biological ecosystems, and their techno-science counterparts. Vanouse is the Prix Ars Electronica Golden Nica award-winning creator of Labor, a wry, intricate, and diabolical-looking project featuring a bioreactor tasked with reproducing the scent and tactile residue of exploitation first shown at the Burchfield Penney Art Center in 2019. Vanouse is also the founder of the Coalesce Center for Biological Art at the University at Buffalo (UB), where he annually mentors three to four artists-in-residence exploring the intersections of art, science, and human vulnerability. Rothenberg founded and co-directs the Platform Social Design Lab, also at UB, to foster socially engaged creative practice. Her stunningly sardonic work concerns itself with the civic fallout endemic to our economies of desire and our embarrassing diminishment by the technologies we so naively thought would connect and elevate us all.
Rothenberg’s and Vanouse’s conclusions often take graceful form while adopting a cool and somewhat castigating tone, whereas the various machines Kenyon devises possess no accusatory fingers, no humanoid avatars, appendages, or frightening anthropomorphisms, but instead seem to extend a warm, benign sort of approachability. That is, until you accept their invitation. In Tap, from 2019, a kitchen sink is embedded vertically into the gallery wall, its spigot spouting a fist-sized ethereal flame that literally does the talking. It’s a neat trick; Kenyon has revived an early industrial relic called an ionophone, a gadget that generates sound waves through an electric arc that acts as a massless radiating element to produce a highly hazardous loudspeaker. The allusion to the biblical burning bush is hard to ignore, but Tap’s somber prophetic emanations all concern the toxic consequences of human-made pollution and misguided resource extraction.
There are six other works in this exhibition, each leveraging a differently sourced technology in its own peculiar and distinct way. Supermajor (2012), possibly the most elegant and economical deployment of techno-magic in the gallery, sets up a real-world special effect: a delightful opportunity for us to argue with our own eyes. In some sense, due to the sheer volume of computer-generated imagery we consume daily, we have become inured to spectacle, so it’s an odd sensation to be entranced by the quiet defiance of physics that Kenyon has orchestrated using a leaking oil can and a strobing LED light. In this “anti-spill,” Kenyon says he is, “taking advantage of our observational weak spots” to epitomize the grand illusion of limitlessness we hold when it comes to our patterns of consumption and blithe exploitation of finite resources. Certainly, the various corporate logos on the nine motor oil cans visibly apportion liability to the usual suspects, but there is more than enough culpability to go around. As I stand there, baffled as to how the drops of oil I’m watching do not issue forth from the leaking can but instead undertake an unnerving, quivering climb back up into the cavity from which they should spring, I want to kick myself: I drove my car the short distance to the gallery when my bicycle would have used a source of power that wasn’t stolen or fought over.
Cloud (2013), a device that’s had several iterations before this, generates diaphanous, house-shaped extrusions neatly sliced from a continually rising vat of soap and helium churned to a frothy, but surprisingly dense, foam. While previous showings of this work pegged the house-cloud production rate to the local real estate index, this latest version inadvertently references its current locale in a simultaneously hilarious and heartbreaking eulogy to all the beautiful, dilapidated Buffalo houses that have been euthanized by the state. Not since Dennis Maher’s hulking and forlorn Animate lost/found matter (001-): Suspended resonances amid a constellation of assembled residual space from Beyond/In Western New York 2010 has there been a more moving tribute to deceased homes. The second time I visited, Kenyon had moved his contraption outdoors, and the little ghost-houses at first floated up into the crystalline blue sky only to descend back to us in a plaintive and tear-jerking manner, affectionately orbiting us and disintegrating as we watched.
The House is a recurring symbol in Kenyon’s work. With this year’s Tide, Kenyon literalizes the twin lethalities of “underwater” mortgages and climate change by submerging several hundred tiny, house-shaped effigies in a spectacular pyramid of champagne glasses. Invoking both Ponzi schemes and wedding celebrations while also alluding to the monumental constructions that only slaves could have built, the work has a tragic, ineffable grandeur. The little houses, cast from a transparent polymer possessing the same refractive index as water, are plopped awkwardly into the empty glasses awaiting their inevitable deluging and disappearance, like Dorothy’s house in Oz. Spurred by live updates in foreclosure and eviction data, invisible machinery drips crocodile tears from the ceiling in a grim, silent, slow-moving pantomime of Noah’s flood. As the glasses gradually fill, the most vulnerable houses on the periphery are rendered invisible in their splendid, watery graves. There is no deus ex machina here, no Ark; only force majeure, that slippery bitch of a clause conveniently absolving the insurance companies of their liability.
The last two works are even more quietly devastating. The first, Lockset (2020), appears to be the only work in the gallery devoid of machinery, until you realize that an old technology is conspicuous through its absence: only the keys are present, hung unceremoniously on the wall. The front doors they once opened are now sealed against their former denizens, tenants evicted from their residences due to desperate circumstances. Next to the more audacious works in the show, this one seems oddly diffident until you realize that each key’s jagged edge casts a small shadow of its owner’s profile on the wall. The locks have been re-keyed (by Kenyon himself, who learned locksmithing for the project) to embed subversively and permanently their tenants’ identities into the physical lives of their former homes. It’s probably a more subtle and sentimental act of defiance than the landlords it indicts could ever appreciate, but that only serves to underscore the brutality of the system that demands it.
The final work is a new iteration of Kenyon’s Notepad project (2007–present), in which he and designer Douglas Easterly microprinted the full names, dates, and locations of every single Iraqi civilian death on record for the first three years of the Iraq War, appearing to the naked eye as twenty-six ordinary blue rule lines on a standard-sized yellow legal pad. A limited edition of one hundred of these pads was distributed to members of the United States Senate and House of Representatives as a clandestine act of protest and commemoration: when used, the sheets with their hidden data were then entered into the Congressional Record and archived in the Library of Congress. This work won its authors international recognition, culminating in Kenyon’s 2015 TED fellowship, and is included in the collection of The Museum of Modern Art in New York. Kenyon’s new version, Alternative Rule, enumerates every child killed by gun violence in the United States since the Columbine High School massacre. This time, the microscopic lines of text trace the kind of horizontal wide-ruled sheet that is often used by first and second graders to practice their penmanship. We are invited to move a wireless transmitting endoscope lens over the surface of the innocuous-looking paper set on a small school desk; the lens projects an image of the names of over a thousand murdered children on the adjacent wall. It is a difficult pill to swallow past the lump in one’s throat.
Each of Kenyon’s inventions possesses a curious signpost-on-the-way-to-doom quality. Cairn-like, the works in The Wolf at the Door are memorials along the path to erasure: financially eviscerated renters, hapless homeowners, colonized societies “relieved” of their resources, victims of violence so numerous that their names form the very substrates onto which the names of even more dead can be inscribed. Upon returning home, I cried for half an hour and felt haunted enough that I was compelled to return twice, as if pulled by a tractor beam. A last inadvertent bit of technology, perhaps. What a fitting coup de grâce.
Shasti O'Leary Soudant is an artist, designer, writer, and educator who is lucky to live, work, and teach in Buffalo, NY.