October 25–December 15, 2019
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“If you want to see someone’s profile on social media, you usually have to tap directly on their profile icon, which means poking a stranger in the face! That’s SO RUDE! I can’t think of anything worse! I feel like I should be punished every time I do this, like with an electrical shock from the screen. Although it wouldn’t be so bad if I kissed the screen and got a little zapping in return. U and I exist in between the forces of gravity and electricity, an informational fire that burns endlessly. I have no urge to fix the tilt of my canvases, because I can’t touch them!” — exonemo, 2019
Kensuke Sembo and Yae Akaiwa make art that investigates the boundaries between two different yet parallel worlds—the virtual and the physical, the digital and the analog, the metaphysical and the material. In previous exhibitions they’ve explored the limits and possibilities of bodies and identity, particularly the way our devices create borders that frame our perception of the world.
exonemo’s materials range from computer monitors slathered with acrylic paint, to pieces of bread spread with jam and peanut butter then affixed to the wall, to hundreds of feet of cable and a couple 4k TVs. Their thematic concerns, however, remain consistent regardless of the tools they use. Their keen interest in the intersection of virtual life and so-called “meatspace” found perhaps its clearest expression in 2015’s Internet Yami-Ichi (Japanese for “black market”), a flea market that sold “internet-ish” things, face-to-face, in the real world.
The exhibition covered in this booklet, titled U & I, looks at how the personal connection between two people can vary from mutual understanding to disagreement—even to confrontation—and then back again. As exonemo often draws from current issues, the title also references “UI,” an industry abbreviation for “user interface,” which is the method of communication between humans and machines. The current ubiquity of handheld devices finds us constantly using machines to express emotions to each other, whether in texts, emojis, emails, or following and blocking. This area of exonemo’s inquiries—already relevant now—will become even more so as we merge further with machines.
Kiss, or Dual Monitors
Mixed media (LCD monitors, media player)
Two LCD monitors hung from the ceiling display the faces of various people closing their eyes. The screens are facing each other as if the people on them are kissing. Depending on your perspective, the "kissing" might elicit some emotions, or it could just be viewed as two monitors displaying people facing each other. The work questions the relationship between emotions and devices, which place us in the virtual world. Humans have virtual presences. Other species don't. We believe in God, Love, and Money—none of which have physical value. Yet we die for them. Animals would never do that. We have accepted a lot of virtual value already and will accept more in the future, no doubt.
Mixed media (acrylic paint on LCD display, video imagery)
What does body paint mean and look like today? This was the question that inspired this piece. Today’s generation is not only attached to their smartphones, but is also surrounded by other screens nearly 24/7. What this means is that these information display devices are already part of our bodies. We painted a human body and shot a video of it to display on a monitor. Then we painted the outside of the body on the monitor, using the same color as the actual painted body. This work attempts to redefine body paint while also comparing two different media: paintings and digital imagery.
Click and Hold
Acrylic on canvas, nails
A series of paintings that layer the digital with the physical world. The production process started with randomly generated x and y coordinates on a digital canvas. The coordinates were transposed onto the physical canvas, with each painting marking the x and y positions. The painting is nailed to the wall, but gravity tilts it to its resting position. The final touch is a superimposed mouse cursor positioned as if the painting were a computer screen. Through the correctly oriented mouse cursors and the oddly tilted canvases, this work challenges the idea that the actual world is more solid than the information world.
Pray (from Spiritual Computing series)
Mixed media (computer mouse, LCD monitor, single-board computer)
These pieces are from the body of work entitled Spiritual Computing series. Positioning two optical mice in specific alignment triggers the interplay of their optical sensors and causes their cursors to spontaneously move. When we discovered this, we thought, ‘a miracle happens if we pray.’ The two connected computer mice looked like praying hands facing together. For this show, we created updated versions using the miracle mouse. The pieces question the relationship between the physical and the information world in a spiritual way.
A video piece presenting scenes of burning computer mice and keyboards as if they were tinder in a fireplace. In the old days of “hearth and home,” the fireplace was the focal point of family gatherings in the living room. The fireplace was then replaced by the TV. Some countries even have TV channels that broadcast footage of burning fireplaces. They are popular. Since we are now entering a period when each person carries their “smart” technology with them, we no longer need the PC. So how about delivering new fireplaces to burn away another legacy technology device as we shift to our new world of personal decentralized displays?
I randomly love you/hate you
Mixed media (LCD monitors, single-board computer)
Two screens showing messenger interfaces that display an active computer-generated chat. One side says, “I love you” while the other side says, “I hate you.” Each side conveys various forms of love and hate through the random insertion of adverbs. This randomly generated conversation sometimes makes sense and sometimes does not. Regardless, our imagination is engaged by this computer-generated chat on a user interface that we use every day. This never-ending poem depicts our daily communication.
How do you think certain technologies come to have emotional resonance for people?
It seems to us that when a new form of technology is introduced, it will often be described with words such as “useful” or “advanced.” But later, after people have been using it for a while, it will become tied to personal stories and emotions. It is then that the technology becomes “real” and interesting for us in terms of our art.
So the emotions come about through use and familiarity. And how has technology changed the way that people communicate emotions to each other?
It both speeds up and increases the frequency of communication. But we believe that it doesn’t change the basic nature of human emotions.
When you describe the piece Pray (from Spiritual Computing series), you mention the spiritual relationship between the physical and the information worlds. I’m really curious what you mean by “spiritual.” Does that mean that machines could become gods in the future?
Well, there are many stories that surround new technologies, and that includes mysterious, unbelievable, and miraculous experiences. But we’re the type of people who tend to think logically whereas others, when faced with an incomprehensible phenomenon, take it in a spiritual way, like, “God helped us!”
Still, when we’re actually making our art, things that feel mysterious sometimes happen. Pray was started from a sudden intuition that something would happen if we attached two optical mice to each other. Of course, that’s really based on scientific reasoning—the reflection of the light between two optical mice should cause an error in their sensors. But the process of that experiment was interesting. We had been trying to put two mice together for ten minutes or so when the mouse cursor on the computer’s desktop suddenly started moving spontaneously if the mice were held against each other in a very specific position, which looked like the shape of praying hands. We simply had to act on our first intuition without having any evidence it would do anything. It was like some unknown power led us there. Doesn’t that sound “spiritual”?
It could be seen as either spiritual or, perhaps, magical. Maybe they’re the same. But please tell us, if the technology becomes available, will you consider uploading your consciousness to the cloud when you pass away?
If our consciousness would be useful and shareable for other people, we will. But if it would just exist in the cloud and accomplish nothing, there’s no reason to do it.
Please tell us one book that influenced your art and your worldview.
I [Sembo] read Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke when I was in middle school, right after I learned that it shared the same themes as 2001: A Space Odyssey. I was excited to imagine a point of view that came from outside the human species. I might be misremembering this, but I believe that in the book, humans start to make art after they realize that the path of evolution has ended and there is no reason to exist anymore. That idea impacted me, and I’ve kept thinking about it since.
What sort of emotional reactions do you hope to evoke in your audience? What are the questions you hope they leave your exhibitions thinking about?
When we’ve shown the piece Kiss, or Dual Monitors, there are many different opinions that have arisen. Some people say it brings them happiness while others see it as dystopian. Hearing these almost opposite opinions made us believe that the piece works. So we don’t expect any specific emotion or opinion arising from our art. Each diverse reaction is important. Even when people feel they can understand all the concepts behind a work, I think it is ideal that at least something of an unsolved mystery remains. That’s how art should be, and we’re still struggling to figure it out. It will be a long journey.
Would you like to leave us with any parting words?
Please keep your eyes on exonemo.
The Japanese artist unit exonemo (Kensuke Sembo and Yae Akaiwa) was formed in 1996 on the internet. Their experimental projects are typically humorous and innovative explorations of the paradoxes of digital and analog, computer networked and actual environments in our lives. Their The Road Movie won the Golden Nica for Net Vision category at Prix Ars Electronica 2006. They have been organizing IDPW gatherings and "The Internet Yami-Ichi" since 2012 and their online project "0 to 1 / 1 to 0" is currently on view during sunrise and sunset at Whitney Museum of American Art’s web site. exonemo has been based in New York since 2015.