Jillian Mayer's new solo show Precipice/Postmodem probes the concept of technological singularity, the theoretical moment in time when the boundary between human and machine, brain and computer disappears. But Mayer, known for her irreverent viral videos (like I Am Your Grandma) explores the concept with her usual wicked sense of humor. Cue a hackneyed android assembled from a Roomba vacuum cleaner and a touchscreen tablet displaying Mayer's avatar that greets you as you enter the gallery space. The future has arrived.
The show currently on view at Locust Projects in Miami builds on ideas from a short film Mayer made with longtime collaborator Lucas Leyva called #PostModem, which was an official selection at Sundance this year. In the exhibition, Mayer makes a biting commentary on digital limitations while savoring the real possibilities of pleasure virtual realms can offer. In some pieces, Mayer mocks capitalistic solutions to digitally-incited insecurities.
In a parody of a Shopping Channel infomercial that peddles a fix-all digital vortex, the saleswoman asks, “Have you ever lost a loved one? I have not, because I purchased the vortex.” Next to the TV playing the faux commercial is the product IRL, a crude sculpture protruding from the wall that doesn't live up to the beguiling vortex in the on-screen offer. Though it highlights the failed promises and discrepancies of digital life, Mayer's humor is as playful as it is acrid. Other pieces are more of a joyful celebration of the digital, like Swing Space, a swingset juxtaposed against a computer-enhanced idyllic backdrop of a blue sky with fluffy white clouds. The installation urges participants to forget about digital limitations and just enjoy the experience of virtual bliss.
Mayer doesn't just comment on new technologies but also incorporates them into her show, which includes a smartphone app and a website both programmed by Vince Mckelvie. The app, called For U, provides a participatory augmented reality experience for users, translating Mayer's sculpture digitally and layering additional dimensions on-screen. The website, aplaceforonlinedreaming.com, provides audio tracks for users to slumber to and a digital space for them to tweet their dreams. The online collective experience corresponds to a performance-based installation of people sleeping in the gallery.
The Creators Project: In your show you've got DIY androids that look nothing like humans and discrepancies between the real and the virtual. Are you poking fun at this idea of technological singularity? Do you really think we'll ever get to that moment where there is no boundary between human and machine?
Jillian Mayer: I think no doubt we are getting closer. There's exponential growth all the time with our technological development. But whenever there's a major technological upgrade or advancement, there's still this kind of hokey time period where things don't really work right. It's not a fluid experience or a fluid integration of the new advancement and I sort of feel like we're in that time now. And I think the exhibit reflects that. Like there are pieces like the Host, those Roomba-iPad people and it's kind of a way for me to be present in the gallery when I'm not there, but it is very Do It Yourself aesthetic. It's clunky and silly. But this object still has a use. It's still a vacuum that cleans up.
Even the most advanced androids, I love watching YouTube clips of them at robot conventions totally failing.
Even Siri still doesn't know what I'm talking about ever. There's times when she gets it perfectly and there's times it just doesn't work. I'm pretty sure things are going to get pretty incredible and pretty advanced. Every day, things happen that are mind-blowing. But my experience is still full of that weird in-between time where we can kind of decide where we want to be with inventions. There's still this human touch that is messing it up.
Why do you use humor in your work to approach this in-between time?
When I process really serious subject matter or monumental concepts, I feel like humor is the best way to deal with them--either because these concepts are so important or not important at all. I generally tend to lean toward sarcasm and humor.
When we are talking about the difference between human and machine, I think humor in a way is the most human thing. You can't really ask a machine to be funny--at least not yet.
It's true, machines can't dream and they can't make good jokes. That's part of the premise between the sleep site installation and the web site. No matter what, dreaming is still a very human place. But on the internet, I create this space in which people can link up and do that together online.
A Place For Online Dreaming (The Sleep Site)
Things like the dream site and smartphone app are really interactive, but so is the swing set that people can swing on. Was it important for you to have the interactive element be both in real and virtual spaces?
Every time I have an idea, I try to think of the best platform for it. And it's natural for the piece to change to that platform. The sleeping installation is not going to look like that online. It could. I could just film a video of it and put it up on a web site but that's not adapting at all. I wanted the pieces to be fluid in concept but be in whatever medium was best for them. It's kind of matchmaking the piece and the medium.
Swing Space is a lot like your past work, Scenic Jogging. How were you expanding on some of the same ideas in a new way?
So Scenic Jogging is a video where there's this girl running to catch up to these overly idealistic landscapes in this city environment, and it's basically pointless--she can never catch up. But imagine if that girl kept running, and Scenic Jogging led her into the gallery space and the pay-off would be that swing site. And it's like she can, I don't want to say regress, but become an infant and become satisfied with these digitally-enhanced clouds. The cloud swings are the pay off. She accepts the digital world--she comes to terms with it.
The title of your show is Precipice/Postmodem. It's very clever, postmodem being only a few pixels away from postmodern. Is it just a funny pun or is there a relationship that you're drawing to movements that have come before in art history?
In general, I was thinking less about the dialogue of art history and more about communication, and experimental and human tales. But my background is in art, so I'm sure I can't get away from it.
There was a short film that we made called #Postmodem as well. And when people discuss anything with regards to it, they either mess up and say either #Postmodern or #Postmortem. I think Postmodem is both postmodern and postmortem. It's kind of like this next progression.
A lot of net art—there is some really amazing net art—but a lot of the new aesthetic art, granted it's very beautiful and fun and stimulating, but I think a lot of it just shows this new aesthetic, and doesn't really comment on it. I was trying to think about how to go into certain concepts behind this new aesthetic and bring them out and then push them back into that world.
Mayer's “Precipice/Postmodem” is exhibiting at Locust Projects (3852 North Miami Ave., Miami, Florida) until June 19. Saturday June 8 there will be an art talk and second opening.
All images courtesy Locust Projects & David Castillo Gallery. Photographer: Zack Balber.