MachineHistories: “Tucson 3 Ways: A Foray into Digital Alchemy”

at Museum of Contemporary Art Tucson

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“MachineHistories,” installation at Museum of Contemporary Art, Tucson
Courtesy: MOCA Tucson, Photo: Maya Heilman-Hall

Two 16-foot-high monoliths of white foam, bearing bas-relief squares of various computer-generated abstract and geometrical designs, open up to a retro-looking console that’s spewing out data about median ages, population density and other bits of “computerese.” It’s humming with low buzzes and pings. Meanwhile, erratic green and blue neon lines flash onto the towers, referred to as “doors,” but also onto the concrete floor and the observer. Concentrated viewing of fast-moving, TV-type crawls reveals random words like “climate,” “hashtag” and the misspelled “Tuscon.” And nearby is a 12-foot-square foam bas-relief featuring Tucson’s beloved Catalina Mountains and other geographical features. For someone wandering into the installation, it’s almost l ike being stuck between a three-dimensional topographical map and the innards of a computer game. In “Tucson 3 Ways: A Foray into Digital Alchemy,” MachineHistories comments on a growing Southwestern city’s character by using an immersive mix of text-based art, algorithm-driven data, and traditional sculpture. MachineHistories is a two-man design collaboration out of Los Angeles consisting of Steven Joyner and Jason Pilarski, known for their software-based art fabrications and furniture design. Tasked with creating something specifically about Tucson, the duo offers the kind of keen observation that often comes from outsiders. Granted, the installation is initially disorienting, and most of us barely know what algorithms are. But “Tucson 3 Ways” succeeds in raising questions about sustainability, encroachment and population growth as they impact a place known for its beautiful saguaro-studded medley of desert, mountains and waterways.

Much of the installation’s content is based on Tucson GIS (Geographical Information System). So interestingly, it’s an artistic representation of a stream of data capturing the city; yet MachineHistories is asking for our engagement with form, color and patterns to be equal to our engagement with technology. This, despite the fact that the installation relies on trillions of 0s and 1s and, as the artists term it, is brimming with multi-valency-meaning it yields multiple meanings, values, applications and interpretations. In any case, the implication is that, as incomprehensible as computer data streams may sometimes seem, they often point the way to solutions in the face of a city’s environmental and societal issues.