invisible threads

Illustration by Gauraang Biyani

Technology’s Invisible Threads

"A telling analogy is how a person takes the same two seconds to gaze at a painting as he does to refresh on social media. We are bound to technical innovations by invisible threads."

On Sept. 22, Invisible Threads: Technology and its Discontents, the first exhibition of the academic year, opened at NYU Abu Dhabi’s Art Gallery. Drawing on the the topic of man versus machine, the artworks selected depict a shared contemporary concern. Various implications and questions surrounding the unbalanced relationship between humans and technology arose at the subsequent panel discussion with curators and artists, as did nuances of Freudian and Enlightenment theories.
As a non-commercial, non-collecting university museum, the NYUAD Art Gallery intends to develop new ideas by co-curating with members of faculty, as it has in this case with Head of Interactive Media and Assistant Arts Professor Scott Fitzgerald. Other contributors to the showcase include Kuwaiti artist Monira Al Qadiri and Brooklyn-based Siebren Versteeg, who fed their own experiences and interests in the technological realm into their works.
The rationale behind the title and theme of Invisible Threads is multifold.
“Human nature doesn’t change, only our technology does,” explained Fitzgerald. Such developments have prompted adaptations on the human side that may even undermine initial instincts. A telling analogy is how, on average, a person takes the same two seconds to gaze at a painting as he does to wait for his newsfeed to refresh on a social media app. Thus, we are currently bound to many technical innovations by invisible threads, of which we often seem unaware. On that note, the exhibition attempts to uncover other ways in which we respond to technology and explore how it responds to us through feedback mechanisms.
The artwork itself offers various highlights. For example, an Ai Weiwei piece provides a commentary on the performative nature of social media, in the form of a pattern combining a cheery Twitter bird and surveillance cameras. The golden opulence of the piece may tell of the value we ascribe to our online presence, although the kaleidoscopic arrangement conveys how easy it is to get lost in that maze. Another example is A Chandelier for One of Many Possible Ends by Phillip Stearns, which is an arrangement of mirrors that catches its viewers looking at them and then tilts accordingly to catch light and bend it toward their eyes. As a manifestation of simultaneous cooperation and the lack thereof, the viewer is left to question whether they indeed utilize technology, or if technology uses them.
A particularly innovative highlight that left the audience in awe was artist Versteeg’s algorithmic two-screen construction in which a painting essentially draws itself and in the process, uploads to Google images in order to compare it with the most similar image on the web. This fascination was supplemented by a piece where countless USB cables are arranged in the shape of angel wings. The strong downward motion of the individual strings symbolizes how technology can bring us down and lift us up at the same time.
The exhibition invites the visitor to view technology from a different angle beyond streamlined, everyday encounters. At the same time, technology is presented as more than a gimmick that moves, blinks and beeps. Technology holds true power that one should be aware of. Nevertheless, the delicate line beyond which power leads to overpowering should not be crossed. One particularly moving anecdote emerged from Kuwaiti artist Monira Al Qadiri, who spent time in Tokyo. She recounted how technology is so entwined with everyday life that it is possible to pay with your phone wherever you go, especially when traveling. When she tried to say hello to some strangers at the train station with her friend, they started running away, shying away from human interaction which in many situations is perceived to be outside of the norm.
The exhibition will run until Dec. 31 in the NYUAD Art Gallery.
Natalie Kopczewski is Deputy Creative Editor. Email her at
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