New York-based artist and programmer Rachel Rossin has a practice spanning everything from traditional media to the most nascent technologies. She works with painting, sculpture, and installation, but also pushes the capabilities of virtual, augmented, and mixed realities—and for her upcoming project which is partly co-commissioned by New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art and Berlin’s KW Institute for Contemporary Art, visitors should expect nothing less than all of the above.
From SEP 15—18, Rossin will install a sprawling mixed reality installation titled ›The Maw Of‹ at Berlin’s Tieranatomisches Theater, which will be complemented by an online augmented reality piece accessible via both commissioning institutions’ websites. Here, she elaborates on the components comprising the physical experience, the taxonomy of technology, and the significance of installing this work in what was once a veterinary anatomical theater.
According to the exhibition statement, ›The Maw Of‹ deals with »the coming together of flesh, machine, cognition, and code provoked by current research into brain-computer interfaces.« Since this language feels a little opaque, I’m curious to hear how, in your own words, you approached this project and how it’s going to play out in concrete terms.
I’ll start with the concrete parts. It’s a transmedia, multimedia, physical and virtual installation. There’s a five-channel video installation and sculpture, and a VR installation nested inside that. The intention is that you walk in and then there’s a pretty overwhelming video installation, and then seated in the amphitheater behind you are other visitors in VR headsets looking at their hands, because the program uses this really sophisticated machine-learning algorithm that has hand-tracking built into it. The commission was initially for a virtual space, and the approach was to discuss the black boxes around autonomy—where technology is going in regard to our autonomy, especially when it comes to physical sovereignty. Meaning, how is technology moving into the body? And what is the language we need to prepare around that? So, in addition to a virtual piece, I wanted to do something physical. That felt very important.
The so-called black boxes surrounding autonomy and technology is such a huge topic. Could you tell me about a few specific key points you want to address?
I’ve been addressing the relationship between the body and technology for the last three years in my work. I first started talking about this by training a canary how to sing dubstep, and that was to talk about the idea that biology used to be technology. Our language around technology was that a sentinel species was something you would put out in front of yourself—you would augment human experience by adjusting biology. So, for example, we’d ride a horse to extend our speed. Very literally, technology was adding another biological unit, and the language around that technology has stayed. There’s a latency around the language of technology, and this is what I’m talking about when we speak about black boxes: it’s not really a space of the body anymore, but a space for cognition and the mind. So, when I’m talking about autonomy, the framework is for us to regard technology as a peripheral for cognition, and the black boxes I’m specifically addressing in ›The Maw Of‹ have to do with this. Right now, technology is really separate from our bodies, but we’ll start to see the space between brain and machine interface, the space in a body, shrink and compress.
How are these ideas translated in the work?
It is heavily coded in symbols, but there are numerous things that emotionally reflect on the experience of autonomy. And I’m using that as a framework to create a visual language for what I anticipate. I also want a calibration point, I want us to sit there like, »Wait, where are we? Is this completely consensual?« There’s also a whole taxonomy of technology that’s in one part of the piece, and it’s about where we’re at with brain-machine interfaces and peripherals for cognition. Art so often provides language for things that are harder to put into words—I want some feeling of sovereignty to be expressed while we’re looking at high-tech consumer products and interact with really sophisticated algorithms that we still don’t completely understand.
Can you also talk about the significance of the location, the Tieranatomisches Theater, in relation to the piece?
What we’re talking about in the piece is exactly what the history of this theater is about. Maybe not the animal stuff so much, but the fact that it’s an anatomy theater … When we think about the history of technology or sentinel species—which is the seed for this work—that’s what animals and biology have been for human beings: technology. And we so rarely acknowledge that. We often think of technology as developments since the Industrial Revolution, but if you look at the real history of technology, it’s much more complex, also in an ethical way. And in talking about the taxonomy of technology and this complexity, an anatomical theater is a perfect place. There’s also an uncanniness or a weirdness of putting this stuff that is so new and so nascent in such an ancient place. It just feels right. You feel that the history is rooted so much in the body.