The Stephen Hawking like computer generated “singing” emanating from Alexei Shulgin’s 386 DXI, is the first thing you notice walking into The Art Happens Here: Net Art’s Archival Poetics at the New Museum. The show, presented by Rhizome, is a showcase of net art from the past two and half decades.
386 DXI, declared the “first ever cyberpunk band,” consists of a 1990’s PC and two computer speakers on a wooden shipping pallet taking shade under a rainbow umbrella, and a small coffee cup stuffed with a few dollars in front. Green text scrolls left to right across the screen asking the viewer “SPARE SOME CHANGE FOR A POOR COMPUTER!”.
The power of the piece comes from its ability to engender both empathy and bemusement. The unidentified song being recited in the text-to-speak robotic voice has the rhythm of a sea shanty or old timey ballad, but somehow feels sadder. Located on the ground in the corner of the gallery the bulky busking outdated tech is positioned like a homeless person or gutter punk. The absurdity of the computer positioning itself as human by asking for “spare change” while acknowledging its own object-hood as a machine, forms a perverse joke about late capitalism. ‘If robots replace human workers, leading to unemployment and poverty, what happens when those robots are replaced by their upgrades’?
Alexei Shulgin, 386 DXI, c. 1998