Tuesday, April 9, 2019

The Art Happens Here: Net Art’s Archival Poetics: The Art Happens Here: Net Art’s Archival Poetics

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 Located on the ground in the corner of the gallery the bulky busking outdated tech is positioned like a homeless person or gutter punk.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


  1. I think you are spot on with your analogy of the sea shanty singing homeless-man-computer. The machines really project personalities but in a certain base way, causing some of that sadness you speak of.

    This also brings to mind the sort of dystopian future AI controlled landscape of science fiction and would that computer actually be a less than capable antiquated being in that society? But I digress…

    The viewer really does feel empathy for the machine. I wonder if the same program running on a hot off the press computer would produce the same response. Makes me want to visit the exhibition again.

  2. I agree with John that your analysis and description of 386 DXI is really evocative and accurate. I think you did a good job of putting into words the absurdity of the piece's impersonation of personhood. However, I think your review could be a bit stronger if you gave more description of the show as a whole. That piece's sound bled into the viewer's experience of so many other works, so discussing some of the rest of the show seems appropriate.

  3. I still remember the work Alexei Shulgin’s 386 DXI. And it was the strongest and most interesting work to me as well. I love what you said, "...the piece comes from its ability to engender both empathy and bemusement." This is because the first thing that stood out to me was also 'engender' which refers to a machine, and I like that it is absurd but somehow it seems to make sense. It was interesting that it talks about late capitalism and another industrial revolution for the old machine. I think it is very an extraordinary imagination but very absurd. Also, for me I still can't believe it was made in 1998. It seems to work for today either.