A Network of Machines Speaking Only with Each Other

By Chase BucklewApril 19, 2024

A Network of Machines Speaking Only with Each Other
KATHERINE BEHAR: ACK! KNOWLEDGE! WORK!, Beall Center for Art + Technology, Irvine, February 3–April 20, 2024.

Ebony QWERTY keys glisten across the body of Shelf Life (2018) and Data Cloud (A Heap, a Mass, a Rock, a Hill) (2016), two sculptures in Katherine Behar’s solo show Ack! Knowledge! Work! One can almost hear the office sounds: clacking, clicking, ringing—irritating yet satisfying as they move across the surface of organically rendered curves.

As the exhibition’s objects took on lives of their own during my visit, an ominous air descended upon the space. In Indispensable (2024), a hand sanitizer dispenser–turned-oracle’s disembodied words sounded progressively more menacing, unhinged, and threatening: “I see right through you.” The utterances came directly from above as I stood with my palms outstretched, expectant.

Behar’s pieces reflect the aesthetic of abandoned offices and data centers proliferating within a late capitalist landscape, filled with the whirring of machines that have been left to do our jobs for us in perpetuity. With the increasing use of AI, this work suggests, humanity is forced to confront its growing obsolescence.

The gallery’s uncanny sci-fi atmosphere presents the viewer with the prospect of the singularity and the apocalyptic desertions of technological hyperobjects. Behar’s office-like space and its constituents are characters in their own right—sometimes sinister, other times playful, and always calculating. Behar’s office chair automatons in Anonymous Autonomous (2024) have personalities. They approach visitors voicelessly. “It’s asking you to play,” the curator told me.

When confronted with the intelligent objects in the show, the viewer is forced to reckon with human impotence as AI perfects skills formerly considered to be strictly within the realm of human ability. The effect of Behar’s exhibition is eerie—murderous even—as the viewer is left to grapple with the uncanny feeling of being replaced.

Especially apparent in the wake of COVID-19 lockdowns, the office has become a postapocalyptic space devoid of humans. Increasingly, these spaces house AI “employees” who run a growing number of sectors through algorithms and computation. To a degree, our world has become a network of machines speaking only with each other, as in Behar’s piece Knock Knock (2019), in which two Amazon Alexas play a guessing game with each other in seemingly infinite dialogue.

Innocuous and playful on the surface, the exhibition eventually elicits horror and unease: have we created something bigger than us, it asks, a force that could overshadow humanity (and the humanities) and render us obsolete? What becomes of the workspace when its employees are primarily nonhuman actors? How do we reckon with the fact that our highest-paying tasks can be completed, often more efficiently, by non-biological entities? Behar’s AI creations command our attention, presenting these dilemmas with an unsettling drone that seems to say, “Acknowledge us.”


Photo by contributor.

LARB Short Takes live event reviews are published in partnership with the nonprofit Online Journalism Project and the Independent Review Crew.

LARB Contributor

Chase Bucklew is an independent writer and researcher based in Los Angeles. Her writing has been featured in Zérodeux contemporary art review, HereIn Journal, and an edited volume titled Serial Killing On-Screen. She graduated from CalArts with an MA in aesthetics and politics in 2018.


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