Art and the Machine

In a time of rapid and widespread digitalization, art presents the opportunity to reconsider and challenge assumptions about technology, environment and the way we understand our reality

Art and technology – they both give us the opportunity to relate to our environments in a plurality of ways. Working together, they generate new constructs and modes of thinking and acting, they might even give life to new forms of existence.
This autumn, Stockholm’s Moderna Museet is setting the scene to initialize our minds for a trip beyond the structures that technology has made. The group exhibition ‘Mud Muses: A Rant About Technology’ is bringing together the work of artists from all around the world to help us make sense of – or get lost in – the relationship between life, art and technology.

Finnish artist and musician Jenna Sutela (@jennasutela) uses words, sounds and living media such as bacteria and slime moulds in her sculpture, installations, sound art and video. Her art can be described as an investigation into identifying and reacting to social and material moments, often in relation to technology. Her sound works also play with the idea of a Martian language and the existence of extremophilic space bacteria (those that can live in extreme habitats). Her work is suffused with the prevailing presence of unknown and alternative forms of intelligence.

Sutela’s installation I Magma (2019) in the exhibition features a series of head-shaped lava lamps made specially for the exhibition. The movements of the lava (heated by the lamps) generate visuals which are then ‘read’ by a machine-learning programme that interprets the shapes according to codes of the I Ching. The constantly moving, randomly shaped blobs of liquid not only constitute a vividly coloured work of art but also form the basis of an exploration of the connections between the human and non-human in technology.



“The inspiration comes from the Wall of Entropy, a wall of lava lamps encrypting online data at a web performance company in San Francisco,” the artist explains. “It is based on an original idea by the engineers at Sun Microsystems in the 1990s, who suggested that lava lamps were a useful tool for generating randomness. Instead of randomness, however, my work looks for patterns, signs or meaning in the lava flow. I Magma expands my research into alternative forms of intelligence by applying chemical and digital processes in the creation of an oracle.”


The relationship between art and technology, their coexistence and the ways to create new life are fundamental to Sutela’s work. “It’s only natural that art occupies the digital realm, just like every other part of our lives,” she says. “Rather than thinking about what technology can do for art, I’m more interested in suggesting that non-instrumentalized ways of using technology in art may yield interesting and important results.”

The work of New York-based artist and architectural designer Lucy Siyao Liu (@lsy.liu) explores the relationship between art, technology and environment. Using drawing, installations, animation and performance, she examines the role and influence of technologies on our ways of knowing. Her way of imaging technologies allows us to look at our environments in a different light.


Her work in ‘Mud Muses’ is A Curriculum on the Fabrication of Clouds (2019) is a cluster of representational methods of cloud depiction within art and science across three centuries. According to Liu, the cloud as a symbol has become so frequently cited as a model of coherence, that it constitutes a trope shape for the 21st century.

“I’m interested in how our relationships with an environment and environmental phenomenon is hugely structured by specific ways of ‘methodizing nature’,” Liu says. “And A Curriculum on the Fabrication of Clouds is an invitation to reconsider and challenge our assumptions about technology and environment. The term ‘cloud’ is a topological trap. It’s a vortex of indescribable shapes. Anything that comprises many parts can claim to be a cloud. The co-option of the term is symptomatic of a state of being. A Curriculum is attempting to address the material body of the cloud before it disintegrates into a symbol of the digital. In a way, I hope the material imagination of the cloud can allow us to think beyond digital binaries – analogue or digital, on or off, this or that – and more towards a plurality of phases.”

In Liu’s work, every drawing method developed to capture cloud becomes an experiment in constructing new ways of imaging the environment. “If we can understand technology as contingent on the cultural, historical and social context in which a technique, a tool or a method of structuring the environment emerges from, then drawing is a technology,” she suggests. “Technology doesn’t stand apart from art. If anything, our imaginations on technology should move on from the aesthetics of its hardware and consider how it is already part of how we make sense of the patterns in the world, part of the substrate of living. I’m interested in how our relationships with an environment and environmental phenomenon is hugely structured by specific ways of methodizing nature. A Curriculum wants us to reconsider and challenge our assumptions about technology and environment.”
She describes an ambivalent relationship towards the era of digitalization. Struggling with its ways of abstracting effects and relationships, she expresses a desperate kind of excitement for the future, fuelled by the frustration of the present.
“It is not enough to be dealing with metaphors of our climate crisis or uncertainties,” she says. “Rather, we should be engaging as much as possible with the material, the specific and the contextual. I work to expand what technology defines and encourage an awareness that computational renditions of the world are not the world itself. It seems to be obvious, but as our identities, feelings, languages and articulations get siphoned through encoded systems into lower and lower dimensions, our ways of thinking enmesh with the way computation works. It’s hard to disentangle it from that one-to-one relationship and recognize the potential we have to relate to our environments in a plurality of ways.”




In order to move forward, Liu see art as a crucial instrument in the process of making sense of the digitized reality. “Art carves a space for reconsideration. The hope is that in the act of considering, we develop care for one another (human or non-human), and continuously learn to move beyond crisis in the abstract.”

Words by Tor Hammarin
Mud Muses at Moderna Museet until 12/1 2020

Art Credits:
Works by jenna sutela, Gut-Machine Poetry, Many-Headed Reading, and Neither a Thing nor and Organism all works © and courtesy the artists
Works by Lucy Siyao Liu, Squareish Scroll on Mylar, from the series ‘A Curriculum on the Fabrication of Clouds’, photograph by Prallan Allsten, courtesy Moderna Museet; Epochs; Asteroid Float; Melancholia I; and Iteration 4 © and courtesy the artists