During Frieze Week, Artists Examine the Effects of Technology

During Frieze Week in New York, three artists are exploring the environmental and psychological reverberations of our relationship with technology. The Ethiopian artist Elias Sime delves into the consequences of overextracting metals to make smartphones, laptops and batteries. Mika Tajima gives form to the vague sense of unease many people feel in this disembodying digital era. Clarissa Tossin takes viewers on a journey from the Amazon to outer space to reveal how technology is interlaced with colonialism.

Amid the race to develop ever-advancing technologies, these artists’ works offer a chance to slow down and reflect. As Sime explained: “We do need technology, but it is also taking away from who we are as humans. Maybe we should stop for a minute and talk and start thinking, ‘Where do we go with this tomorrow?’”

Sime doesn’t know how to use a computer. Yet he is known for meticulously weaving multicolored computer cables, cellphone circuitry and other digital detritus into vast, topographical wall art. Because he collects and dissects so many discarded and auctioned-off laptops and phones, he has a unique vantage point on the wasteful effects of planned obsolescence and technology addiction.

Sime’s solo installation for Frieze New York, “THE EARTH,” makes a statement: The materials essential for modern technologies were born in the belly of the planet. “Humans live on the surface of the earth, but we’re able to do what we do because of what comes from underneath the earth,” Sime, who does not speak English, said on a video call through his collaborator and translator, Meskerem Assegued.

Sime’s inspiration came when he and Assegued researched the metals mined for phones, computers, electric vehicles and more. Smartphones operate with 16 rare earth elements. Rare earth metals are extracted by digging enormous pits and dissolving rocks in caustic acids, sometimes leaving behind toxic and radioactive tailings. Most rechargeable batteries require cobalt, which is toxic to touch and breathe. The majority of cobalt comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo, where as much as 30 percent is dug by hand by adults, and sometimes children, in hazardous conditions.

Galvanized by these ideas, Sime carved wood to resemble mined rocks, then buried them beneath a rootlike tangle of colorful wires. These works, Sime explained, are a nod to the natural beauty of minerals and an ode to our connectedness with the subterranean world of soil, roots and rocks peppered with precious metals. They also confront viewers with questions: “How much do we need to extract?” Sime said. “What kind of people are we going to be in the future? Will this eventually destroy us?”

Throughout Tajima’s Frieze Week exhibition at the Hill Art Foundation, “Super Natural,” which opens May 3, gold foil trompe-l’oeil hot-tub jet nozzles shimmer like constellations on the walls. The configurations represent acupressure points on the body’s meridian lines, or energy passageways, according to traditional Chinese medicine. They also connect the dots between her artworks’ themes. As Tajima explained, these diagrams depict human bodies flowing with vital energy, but they are as disconnected from flesh and blood as our projected personalities on social media or the images we transmit through video calls.

With this visual metaphor, Tajima, who lives in Brooklyn, describes the discombobulating sensation of living simultaneously carnal and computerized lives. “I’ve been thinking a lot about the split between our physical selves and our digital representations,” the artist said during a video call. “We’re living in a very disembodied moment.”

Tajima also incorporates hot-tub jet nozzles into several sculptures to reveal the invisible pressures placed on us by technology and capitalism. “Technology is constantly chasing us and our data,” she said. The artist lamented the ways companies compress our complexities into market-ready categories, pursue us with personalized ads, and try to shape our desires, activities and bodies. Her sculptures offer an antidote.

She places the nozzles on a rose quartz monolith, wood carved to resemble an emerging human figure, and glass shaped like half-formed heads. By attaching nozzles to organic materials, some seemingly caught mid-transformation, Tajima is anchoring technology-stressed viewers to the physical world. She said she was sending a message that we could free ourselves from algorithmic categories and express “expansive possibilities.”

In another work, Tajima recorded a group sound bath meditation, then converted a digital image of the sound waves into an enormous weaving. “I’m reversing this feeling we have now that everything’s dematerializing,” she said. By turning a fleeting, indescribable communal event into a tangible textile, she reminds viewers that “you are here, and you can experience something that isn’t on a screen,” she explained.

In the Amazon region of Tossin’s native Brazil, Indigenous peoples weave baskets from plant materials plentiful in their environments. This inspired the artist, who now lives in Los Angeles, to craft weavings from her own locally abundant materials: discarded Amazon.com boxes. She created a series of wall hangings called “Future Geography,” some of which will be shown at Frieze New York by the Commonwealth and Council gallery. The artist collected Amazon.com boxes and printed photos captured by the James Webb Space Telescope. She then sliced both the boxes and photos into strips and wove them into patterns based on traditional Amazonian basketry.

To Tossin, Amazon.com boxes “stand as an icon of excessive production and consumption and therefore extraction of natural resources in our current economy,” she said in a video call. The stunning images of galaxies “are extremely seductive in a way that makes us fall in love with the future,” she added. By intertwining the two, her artworks tell a narrative about the entanglement of technology and colonialism.

Electronics companies, mining operations and other manufacturers are industrializing the Amazon rainforest. And Tossin is aware of tech billionaires’ and private companies’ proposed plans to mine the moon and colonize Mars. So her artworks portray moons, planets and galaxies as “places where, unfortunately, humanity is enacting once again the mind-set of a colonial extractive approach,” she said.

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