There’s a lot of junk on the floor of Eyedrum right now.
Junk placed there by Brooklyn artist Katherine Behar for her exhibition E-Waste, on view through May 3. Junk in the form of cheap plastic computer peripherals — laptop docks, mice, speakers, fans and reading lights — manipulated into art objects.
The floor is littered with them in distinct clumps. Most are coated in crusty gunk as if fossilized. The effect is more B-movie than archaeology, but the zoomorphic (xenomorphic?) creatures seem like they want you to know they’ll be around forever, dutifully executing their intended function. In human-scale terms they will: plastic typically doesn’t biodegrade. They could quite possibly outlive their makers.
The dangers of our obsession with gadgets are everywhere apparent. A 3-D printer in the back gallery continuously builds scarab-like cases for a nearby nest of glowing computer mice. Its title, 3D-&&, alludes to the seemingly never-ending production of consumer objects and their status as surrogates for personal communication.
Decked in LED lights in vibrant reds and blues, mini box fans move air to cool laptops that don’t exist, while others twirl with embedded LEDs, spelling out messages like, “LOVE U <3 HATE U. CALL ME.” or “MOM COME PICK ME UP.”
Are these disembodied messages emanating from the object, or is the object just a conduit for the viewers’ transpositional communication? Who hates whom, and who still needs to be picked up?
Behar’s artwork raises questions about parental responsibility. As we create more and more disposable “children,” what effect will that have on us? On our children?
Stepper motors attached to the 3-D-printer grind out Morse code messages — whose meaning will be lost on viewers unless they happen to be fluent in this maritime communication (They spell out DADDY and MOMMY) — as the printer continually births plastic gadgets.
Our plastic babies never grow up, they just keep performing their one-step dance until they break or we bury them in a landfill. They seem to be taking over our lives, but we’re enablers, not victims: we keep feeding them electricity without which they can’t function.
Behar embodies this umbilical connection in the endlessly snaking tangle of black wires bringing power to each of the electronic “artifacts.” The analogy is repeated in the way computer mice suckle at the teats of a single power supply, which fuels them as they wait to be used or fossilized.
Apart from the wires, the viewer is in a superior position to the objects, which could be seen as protective and sheltering or dominant and threatening. The dialectic is indicative of our relationship with technology, objects and environment.
Poetically, the perpetual maker of objects that never disappear makes sense, but it slips on a technical level. The printer doesn’t create the peripherals, it creates a translucent case that slips over the top of the computer mice, blocking some functions but not others. Most plastic consumer objects are made from nonbiodegradable ABS plastic. The plastic used by most consumer-level 3-D printers, called PLA, is biodegradable. Over time, the cover will break down, but the ABS mouse beneath it will not.
It’s unclear whether the impermanence of the material is intended to be considered as part of the work, or if it’s just a byproduct of this particular 3-D-printing process. Are these new, beetle-like enclosures meant to protect the mouse, or to prevent the viewer from interacting with it? I have difficulty reconciling the idea of protection for a relatively permanent object (a plastic and metal mouse) with a relatively impermanent one (biodegradable plastic). Are we meant to consider how we preference computer interaction over personal interaction, as in, “stop interacting with that computer,” in which case smartphones might be a more apt conceptual vehicle, or that our value systems of environmental preservation are inverted as our plastic objects endlessly multiply like mice?
Aesthetically the show is well crafted and considered. The individual objects are interesting to look at and, thanks to their animal-like forms, elicit some of Behar’s intended empathy. Though successful in her messaging in broad terms, Behar hits the viewer over the head with a mallet on some serious issues, such as consumerism’s environmental impact and humanity’s legacy, but then slips others by us with coded language and inconsistent metaphors.