Somewhere around the time that baby-boomers ditched the Age of Aquarius and reached the age of acquire-ius, the phenomenon of wide-scale post-consumer anxiety emerged. It seems whatever satisfaction is wrought from having everything— and so much of it— is undercut by a collective awareness of the adverse effects of over-consumption. Not being particularly inclined to give up our indulgences, we’ve learned to compartmentalize and demonize. In the 1970s, it was rubber tires forming mountainous pyres in the landfills of public imagination. In the ’80s, it was disposable diapers, and in the ’90s, plastic water bottles. Now, well into the digital era, when iPods, cellphones, cameras, and laptops are priced well within the reach of the shrinking middle class, it appears we’re finally starting to think about where our obsolete technology goes when we’re done with it.
Saskatchewan-based artist Twyla Exner has explored this idea in much of her creative work, and does so with a sense of humour in her latest exhibit, Entangled, which is at the ODD Gallery in Dawson City until November 23. Featuring sculptures and drawings, Entangled imagines a world where obsolete technology begins to behave as organic matter—USB cords grow out of the ground like wheat fields, cords twist together and evolve into cephalopod-like creatures, computer guts entwine themselves to mimic DNA strands.
Exner’s most striking sculptures are woven from salvaged telephone wire—her technique both informed by, and nodding to Zulu artisans in South Africa, who have long been weaving baskets with telephone wire, using traditional grass-weaving techniques. The resulting “Things”, as she calls them, are both adorable and disturbing at the same time—evoking a SpongeBob SquarePants extra from one angle and a virus under a microscope from another.
As Exner noted in her artist talk, the work in Entangled is a logical extension of her penchant for anthropomorphizing technological equipment—she described feeling twinges of sympathy when she observed abandoned computers left out for garbage collection in Montréal, and similarly, after examining a circuit board she deemed its components “pretty cute.” It’s perhaps inevitable then that she would create an entire ecosystem made of, and for, the objects of her affection.
“I’m really interested in dichotomies and utilizing things that have opposite characteristics and bringing them into something that unites them, like a hybrid,” Exner explained in an interview. “I’ve read a lot about bioengineering and the science of combining technology and organic things, whether that be humans or plants, and a lot of that is referenced in my work”
While this kind of research and thinking can quickly lead to forecasts of a bleak future, Exner is not quite willing to commit to a moral judgement.
“I find the possibilities of bioengineering exciting,” she says. “There’s all kinds of technologies that are there to help people that are sick. But then there’s a really frightening aspect of it that’s been explored in lots and lots of movies and in science fiction. It’s simultaneously exciting and frightening.”
Still, while Exner won’t condemn a burgeoning technocracy, her work about it is purposefully political, even as it is playful. It’s impossible to look at a wheat field rebuilt in discarded computer parts and not reflect on the effects of humankind’s race towards a digital utopia. Especially when Exner explains she views the metal plant-life as a possible replacement for the real thing.
In Exner’s artist statement for Entangled, she writes that the work can be viewed as “whimsical imaginings for alternative ending for the residues of the electronic evolution”, which sounds innocuous enough until you factor in a place for the human experience— what if this junk we’ve thrown away not only outlasts us, but overtakes us?
It’s a chilling little thought to take away from a baby-pink squid sculpture woven from telephone-wire, but it’s one that sticks with you. It may not be enough to send you running for Amish country (and one suspects that’s not what the artists intends), but at the very least, an interaction with Entangled is enough to make you think twice about replacing your Samsung with an iPhone