Inside Artechouse’s “Future Sketches,” an Instagrammable installation by digital artist Zach Lieberman, the feeling is oddly similar. Sure, you’re meant to consume this eye candy with your smartphone, not your mouth. And the buzz comes from “likes,” not sugar.
Yet, the effect is the same: an erratic, fleeting energy that you must do something with.
But what exactly, besides create content for social media?
The show lures you in with flashing projections of Lieberman’s digital doodles, giddy animations originally created as a daily exercise for the artist’s Instagram account. There’s a Charlie Brown; here’s a dizzying grid of eyes. Mutating shapes evoke Wassily Kandinsky and Joan Miró. (It seems significant that while Miró invites you to move closer, here you are compelled to step back, to shrink the work onto your phone screen.)
At first, the show is mostly fun, if contrived. But it stumbles in an attempt to get serious (likely a response to criticism that Artechouse is too frivolous). Placed next to selfies of the artist, an attempt to critique the surveillance economy comes across as half-baked.
Still, it’s easy to see how the show might inspire visitors to engage with digital space in new, creative ways.
At its best, the show, which is divided into three sections, evokes a classroom crossed with an arcade. In the “Interactive Lab,” an overhead projector becomes almost magical. When you place your hand under the light, it emits sounds corresponding to the shape. Nearby, when you sing into a boxlike microphone, a screen paints what can only be described as a portrait of the sound.
Such aimless, childlike creativity feels fitting when it attaches itself to, say, a machine in the “Code Lab” that allows you to recode and distort digital images. Looking out onto the main space, which features a video projected onto three walls, you might recall the unexpected, forgotten joys of pixelated Paint files, wacky PowerPoint effects and Microsoft Word clip art.
Tucked in the back of the exhibition, the “Face Lab” marks an uneasy shift in tone: an unexpected leap from playful elementary school to socially aware university.
On the left, a slide show by writer and designer Jessica Helfand — whose work has explored the cultural significance of the face — details the racist history of phrenology, a pseudoscience that used skull size and shape to predict mental attributes, in a dryly anthropological tone that is unsettling. Across the room, a second screen shows Lieberman’s face — white, 40-something, male — overlaid with animated sketches of shaking eyes.
With chairs and mirrors arranged in a circle, the space conjures a hair salon. At one station, when you sit before the mirror, abstract masks pop up over your face. At another, the facial features of former visitors appear on top of your reflection, like Mr. Potato Head, calibrated to match your emotion.
What gives? In the context of the heavy slide show, this part of the show seems to be aiming at a higher target than your favorite Snapchat effect, writ large. Yet the vibe feels more like showing off a trick at the skatepark.
If there’s a connection to be drawn between phrenology and facial recognition software, which has been criticized for racial bias, it’s a weak one. Any link between the show’s fun features and the dangers of technology is obscured by nightclub lighting and a sense of cartoon-ification.
This tension between fun and serious pervades the Internet: Can you fit sizzling rage into an angry-face emoji? How do you compress mass grief into a Twitter hashtag? Can powerful emotion exist meaningfully, next to foodstagrams?
In art, this question comes up in work that sometimes borders on spectacle or insensitivity. Cases in point: Bunny Rogers’s “Sanctuary” performance in New York, in which actors covered in stage blood portrayed school shooting victims; or the 2017 Whitney Biennial, which included a controversial painting by Dana Schutz, based on an infamous photo of Emmett Till’s mutilated face.
It is possible to fuse the silly and the serious. In the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden’s “Pulse” — a 2018 show by Rafael Lozano-Hemmer that included 211 lightbulbs controlled by visitors’ biometric information, or heartbeats — the implications of big data felt not just concrete but out-of-body, otherworldly, harrowing. There, the aesthetics served the idea, not the other way around.
When you leave Artechouse, you might find that the buzz dissipates as quickly as it began. You feel a little dizzy, nauseated, empty, unsure of what you were so excited about in the first place.
Do you feel inspired? As you exit, are you googling “computer coding tutorial” or applying a photo filter? Are you looking up at the security camera with fresh anxiety or looking down at an image of yourself?
Artechouse, 1238 Maryland Ave. SW. artechouse.com.
Dates: Through March 1.
Admission: Online tickets are $16; $13 for students, seniors and military personnel; $8 for children ages 2-14. At the door, tickets are $20, $15 and $10, respectively.