And the machines will be our masters: Ghost Machine and Lossless

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Dream Machine
  • Christopher Ottinger
  • Dream Machine
Anyone who has spent time around small children has likely observed the moment when a child goes toddling up to a reflective surface and presses himself against it, standing hand to hand, nose to nose, with self. Adults tend to undercut the profundity of these moments by cooing things along the lines of "Who's that? Who IS that? Who is that handsome boy in the mirror?" What the child is in the process of discovering, if Mommy could please just be quiet for a second, is that that handsome boy is him, and that he is in fact a thing that exists beyond the confines of his own mind. He is not only subject, he is object.

Jacques Lacan called this phase of development the "mirror stage." It's a crucial step on the road to self-awareness, to understanding not only that I am me—a unique individual consciousness—but also that I, as an object in the world, have the power to affect other objects around me.

With the exhibition Ghost Machine, currently on display at the Chicago Artists Coalition, BOLT resident artist Christopher Ottinger explores the idea of machines on the threshold of consciousness—machines captured in the mirror stage.

From Space Odyssey's HAL 9000 to IBM's Watson on Jeopardy, the implications of the cognitive machine have long fascinated and frightened us. As science fiction fans love to caution, it's not if machines overtake human intelligence, it's when. Given that unsettling inevitability, Ottinger's exhibition has the feeling of a nest or nursery—of stumbling into a hushed, seemingly innocuous place where the seeds of our destruction are being quietly sown. Captured in a precognitive state, these machines are just beginning to take their first steps out of psychological infancy. In the piece "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent," two small monitors face each other at an angle, separated by a pane of glass. One is dark, while static dances across the face of the other. From a certain angle, the static reflected on the glass appears to illuminate the face of the dark monitor, giving the impression of a machine being slowly coaxed into consciousness. The idea of a machine reflecting back on itself is also a nice nod to Wittgenstein, from whom Ottinger borrowed the title, and who wondered if anything beyond the self could ever truly be known.

Ghost Machine serves as a brilliant counterpoint to Lossless, an exhibition assembled by HATCH resident curator MK Meador that occupies the main gallery space of the CAC. Featuring the work of three HATCH resident artists — Jordan Martins, Theodore Darst, and Matthew Schlagbaum —the show borrows its name from a technical term. "Lossless" refers to data that is compressed and transmitted with no loss of quality. Considered on their own, each of the artists may have resonated differently, but when presented in the context created by Meador, the work reads as a subtle exploration of life in the digital age and the term lossless becomes somewhat ironic. Martins' work with collage, paint, and resin—building layer upon layer of color, texture, and image—made me think of all that is obscured by our compulsion to add, to improve, to update. Darst creates surrealist, vaguely postapocalyptic landscapes through three-dimensional renderings of glitches in digitized video—giving form to technology's unseen errors. And Schlagbaum, with his piece "I like you but I'm not in like with you," creates what I read as biting commentary on personal image in the digital age. A spinning ball, adorned with lit stars, sits atop a plinth draped with Christmas garland. It's bright, shiny, garish—showing us only its best angles—and protected from the harsh light of the real world by a vitrine of smoked glass. Every once in a while, you catch a faint reflection of the real world across its surface.

Lossless, to me, seems an examination of a world in which we're becoming lost to ourselves—a world in which our image is so obscured behind layers of reproduction and transmission that we may not be able to recognize who that is in the mirror.

All the while, in another room, the machine quietly grows.

"Ghost Machine" and "Lossless" will close Wednesday, May 1, from 6 to 8 PM, with a reception and artists' remarks. Chicago Artists Coalition, 217 N. Carpenter.

Sarah Nardi writes about visual arts on Tuesday.

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