Are You Human?

by Paddy Johnson on September 16, 2011 · 5 comments Opinion

Aram Bartholl, "Are You Human", 2011, anodized aluminum sculpture

First impressions from the Pace Social Media opening weren’t so hot. Where exactly was the internet in this show? Seeing as how I visited in a throng of a few hundred people, I can only talk about the few individual works I saw, not the exhibition as a whole. As such, I’ll be writing a full review next week, with a note or two on the one piece that I managed to see clearly: Aram Bartholl’s “Are You Human?” [pictured above].

Drawn from “captchas”, the randomly-generated warped letters and numbers that spam machines can’t read, Bartholl built and wall-mounted metal versions, presenting them primarily as aesthetized objects in Pace Gallery. “It looks like something you would see on Etsy, only they would be in wood”, a friend casually observed at the opening last night. Neither of us were very interested in the series.

When I returned home, I searched Etsy for “captcha” and was disappointed that only a cat comic strip with the same name were brought back in search results. The turnout from Google wasn’t much better, though it did bring up Bartholl’s scrappy captcha’s on walls filled with unintelligible graffiti in what appeared to be a lower-class neighborhood. These, to my mind, were a little more compelling.  In the latter case, the medium is probably less important than a context in which one form of tagging is juxtaposed with another; the signature of the street artist, coupled with that of the new media artist.

For a while I thought that there might be some social commentary being made given the poor neighborhood, though the more I thought about it the less that made sense. Bartholl’s tag is simply the visual face of program designed to sort the value of messages according to their source. I’d be surprised if the artist was trying to draw robots vs humans, privilege vs under-privilege comparisons, since they obviously don’t correlate.

Perhaps though, the commentary lies simply in the question, “Are you Human?”. I’d like to think, for instance, that there’s some criticality involved in naming a piece thusly while it sits inside Pace, one of Chelsea’s coldest corporate spaces. Still, I’m not thrilled with the results. Like most media art, I respond better to work that responds to the functionality of the medium in some way. This doesn’t.


ArtistDominic September 16, 2011 at 8:04 pm

Maybe Bartholl would be more effective if his boring one-for-one captchas were dildos being shoved up the Pace brass’ ass as a performance piece. ya know, touching on “are you human” aliens probing questioning deep inside the emotional vacuum of corporate art spaces and seeing if the “robots” had a genuine human reaction whilst getting assfucked.;)

Amanda September 16, 2011 at 9:48 pm

Its obviously complex when artists translate works developed for public space as gallery works. But Bartholl has a long history of rendering virtual space objects and ideas back into analogue / physical spaces in really quirky, fun and thoughtful ways. I think Pace is being interestingly adventurous as a commercial space to begin to grapple with these questions and to include emerging as well as far more established artists in this show. As for finding only photos of Bartholl’s Are You Human captcha tags only in “lower class neighbourhoods”, in a similar online search, I could find several photos from the streets of the town in the Netherlands called Breda where the work was included in the GDFB (Graphic Design Festival Breda), and a couple in Vienna, Austria and Berlin, German. Perhaps all of these quaint European towns just generally look lower class to your discerning New York eye. I’m deeply confused about what on earth you are inferring here, Paddy.

Anonymous September 16, 2011 at 11:30 pm

Hi Amanda,

I agree that it’s a difficult task for artists to render works made for public spaces as gallery works, but I don’t see why Bartholl’s previous work should make me think this is any more success. Yes, he’s a good artist. A couple of bad pieces in a show don’t change that nor should they make this work any better. I certainly don’t think Pace is being adventurous here by including established and emerging artists in a show. Surely we’ve both seen enough commercial gallery shows to agree that this is a completely common strategy in which the work of art by new art is placed in a historical lineage that then serves to promote the newer work.  

As for the class thing, it’s worth mentioning that I was introduced to the captacha project through the gallery trinkets first, then the public art documentation. So, while the original work obviously didn’t have anything to do with class, the work, which is an infinitely replicale piece of Internet ephemera transformed into a rarified object, in this context obviously does. So, I bring that lens of experience to the project when I used the search term (which I should have linked to in the original post) “captacha art”. Now, that doesn’t bring back near so many results as whatever yours was — Bartholl’s image here was the only thing that even vaguely resembled art to me — and it did look like a poorer neighborhood. 

But where was I going with this? It turns out no where, because as I rationed out in the post above, the interpretation that made sense in the gallery, made none in the world outside it. I was grappling for something though, because I was searching for more meaning in Bartholl’s tag than I could find. What is the value of highlighting the puzzle designed to sort spam in an analogue space? I still don’t understand that. 

Felix September 17, 2011 at 3:20 pm

To me the way how Bartholl has transferred this piece from public space to a gallery space does not work out. I have never seen it IRL but I think mounting the captchas as aluminum “scupltures” weakens the piece considerably. What’s his rationale here exactly?

Mixing the captchas with grafitti tags makes sense to me from an aesthetical point of view. The formal similarities are quite striking.

In general I think the idea to work with captchas is very clever. Over the last decades humans have steadily lost ground (and jobs) to machines as the latter are learning to see the way humans do – or even better. So yes, I think the commentary indeed lies simply in the question, “Are you Human?”. A question (triggering many more questions) worth thinking about.

Very different but of interest in this context are the excellent films by Harun Farocki (“Auge / Maschine I-III”).

Anonymous September 17, 2011 at 3:33 pm

>>Mixing the captchas with grafitti tags makes sense to me from an aesthetical point of view. The formal similarities are quite striking.
Absolutely. And of course, you’re right that “Are you Human?” is a title that brings many more issues to the surface. That said, I think there’s a disconnect between the specificity of the title and the questions it points to, and the function of the captchas, which tend to lose that meaning. If I encounter Bartholl’s documentation, I see the title and the public work together, if I only encounter the work, all of that is lost. 

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