Exploring forms and norms – technological innovation and identity at the Hirschhorn museum, DC

One of the things I sometimes consider on this blog is how design and interactive art can help us to explore our relationships to technology and how we see the world. “Exploring forms and norms” is an occasional series of posts on this topic.

I’m making a habit of spending Thanksgiving (mostly) away from my laptop and out exploring art. This year, I went along to the Hirschhorn modern art museum where I enjoyed the new “What absence is made of” exhibition – a series of pieces exploring themes including identity, loss and the impact of technology.

Colourless leaf litter?
Image credit: author’s own

My favourite piece was an interactive exhibit by Ann Hamilton called “at hand” where a machine drops a single sheet of blank paper from the ceiling at random intervals. The paper floats to the floor, joining a growing pile of sheets, resulting in an empty autumnal scene devoid of colour.

The description of the exhibit states:

“…at hand speaks to the decline of manual labor in the wake of technological innovation. Though the paper accrues on the gallery floor in a sculptural “drift”, the effect of the installation remains one of loss and absence; the paper is blank, the movement is random, and the hand of the artist remains invisible.”

I’d add that there’s also an interesting sense of waste and renewal in the room. I found myself looking at the space filling with unused sheets of paper and wondering how the sheets might otherwise have been used – to take notes, to draw pictures, to send greetings… In talking about it with a friend afterwards we also wondered whether the sheets would be left to pile up over months and whether at some point they’d be recycled. Even in loss and absence there’s a potential for renewal and rebirth.

What I also found fascinating, given it’s vibrantly Fall in DC right now, is the autumnal metaphor. Many of the visitors were treating the piles of paper like leaves in the park – kicking them, wading through them, and in one case laying down in them and throwing them up in the air with their hands. Yet it was jarring that every sheet was blank – of content and colour. A reminder that much of the beauty in autumn is in the diversity of hues and shapes. Compare this to the blandness that can come with automation e.g. of marketing emails where we can detect immediately that we’re not really in conversation with another human. It’s the individual turns of phrase, the personalization both in the choice of words by the sender and the imagining of the receiver that make those communications work.

The exhibit spoke to automation in another way too: the “invisible hand” behind the timing that determines when the machine releases each sheet of paper. So too with the algorithms behind the online tools that we use which create “patterns” such as what displays in our news feeds – irrespective of whether we acknowledge that the algorithm is there. Noticeably, more people were interacting with the sheets on the floor than were looking at the machine and watching the individual sheets coming out. Even in art we’re distracted by the outputs and forget to fully interrogate and understand the mechanism by which they arise.


What absence is made of” runs until Summer 2019 at the Hirschhorn museum in Washington, DC.

3 thoughts on “Exploring forms and norms – technological innovation and identity at the Hirschhorn museum, DC

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