Liz Glynn’s new installation at Mass MoCA, “The Archaeology of Another Possible Future,” is a sprawling wonderland of industrialism and progress in the museum’s massive Building 5 gallery.
The new gallery offers an appropriate space to mirror the size of the financial system Glynn’s work tackles — a topic so big that it’s hard to wrap your brain around.
The show divides into five parts, starting with more primitive conceptions and leading visitors on a path to a more futuristic technological landscape. Upon entering the gallery, visitors will face three caves fashioned from forklift pallets. One contains stalactites created from industrial felt, the second has ceramic vessels, and the third features an analog record — recorded straight from a cassette tape, with digital processing involved.
Visitors are then faced with several abstract sculptures that are based on different historical theories about the shape of progress.
“Some of them call into question the very idea of progress,” Glynn said. “For me, that was really important at the moment, thinking about politically and technologically where we’re headed. And the question of whether progress is reversible is really important to think about right now.”
After the sculptures, viewers encounter three shipping containers, each with a small installation inside. One is a job-site office that will feature, on weekends, a caretaker who used to work in manufacturing and is on hand to maintain the installation and explain how everything works to visitors. Another contains drawings of obsolete or outmoded technologies.
“It took me a really long time to start making the drawings, because at first I was seeing failed inventions,” Glynn said. “But a lot of things that were spectacular failures are actually necessary for progress to happen or for other discoveries. You could look at it as either a history of failure and obsolescence or as the history of progress.”
The third shipping container features several video works. One of these, which Glynn filmed in the bowels of the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art complex, concerns itself with what happens to human bodies in the face of automation.
“I’ve been thinking about is what happens to the people who used to be employed in manufacturing and other things where they were working with their hands a lot making things,” Glynn said. “What happens to the human body when there is so much automation starting to happen in industry? What would we do with ourselves?”
Glynn seeks to answer that with what she describes as a “post-industrial vacation” land inspired by the English writer and philosopher Aldous Huxley, who speculated about a time when workers, unable to be leisurely and happy when they don’t need to work anymore, succumb to boredom and misery.
This section of the installation is marked by three industrial towers that reach to the gallery’s high ceilings. Atop the towers, built of scaffolding, are 3D printers that run continuously. The “vacation” area features nine stainless-steel stretchers with fluorescent modification and a series of suspended tanning lamps, including pink and blue lights.
“The stretchers are somewhere between beach chair and hospital gurney,” Glynn explained.
In the rear gallery space, Glynn will display a series of 3D-printed tools, based on earlier technologies, that she created as part of her “Technological Toolboxes” series. Upstairs will be printed pieces featuring industrial details and words of text — as well as a catwalk that will allow visitors to check out the 3D printers mounted atop the towers and oversee the expanse of the installation by walking 60 feet into it.
“I’m afraid of heights, so it’s a little terrifying, but it’s meant to evoke a sense of precarity,” Glynn said.
Tools reflect economic change
The concepts of technology and commerce in the installation are extensions of ideas Glynn has been working on for awhile. As she conceived the show, Glynn said, she knew she wanted it to have an encyclopedic quality but wanted to move away from references to the past and address more contemporary concerns, with any use of previous industrial objects more as signs pointing to current questions about the future of the working human.
Glynn’s fascination with these concepts stems from the experiences of her own family. Her father and brother are engineers, her mother an architect, and her childhood was spent in an old house outside Boston that required constant maintenance to keep it from, as Glynn describes it, “falling apart.” Her grandfather was among thousands who once worked at the Quincy shipyard, just south of Boston; the shipyard closed in 1986 and is now a site for receiving imported cars.
“The industry that was there has disappeared,” Glynn said. “You see this a lot driving around the Northeast. The building at Mass MoCA itself is one example of that.”
In her research for the show, Glynn has read a lot of technological futurists with predictions about artificial intelligence, the tool that will replace its creator. But she has spent as much time looking back at the development of these tools.
She notes that at the time of the Industrial Revolution, tools began to exceed the size of humans. It was a shift in scale that complicated human perception of industrial work and invariably made the systems surrounding industry just as incomprehensible to workers.
And the sheer girth of tools through history has also complicated the picture. Glynn has based many of her drawings in the show on patent drawings from the last 200 years, which she describes as a dizzying collection of minor tweaks to the same objects, resulting in uselessness and a waste of energy.
“Did we need someone to put the energy into inventing these 30 different vacuum cleaners, or these 500 different video-game controllers?” Glynn asked. “I imagine them all in a trash heap somewhere. These things that we no longer use at all, so much energy went into not only conceiving them but producing them, and they’re quite spectacular in a sense. There’s a number of flying machines that did not work out.”
An economy of the abstract
Glynn does acknowledge that technology is reliant on failure to move forward. That’s how we learn.
But she also points to a shift in the way business is done that became part of a significant anxiety about the future of working. People used to understand the idea of manufacturing and selling an item. But now the economy is more elusive, its methods more invisible and abstract.
“There’s this fundamental question for me about how, particularly as technology companies have these valuations in the stock market that are worth billions of dollars based on hypothetical profitability — and having also this technology with trading — that a lot of the complex algorithms have exceeded the understanding of the people operating them,” Glynn said.
The question, she suggested, has become more profound as we’ve shifted to an information economy and away from one rooted in the production of physical objects.
“I was thinking about these two trends at the same time and wondering in a very fundamental, philosophical way: What is the value of these numbers, the Google stock price or the Snapchat or something like that, and what does that have to do with the physical world that we inhabit and have to deal with?” Glynn asked. “These become trillions and trillions of dollars. What is trillions of dollars? What does that actually mean? And will we ever have to have some reconciliation between the two things?”
Does anyone understand how Twitter makes money? Glynn said she isn’t sure many people do. Combined with a system of economics that is intangible to a large number of workers, Glynn sees the situation as akin to having “faith in this black box.”
She said she took inspiration for the show and its concepts from something her aunt said to her. While going through her third round of cancer treatments, Glynn’s aunt decided to treat herself to a Hawaiian vacation despite a lifetime of worrying about bills, proclaiming to Glynn that it was all “just numbers on white paper.”
“In one sense, it’s very real,” Glynn said of the focus on economics. “But in another sense, it’s not your lived reality unless you allow it to be.”
Originally published at hillcountryobserver.com.