Whitehot Magazine

In Conversation with Naomi Lev: Preliminary Study: RSI - T (Repetitive Strain Injury - Technology)

I Ting Hou, Tech-eyes No.1, Photograph, C-Print, 90x60 cm, 2014 



Preliminary Study: RSI - T (Repetitive Strain Injury - Technology)
Slag Gallery May 16 - June 10, 2014

Preliminary Study: RSI - T (part 2)
The Muskegon Museum of Art, July 1 - Aug 16, 2014
Fire Barn Gallery June 30 - Aug 1, 2014

LaFontsee Gallery, July 2 – July 24, 2014

Richard App Gallery, July 2 – July 24, 2014

July 2nd, 7:30pm - PANEL DISCUSSION AT LAFONTSEE GALLERY: “How Art Describes Evolution As It's Happening”
with Naomi Lev, Kevin Buist, Mark Holzbach and Chris Protas

 What I propose, therefore, is very simple: it is nothing more than to think what we are doing.
- Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition

How are your wrists right now? The tendons in your hands? If you’re like many of us, chances are there’s some pain there. Preliminary Study: RSI – T (Repetitive Strain Injury – Technology) takes these small twinges as a starting point and launches an expansive investigation into the relationship between bodies, technology, and whatever it is that makes us ‘human’. Its artists draw from a broad range of references, including old family photo albums; subway turnstile infractions; Robert Musil’s uncompleted manuscript, The Man Without Qualities; chimpanzee skulls; and QR codes. These varied—and often very personal—perspectives on digital interventions into our lives speak to each other across multiple sites, creating a nuanced, open dialogue. The show was first exhibited at Brooklyn’s Slag Gallery, and has since expanded to locations across Michigan. Whitehot recently got onto Skype with curator Naomi Lev to discuss the project.

Whitehot: You’ve hosted many public conversations with artists—a series of talks at Independent Curators International in New York, events with Vito Acconci and Johnathan Meese in Tel Aviv. Dialogue seems really fundamental to your work. What kind of conversations led to Preliminary Study: RSI – T?

Naomi Lev: The concept of the show actually first came from my personal experience of being in front of the computer a lot, as well as using my iPhone and iPad throughout the day. I started experiencing pain in my wrists, and was thinking about these repetitive actions we do every day that involve these technological devices that we didn’t do previously, and about how those specific actions affect my life. Irina [Protopopescu] at Slag Gallery really liked the idea and we decided to make this show happen. I began by researching this theme through medical and philosophical resources, and looked for relevant artists to start a dialogue with and participate in the show.

Brooklyn based artist Ann Oren invited me to see her work, and the TMWQ video (based on The Man Without Qualities) hit me right away. It involved technology and its relationship to time, how we perceive time, and how our daily life has apparently changed, yet the essence of who we are—our qualities, our character, and our outside influences or social adaptations —remain. Since the book takes place on the eve of WWI it has a relationship to the trauma, survival mechanisms, and to how we cope with reality. Combining sentences from the book with Instagram images, I thought that effected a very critical investigation into our current reality. It was the first work I chose for the show.

I Ting Hou is from Taiwan and I first saw a different work of hers. She participated in a residency program at Residency Unlimited in New York, and they had a group show based on postcards. I Ting had an experience in the subway where she swiped her metro card but it basically said she has already used it, so she kind of slipped under the bar. She got caught by the police and had to try and explain, “I have a card, something just went wrong”. She did a video piece based on that experience. She took a bunch of post cards, and she’s kind of standing with the postcards and swiping them, very poker faced, and throwing them. Swiping, throwing. That repetitive action I thought was really interesting, so I started a conversation with her and she developed this whole series of works for the shows at Slag and in Michigan. In the Mask Person in Brooklyn series, for example, I Ting created a mask which she wore made of wool and fake Swarovski and an iPhone that is placed directly on to where her eyes would be. Because she couldn’t see where she needed to go, I Ting was dependent on the iPhone’s audio navigation system to direct her from her apt. to a nearby grocery…it’s a great performative video.

Dov Talpaz started his project ‘Family Painting Album’ of paintings, drawings, and collages based on his own family memories about a year ago, as an online project. It was a blog laid out in a kind of salon style—where he’s dealing with how we don’t have the physical element of the photo-album anymore, and memories get “lost” in their masses, sort of speak, as we store them on our computers, iPhones, and social accounts.

WH: It’s interesting that it was an online project initially, because that takes the object and puts it back into the digital again. Why did you decide not to include the online part?

 NL: We thought about it, but the works that he created are real objects. We wanted to bring it back to where it came from. To Benjamin’s “aura.” And this series of works is very intimate so it made more sense to me, to bring that element to the gallery.

Overall I think all the works ended up being very craft-oriented and I wasn’t expecting that, really. But I guess that kind of reveals another layer to this subject matter. 

WH: The Dees papier-mâché pieces probably would have been the least obvious curatorial choice here, but I really think they work. I like the fragmented sense of them, like say we’re on Skype right now and everything suddenly dissolves because there’s a bad connection—it’s like striving to keep a coherent sense of self and of relationships.

NL: Ann recommended I get in touch with Budd. She saw a video of his while she was in Berlin titled I’m Not The Love of Your Life. The video is actually on view at the Fire Barn Gallery in Michigan. It’s of a laptop screen, and the cursor is doing a performance to a Nina Simone song. It’s a very short 30-second video and I really like the performative element to it. The hand is not there but you feel the presence of a body. So I looked at his other works and they were all very physical. They talk about how the body dissimilates. That’s how I interpret it. For example, Slump, which is leaning on the wall… there’s something very human about it. And the Push/Pull sculptures are very fragile. There’s just something that touches you on an emotional level, and also on a physical level. Their fragility is a metaphor for our own body. Instead of bringing a body I brought parts of the body, made by someone, with his fingerprints in them, with quirks and defects.

Javier Barrios, The anthropology of sociology is really quite trivial in its hubris,
 Male Chimpanzee skull replica with plaster mounted on an aluminum pedestal, 2014

WH: The idea of injury runs through the show. Repetitive Strain Injury. And in your essay you bring up the idea of biological insufficiencies—how we can’t smell or see as well as distant ancestors, because we just don’t need to. I don’t find it an overly pessimistic show, but I find there’s a vein of ‘maybe things could be falling apart’.

NL: I was very conscious of not giving a solution to a problem, or a situation. I don’t even want to perceive it as a problem because there are pros and cons to technology. It’s about what we do with our lives, with what we have, and the devices that we use. The reason it’s called Preliminary Study is because it’s an ongoing research. What we’re doing right now is not something that we know the effect of. We will probably know more about it in many years. It was a poetic reflection of what I’m experiencing, and what a lot of other people experience.

I was reading Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition recently. There are some really beautiful quotes in the book about the future of man. I felt like, ‘Oh, that’s actually what I was looking to bring to the show’ since my work usually deals with political issues. When I write about something it has to do with politics, if I curate a show, it engages in socio-political aspects. So I felt there is more to investigate on that end, while I do consider this show to be an experimental learning process.

You mentioned humanity in relation to the show, and another writer mentioned the word compassion, and these were things that I didn’t consciously think about, or at least wasn’t able to put into words at the time.

WH: I keep thinking about the idea of the ‘ghost in the machine’, which was originally a critique of Descartes’ mind-body dualism, like how could a ghost (mind) interact with a machine (body). But now it sometimes feels like the issue is trying to keep hold of the human (us) in the machine (this massive network of technology).  

NL: I feel like technology is developing faster than I can grasp. I can’t keep up. But people like me are inventing it all. We’re doing it, but we can’t keep up with it. It’s a race. It’s frustrating in a way because, to some extent, you feel like you’re being controlled by something else. It’s like an addiction. I can sit in front of the computer all day, or with my iPhone, or whatever devices I have around me, and I can’t quite control my need for it anymore. It’s a social addiction, and it wasn’t like this even five years ago. It shifted our lives so tremendously that it has to be addressed somehow.

WH: The exhibition really expanded in Michigan.

NL: Yes, that shifted things a bit, and enabled a continuous dialogue. I know Chris Protas, the director of Fire Barn gallery in Grand Haven, Michigan, as well as the gallery’s co-founder Tyler Loftis. We were discussing doing a show in Michigan and it seemed relevant to have this show travel and expanded. It became a collaboration between Brooklyn and several cities and towns in West Michigan: Grand Haven, Grand Rapids, and Muskegon.

For the Michigan show I invited Norwegian artist Javier Barrios, who proposed a special project. He created these very cool chimpanzee replicas, dealing with how evolution theoretically metamorphoses the skull itself, as a metaphor for brain-body-environment relationship.

We also thought it would be a great idea to invite local Michigan artists, and have the local community address the theme in a new way. The interesting thing about the show is that every place it would be presented would be approached differently. Culturally, people react to technology differently. Maybe New York and Michigan are not that different in that particular sense, but if it traveled to China, or India or anywhere else it would be perceived very differently. The works on view would be different, and the artists’ interpretation of the subject matter, according to their culture, would be different. So I think that’s why it was intended to travel. It’s part of the research.

Michigan artist Mark Rumsey brought in an interactive project titled Baseline. He constructed a line of folded black post-its across the gallery wall with a QR barcode next to it. Using an iPhone app. the QR directs you to Rumsey’s website where there’s an explanation of how to fold that paper. People were invited to stick the folded paper on the wall or the floor, and create this dynamic installation. Since their appearance, QR barcodes worked as a concept, but in reality it didn’t catch up. I mean, I don’t know if you have, but I’ve never used those barcodes and they’ve been around for a while. So it plays with that: something that was supposed to work, but didn’t really deliver. It also deals with how we are getting feedback from technology, how we make decisions, or how it makes choices for us while giving us instructions.

Another Michigan artist Kevin Buist, made a series of drawings that address tools, specifically ancient tools. They ask the question, ‘How would we have evolved if we hadn’t developed specific tools, as knives, axes, etc.—would our hands have been pointier or wider? Sharper?’

We also added a feature film by Ann Oren titled InContact presented at Richard App Gallery, where she combines social media with reality TV. Featuring real actors, the entire film is shot through iPhones, computer cameras, and such technological devices. It’s about our “selfie” culture, how we cope with the camera and how our body language has changed accordingly.

WH: Has the research led to any particular findings for you so far?

I’m still processing. I can’t say I’ve reached a decision or a conclusion from this show yet. Other than understanding the joy of art, and the impact art can have in reflecting reality, even more so than technology.




This future man, whom the scientists tell us they will produce in no more than a hundred years, seems to be possessed by a rebellion against human existence…The question is only whether we wish to use our new scientific and technical knowledge in this direction, and this question cannot be decided by scientific means; it is a political question of the first order and therefore can hardly be left to the decision of professional scientists or professional politicians.
 - Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition


Dov Talpaz, Nechama with Family Before wedding II, Oil on Canvas, 2013. From Family Painting Album.


Dov Talpaz, installation view of  Family Painting Album at Muskegon Museum of Art, 2014

Dov Talpaz, Dinner with Dad, Paper Collage, 2014. From Family Painting Album.

Budd Dees, Push/Pull, Papier-mâché, 2012


Ann Oren, installation view of TMQW at Slag Gallery, 2014

I Ting Hou, Installation view at Slag Gallery, 2014. Left to right: i Orthotics No.1, i Orthotics No.2, Mask person in Brooklyn No.1


Installation view of Preliminary Study: RSI - T at Slag Gallery, 2014

Kevin Buist, All works Untitled, From the series EPIC/EARLY MAN at Fire Barn Gallery, Ink on Paper, 2014 

Mark Rumsey, Installation view of Baseline at Fire Barn Gallery, Interactive Installation,QR code, black post-its, websitehttp://www.markrumsey.com/baseline.html, 2014.