The Poetry Machine, 2017Hearing a late famous poet recite his own verses as if he were sitting right next to you, watching marionettes deliver a touching performance with no puppeteer pulling the strings, seeing the beauty of the world with the eyes of a loved one who passed away: three works in the show, each occupying a separate gallery room, deliver these experiences with the help of technology.
The Poetry Machine, is a vintage organ whose 122 keys are attached to a motley crew of speakers transmitting Leonard Cohen’s voice reading a different poem with each key that is touched. Interacting with the device felt like a séance: a husky-timbred oracle delivered messages that resonated with my emotions. The crisp and enveloping HiFi sound of the recordings made the invisible Cohen’ presence so convincing I’ll never again read his poems without it resonating in my mind.
Next door, Sad Waltz and the Dancer Who Couldn’t Dance, features two robots pulling the strings of puppets: a female dancer performing to a piano piece by Armenian composer Edward Mirzoyan, and the man who plays the instrument. I watched as the device awkwardly threw the dancer to the floor, her arms helplessly entangled in her own strings. Poignant and sorrowful music endowed an otherwise farcical moment.
Finally, a computer-operated slide projector rotates photographs by Bures Miller’s late grandfather, mostly sublime North American landscapes documented on his road trip to see a cancer specialist. The careful attention to detail and palpable admiration for the fleeting effects of light and shadow reveal the wisdom of a man who knows his time is running out but chooses not to hurry.
Although these works could not work without technology, I resented the devices, perhaps due to the emotional effects of each piece being too powerful to be produced by machines.
The highest virtue of Cardiff and Bures Miller’s works is that they prompted me, ironically through another machine,to call the loved ones who are still around, to order available books of Leonard Cohen’s poetry and to look up more music by Edward Mizroyan, all with the help of my IPhone. At a time when technology has become unavoidable, perhaps the best we can do is, just like Cardiff and Bures Miller, to employ it in ways that make us feel more human.

Elena Platonova

Janet Cardiff & George Bures Miller: The Poetry Machine and Other Works continues at Fraenkel Gallery (59 Geary Street, 4th Floor, San Francisco) through July 5th

Volume 32 no 6 July/August 2018 p 34

2 thoughts on “Machines Can’t Cry

  1. The specter of the future is invading more and more the art world, almost eerily. I know we can’t live without our smart phones or selfies, but can’t we just go back in time a little and turn back the clocks and live again without technology? Wouldn’t life be more beautiful, more aesthetic and less hectic? It seems that the art world plays an important role in first person in enhancing what we are all living today, a strange artificiality. This article touched me to the core; it’s what’s happening to today with our lives “when technology has become unavoidable” or has it?

    1. Hi Jean,
      Rather than art “enhancing what we are all living today” it seems to be “extracting” life with an even more negative connotation. With more focus on incorporating the use of technology in the art world there seems to be a loss of artists’ creativity, techniques and real abilities of visual expression.
      I have two questions about what Elena says, “… technology has become unavoidable, perhaps the best we can do is, just like Cardiff and Bures Miller, to employ it in ways that make us feel more human.” First of all, is technology really unavoidable and secondly, how can it make us feel more human? I wonder if technology really has made our lives better and to what extent. I, for one, am computer dependent and can spend endless hours doing research in internet extending my curiosity on forever, while also playing video games at the end of a 14 hour stretch in front of a computer. Is my life any better for this? My phone goes with me wherever I go, keeping me connected throughout the day, lest I miss a message, a tweet, a photo, a piece of news, or maybe a phone call, but less of those nowadays. I do, however, remember when this same curiosity of mine was in paradise at the Free Library of Philadelphia or even the Library of Congress in DC.
      Isn’t Cardiff and Bures Miller’s work really just a gimmick to attract the attention of all of us ADHD people out there?

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