400 Bad Request: we shall see face to face Two types of tubes crawled through the halls of the swimming pool I used to visit as a kid. There where the water slides, supply snaking through the space emitting the delighted screams of children racing down and then there were the silent, closed off ventilation shafts hugging the ceiling. As a small child, though, I didn't see the difference. For me a tube was a tube and a tube was a water slide. And so it happened that I spent multiple afternoons scouring the swimming pool for a hidden entrance to these unreachable slides. Being older, I find it hard to understand how I could've ever thought these tubes to be accessible. The signs were pretty obvious: they ran horizontally across the space and despite the many ventilation holes, no water came gushing out, nor could you ever hear any screams or shouts coming from that direction, and finally: none of the other children in the pool ever mentioned it. Our imagination can have its way with us when we encounter something we don't fully comprehend. And you can't really hold it against us: the world surrounding us is so full of possibilities that it isn't unreasonable to assume that unknown knowledge, experiences and choices are hiding behind most things we encounter. But until you coax all the unknowns from the things around you, you have to speculate and fill it with what you do already know. And while small children know of water slides, they don't know of climate control. I'm reminded of this nugget of personal history when discussing the work Ruben Mols is showing in the exhibition HOST, at ruimteCaesuur in Middelburg. "I can access things, but only if I break them.", he posits as a central idea from which the five pieces on show sprang. He is being literal: the exhibition space is filled with what appear to be deconstructed electrical appliances. And indeed, who wants to understand the inner workings of a clock, has to take the thing apart and whomever wants to understand the human body will have to deal with corpses. But in the end, understanding something is a mental process and on this level too, Ruben's remark resonates, because to gain a new understanding, means to let go of your old ideas. A child that slowly learns of indoor ventilation, has to accept that his search for a water slide was based on a phantasm. ruimteCaesuur is a small space with a large glass facade that generously opens up to the street in the town centre of Middelburg. It is an old storefront and in HOST Ruben plays with the idea of the window display. The first things you notice, coming in from the street, are the three rectangular black mirrors hanging from the ceiling in the middle of the room. The three works go by the title Intro-spectec (I, II and III respectively) and they give the impression that ruimteCaesuur has turned into a pop-up Apple store, albeit one that's momentarily closed for business, because all of the screens have been turned off. To the left of them another piece is suspended from the ceiling, not facing us, but horizontally like a table and on such a height that we can easily look into it from above. All of its mechanical, pneumatic and electrical details are clearly visible. It is a machine made to rub two enlarged pieces of skin against each other. The work is named Expanded Fragility: Circuit of Love. Finally, on the opposite side of the space - stage right - a final work hangs on the wall. Compared to the other works it's modest and seems to try to blend in with the background noise of the space around it. This is Server.
Intus â&#x20AC;&#x153;I am searching the other's body, as if I wanted to see what was inside it, as if the mechanical cause of my desire were in the adverse body (I am like those children who take a clock apart in order to find out
what time is).” - Roland Barthes, from A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments
Server consists of four white frames hanging side by side on a white wall that closes off a former doorway. If one was not paying attention it could easily be mistaken for a radiator, though on further inspection the placement of the piece is too conspicuous. It's right in the middle of the doorway, hanging some fifty centimetres above the floor. The four parts are open on the sides allowing one to look inside. There, the viewer can see black hardware, its former function remaining a mystery. Each frame only houses a single component, reminding us of retired desktop computers that have been stripped of usable parts over time. The title, Server, clearly alludes to the visual similarities between the work and the millions of server farms that make up the worldwide infrastructure of the internet. But the title also allows the following interpretation: serving by giving yourself away; the machine as an organ donor that serves not only during its life time, but even after death. Perhaps this is too anthropomorphic a perspective, though I don't think it’s unreasonable to pose that we have increasingly started humanising our devices. Apple started the trend of designing their products in such a way that doesn’t require a user manual, working intuitively instead, which over time has changed those functions there into something like this action here. The third way in which Server refers to its title is in its presentation. The piece is open, accessible and invites participatory, explorative viewing. Although it references stripped-down, defunct machinery, it also suggests the exploded view: a schematic exposing a subject’s inner workings by displaying its separated components. Thus, Server exists to be viewed and examined. It is here that suddenly, our phantasm – the illusion of occult machinery allowing access to the parallel reality of the internet – crashes head-on with reality: we are standing before a static piece of art, serving only observation, its components illusory. No electronics here, just laser-cut wooden boards in black lacquer. Its title offering three readings - data centre, organ donor, artwork – as well as three questions: to what extent can we think of our computers as mere tools? To what extent do we humanise them? And to what extent are they art? The works collected in HOST oscillate between these three poles, never gravitating to one absolute or the other.
Interior “I cannot decipher you because I do not know how you decipher me.” - Roland Barthes, from A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments In the middle of the space, most visible from the street outside, hangs the triptych titled Intro-spectec. Three black rectangles are suspended from the ceiling at eye level, black mirrors reflecting our environment, with us in it, back at us. The spectator half expects the images to spring to life, the dark reflections replaced with the manifold colours of a commercial or video demo. Since time immemorial blackness has represented a lack of presence. Physically speaking, this means the lack of light, but at a funeral it is the lack or loss of a deceased loved one. In a film, a scene taking place in near complete darkness often points to a lack of freedom, hope or happiness. But the blackness of a screen is not in itself the absence of something else – though it is, strictly speaking. Instead, it holds a potentiality: entertainment, attention, knowledge, wealth, friendship, love. The black mirrors of our smartphones, smart TVs and laptops see us reflected back at ourselves as desiringmachines.
Here Ruben Mols introduces a second visual language to the surfaces of these works, strongly contrasting with the first, microelectronic language of motherboards and transistors, cables and LEDs. This second language is that of user interfaces, touchscreens and endlessly scrollable social media – it is the human face granted to electronics by designers. A face carefully constructed to be seen, understood and loved by us. This only increases the contrast between the two sides. Walk around to the other side of the smooth, black surfaces and you will be confronted with the naked interiors of the machines. Unlike with Server, it doesn’t feel like these components are exposing themselves voluntarily. The illusions conjured by the displays are swiftly dispelled by their dismantled backsides, panels screwed open: what should have remained hidden is hanging there in the middle of the space, for all to see. The comparison between electronical components and organs is emphasised even more, shining a light on the more perverse nature of the quote: “I can access things, but only if I break them.” What about ‘access’ is so important that it justifies destruction? For how much access are we truly privy to? We look behind the curtain and see the display that never fails to entice us, reduced to pixels, microscopic lamps controlled by electric signals and logic gates. Can we enter this electronic world at all? Or is the microchip yet another phantasm concealing the reality of things? On the backside of Intro-spec-tec II, a single organ can be seen. An orange square with small rectangles and circles cut out of it. The light olive housing surrounding it becomes an accidental frame around the composition. The references to art history are countless: the work could have come from the early 20th century Russian suprematist movement, or an American minimalist. Perhaps this is what Gordon Matta-Clark’s iPad looks like. Going back further, Ruben Mols also calls back to the early modern period’s painters and their ambitions of showing nature at its most aesthetic, yet authentic. Only he does not work to emulate the nature of people, animals, plants and landscapes, but that of microelectronics. Its two faces – the seductive screen on one side, the confusing electronics on the other – are thus presented as antitheses, but also as two sides of the same coin. The screen faces forward and presents itself; this is the side that can be, and has to be seen. But in doing so it implicates itself: what is hiding behind those slick interfaces? And lo, behind the smooth surface lies a murky world that is not at all similar to what is served to us on the screen. It is messy, dark and opaque, its front just an illusion, a mask. But aside from electronics, we also elicit these responses in each other. We fall over each other to declare ourselves mere cells, hormones and chemical reactions, to declare that we are not persons but masses of atoms in an empty, uncaring universe. Love is oxytocin, the soul an electric storm in our brains and a Like on Facebook is a tiny switch being flicked. Why do we distrust our world? Why do keep expecting reality underneath its next layer? Like at the end of the rainbow. In 1967, biologist Adolf Portmann published Animal Forms and Patterns: A Study of the Appearance of Animals. In this book, he called for biologists not to lose themselves in the small details of Earth’s lifeforms, but to look at organisms as a whole instead. He argues that these lifeforms amount to more than the sum of their parts, especially the more complex animals that can’t simply be reduced to their drive to procreate. These animals clearly appear more comprehensible and individual to us on the outside than they do on the inside. We have no problem discerning between two human individuals, and with a little practice we could do the same for two pigs. But ask us to discern between two human hearts and two of a pig and, lacking any medical training, we would be stumped – we probably couldn’t even determine which organ belonged to which species. Going off of Portmann’s book The Life of the Mind, Hannah Arendt argues that we are too preoccupied with hidden interiorities - just because something is obscured, does not mean it holds more meaning. She says it is the exterior, revealing itself, that affects the world and thus what truly matters. And that is exactly why we distrust the screen, and why we seek to find a deeper truth beyond it. We sense its influence, but can’t understand how it has attained it. The irony being our control of the
screen; open any website or app, and within five minutes you understand its layout and all its functions. You’re in control. But as is all too familiar, you use that control to lose yourself in compulsions: scrolling through Instagram for an hour at a time even though you’re ambivalent about the content, losing sleep because you stay up all night on a YouTube binge, constantly distracted by thirty different Tinder chats you know won’t even lead anywhere. Standing on the front-facing side you may comprehend the thing, but not yourself. Around the back, you get lost in the complexity of the tiny chips, but you do understand yourself. You become an explorer, systematically going through the parts, deducing their function in logical steps. Now you are in control. But even that is illusory, because going from that black mirror to the so-called reality of its chipset, we only find another surface, another exterior with its own alluring aesthetic. And once we understand this new world behind the world, the same uncomfortable question arises: what lies beyond? The primary motivation for this process isn’t our search for knowledge, but our flight from oblivion. We only know that what we do know has failed to relieve us of that burden, so we keep on searching and digging for something to scratch that itch. Not because we understand, but because our lack of understanding helps us delude ourselves into thinking we do.
Intimus “A squeeze of the hand—enormous documentation—a tiny gesture within the palm, a knee which doesn't move away, an arm extended, as if quite naturally, along the back of a sofa and against which the other's head gradually comes to rest—this is the paradisiac realm of subtle and clandestine signs: a kind of festival not of the senses but of meaning.” - Roland Barthes, from A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments
Expanded Fragility: Circuit of Love is also suspended from the ceiling, although not vertically like Intro-spec-tec, but horizontally, like a map laid out on a table. The machine’s separate components are spread out in an orderly fashion, easily traced and observed. Cooling grilles, pneumatic cabling, servos and rails create the convincing illusion that at any time, this mechanism could spring into motion, silently and efficiently. The work revolves around a central axis, consisting of two oversized fragments of skin. They are so close to each other that their downy hairs would be rubbed together, should the machine ever be turned on. In Expanded Fragility, there is no housing to try and conceal the components from view. There is no front or back, inside or outside. The work shares itself with the space without shame. Whereas Server feels like a glimpse behind the scenes, and Intro-spec-tec is reluctant to expose itself, Expanded Fragility’s nakedness feels natural and intimate. This intimacy strengthens, and is strengthened by, the implied delicate touch of the downy hair in the sculpture’s centre, managing to be moving despite its obvious artifice. As a spectator, you can feel the subtle sense of another body, almost but not quite touching. It’s an odd sensation, empathising with a mechanism like this. The work transports you to an early Sunday morning, waking up next to another body, still asleep and softly breathing. Not wanting to wake them, you move your arm towards the other’s and feel the soft downy hairs intertwining. Standing there, drifting into these daydreams, Expanded Fragility’s mechanics stop feeling cold, exuding the warmth of life instead. The work is synthetic, but above all, synthesis. The dualities, conjured by the rest of the exhibition, dissolve into one. There is no longer any illusion or reality to speak of. The dichotomies evaporate in the fragile here-and-now of intimate touch in the middle of the machine, that stops being a means to and end and becomes an end in itself. For this love circuit is not a sex toy. It doesn’t give us pleasure and seems to be without purpose. It only exists to create its own delicate moments of intimacy, and so
proves its own autonomy. This computer rejects the utilitarian, adapting a deontological logic instead. Regarding his work and how it relates to technology, in Ruben Mol’s own words: “As long as screens are less complex than the world they supposedly represent, I will remain sceptical.” But with Expanded Fragility, he seems to answer this very scepticism – the same scepticism that we saw in Intro-spec-tec, urging us to look for answers beneath the surface. But Expanded Fragility has no surface. Even the skin, that most familiar exterior, does not obfuscate anything, serving as the centre of the composition – the true centre being the charged negative space between the surfaces of skin. In other words: the further you dig, the more definitive the conclusion that there is no core to reality, only an absence. No point of origin to explain everything, no central landmark to orient from and definitively quell our uncertainty – just an endless stream of moments that have passed before we know it, wherein we can barely manage to truly touch the things and others around us. And that’s what makes Expanded Fragility: Circuit of Love a machine that produces love. I don’t suppose Ruben Mols and I are saying anything new here. There has always been plenty of love between people and machines. We have always left the questions of whether machines can think, or feel, to technicians who will consistently tell us machines are dead things. But ask the same about humans, and knowledgeable scientists won’t be able to give you a definite answer. Indeed, we know a lot about hormones, neurotransmitters and brain activity – we’ve even discovered the influence of our gut flora on our emotions – but we have yet to explain how all the lifeless mechanisms of molecules combine to create a lived experience. This makes the lived experience one of the last bastions of magic, not science. In 1998, Andy Clark and David Chalmers wrote The Extended Mind, an essay wherein they expound on the notion that some mental functions like memory, orientation and logic, are outsourced to objects outside of the mind, making the mind something that can exist outside of the brain or the body. It’s no great leap of logic to transpose this notion to emotions like love and hate, and how they could manifest outside of our own thoughts and feelings as well. In the film Cast Away, Tom Hanks plays an unfortunate soul that is stranded on a desert island, his only company a volleyball he names Wilson and adorns with a painted handprint. The film makes the point that for Tom Hank’s character, this friendship is real. My point here is that the affection we feel towards inanimate objects is completely mutual. HOST has shown us a spectrum of attitudes toward technology. Server keeps us at an impartial distance. It is technology as a tool, something to assist us. As a piece of art, it is also the most formal one here. In Intro-spec-tec, technology seems to be coming in closer, maybe even uncomfortably so, and we become sceptical. Are we its master, or is it the other way around? The three works contain clear references to art history, but only formally and in the background: the black squares are primarily screens, and only secondly Malevich references, while the components in the back are technical components before they are compositions. In Expanded Fragility technology is completely interwoven with humanity and life: we see the machine as a body, body as machine. Technology no longer just a collection of external tools, but something ingrown in our nature, forming the backdrop to our thoughts, feelings and our very existence. Its visual language is both figurative and narrative. Ruben Mols shows us that technology is not singular, but a diffuse realm wherein contradictions like life and death, logic and emotion ceaselessly stumble over each other, with us blindly navigating through. A realm that will never be mapped by GPS.