From women to computers: Activism in the digital age

Cara McCarthy / THE GATEPOST

By Cara McCarthy, Associate Editor

By Robert Johnson Jr. Arts & Features Editor  

The Arts & Ideas series for the 2019-20 academic year held its first event of the semester with an exhibition in the Mazmanian Art Gallery Sept. 11.

     Framingham State University invited Katherine Behar, a Brooklyn-based artist, and associate professor at Baruch College, to share her latest exhibition, “Backups,” with the FSU community.

     Behar held a talk in the McCarthy Forum followed by a reception in the Mazmanian Art Gallery where students were able to see her work and talk with Behar one-on-one. 

     Ellie Krakow, professor of art and director of the gallery, introduced Behar as “an interdisciplinary artist and critical theorist of new media.”

     Behar’s work has been rooted in exploring gender and labor in contemporary digital culture.

     The meaning behind her work is grounded in “feminism and workers’ solidarity.”

     She stated that she approaches this through “a dynamic of resistance.”

     Sculpturally, as well as performatively, Behar focuses on performances of political resistance by bringing the complexity of the political world, to the digital world. 

     Behar’s exhibition features multiple sculptures collectively called “Shelf Life,” made out of QWERTY keyboard keys. She asks the question, “What shapes were tried and rejected, before keyboards became rectangles?”

     She compared the design process of the keyboard to that of natural selection. 

     Behar said she named this collection of sculptures “Shelf Life” because they serve as a constant reminder that everything has a limited lifespan – computers, politics, even ourselves. 

     She described her exhibition as a way that digital culture produces “a profusion” of backups, or extra copies. “You have to be backed up in at least three places,” she tells her students.

     “But as an artist, I am thinking a bit more philosophically about how we back up ourselves,” Behar said.

     Behar’s other piece, “Roomba, Rumba,” which is not on display at the gallery, is a “feminist piece.” She claims “Roomba, Rumba” is a collection of self-driven machines that mimic “the gendered activity of vacuuming.” 

     Behar considers this to be a “feminist piece” because of “the continuity between women’s work and the robotic work of machines, both of which are blackboxed or hidden from view.”

     She said, “Before computers were computers, women were.” Before we had data, women did the “mindless” work that computers are able to do now. She showed the audience images from the early 1900s of women physically using typewriters to document data.

     Behar shared her project, “Modeling Big Data,” which is a collection of six videos that mimic, and even parody four common actions on a computer – clicking, buffering, caching, and pinging. 

     “Technology has a function of not just backing data up, but backing humans up,” Behar said.

Behar’s piece, “Data Cloud: A Heap, A Mass, A Rock, A Hill,” is a large scale sculpture. She said the word “data” first appeared in 1646. “Cloud” dates back to ninth century Old English – both definitions consisting of the words heap, mass, rock, and hill.

     “Data reflects our bodies and has data has entered into our world as a presence we need to contend with, as if it has a body of its own,” Behar said. “As easily as we can press a key, we can be pressed.”

     Behar acknowledged, “It is exciting for me, as an artist, to see how this exhibition connects with so many different areas of study.”

     She stated there were students with disciplines grounded in “technology to costume design.” 

     A few students and faculty members attended the reception that followed shortly after the talk, at which visitors saw the pieces Behar made and contributed to the Mazmanian Art Gallery.

     The show featured multiple components from different mediums – the most surprising inclusion to the viewers being the use of audio to accompany the technology-influenced art. 

     Lisa Eck, English professor and the chair of the Arts & Ideas series, was one of many who were impressed with Behar’s work.

     “I was surprised and overwhelmed by the fact that it was, really, a multimedia exhibit,” Eck said. “When I stepped across the threshold into the gallery, a place where I’ve been to many great shows, this one took me someplace new because of that auditory landscape.”

     The show contained four pieces of Behar’s works over the years, including “Shelf Life” and “Modeling Big Data,” which were discussed during her talk. 

     Joining them are “Autoresponder.exe,” a 16-minute, 10-second vertical video that generates a greater image, but, should one look away for too long, one would miss the completed image, representing “a scene of managerial power to software that is impersonal, ineffective, and tone-deaf.” 

     Her most recent work, “Knock Knock,” is a skit between two Amazon Alexas playing the game “I’m thinking of a number,” to find a cryptographic key that solves their dilemma – that key being SHA-256, the same encryption method used in blockchain-related functions.

     Students, including senior Isaac Vu, were also fascinated by Behar’s exhibit.

“I think it was a very fascinating exhibition, mainly because how media and machinery-focused it was and how, generally, a lot of artists don’t focus on that, especially with the newer tech that’s coming out,” Vu said.

     Rose Piz, a senior, shared the same sentiment. “It was very surprising how Behar reached the idea of ‘Backups.’ The keys on a computer were a very creative use of getting this idea across.”

     Behar said, “I would say that one of the things that I really enjoy, in terms of my teaching, is that I am often learning about new technologies for my students.“ She added, “In some ways, I’m already a dinosaur with technology, so my students are often bringing in new things that they don’t know about, and helping me to ‘upgrade myself,’ as I was talking about in the lecture.”

     However, what made this show special was the history behind how it came to be – Krakow has a long history with Behar, dating back to her college years. 

     “Katherine and I actually were colleagues in graduate school together, so we’ve known each other for quite some time and I have always admired her work,” Krakow said.

    “I thought Katherine was somebody who could reach artists who do digital work. She could reach sculptors, she could reach people who are studying sociology, she could reach people who are studying technology, she could reach people who are studying women’s studies or feminist studies – a great person to be in dialogue with,” Krakow said.