Amidst the blue-chip galleries and renovated brick buildings of New York’s Chelsea neighborhood, a newly graduated class of School of Visual Arts (SVA) MFA students is presenting their thesis work through Monday, July 17. The Photography, Video and Related Media department work offers startling perspectives on technology and human connection, with varying degrees of optimism over the direction of our tech-addicted society.
The exhibition is staged at SVA’s West 26th Street gallery, a space wedged into the 15th floor of the freshly remodeled Starrett-Lehigh building. I had to get a visitor pass from a security guard to walk from the lobby to the elevator, where I then had to select my floor on an iPad-style device (which another security guard had to help me figure out). When I stepped inside the elevator, I realized there were no buttons, a detail I had never thought about suddenly gave me the disquieting sense of having no control.
Everything on the 15th floor is new and clean, and the design simultaneously evokes a high school, a tech company, and an art gallery. There’s what looks like a lunch room conversation pit, a number of open-floor office spaces, and a handful of cement-floor exhibition rooms flooded with natural light; many of these spaces are still empty. The half-filled floor and its echoey halls — and the high-tech elevator — offered the perfect setting for the SVA thesis show, which intensely probes humans’ relationship with machines, the necessity of creating quiet, and the intricacies of interpersonal interaction.
While the cerebral exhibition focuses largely on surveillance and technology, the literal centerpiece of the show flies in the face of the show’s more unsettling and pessimistic displays. The doors open into a large room where Lilly Steers’s “Love Game” (2023) is arranged in the middle of the floor, an interactive installation comprised of colorful pillows and vibrant towels surrounded by glittering string lights. It’s a thought-provoking meditation on intimacy, betrayal, and relationships staged in the cozy comfort of a thrown-together sleepover arrangement.
“We’re in academia and we’re making art, but how can we make this not so rigid and inaccessible?” Steers said in a conversation with Hyperallergic. She described the project as “meme-ing academia.”
“We come in and we’re supposed to be talking about all this fancy stuff, but I want to sit on the floor and be together,” the artist continued. In the center of the installation, Steers printed out iPhone photographs she’d taken over the previous five years. That element was a “diaristic” way for her to reflect on her own recent life, the artist explained. The work also includes a book with text she had jotted down over the past few years and the same images, arranged in order from repulsive to beautiful. The first images depict bugs and rotting food, and later photographs show rainbows and flowers.
Viewers are encouraged to sit in the space and flip through the pictures and books. Steers also created a game: four to 10 players (18 years of age and up) sit in a circle with the central photographs facing up. They choose a picture they like, then flip it around to read a prompt written on the back.
“Some test social boundaries, some are affirmations where people can share life lessons,” Steers explained. Among other prompts, players partake in a group hug; two sitters both FaceTime someone and then have the two people on the phone speak with each other; and one person calls their best friend on speaker phone and asks them an intimate question.
Steers said the game is about trust. “There’s an element of betrayal that I’m provoking,” she explained.
Deeper into the exhibition, other students have ventured far beyond human interaction. Jingyi Gao’s multi-pronged installation It is Us (2023) imagines machine sentience, a timely idea that has started to feel less and less like science fiction. Gao started the project by creating sculptures of skin through a text-to-image AI generator — she was interested in “making some digital thing alive, while damaging something in the physical world.” In another part of her project, screens stand in front of digital portraits. Nearby, an array of glass balls are arranged on a table.
To create them, Gao asked artificial intelligence to produce pictures of eyes, then attached those images to the glass spheres. Then the artist started thinking about how those AI-generated eyes would see, so she attached a camera underneath the tabletop installation and sent the video feed to screens. “It’s like they’re seeing,” Gao explained. When a viewer looks at the eyeballs, their own image appears a few feet away.
Elsewhere in the show, some students address our current crisis of relentless information input. Haoyu Zhao’s “The Gift” (2023) encompasses collaged photographs of New York City and a screen filled with local newspaper headlines, a project he conceived as a commentary on American freedom of expression. As a Chinese person, Zhang sees a contradiction between the ability to convey information without government intervention and the anxiety that this free media cultivates.
Nearby, Meiting Li’s two-part series Conformity is Infinite (2023) explores similar ideas. A photograph of a sterile school hallway is presented above a desk, which is equipped with a delightful miniature classroom stuffed inside the book cavity. Tiny desks and chairs are lined up in front of video that shows a schoolgirl being punished for wearing pink shoes. On a nearby wall, Li has created an LED sculpture that shows morphing images of body parts to create the effect of all-seeing eye, which the artist views as a metaphor for internet control.
In a dark back gallery, Fan Yu’s “In the Swarm” (2023) offers a place of meditative bliss away from the gallery’s more frenetic works.
“In the summer of 2022, I found that living in a society distracted by extreme information, I was gradually losing time and opportunities for deep meditation,” Yu told Hyperallergic. “It was difficult for me to tolerate a slow pace, and my perception was becoming distracted and fragmented.” Yu wanted to explore this feeling in her thesis, with the intention of “attracting and bringing the audience’s attention back to life.”
Thirty-two screens play hundreds of film shorts. Yu has edited her work to perfection: The images move seamlessly together to create a cohesive moving image despite the project’s inherently fractured nature. A white ball makes frequent appearances throughout the array of screens, but most shorts (a whopping 213) are scenes of daily life — shots of pedestrians walking, buses driving, and subways arriving.
Yu created the musical score herself and added recorded audio to match what was happening onscreen (scenes of construction, for example, are accompanied by the whirring din of heavy machinery). The musical score weaves between fast and slow-paced compositions in correspondence with the energy levels of the scenes. Yu clearly has a knack for melody — the final product is much closer to a movie score than the eerie, dissonant soundtracks that typically radiate from video installations.
Yu said that before she made “In the Swarm,” distraction had become an emotional issue for her. Then, the artist realized that others faced the same problem. She hopes her work forces viewers to appreciate the mundane aspects of life and rewards them for slowing down and reflecting.
The show also featured two-dimensional works, including Jun Ge’s stunning series Just for Once, and Once for All (2022-2023), consisting of prints Ge painted over with oil and acrylic. The artist superimposes lines from calendars and maps onto muted fields of color, adding elements of personal information to otherwise abstract works.
Hui Yu Wang’s Flatland (2023) comprises digitally rendered three-dimensional objects that Wang flattens, prints on film, folds and piles on top of one another, and then photographs. Wang’s two-dimensional works are almost optical illusions: They condense space in a mind-bending way, creating impossible layers of warped figures. At first glance, some of Wang’s works look like they could be real photographs, but a closer inspection reveals that none of the objects can be identified.
While the show’s two-dimensional works are an apparent break from the sculptural and tech-forward ideas that make up the rest of show, even these seemingly simple projects are the result of masterful machine intervention and careful manipulation. For those seeking a taste of cutting-edge art technology, SVA’s MFA Photography, Video and Related Media thesis exhibition is on view through Monday, July 17.