Questions Brought to the Surface: On Curating Art and Technology with Ceci Moss

Studio Sessions

Questions Brought to the Surface: On Curating Art and Technology with Ceci Moss

By Emily K. Holmes September 8, 2015

Studio Sessions offers behind-the-scenes access to artists, writers, curators, and creative individuals through a variety of tête-à-tête conversations that consider the how, and what, and where of making art. Studio Sessions are presented as interviews, profiles, and studio visits through text, photo essays, and videos.


The artistic examination of technology is a subject that necessarily evolves continually. As our technological devices and the roles they play in our society change, so must critical inquiries in culture. Through her exhibitions and writings, Ceci Moss, assistant curator of visual arts at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA), presents the multifaceted intersections of art and technology with precisely this revolving momentum. Not only do her investigations match the pace of the existing conversations, but they also push them forward, always with a keen sense of ethics in mind. These topics are of pressing local relevance within the cultural landscape of the Bay Area and Silicon Valley. I spoke to Moss about her curatorial practice, which critiques the assumptions behind never-ending innovation and presents myriad related social concerns in technology.

Emily K. Holmes: How did your curatorial investigation of art and technology begin?

Ceci Moss: I went to UC Berkeley for undergrad and I studied history and sociology, with an emphasis on French intellectual history. During my last semester I took a class on media theory and it was one of the best classes I've ever taken. It totally changed my worldview. Of course that's the class you take your last semester of college! After you've already double-majored in two completely different subjects!

After I graduated, I moved to New York and I worked for the New Museum and Rhizome as their special-projects coordinator, right before the new building opened. I was in charge of income-generating initiatives, like a limited-edition box set of video art that the New Museum produced. It was my first job in the art world, and a great introduction.

Then I became the editor at Rhizome, which is a nonprofit arts organization affiliated with the New Museum focused on contemporary art and technology. To me, Rhizome is one of the most interesting and unique arts organizations out there. In many ways, my involvement with Rhizome sparked my curatorial interests.

Installation view, Shana Moulton: Picture Puzzle Pattern Door, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 2015. Image courtesy of Phocasso/J.W. White and Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco.

EH: When you joined YBCA, you spearheaded an exhibition series called Control: Technology in Culture. How did that series originate?  

CM: Given my expertise, I pitched a series of new work by artists who are looking at art and technology. Coming to the Bay Area from New York, I looked around to see how other institutions in the region were addressing technology from a visual-arts perspective. Although there are pockets of activity, from Zero1 to the Gray Area, I was surprised that there wasn’t more programming on the topic, considering the strong presence of the tech sector in the Bay Area.

EH: Was your decision to focus on emerging and midcareer artists an intentional strategy?

CM: It's always exciting to provide opportunities to emerging artists—to allow them to try new things and experiment. I feel the four Control shows with Jacqueline Kiyomi Gordon, Lucy Raven, Nate Boyce, and Shana Moulton were successful in that regard. In the forthcoming year, we're doing a number of different projects. One project that just opened on August 14 is a group exhibit entitled Earth Machines with work by Alisa Baremboym, Revital Cohen and Tuur Van Balen, Spiros Hadjidjanos, Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe, Kevin McElvaney, Leslie Shows, and Addie Wagenknecht. The show looks at the ecological impact of the constant innovation of tech. This is an important subject matter in the Bay Area, where there’s a constant conversation about tech innovation and disruption. At the same time, there’s a need to create more awareness about the long-term effects of that cycle on pollution and the planet. 

EH:It sounds like it’s a way of treating digital technologies as the material objects that they are. Devices will end up in a landfill, or be recycled if possible, basically becoming junk matter.

CM:It’s not only about the objects that are piling up, but to show that those objects require materials that derive from the earth, such as mined rare earth metals. The exhibition pushes for an understanding of the material and geopolitical reality of digital objects, which always ties back to the environment. We have to think about how our gadgets are dependent on our limited resources, in addition to examining how they intersect with larger political and social realities. 

Installation view, Earth Machines, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 2015. Courtesy of Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco. Photo: Charlie Villyard.   

EH: Do your ideas generate directly from the artwork you see? Or do you start with a specific topic and start to find relevant work after that? 

CM:I pay attention to many conversations in different fields, from science to design to theory. The questions driving the shows I organize are formed organically through conversations with artists, and being attuned to topics bubbling up culturally and philosophically. At the end of the day, the work I do is all about supporting artists and the questions they address in their own practice. Further, as a curator, I try to think critically about the visitor’s experience and encounter with the work, while framing shows in such a way that they speak to a wide range of audiences. I think you can talk about complex ideas in an accessible way.

EH:This might be an old conversation at this point, but do you perceive an ongoing resistance to new media art in art history as a discipline?

CM: There's an old guard in art history that remains resistant to it. For a certain generation, I think that their introduction to new media art was in the ’90s, when it looked and felt really different than it does now. They didn't pay attention after, say, 1998. But I don't think that's representative of the vast majority of people, especially not younger art historians and academics today. At this point in time, you can't write about culture or art without engaging with digital technology. 

Ceci Moss. Photo: Suzy Poling.

EH: I keep returning to art as a tool for facilitating political thought because it allows for the nuanced presentation of ideas. Art might present a problem, but it won't tell you what to do about it.

CM: I agree, I don't think art should solve problems. Instead, artists should be creating questions or even creating problems. Artists give voice to the most urgent questions of our time, and right now our society is negotiating the politics and ethics surrounding technology, from surveillance to biotech. 

EH: I think about how cultural ideologies shape everyday technologies we use, such as cameras. It seems so simple take a picture of someone's face, but my own research interests follow how technology like facial-recognition software, for example, already has many cultural and racial norms inscribed into it. I’m always wondering, what are the questions we need to be asking about technology? What are the things we don't even know to question about technology?

CM: There's a way in which technology becomes black-boxed. We have a hard time understanding how it works, and how pervasive it is. In terms of facial-recognition software, recently artists like Zach Blas, Sterling Crispin, and Tony Oursler have been doing a lot of interesting work around this topic. I read an article on the facial-recognition company Affectiva in the New Yorker a few months ago, who are developing software for video-conferencing companies like Skype. So if you're doing a business deal over Skype, the software can detect whether someone is lying or not by reading their face. Some companies are also envisioning televisions that read your facial expressions and screen advertisements according to your mood. This is the world we're going into and it is an example of how, in the tech industry, there needs to be a greater awareness of the social impact of these things so that tech isn't developed in an ethical vacuum. Art can help bring those questions to the surface.

Installation view, Jacqueline Kiyomi Gordon: It Only Happens All of the Time, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 2014. Image courtesy of Phocasso and Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco.

EH:What curatorial projects are coming up next?

CM: From November 6 through February 14, I have a large group show downstairs called Office Space. It looks at how artists are subverting the aesthetics of the office in order to comment on labor in the 21st century, especially how it relates to immaterial labor. So, thinking about technology again, however through the lens of its effect on how we work. I'm so excited about that show. We just finished the checklist and we're developing the floor plan. Many of the artists haven't shown in the Bay Area before, such as Joel Holmberg, Bea Fremderman, Pil and Galia Kollectiv, Julien Prévieux, Ignacio Uriarte, and Pilvi Takala, so that's great.

In winter 2015, I'm doing a solo show with Metahaven. They are a graphic-design group from Amsterdam interested in design as a means of knowledge production. Their work researches current power structures and their relationship to geopolitics, surveillance, and technology. We'll be showing a new video installation by them entitled The Sprawl.

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