In 1967, while he was a poet-in-residence at the California Institute of Technology, Richard Brautigan wrote “All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace,” a gamboling techno-utopian vision that reads, nearly fifty years later, as farcically, hauntingly naive:
I like to think (and
the sooner the better!)
of a cybernetic meadow
where mammals and computers
live together in mutually
like pure water
touching clear sky.
And that’s just the first stanza. Brautigan goes on to imagine “a cybernetic forest / filled with pines and electronics”; “it has to be!” he writes of “a cybernetic ecology.” One imagines he was not too gung ho on Blade Runner.
But it’s cheap, in these dystopian times, to laugh at someone who was once optimistic about technology. “All Watched Over,” a show at James Cohan Gallery curated by Tina Kukielski, takes a more empathetic approach. The works all summon, or come from, a glorious postwar age when the notion of networked computers held enormous promise. Instead of the incremental gains we ask of our devices today—wouldn’t it be neat if I could caress the screen of my iPhone without thinking of dying?—“All Watched Over” dreams big. It dares us to suspend our cynicism even as it reminds us of how wrongheaded Brautigan’s poem continues to be.
You’ll find some of the show’s standout pieces below. Among them are Brenna Murphy’s new archival-pigment prints, in which lush, bucolic landscapes are fashioned into a latticework of slick textures and colors. Slabs of sky meet shards of pine. Teeming with the eco-electro harmony of Brautigan’s fantasies, the prints look like futurists’ vacation homes or the screensaver of a benevolent self-help guru.
Paul Laffoley’s Alchemy: The Telenomic Process of the Universe, a formidable square canvas from the early seventies, provides a recondite flowchart with instructions on such matters as The Crystal Vision, The Divine Goal, and The Alchemical Fire. Laffoley’s work has always taken a procedural, diagrammatic approach to the cosmic—transcendence is possible, it suggests, if you follow the schematics exactly enough.
Looking at these I thought not just of Brautigan’s poem but of Donald Fagen’s song “I.G.Y.,” a gee-whiz tribute to the fifties-era boosterism that promised us flying cars, solar-powered cities, and a sleek transatlantic rail system. Fagen wrote these lyrics in 1982—the same year Blade Runner came out—with the full weight of dramatic irony behind him. The efficient paradise he sang about had failed to obtain:
This dream’s in sight
You’ve got to admit it
At this point in time that it’s clear
The future looks bright
On that train all graphite and glitter
Undersea by rail
Ninety minutes from New York to Paris …
(More leisure time for artists everywhere)
A just machine to make big decisions
Programmed by fellows with compassion and vision
We’ll be clean when their work is done
We’ll be eternally free yes and eternally young
“All Watched Over” draws its strength from the same dramatic irony—to see it is to recognize that tech prophesying is no less rampant now than it was in Brautigan’s day. Indeed, it’s considerably more insidious. Uber is unconcerned about automating their human drivers out of existence. In Amsterdam, an institution called Singularity University recently offered a $30,000 “Singularity Summit” that promised “to totally rewire your brain”; it advocated augmenting our minds, suggesting that “a superintelligent artificial neocortex the size of a planet” could automate all work. People paid to hear this. The new cybernetic meadow is flooded with capital.
“All Watched Over” is at James Cohan Gallery through August 7.
Dan Piepenbring is the web editor of The Paris Review.