System Warning: Josh Kline

by Michelle Kuo


New York–based artist Josh Kline connects the smallest details—the curve of a police helmet, the grain of 3D-printed resin—to vast systems of technology, money, and ecology. His latest work, Climate Change (2019), is the fourth chapter in a larger science-fiction cycle depicting daily life in a catastrophic future. In conversation with Michelle Kuo, who included the artist in the recent exhibition New Order: Art and Technology in the Twenty-First Century, Kline discusses his new film and his desire to understand human emotion in the face of colossal problems.


MICHELLE KUO: We’re doing this conversation in Google Chat and Google Docs. Can we talk about how much we dislike Google Docs?

JOSH KLINE: Working in proprietary software is always a mess. So much of my material is trapped in obsolete file formats and long-gone software.

MK: This is actually a pretty appropriate place to start, because your art often addresses the death of technological systems—and the rise of massive new ones. 

JK: Almost everyone alive today is embedded in staggeringly large-scale societal, political, and economic structures. Globalized capitalism places us in a framework and relationship with an unfathomable number of other people. 

MK: Your work connects things on this large scale: world systems, from material infrastructure to media ecology to ecology writ large. In fact, you’ve been working on a multipart exhibition called Climate Change (2019), which itself implies a very big project. How do you think art can relate to these different scales and grasp seemingly ungraspable, impossibly abstract, vast entities?

JK: I’m grappling with how to represent the individual in relation to these massive structures and the conditions and problems they spawn—like climate change, technological automation, or the breakdown of representative democracy. For me, one of the challenges in art is how to make people feel something personal when confronting these colossal, dehumanizing systems. I locate a lot of my work in the perspectives of and at the scale of individual people caught up in these impossibly large phenomena. Screenwriters often refer to the “worm’s eye view”—looking from the bottom up rather than down from overhead. The project I started this year, Climate Change, is the fourth chapter in a larger science-fiction cycle of installations/exhibitions about human life in the twenty-first century. It is set in the 2050s and looks at the potential climate impact of nationalism and white supremacy. It’s a story about US global hegemony bringing about its own catastrophic meltdown. It’s really one big single installation or exhibition that I’m working on in parts because of the space I need and the randomness of exhibition opportunities. Sometimes I feel like a nineteenth-century novelist publishing bits and pieces in serial in magazines and newspapers. Or like a TV show-runner working season by season, hoping to get renewed.

MK: I’ve always thought your work was very Dickensian! But your nested series within series also remind me of the media ecologies of the 1960s and 1970s: an attempt to grapple with huge crises like technological automation, environmental disaster, global telecommunications, the erosion of the public sphere and liberal democracy. Before your Climate Change chapter was the Unemployment chapter, which addresses the massive disenfranchisement of human labor amid the next waves of technological automation, and how that might lead directly to the rise of new nationalisms.

JK: I think this issue of scale is part of every problem we face today. And why so many people feel overwhelmed politically. There are so many problems looming and they’re all interconnected. Where do you start? When people ask me what we can do, I always say that we need to get the Republicans out of power. That’s the first step toward fixing almost everything.

MK: Most people are left fighting over scraps while systemic change seems unfathomable. And yet those systems themselves are fallible, catastrophically so, as we’ve seen—we seem surrounded by crashes and disasters and accidents, the demise of modern institutions and global networks, the rise of disinformation.

JK: I think this feeling of hopelessness that the media creates for us is false—it’s part of how the status quo is trying to maintain itself. What’s happening with the climate is much worse than we’re being told, but there’s actually still a window in which we can make a difference.

MK: And the film you’re working on now gives us a glimpse of that possibility.

JK: The piece I started shooting last week is actually the last part of my Climate Change project. It’s a five-to-ten-minute short film set in a mid-twenty-first-century flooded New York. The film is an image of working people in the future—the people who inevitably end up cleaning up the mess—but it’s also kind of hopeful. New York is gone, but life goes on for these people and it’s not necessarily a bad one.

MK: Why 16mm?

JK: I started shooting on 16mm for a film installation I made in 2017. I feel like CGI (at least in its current form) is an aesthetic that’s tied to this decade; by contrast, I wanted to move this work in a different direction and free it from that relationship to our time. Film has nostalgic qualities that I want to tap into—it conveys “timelessness.” It also turns out that working with film isn’t that different in cost from working with HD. You just shoot less. Another bonus is that film is actually better for some of the special-effects work—flooding Manhattan—that I’m going to do in the piece. At the same time, I’m also working on a video of fictionalized climate refugee interviews—also set in the future—and a script for a longer narrative film set in the same world. Most of the video art made before 2000 had a direct relationship to television. Now it seems like the difference between film and television has become less about the presentation format and more about duration. Film has become the short-form medium.

MK: You’ve used so many different media, but you started out with filmmaking and photography. You’ve even called what you do “solid photography”—from 3D scanning (“primitive daguerreotype holograms”), to printed film being eaten away by water, to 16mm in this upcoming work. 

JK: Video and film inform all the work I make, including sculpture. All of the 3D scanning I do at this point uses a process called photogrammetry, which is done with digital cameras—basically special-effects gear from The Matrix. Software turns seventy or eighty photographs into a photographic 3D-computer model that can be 3D printed in full color. Working on these digital models in the computer after the scan is essentially sculpting in real-time video space. The resulting 3D-printed sculptures are like frozen videos or solid three-dimensional photos: holograms you can touch. At the same time, the process mirrors the process of digitization and data harvesting that we’re all participating in online. 3D scanning is still in its early days as an imaging tool. I do think about the 3D-printed sculpture I make in relation to early versions of photography, like daguerreotypes—or early video art, for that matter. Dara Birnbaum’s appropriated and re-edited videos from the 1980s were state of the art when she made them. She made Technology Transformation/Wonder Woman (1978–79) before consumer VCRs. Forty years later, in a world with streaming television, BitTorrent, and a YouTube awash in re-edits and mash-ups, it can be hard to grasp how radical those early re-edits were when she made them in the late 1970s.

MK: Yes, and Birnbaum’s work emphasized both new and old, hardware and software. The monitor, the way you’d see these images as a stream of televisual signals, nevertheless always had a material shell.

JK: When video art began in the 1960s, people talked about experimental television as much as they talked about video. Video art began as a reaction to TV and its dominance of communication during the Cold War. Do you think there’s something unique or specific about the work involving technology that’s emerged in the ten years since the financial crash? Very few people talk about our time in relation to the 1960s or 1970s—another moment in which art had a strong focus on and engagement with technology. How do you think we compare?

MK: Well, I wrote my PhD about an organization called Experiments in Art and Technology, or E.A.T., which was started by Robert Rauschenberg and others in 1966 and tried to bring artists and engineers together—connecting people on the fringe of the neo-avant-gardes, really radical artists and people who worked in huge laboratories, or think tanks, or corporate R&D. Very strange partners, to say the least! But they were all responding to this sense that the world was getting away from us: that large systems, often linked to technology, were running amok. People were terrified of nuclear winter, automation and the loss of jobs, the deterioration of democracy, and environmental disaster. Sound familiar? Many of these artists worked in a tradition of critical negation. Simply put, many of them had protested the military-industrial complex, or attempted to explode the walls of the museum and take art into the world, for example via Land art. But they also felt that many of these strategies had failed. Just saying “no” to institutional structures didn’t seem to change that much; in fact, it seemed to create a convenient fiction of agency even though all the same systems of power were still there, becoming even more global and vast in reach. Vietnam and Watergate continued in other forms. Those older tactics seemed ineffective. So this group in the 1960s and 1970s decided that they wanted to intervene in large systems themselves. What if you could change the direction or application of technology at the very highest levels and greatest scale, or even preempt—outrun—the big ideas being formed in think tanks and the Pentagon and Bell Labs? Now, decades later, we’re confronting many of the same questions, but in a transformed world in which crisis has fully replaced system. I’m interested in what’s called the “risk society,” which I think describes the condition we live in now: all those human-made systems and institutions, from finance to governance to technology to food and water and industrial development, haven’t behaved the way we thought they would. Their unpredictability has outpaced us, their statistical and probabilistic models have crashed, and the side effect has now trumped all (pun intended). I think artists right now have to confront these upheavals by radically rethinking their forms and tools and mediums—as discontinuous, always heterogeneous, terrifyingly unequal, and exceeding human control—revealing that power or technology or history or experience is never continuous, or even, or smooth.

JK: It’s frightening how many of the radical ideas from art in the 1960s—involving cybernetics, networks, interactivity, et cetera—have actually informed Silicon Valley’s guiding doctrines, especially the idea of trusting in networks and feedback loops to self-regulate. Basically replacing rule by unregulated markets with rule by unregulated networks.

MK: From counterculture to cyberculture—I don’t think we can draw such a strictly linear relationship, but it’s there, of course. Disruption is now “disruption.” And self-regulated autopoeisis didn’t work out the way we thought it would!

JK: Exactly—this failure of the dream of rule by network consensus might be why so many young people are embracing socialism. Trusting in the emergent properties of autonomous systems like computer networks or “free” markets to see to our human rights and basic well-being seems irresponsibly naive today. “All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace.”

MK: So many artists today are confronting the question of crisis and catastrophe, even though many of them have grown up in relative economic and social stability.

JK: I was a teenager and in college in the 1990s, which was a supposed economic golden age in the United States, but it was an economic nightmare for my parents. The end of their American dream. Likewise, in the statistical shell game that certain economists play, the 2000s were seen as an economic boom time—driven by debt, as it were—but for so many people, the Bush years were a time of wrenching precarity.

MK: It’s discontinuous. You or I may have been experiencing something very different from the rest of your peers or immediate milieu. My grandparents and parents lived through one of the most tumultuous periods I can think of: China in the twentieth century.

JK: I can relate. My mom was a little girl during the Japanese occupation of the Philippines in the 1940s. There’s a presumption in the West that the political and cultural movements and moments that have shaped the Western worldview are universal, when they aren’t at all. I’ve had students from South Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Japan whose understanding of the 1960s and 1970s is totally different from the one taken for granted in North America and Western Europe. Not to mention mainland China. May 1968 looms large for many artists and intellectuals in the West, but what about May 1966? The Cultural Revolution may end up having the larger impact on the twenty-first century. These parallel perspectives, experiences, and traumas are a gift that immigrants bring to their new countries—either directly or through their descendants—exposing the non-immigrant population to the history and feelings of the rest of the world. We carry these family histories with us.

MK: Absolutely, these histories stay with us. But how do you use art address personal history, or narrative, or individual experience today, when none of those categories are stable in the least? And now, for many reasons, there seems to be an obsession with literal reference or autobiography—art that immediately explains what it is “about”—which is pretty retrograde, a return to the most conservative forms possible. 

JK: Personal experience will always in some way inform the work that artists make—it’s unavoidable—but I agree with Adam Curtis that this fixation on the self and the expression of the self to the exclusion of all else is actually part of the problem. What would happen if more artists put away their mirrors and turned their gaze and attention outward? We need to cut the umbilical cord on the “Century of the Self” as soon as possible if we’re to survive what’s coming. There are ways to open up art to a broader audience without evacuating it of complexity, nuance, and rigor. Emotion can be a part of this. People aren’t rational. Art is a way of communicating based in the irrational and often in feelings. How do you make people care? Film and literature are really good at this. This is something that I think art can learn from film. 

MK: You are tracing the historical specificity of feeling. You know, the twentieth-century avant-gardes wanted to estrange your perceptual and emotional experience—to make you more aware, snap you into consciousness—but now, our experiences are estranged all the time. Constant future shock, even as most of the world is still a crumbling skeleton of decaying industrial infrastructure. Now estrangement is about isolation or solipsism: VR. That’s capitalism, in a way.

JK: Exactly. Digital capitalism’s “goal” seems to be total individual isolation. Total estrangement.

MK: And if that early twentieth-century shift in perception was supposed to build collective agency, now we need new ways of understanding empathy and relation and networks. How do you stimulate emotion and affect now, in an age when those experiences are very, very different, and mediated in totally different ways?

JK: We have to find some way to open up or puncture these virtual realities that are being created online. It’ll only get worse. Online white supremacy is a preview of the kind of VR that’s emerging from social media. Virtual reality is a retreat into a fantasy. When the kind of people who check out into these digital spaces confront a real reality that doesn’t sync up with the VR fantasy their minds live in, they can explode. Which is what we’re seeing in the domestic terrorism in the United States.

MK: The collision between VR and IRL is violent, catastrophic.

JK: How do we reestablish the primacy of humanity inside and outside these nonhuman systems?

MK: I wonder if the primacy of humanity is possible or even desirable? In other words, maybe we have to think beyond or outside ourselves to confront what’s happening in the world, which exceeds human agency. Dipesh Chakrabarty calls it the “planetary”—a much more expansive perspective than the “global.”

JK: I guess I mean within human societies, which have become oriented around the primacy of machines and the corporations that own them. For sure, it’s important to acknowledge the limitations of the human and of human perspectives—and the damage that a worldview that centers the human to the exclusion of all other life has done to the world. It’s exceedingly difficult for individual human beings to wrap their minds around planet-scale phenomena and planet-scale problems. This is one of the reasons why I think it’s such a sham to assign solving problems like carbon emissions or poverty to individuals and their consumer choices, when only governments and government policies can make a real difference. But at the same time, I still cling to some kind of humanism. I think we need to keep sight of the lives and real agency of individual human beings in the middle of all this. The script I’m working on is about these issues—or will be, if I ever finish.

MK: And would the narrative feature be screened in a theater-like setting? Do you have ideas about distribution?

JK: Depending on timing and when I get it together, it might live as part of an installation in my Climate Change project, but I’m also interested in film distribution—in engaging with that mass audience.

MK: Netflix?!

JK: I wouldn’t say no to a streaming deal, LOL. I’m platform agnostic—but also old enough that I’m still obsessed with a theatrical run before streaming. It may take a while. I have to see what comes out of it. With every video or film project I do, I try and learn a bit more about filmmaking and slowly work my way up to making a feature. Film and television are still some of the best ways for artists to engage in a conversation with mass audiences. As an artist, these are the platforms to which I potentially have access. Whether via art or whatever TV and film are turning into, it feels increasingly urgent—again—to try and reach as many people as possible.


Josh Kline is an artist based in New York. In 2019 he had a solo show at 47 Canal, New York. His work has been included in group shows at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; and the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in the exhibition New Order: Art and Technology in the Twenty-First Century.

Michelle Kuo is the Marlene Hess Curator of Painting and Sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art, New York.



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