Alan Rath

Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago (MCA Chicago)

Alan Rath’s techo-kunst is best when it is most determinedly misanthropic; a dystopian glimmer reveals the veneer of high-tech electronic logic to be simply more complex trappings of human inanity. His machines call us like sirens, with an almost inaudible hum, as they go about their business. Several of Rath’s sculptures are decidedly user-unfriendly, forcing our physical interaction in this Orwellian nightmare. In You Can Make a Difference, 1988, a work that positively drips with venom, the viewer climbs a few steps, peers through a telescope at a monitor some forty feet away, and presses a button. A 12-digit display number on the screen is advanced by one, and a peppy “Thank you!” appears beneath it. You climb down, vaguely annoyed at having made no difference—at having punched in and been reduced to the state of a complacent and complicit digit advancer. Control, 1989, invites a similar descent into aimless activity. The employ of a joystick allows the viewer to move the words “So what?” vertically and horizontally around its monitor. These are the gripes of Rath; he pursues the zone where the possibilities of technology and the stultifying mediocrity of its users exist in perfect equipoise.

Rath’s background includes a degree in electrical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and it is his consummate ease with complex electronics, computers, cathode-ray tubes, audio speakers, LEDs, motors, and the rest that enables his project. He currently resides near California’s Silicon Valley, which puts him in a position to scavenge at the gates of technological hell. In Bumper II, 1990, a largish audio speaker emits what sounds like a beating heart racing in an up-tempo frenzy. In Hound, 1990, two human noses eagerly sniff and root about the ground in abjection, parodying the olfactory experience technology cannot provide.

Challenger, 1991, the most complex assemblage in this exhibition, is the only unsatisfying one. A rigidly frontal triptych examining the contexts—political, personal, and technological—surrounding the 1986 space shuttle disaster, this grand endeavor (in contrast to the wry and focused critiques Rath usually provides) seems to suggest a kind of digitized Guernica. A 15-minute program played out on audio speakers and seven small monitors (one for each of the Challenger victims) supplies an impressionistic history of the U.S. Space Program that includes John F. Kennedy’s pledge to put a man on the moon, Neil Armstrong’s clichéd remarks from space, and even Christa McAuliffe’s we-who-are-about-to-die-salute-you protestation that the space program is “really safe.” A crescendoed countdown is followed by flashing lights and Styrofoam balls blowing into the air during the 73.62 seconds of the Challenger’s flight. Then the explosive silence, the numbing apologies of President Reagan, and a listing of the dead. This is theater, but not particularly compelling theater, an oddly didactic deus ex machina, so rigorously programmed as to become oppressive. Rath’s probing inventiveness is here constrained by a kind of moral seriousness, a desire to speak in the high-tech vernacular, that everywhere dilutes the poetic possibilities of his endeavor.

James Yood