Daria Martin

The Showroom

A sheet of silvery gray satin, on which the film’s title is embroidered, slides down to reveal a naked, supple torso. Mechanized cylinders shift from side to side, accompanied by a hissing noise, as the camera cuts between them and a man’s shifting eyes in close-up. These are the opening scenes of Daria Martin’s Soft Materials, 2004, a 16 mm film shot in the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at the University of Zurich, a research center specializing in “embodied artificial intelligence”—robotic learning though sensory perception and interaction. Martin’s ten-minute film uses gesture, touch, and sight as the nexus between man and machine, art and science, looking back toward high modernism’s fascination with technology and its concomitant belief in the ideology of progress.

Two performers interact separately in a succession of brief sequences with primitive, vaguely sculptural-looking robotic contraptions. In almost surreal scenes of reciprocal play and movement, humans and machines exchange stimuli. The camera moves languidly, if at times predictably, in and out of focus as the computer-generated sound track based on simulated biological growth provides a tonal ambiance. An arresting visual tension of rhyming components excites and confounds.

Watching the male performer, naked, casually stroking the responsive fingers of a robot evokes a utopian, even romantic relationship between man and machine, while alternatively one can imagine the performer’s hand being crushed by the might of the robot’s steely grip; another scene portrays these same mechanical fingers in close-up as they caress the performer’s lips, his eyes closed in a state of near-exultation. Similarly, the female performer is seen, again naked, seated at a table, her long straight hair falling off her shoulder, echoing the long flaxen whiskers emanating from a handheld robot as it tickles her lips and eyelashes. Movement is “trialed” in two subsequent scenes: The woman performs a jerking, incantatory dance, with a bouncing birdlike robot mirroring her gestures, while the man jumps around, hands on shoulders, with another “embodied” object; their swaying movement resolves itself, as in the previous scene, into what appears to be an ecstatic climax. The final section of the film depicts the female performer attempting to entrap a small propellered air balloon as it gradually escapes her grasp.

Martin’s earlier films, such as In the Palace, 2000, and Birds, 2001, were concerned with reanimating the universalist language of European modernism’s first avant-garde, whose tropes of artifice, color, form, and abstraction gestured toward an emancipatory unification of art and life. Soft Materials, while still rehearsing the revolutionary zeal of the period, looks as well to the second, American avant-garde of the ’60s and ’70s and its nuanced take on the performative body. Much recent art revisits these periods of vanguardist practice, either subjecting them to sociopolitical critique or reinscrib- ing them with narrative subjectivism. With her new film, Martin eschews both trends, investigating content through form, trying to pick apart the aesthetic to reveal new opportunities for image production.

David Bussel