Julius Popp and Mark Lombardi

Media artists aren’t having the easiest time of it these days: Back in the mid-1990s, Julia Scher was still able to shock us by mounting security cameras on all four of her bedposts and filming everything that happened at night between the sheets. Who would even blink an eye at these intimate surveillance fantasies now, given the party diaries posted constantly on Facebook and the home videos on YouPorn? The speed with which commercial technologies are being developed goes far beyond the material imaginations of artists.

Leipzig artist Julius Popp has found a way out of this dilemma: He constructs his own machines that process information and react to their surroundings like any one-celled organism, human being, or self- respecting bot—thus choosing as his very subject the colonization of the body by gadgetry, as evidenced by the broad consumer use of motion sensors in the iPhone or Nintendo Wii. For example, bit.fall, 2001–2005, is an artificial waterfall that takes up the overpowering of the individual in the face of information overload. Falling drops of water are forced through valves and divided into tiny bits so that they form ephemeral words in the air. BANK, CRISIS, OBAMA, MCCAIN—all these words are briefly visible in space until the drops are caught in a tub below. These key words are generated by an algorithm that uses various Internet news sites to determine the most often used (and, therefore, presumably the most influential) concepts worldwide as of late 2008. From close up, you can’t see the words, just the speed of the falling water pixels; but from across the room you can see them gleaming. Here, Popp has succeeded in melding aesthetic form and media content into a consistent whole. Another piece, bit.flow, 2003–2008, processes information less smoothly: Red and clear liquids flow in alternation through a tangle of hoses in a way that might remind one of swarming ants at one moment or cars on a cloverleaf the next. There are only two spots where the red pixels unite to form an image, and again we see letters gradually spelling out a word: REAL. At last year’s Ars Electronica, another version of bit.flow was installed as a circular, all-seeing eye suspended in midair, where it looked a bit like a rose window in a cathedral. This is a suitable reference, given that the newest cathedrals of power are embodied in software architecture.

This first institutional solo exhibition of Popp’s work was displayed next to Mark Lombardi’s diagrams of the financial crises of the 1990s. Both take as their subjects power and information and the visualizing of networks. Popp, however, concentrates on the significance of the shift from the epoch of the book to the digital age. His two first robots, micro.adam and micro.eve, each 2001–2003, have even been used both at the Fraunhofer Institut and at MIT for artificial intelligence research. These spherical robots can do nothing more than spin in a circle, thus representing the simplest variant of a sentient system responding to gravity. This makes them ideal for AI researchers, who use them to test evolutionary sequences of programs designed to alter themselves.

But even Popp himself has not been spared the problems of an artist in the technology industry. His works are still susceptible to the inconvenient realities of torn cables and misdirected sensors. The robots micro.spheres, 2008–, and micro.perpendiculars, 2005–, react directly to their surroundings by retreating to avoid human contact—at least in theory. In practice, they don’t work.

Daniel Boese

Translated from German by Oliver E. Dryfuss.