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Haim Steinbach, Untitled (siri, kongs, antenna), 2019. Plastic-laminated wood shelf, Apple smart speaker, rubber dog chew, indoor television antenna, 53 × 58 1⁄2 × 12".

Haim Steinbach, Untitled (siri, kongs, antenna), 2019. Plastic-laminated wood shelf, Apple smart speaker, rubber dog chew, indoor television antenna, 53 × 58 1⁄2 × 12".

Haim Steinbach

A poet of the everyday, Haim Steinbach has been resituating consumer and handcrafted objects on individualized laminated-shelf constructions for some forty years. Akin to Gertrude Stein’s poetry (repetitive, surprising, full of precisely calibrated connotations), Steinbach’s sculptural syntax remains relevant in its capacities to filter and compress the sensory data of the contemporary world. In his most recent works, that syntax is literally vocalized: The artist has added voice-activated devices—Amazon’s Echo, Apple’s and Harman Kardon’s smart speakers—to the dog Kongs and thrift-store tchotchkes that appear across his focused and rebus-like oeuvre. This tactic both denigrates and aggrandizes the smart devices while illuminating the competing demands we place on technology: We now expect our tech to listen to us and to respond in kind—to be at once humble servant and intelligent conversationalist. Steinbach’s use of smart speakers resonates with the concerns of object-oriented ontology (a field of philosophical inquiry that Steinbach’s cunning displays of objects predate, and that, more recently, has become a lodestar in academic discussions of his work) and marks a powerful break in his pattern of making, in that his shelf arrangements now incorporate direct human input and queries.

The long history of automatons and other human/machine hybrids has of course always allegorized our society’s desperate need for an underclass of subjugated others. Let’s not forget: Before they were networks of circuits and wires, computers were humans—usually women—who completed complex calculations by hand. The attendant anxiety that these machines will rise up (common to all systems of subjugation) is one of the primary engines that fuels fantasies of control. But placed alongside intelligently designed objects, such as a plastic soap dispenser shaped like a bird, these smart devices appeared remarkably dumb—for these are not, ultimately, knowledgeable machines, but translators of codes and algorithms. According to gallery staff, most visitors asked the devices about the weather, the banal request ranking alongside “How are you?” in the everyday rituals of small talk. Why not ask questions that demand more urgent, unknowable replies? Why not entreat the speakers to describe their parent companies (or direct competitors), or to summarize Clifford Geertz’s concept of “deep play”? With slight prodding, their techno-sheen falls away to reveal the contours of their multinational corporate parentage: Their command of the subtleties of the human voice distracts from their reliance on access to handily available answers. Our insipid behavior around these smart objects might be a coping mechanism, a way to normalize the presence of such hyperaware subjects in our domiciles so that we can dismiss our unease with their habit of sending little packets of our data back to Cupertino, Redmond, or Mountain View.

Other items on Steinbach’s shelves (a glockenspiel-like musical instrument, a ceramic donkey head) appeared by contrast inert and withholding, as if they knew something too valuable to reveal. The rabbit-ear antennas in closed at sunset except for fishing and Untitled (siri, kongs, antenna), both 2019, served as Cassandras of doom for their Silicon Valley kin—what you are, I once was; what I am, you will be. Indeed, fads were everywhere, even in the works that did not explicitly exhibit retro objects. Display #103—the band if it is white and black the band has a green string, pantone16-1546tpxlivingcoral, 2019, featured a painted mural of the swatch for the current Pantone color of the year, Living Coral. On the reverse of the latter work appeared a snippet of text from Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons (1914), a collection of poems dedicated to food, objects, and spaces. “What is the use of a violent kind of delightfulness if there is no pleasure in not getting tired of it,” Stein writes in the same poem that Steinbach cites. As if describing the reverse logic of Amazon’s Alexa, she continues, “The question does not come before there is a quotation.”