New YorkAlyssa Davis Gallery
December 21, 2018 – February 24, 2019
On the 11th floor of a Flatiron-style apartment building in Greenwich Village, the young gallerist Alyssa Davis has created a unique space for exhibiting work by emerging artists. Exhibitions over the past year have demonstrated a strong affinity for digitally-fluent work with elemental, earthy sensibilities, and a high standard for craft across a range of media. Site-specific interventions seem particularly encouraged by the gallery’s unusual floor plan, in which marble columns separate a small antechamber from a grand, triangular room formed by the corner of Cornelia Street and Sixth Avenue below, resembling the helm of a ship with panoramic views of Manhattan.
The current exhibition, Viktor Timofeev’s God Room,makes especially strong use of the space. The show revolves around an algorithmically de-generating alphabet, which was designed and programmed by Timofeev, and which is presented in the form of a dual-channel video. However, the way this complex digital entity is introduced to the viewer is so integrally interwoven with elements of drawing, sound, and installation design that the totality is hardly legible as a collection of discrete objects or conceptual moves, and the exhibition is better understood as a work of theater activated by the visitor’s exploration.
Upon entering the apartment gallery, the resonant sound of a slowed-down clock pendulum conjures a sensation of time slipping slowly away, similar to the attenuated experience we may associate with waiting. Indeed, we appear to be in a waiting room: cheap chairs have been staged on opposite sides of the gallery’s antechamber, and a TV screen is mounted vertically on the wall, posed so that one might look up at it expectantly waiting for a number to be called. Appearing on the screen is a group of symbols that are vaguely familiar, even archetypal: a staircase, an embryo, a crawling man, a labyrinth. Beside these are words that would appear to explain the icons’ precise meaning, but which are comprised of alien and illegible letters—ones whose shapes mutate with each slow tick of the clock, like the unstable glyphs of a Lovecraftian language. Across the room, the pictorial motifs are echoed in six small drawings featuring ant-like human figures that crawl through nested labyrinths and cavernous architecture. The drawings abound with symbols, but their messages are unrecognizable thanks to the inscrutable key on the TV screen.
These grim little drawings would look appropriate in the lobby of purgatory, where you might study them while waiting for your appointment with fate. In the case of this limbo, however, you’d be waiting a long time: the chamber beyond the waiting room is empty. Through the threshold of columns that divides this fictional space is the “God Room,” where a computer is running at an empty desk beneath a monumental drawing of twisting, rope-like forms on the walls and ceiling. The computer is generating the cryptic alphabet that updates on the waiting room marquee in time with the ticking pendulum. The symbol scrambler is on autopilot (apparently God is out of office). You can physically navigate a map of the alphabet at this workstation, and in theory, one could use this key to “de-code” the messages on the waiting-room screen. But because the alphabet is degenerating so rapidly, the task is effectively impossible. By the time you could get from one chamber to the other, the letters will have morphed again. The narrative set into motion by the interlocking elements of God Room reflects a zeitgeist of estrangement—the absent god, the realization that “no one is steering the ship,” that the code is unbreakable—these potentially melancholic or cynical sentiments are suited to an age of anxiety toward the occult nature of our digital technologies. Today, we attempt to navigate a present in which the information networks once thought to illuminate reality have, if anything, left us more confused.
However, Timofeev’s elegantly designed entropic alphabet is not just about the encryption and inscrutability of digital technology, but also of language itself. The mutated letters most resemble some ancient script, reminding us that since the very beginning, communication has been mediated by “coders.” The earliest known phonetic alphabet, cuneiform (in widespread use around 3500 BCE), was difficult to read and write, such that its highly trained scribes held considerable social power as gatekeepers of business transactions, history, and cultural memory. Their role was not so different from that of contemporary programmers who type in tongues like Python, Lisp, Perl, Ruby, Agora—esoteric codes that comprise the digital age, and which will no doubt eventually be forgotten.
Fifty years ago, Marshall McLuhan pointed out the inextricability of communication from the form which it takes, declaring that “the medium is the message.” This remains a driving interest of many new media artists who interrogate how “the digital” fundamentally alters, threatens, or expands human notions of life. By contrast, while the programmed alphabet binds the narrative of God Room, its digital form seems incidental; the effect would be essentially unchanged if we were confronted instead with a set of stone tablets pressed with cuneiform. Rather than engaging in the breathless chase of an ever-accelerating present, Timofeev spins a more interesting, expansive yarn—one most fully symbolized by the abstract mural adorning the God Room, which resembles mathematical string figures as well as creeping vines, organic forms in an active state of evolution. They invoke weaving and unraveling—meaning coming together as it falls apart.