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Is Johnny5 alive?

Artist Joe Meiser explores the paradox of sfumato



In the classic 1980s film Short Circuit starring Steve Guttenberg and Ally Sheedy, a robot named Johnny5 is struck by lightning and gains consciousness. In becoming aware of himself, the robot also becomes aware of his own mortality—the eventuality of being "disassembled."

The wide-eyed robot is a sympathetic character; he's us. Pennsylvania-based visual artist Joe Meiser latched onto Johnny5, and in him saw reflected our own existential crises and fatalistic fears. He also found himself asking other big questions about the meaning of consciousness, and the way technological advances are changing the reality we inhabit. He wonders, is "consciousness just a lifeless sequence of ones and zeros? Or, is there some animating metaphysical presence at work in [Johnny5's] intelligence? Are humans qualitatively different from [IBM's] Watson and Johnny5? Or, are we simply highly advanced computational machines?"

While they may not seem likely fodder for artistic inspiration, these are the kind of tricky, unanswerable questions that drive Meiser's work, and are showcased in his exhibit that opens at FrontierSpace for First Friday. Three digital projects—"Sfumato," "Hercules and the Centaur" and "Liminal Construct"—all grapple with humanity's complicated relationship with technology, our own fallibility and the ultimate impermanence of both us and the things we create.

A series of seven images, "Sfumato" features the iconic Johnny5 in mundane scenes: standing at a stove and boiling water for tea, or peering at himself in a bathroom mirror. The images themselves are not especially compelling—stark grayscale renderings of a pensive, melancholy robot, clearly generated on a computer. But taken in conjunction with Meiser's questions about consciousness and the process behind their creation, the scenes become somewhat more intriguing.

Designed using a 3D digital CAD program, the photorealistic scenes intentionally draw attention to the technology used to create them.

"I've always been interested in the relationship between form and content," Meiser says. "I think art is at its best when interesting connections can be drawn between conceptual significance and the materials or processes used to create it. I became interested in our relationship with technology after I started creating computer-based work. I thought it made sense to question how my use of the computer was changing my creative process, and on a larger scale, how it's changing human thought."

Joe Meiser’s digital art piece “Hercules and the Centaur” is part of a larger exhibit that opens at FrontierSpace on First Friday.
  • Joe Meiser’s digital art piece “Hercules and the Centaur” is part of a larger exhibit that opens at FrontierSpace on First Friday.

The word "sfumato" refers to a style of painting used by Leonardo da Vinci, but it also means embracing ambiguity or, Meiser says, "being able to hold two paradoxical ideas in the mind at the same time." Dichotomies drive Meiser in his work, and lead him to create images that invite further questions. Are our technological advances ultimately a positive, or a negative? Can they be both? And who decides?

"I think the tolerance for paradox and ambiguity is really the mark of artists and other creative thinkers," Meiser says. "And it's important because it keeps us from thinking rigidly and linearly about how the world works or how to achieve something."

Meiser's work is compelling on an intellectual level. His video piece "Hercules and the Centaur" is a mashup of Johnny5, the Gulf oil spill, pelicans and Greek mythology mixing in deep philosophical questions about the double-edged sword of technology, all of it rendered in virtual, digital sculpture. It's a lot to wrap the brain around, but that's the point: We are wading deeper and deeper into complex digital territory, and the outcome of this pursuit remains unknown. Of course, these questions are ultimately the same that have plagued humankind for millennia.

"We're still wrestling with the same issues that occupied us a long time ago," Meiser says. "That's why I think Greek mythology is interesting. The myths continue to hold their relevance because the human condition is still essentially the same."

Meiser doesn't offer any answers. In fact, he's not even sure if he's asking the right questions but, just like Johnny5, he says he'll keep asking them.

"A person can live their life with a sense of certainty, or a sense of mystery," Meiser says. "And in the end, it's hard to say who's really better off."

Joe Meiser's exhibit shows at FrontierSpace, in the alley between Spruce and Pine near Sean Kelly's, for First Friday, June 6, with a reception from 6 to 9 PM. Free.


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