In the seventies, a collective of artists (later given the moniker Institutional Critique) emerged whose goals weren’t productive but critical: they aimed not to create art-objects, but to deconstruct the partial and institutionally biased manners in which art-objects are perceived. Deb Sokolow takes this schizophrenic mindset—in which everything that seems initially beautiful or virtuous is scrutinized until it becomes wretched—as an effective staging ground for the exploration of postmodern American life.
Sokolow’s show at Western Exhibitions includes a series of “visualizations” of peculiar new technologies. They range from earnest examinations of the absurd (a survey of “building materials constructed from mycelia” inspects both architectural and aesthetic angles) to sardonic criticisms of contemporary American life (a proposal for a “home séance room” asserts that “most domestic environments” will possess one after the 2024 election). In her visualizations, Sokolow demonstrates her abilities not just as an absurd poet but as a draftsperson: each bit of text is accompanied by a series of technical drawings. Color-coded floor plans and iterated rectilinear forms bring her descriptive text to life in a way that is inexplicable yet necessary.
Yet for all the fabulism of Sokolow’s technologies, their applications are invariably sinister. Her proposal for “objects designed to be emotionally desirable” warns that “behavior is driven by unconscious desires, by shapes, and by group think.” Commenting on hypothetical “walls which visibly register an individual’s mood fluctuations,” she notes their usefulness to “certain organizations intending to track emotional reactions to shared occurrences.” A prospective “subtle soothing environment for body work” is “engineered to appear without an agenda… But there’s always an agenda.” Sokolow engages in a pessimistic phenomenology: every little thing we interact with has some ulterior motive. Our actions aren’t the effect of consciously made decisions but of these coercive and manipulative surroundings.
It’d be easy to label such ominous undertones “satirical” if they didn’t feel so real. High-profile home assistants like Alexa and Google Home are constantly listening in through their microphones. TikTok’s parent company has admitted to using the app to surveil American journalists. Just last month a Facebook whistleblower testified to Congress that the company pursues profit at the expense of user safety. Whether Sokolow’s paranoia is justified or not, viewers are forced to confront the fact that we live in an age where “certain organizations” seem to know us as intimately as our closest friends.
Pinned to the far wall of the exhibit’s second room is a bricolage of Sokolow’s technical drawings devoid of text. They overlap and confront one another. Acidic rectilinear forms melt into strips of gradated pastel colors. Mini-color field compositions are slighted by cubist geometric illustrations. Each sketch is a model, claiming to describe something within the external world with reasonable accuracy: this is why people act the way they do, this is why you want the things you want, this is why the world is the way it is. Combined in this endless web, they form an even larger model, one that lays claims to describing all facets of human life. But looking at the wall’s clutter, one thing becomes clear: no matter how many components are added to this structure, it could never model human actions with complete accuracy. In the midst of anxiety over technology’s growing role in our everyday lives, Sokolow finds solace: something about humanity cannot be reduced into zeroes and ones.
“Deb Sokolow: Visualizing” is on view at Western Exhibitions, 1709 West Chicago through December 16.