What Just Happened: Wade Wallerstein Decodes Digital Art’s Myriad “Distant Early Warnings”

Wade Wallerstein is an anthropologist from the San Francisco Bay Area. His research centers on communication in virtual spaces and the relationship between digital visual culture and contemporary art. Currently, Wallerstein is Associate Curator at Gray Area, Founder and Director of Silicon Valet, a virtual parking lot for expanded internet art, and co-Director of TRANSFER Gallery, an exhibition space devoted to simulation and other computational art forms. He also serves as Community Manager at Outland Art, a Web3 art platform. His curatorial work has been featured in the New York Times, Dazed, Artforum, AQNB, Canadian Art, and other publications.


Greg J. Smith

What just happened? On September 29th, “Distant Early Warnings” opened in San Francisco as part of the 2022 edition of the Gray Area Festival. Curated by Gray Area’s Wade Wallerstein (US), the show deals with detection—as inspired by the late Canadian media theorist Marshall McLuhan’s assertion that artists are a “distant early warning system” for culture. Tega Brain, Paige Emery, Huntrezz, Sam Lavigne, Claudia Larcher, Caroline Sinders, Şerife Wong, and Alice Yuan Zhang contributed artwork, and Andrew McLuhan organized a selection of media from the McLuhan Archive.

Q: True to the show’s “Distant Early Warnings” title, notions of sensing and detection seem prominent across the works you’ve assembled. Within the exhibition, what and how are the artists detecting?
A: Perception, knowing, and calling upon innate but underutilized parts of the human sensorium, are certainly central to all of the works in the show. Across the board, the artists in “Distant Early Warnings” embody concepts of interdisciplinary, interspecies, and intergenerational questioning in their practices. A few call to ancient ways of knowing and sensing—Paige Emery looks to more spiritual and ritual practices, making nods to dendromancy (a form of druidic prophecy from Celtic times involving tree roots) and scrying (coming from the word ‘descry,’ which means seeing something unclear by looking carefully, scrying involves meditation on water or reflections to divine the future).

These are physical practices of the body that rely on human perception of forms in nature to intuit meaning about the world, or what might come next. For Alice Yuan Zhang, the word intergenerational is key. She is really looking at ways of nurturing intergenerational technologies that outlast market conditions or hype cycles, ones that call upon ancestral knowledge and instinctive modes of making kinship.

Claudia Larcher takes a birds eye view in her piece Ore, which depicts the dramatic terraforming that another ancient technology—mining—has had on the planet. Going between one mine in Asia and another in Europe, her piece documents the phenomenology of human labor necessary to use this world- building and destroying technology: the darkness of the mining tunnels, the sounds of the pickaxes hitting rocks, the sublime drama of a landscape terraformed by human extraction.

Even in the works that do not directly address more mystical or genealogical questions of “Distant Early Warnings,” these ideas about perception and innate creative instinct are present. Sam Lavigne’s The Capitalist Gene is a citizen science project that aims to determine whether there is something in human DNA that steers a person towards capitalism. He chalks it up to common sense: if capitalism is such an immutable aspect of society, surely it must be an immutable building block of human genetic material.

“For us, the concept of artists as distant early warning systems was a natural one—one that, consciously or subconsciously, we had been working with since Gray Area was founded nearly 15 years ago.”
Q: That ‘distant early warning’ nomenclature is derived from the late Canadian media Theorist Marshall McLuhan’s claim that art (at its best) was a “distant early warning system.” Can you share a brief summary of how Gray Area has been working with the McLuhan family in recent years, and how Andrew McLuhan contributed to planning this show?
A: The McLuhan Institute, headed by Marshall McLuhan’s grandson Andrew McLuhan, has been an invaluable partner and a treasured collaborator over the past few years. Our board chair, Peter Hirshberg, has a long history with Andrew’s father and Marshall’s son, Eric McLuhan, who passed away in 2018. This dialogue about distant early warnings has been an ongoing one, spanning years and international borders.

During the pandemic, our thought conversations led to a more formal collaboration, when Andrew taught a course on Marshall’s arguably most famous book, Understanding Media (1964). For us, the concept of artists as distant early warning systems was a natural one—one that, consciously or subconsciously, we had been working with since Gray Area was founded nearly 15 years ago. The conversation was just too big to contain to one class or seminar, and Gray Area Festival—our annual flagship program and biggest event—seemed like the perfect vehicle to launch the conversation into a more public space. We still have so much to uncover, so definitely expect a follow up program continuing the discussion soon.

Andrew was such an incredible collaborator in the making of the Distant Early Warnings program. Both Peter and I traveled to Canada separately to visit the McLuhan Institute in Prince Edward County, Ontario. Marshall’s office materials and indeed the vast majority of his personal archive is contained there, in a charmingly rustic barn behind the McLuhan family home. We both spent hours combing through the shelves, going through old documents and letters, and trying to pull out the key pieces that we felt really demonstrated this story. Andrew was a skillful guide, having such a closeness and familiarity with his grandfather’s materials, and together we were able to select the few documents that were on view in the exhibition: original copies of the DEW-Line Newsletter, hand-written lecture notes from the Bilderberg Conference in 1969, and even Marshall’s annotated copy of Ezra Pound’s ABC of Reading (1934).
Tega Brain & Sam Lavigne, Synthetic Messenger (2022)

A botnet that artificially inflates the value of climate news
Q: Alice Yuan Zhang’s Autophagy and Claudia Larcher’s Ore, both deal with the earth. The former depicts ritual decomposition and the latter descends into the mines that give hungry industry its raw materials. Could you talk about the prominence of themes of environmentalism and ecology across the collected works?
A: Ecology certainly was on a lot of the artists’ minds. There just is no escaping the anxiety of environmental collapse, and you could definitely feel this across the exhibition. Autophagy is an augmented reality sculpture, which depicts the artist’s 3D-scanned body decomposing in a pile of soil—the patch of land that she occupies on our planet. Around her is a depiction of the Ophiocordyceps fungus. This is a parasitic fungus that lives in ants, and causes them to act irrationally and eventually die, at which point the fungus propagates itself. Looking towards natural cycles of domination, death, and rebirth, Zhang is commenting less on the current state of our environment and more on humans’ role in it. Alongside the rise of abstracted financial technologies like the blockchain, and the popularity of NFT trading, Zhang reminds that humans are fungible; potentially just replaceable hosts for life. She embodies this process, and return herself to the earth in an act of humility. This feels so hopeful to me; a reframing of ourselves in relation to the dynamic world around us that is so needed right now (especially as many seek to leave their corporeal forms behind to spend time in the ‘metaverse’).

Like I mentioned earlier, Ore is about human extraction. The piece amalgamates drone footage shot in Japan and Austria, and the result is a devastating tableau of the visual effect of human change on the earth’s surface. There is a push and a pull between this piece, and Zhang’s piece: one depicts taking from, and the other, a return to the earth. While we fiddle away on our devices, something much bigger is going on. Our planet is changing drastically so that we can have rare minerals to make our phones work. We talk in impact, in abstract consequence, but these works return us to a lived experience within systems.

In the middle of these two works, a collaborative piece by Tega Brain and Sam Lavigne called Synthetic Messenger displays the outputs of an algorithmic bot performance across 15 monitors. For two weeks, 100 bots scoured the internet seeking out articles about climate change. To inflate the value of climate change within the extractive attention economy, each bot would click on every ad in every article on climate change it could find. The results swayed the algorithms, boosting the cost of ad spend on climate change-related articles for companies and disemboweling the mechanized business model that runs our contemporary internet. I think that altogether, what we see across these pieces is a brilliant reframing of the individual’s place inside of the abstract natural and technological systems surrounding our realities. Hopefully, they make the viewer rethink their own place within these systems too.
Hot and Cold Media

Building on their longstanding relationship between the McLuhan family and Gray Area, a ‘probe’ by the late Canadian media theorist Marshall McLuhan is central to the “Distant Early Warnings” curatorial concept. A pop culture sensation in the 1960s and ’70s, McLuhan’s most well known work is Understanding Media (1964), which makes a broad case that new mass media (television, film, radio) were engaging human senses in a fundamentally different way than print culture. Simultaneously illuminating and vexing, the literary-scholar-turned-media-critic’s theorizations included a schema for ‘hot’ media, which engages a particular sense completely (e.g. the way watching a film takes over your attention completely), and ‘cold’ media, which requires more work and interaction from the audience (e.g. the cognitive load of following a comic book narrative from panel to panel). He also argues that new media retrieve old cultural forms.

Q: This is the second show in Gray Area’s new gallery space (that opened in August). Please tell us about your vision for the space?
A: We’re so thrilled to finally have a dedicated exhibition space at Gray Area! We’ve always been exceedingly multi-purpose, which has made durational exhibiting difficult. Our goal with the gallery is to create an interdisciplinary, exhibitive art program that creates new interfaces with exciting and conceptually groundbreaking work from across the world in conversation with local creative practitioners. We want to put the incredible work being done quietly by artists around the San Francisco Bay Area in dialogue with some of the top thinkers and creators from around the globe. There are so few spaces dedicated to contemporary new media art in the Bay Area, and we could really feel this absence. It’s great that the big museums bring in these kinds of critical explorations of technology through art, but what we really need is a bit more specific.

Gray Area is, at its core, a community space. Our duty is to the people of the San Francisco Mission District. It felt really important that there be a space where innovative work from outside of our Bay Area bubble could begin more robust dialogues with Silicon Valley. We also wanted to bring the artists that we have been working with for years, and emerging artists that pass through our various programs, some visibility on a broader stage. Our very first show in the new space was a solo show of the net art collective Felt Zine. They are a legendary Bay Area group, who have been innovating and nurturing digital culture for over a decade. They had never had a solo exhibition in a fine art gallery space before, which felt insane to me—I was like, how is no one paying attention to this work?! It was such an honor to get to host Felt Zine for this historic exhibition, and bring their work into an institutional context for the first time.
“Gray Area is, at its core, a community space. Our duty is to the people of the San Francisco Mission District. It felt really important that there be a space where innovative work from outside of our Bay Area bubble could begin more robust dialogues with Silicon Valley.”
Q: Finally, what do you have in the works for 2023?
A: Over the course of 2023, we are thrilled to be bringing three massive, genre-defining survey exhibitions to the Grand Theater. In March 2023, we will open a solo presentation of works by Canadian-Mexican artist Rafael Lozano-Hemmer. Presenting a critical history of Mexican technology through the last 20 years of the artist’s studio practice, the show will be presenting some of Lozano-Hemmers most iconic digital sculptural work alongside a few brand new pieces. Next July, we will be hosting “Difference Machines: Technology and Identity in Contemporary Art,” an exhibition curated by Tina Rivers Ryan and Paul Vanouse at the Buffalo AKG Museum. The show brings together legends from the history of modern digital art—from virtual world storytellers creating machinima film like Skawennati to artists working in interactive web experience & installation like Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley. Many of these artists have widespread acclaim, but have never shown in San Francisco before. It will be such a privilege to get to introduce local audiences to this rich host of exciting new ideas.
What Just Happened
In this serial interview format, HOLO checks in with artists, designers, curators, and researchers to get the lowdown on a timely topic—be it a new project, exhibition, or current event that ‘just happened.’

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Greg J. Smith

A writer and cultural worker based in Hamilton, Canada, Greg is an editor for HOLO and his writing has appeared in publications including Creative Applications Network, Musicworks, and Back Office. He is also a PhD candidate within the Department of Communication Studies and Multimedia at McMaster University, where he is researching the emergence of the programmable drum machine in the early 1980s.

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