Developments in artificial intelligence and machine learning are blurring the line between man and machine—but Northern California artists have long wrestled with issues of post-humanism.

Working in the shadow of Silicon Valley at the close of the 20th century, Bay Area artists including Alan Rath, Bruce Cannon, Sonya Rapoport and Therese Lahaie experimented with electronics, computing and robotics to create artworks that prefigure our contemporary obsession with sentient machines.

Consider, for instance, Cannon’s “Subjective Object III” (1994), a so-called subjectivity generator comprised of speech electronics inside an antique box. Each time the box is opened, a microchip randomly selects parts of speech from its nine-word vocabulary, speaking aloud a variation on Descartes’ famous phrase “cogito ergo sum” (I think, therefore I am). Does this speaking machine indeed have the capacity for thought? Does this connote consciousness, agency, subjectivity?

The machine’s low-tech aesthetic amplifies its uncanny sense of personhood.

These machines’ failure to transcend their artificiality is their most significant aspect. The pieces are not so much lifelike as referential to being, and what is missing is what resonates for me. I have come to think of this negative space as the place where the work happens, at its best a sort of electro-mechanical Haiku in which randomness and absence generate issues of sentience and presence which I would be unable to evoke directly.

(Bruce Cannon)

Rath, under whom Cannon trained as a studio assistant, raises similar issues with sculptures featuring electronic eyes that wink, blink and patiently watch visitors from the gallery wall. Lahaie, meanwhile, offers a glass and organza sculpture that appears to breath in and out in a simulacrum of life itself. These machines—created by artist-tinkerers blurring the line between artistic practice and technological research—are a relic of a more hopeful (and perhaps naive) moment in the relation between man and machine. Whereas today’s technological discourse veers towards dystopian visions of robot wars and panoptical corporate surveillance, the works on display remind us that, at the turn of the 21st century, living machines held the promise of creative liberation.

Featured artists (all works from di Rosa permanent collection): Richard Berger, Bruce Cannon, Alan Rath, Therese Lahaie, Sonya Rapoport, Stephanie Syjuco and Lynn Hershman Leeson.