The robotic counterpart to Jackson Pollock spins in circles, dragging an attached Magic Marker. Part of ‘Go Fish,’ an exhibit by the Brooklyn-based artist John Klima now showing at Postmasters Gallery in Chelsea, the robot and three more like it are busy making splotches and swirls across a paper map of the world on the floor. These are simple analog machines, rotating from one square of paper to the next by internal voltage currents rather than digital instructions. But the entire installation is complicated enough that the artist is on hand to help visitors navigate his piece, since they must actively participate for the works to run.
Viewers can direct the “bugs,” as Klima calls them, with a joystick linked to an enormous clear weather balloon floating overhead. On the balloon appears an image of the earth, complete with satellites. Four red circles in this three-dimensional map correspond to the home countries of four charging stations sitting on the paper world below. To re-energize the robots when they run low, visitors must drag one of the whirling satellites into a circle, which then illuminates a charging station.
These tiny machines do more than scramble our vision of the world. Each circle reflects real-time currency fluctuations for the charging stations’ home countries. “The more volatile the currency, the larger the red disk,” explains Klima. “That makes it more likely that the charging station is on and the bug goes there more and it’ll be darker from the marker. You’ll notice Mexico is really dark.”
The squares of paper can be bought one by one, becoming progressively more expensive as more are sold, from $1 to $10,000. The many layers—of paper and meaning—point to a vision of a world governed by fabricated systems, like the currency or art markets, which often create scarcity to drive up value. “Half the time,” says Klima of his techniques, “it’s just practicality. I wanted the more volatile countries to be represented as larger simply because in the currency field that’s what one pays attention to.”
A former programmer for financial consultants like Dun & Bradstreet, Klima will also be contributing a piece called ecosystm to BitStreams, the Whitney Museum of Art’s exhibition opening March 22. Ecosystm transforms streaming market data into projections of flocks in flight; visitors navigate the work with joysticks. “The combination of the graphic interface, the beauty of it, the imagery, with the real-time information and confluence of economic and ecosystems information is terrific,” says curator Lawrence Rinder. “It’s compelling, and disturbing.”
Klima says his work attempts to “make real something considered virtual, like a Star Trek holodeck.” By using the look and feel of video games, the pieces encourage users to consider other kinds of games played in life. A second installation at Postmasters, Fish, examines the mini-world of a fishbowl. Visitors play a video game in which the outcome affects the fate of a real goldfish. A freestanding arcade cabinet is flanked by an elaborate configuration of fish tanks that—with long plastic tubes and tiers of bowls—looks as if it could be from the set of a 1950s science fiction movie. In the game, rendered with the 3-D animation software World App and Klima’s own self-taught programming skills, the player is a fish swimming through dangerous waters. Lose, and a goldfish is shot from a bowl into a tank with menacing oscar fish, which will eat it later at night. Win, and the goldfish heads toward less carnivorous company.
Players might pity the victim, but the goldfish must lose out sometimes, or the oscars will die of starvation. “It’s the moral dilemma any pet owner faces when they feed animals to their pets,” says Klima. More than that, it may be the reigning moral dilemma in a zero-sum system, where saving one creature means killing another and where one person’s calm blue water is another’s path to power.
“Go Fish“ runs through March 24 at Postmasters Gallery, 459 West 19th Street, 212-727-3323