Infinitely Idle

February 24, 2023

Yesterday, my friend Andy Baio and I were talking about Omega Mart from Meow Wolf. I went just last week, and my impressions are basically: some of it is incredible, but the further you go, the less story there is, which is kind of the opposite of its marketing. The deeper into the store, the more it seems like The Museum of Ice Cream. That is to say that rooms exist solely for taking photos and videos for Instagram.

That’s not entirely a complaint, as many of the rooms are beautiful and really thoughtful. But Omega Mart is highly interactive in some areas, while other areas have absolutely nothing to do in them. These rooms also seem completely separated from the grander story that Meow Wolf attempts to tell.

Andy sent me a video on YouTube of Refik Anadol’s Unsupervised piece at MoMA in New York. It’s a generated video that uses art from MoMa as a source, splashing and warping color in a box.

“Seems neat.”

Then he followed up saying that a few art critics promptly panned it. One piece from Vulture called it “MoMA’s Glorified Lava Lamp.”

“Yes, that seems like an accurate headline.”

I think what bothers me about Unsupervised is that it doesn’t add anything to the art that it’s generated from. It takes from it, but it doesn’t contribute much.

People will spend minutes in front of this piece, entranced and mesmerized by it, but they’ll just walk by the real paintings that this is generated from.

I want to say now that I have nothing against this existing, but I think it devalues what MoMA is and the art it contains. Of course, people are not ignoring the real paintings because this exists, but it takes time away from viewing those pieces.

Humans have longer lifespans than ever before, but more of our time is being devoted to things that never existed before.

One hundred years ago, we barely had movies or recorded music. We didn’t have video games or TV shows. And every year, humans make more things that beg for our attention. Every day, we have to decide which things are worth not just our time, but which things can and do add value to our lives. It’s super subjective and varies between people.

When I see something like Unsupervised, It looks like something that is designed to amaze people by being big and shiny. But does it need or deserve the space or time people will give it?

An extremely-high-resolution digital reproduction of the Mona Lisa is in many ways is better than viewing it at the Louvre, because you can see more of it, closer than you can in reality. Behind a few panes of bullet-proof glass, embedded in a wall, guarded by a bowed railing and security’s not a great experience. And there’s a line to see it. You can barely appreciate it.

But that’s not true for most every other piece of art exhibited in museums. For most paintings, you can get significantly closer, to inspect brush strokes. You can see artists’ intentions, mistakes. You can see how color was mixed in a single stroke. Or how a small imperfection actually adds to the piece.

The Museum of Modern Art is home to thousands of great pieces. Watching this infinite piece will make guests’ time in the museum more limited, restricting what they will go and see.

What will visitors learn from Unsupervised or pieces like it? Animated installations have great potential to inspire. Though I question the generative nature of this piece. Can it truly be animation? I hesitate to call it an animation as its movements are not chosen. The movement and cycle is defined and the program just runs. Can it be an animation without an animator? Can it be a movie without a director?

This piece is obviously captivating in some way, but I can’t help but think it’s better suited for a more ambient location, like an airport, where people pass by it. In a place where there’s little to do, this can be a great addition.

To me, this installation sucks up the air in a museum where great and timeless art lives. Why would a museum like MoMA want to do that? In a way, it’s insulting. It’s the role of art curation to decide what others need to see. Is MoMA saying this is worth seeing?

When done well, art can teach people something, show them a new perspective, and they can attempt to understand the artist. Do people learn anything from this piece? Do they gain new perspective? Does it make people think about the choices that were made? Do they understand humanity better from it?

Though the creator of Unsupervised undoubtedly spent significant effort to create a piece like this, without the intention of every movement or color, can it even be art? Even if it could be considered art, is it …good art?

Art is a method of communication. I assume all art is trying to tell me something in the same way that words do for writers. Every brush stroke or chisel mark is something an artist did intentionally or unintentionally. And I can learn from those and see things the way they do.

Many pieces of artwork have had a lasting impact on my life. They make me think. They make me wonder.

Temporary things can absolutely be art. I believe food can be art. But when something is short-lived, or gone in an instant due to the nature of a generative piece, is it worth my attention, time, or consideration? What can I learn from something that is gone in a flash? Can it enrich my life? Does it make me wonder? Could it ever?

You cannot explore this piece. You don’t really get to wonder about it. You don’t get to the “why” of it. Art is so much about the “why.” I want to wonder “why” about everything, assuming everything is intentional. Can Unsupervised spawn many “whys”?

I went to three Cirque du Soleil shows last week, and all were awesome. In these, a hundred artists, athletes, and technicians work together under the intention of the director. When you see it come together, you can marvel at each level and at the whole. There are lots of decisions to inspect and appreciate, like every subtle change in movement from a performer that allows them to pull off some feat. It’s a grand concert with a lot involved.

You can say the same about video games, movies, TV, and lots of music. Collaborative works amplify all the little things you can learn from artist intention. You can come away inspired from all the things people can do. And it helps your imagination grow to wonder what you can do.

I see immense possibility when I see artwork that can inspire me in that way.

In comparison, generative video walls feel very limiting to me. I don’t see what they want me to see, I see what they programmed and let run. They are seeing some things for the first time when I do. That doesn’t feel like art to me. At least, it’s not very good art if you’re showing things you didn’t know you put your name on.

I fear people will sit in front of it and learn nothing. They will not be able to talk about anything about it except that it exists. They will not be able to talk about how it moved them.

I want to say it concisely: This is a screensaver.

With all the incredible, intentional art being created, why would you ever choose to sit and watch a screensaver?

Can a screensaver move you? Can it make you understand or question humanity? Does it have that potential?

If MoMA was truly interested in the modern art that defined the genre of infinitely idle screensavers, perhaps it could first exhibit Maze, Pipes, or Flying Toasters.