The ROCI Road to Peace: Experiments in the Unfamiliar

Academy Art Museum, Easton
Nov 16, 2015 6:06AM

The ROCI Road to Peace: Experiments in the Unfamiliar was inspired by the ethos of the Rauschenberg Overseas Culture Interchange (ROCI, 1984–91), conceived by Robert Rauschenberg to foster understanding and promote peace through art. The artist traveled with his team to ten countries—Chile, China, Cuba, East Germany, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, the Soviet Union, Tibet, and Venezuela—to explore diverse cultural traditions, materials, and local artistic practices. The intentions of ROCI—to share, understand, and celebrate difference—are as relevant today as they were in 1984. At the outset of the project, Rauschenberg declared, “It was not until I realized that it is the celebration of the differences between things that I became an artist who could see. I know ROCI could make this kind of looking possible.”

The current exhibition envisions what a ROCI of today might look like. It presents the work of several members of a new generation of artists responding to the current social, political, and technological landscape. Despite increased access to technology and the Internet’s promise of a more globalized human community, the world remains fraught with economic and political turmoil and glaring inequalities. Closed physical borders generate uncertainty and suffering, with images of those afflicted transcending national boundaries via technology. Meanwhile, humankind is concurrently experiencing advancement in its social and technological evolution, a moment in which personal development, mindfulness, empowerment, entrepreneurship, global connectivity, and responsibility are growing. In the face of global connectivity, the coexistence of humanity and technology is rapidly becoming a coevolution. The ubiquitous presence of, and global interdependence on, technology enable the original intentions of ROCI to be fulfilled in a new way. The ROCI Road to Peace examines technology as a vehicle for connections between individuals and for insight into different cultures and movements. Such unprecedented access and awareness may well be a step toward global peace and understanding.

Over the course of the past three millennia, the world was relatively stabilized and peaceful for extended periods, first with Pax Romana (27 B.C.–393 A.D.), which was followed by Pax Mongolica (1206–1368) and Pax Britannica (1815–1914). Since the end of World War II, Pax Americana (1945–present), led by the United States, has sought to maintain peace with varying success. However, as technology futurologists Ayesha and Parag Khanna posit, Pax Technologica is slowly taking over as peacekeeper.  They believe that the rise of the millennial generation, whose entrepreneurial mindset is nearly its religion, and the 24/7 global interdependence on technological advances in medicine, economics, the military, and communications will result in a dispersion of power from any one nation or individual to a socio-technological system. This will strike a coevolutionary balance among humans, technology, and nature, and, theoretically, peace will be promoted as nations share technology for the sake of the greater good.

Pax Technologica is helping to erode the rigidity of national borders, largely enabling a more seamless flow of information throughout much of the world. The coevolution of mankind and technology has spilled into art, expanding the range of mediums and forms, democratizing the availability and accessibility of artworks, and allowing pieces that were once confined to the gallery or museum to be experienced globally. While nothing can replace the sights, sounds, and smells experienced firsthand by Rauschenberg as he physically explored diverse cultural and artistic practices, the current exhibition demonstrates that today’s technology enables artists to share and celebrate their cultures and traditions with viewers on the other side of the world. 

In the Lalo’s Story (2004), Atay transports us into the traditional living room of a Kurdish family, where his friend, a dengbêj, recites a traditional song for the artist’s grandfather. Dengbêj, a term that dates back to pre-Islamic times, refers to a Kurdish musician with a memory of folklorist stories and regional myths, who deals with themes of love and war through both song and speech. Normally, a member of the older generation sings to the young, but Atay’s video shows a rupture in the long-established custom. The role between elder and young are switched, and the dialogue shifts between Kurdish and English. 

Atay lives and works in Batman, Turkey, a place where, according to the artist, it is “practically impossible to make art.” Even in this remote, repressive, and unforgiving location, video technology and distribution allow Atay’s story to reach across the globe.

Keeping technology and progress in balance is critical to maintaining Pax Technologica. Barrada examines the impact of globalization on Morocco by documenting images of everyday life, including parking lots, shopping centers, and locations on the margins of society. In Beau Geste (2009), Barrada uses video to document her intervention against the type of progress that erases valuable cultural and aesthetic differences. Barrada narrates the action of saving a single palm tree in a lot marked for construction and expresses her hope that the tree will delay development due to an existing law in Tangier that prevents the sale of land on which trees stand, and, ultimately, prevents the global homogeneity that comes with development. 

In his innovative work Reyes critiques man’s development of technology for harmful purposes. Based in Mexico City, Reyes is surrounded by gang violence associated with the transborder drug trade. He intervenes by turning weapons, such as shotguns, pistols, and rifles into musical instruments. On this occasion, he coordinated a performance of John Lennon’s song Imagine with musicians playing fifty of his instruments. According to Reyes, “It’s important to consider that many lives were taken with these weapons; as if a sort of exorcism was taking place, the music expelled the demons they held, as well as being a requiem for lives lost.” Reyes honors those who lost their lives by delivering a message that is aesthetically, emotionally, and politically potent.

Jaar examines themes of geography, monopolization, and exploitation. His Logo for America (1987) remains as relevant today as it was nearly three decades ago when it was first exhibited as an animated electric billboard in Times Square in New York. The Guggenheim Museum restaged the work in August 2014 in the same location with high-definition LED technology. Logo for America addresses the use of language and brings attention to the exclusionary perception that “America” refers only to the United States and not to the other two continents that make up the Americas. Jaar states, “Language is not innocent and reflects a geopolitical reality. . . . The use of the word America in the U.S.A., erroneously referring only to the U.S.A. and not to the entire continent, is a clear manifestation of the political, financial, and cultural domination of the U.S.A. of the rest of the continent.” 

Sebastian Schmieg and Małgosia Woźnica (V5MT) examine how the pervasiveness of the Internet shapes reality, both on- and offline. Schmieg’s Search by Image (2011–) is a series of experimental algorithmic videos that analyze Google’s image-search function. This work from the series begins with a blank image, a transparent portable network graphics (PNG) file. The algorithm then creates a process that is repeated 2,951 times and compiled into a short video that gives the viewer a glimpse into Google’s extensive visual database; it shows thousands of images in rapid succession over the course of four minutes. The collaging of images from around the globe generates a narrative of mass consumerism and reflects the ubiquitous presence of technology in off-line reality. 

Woźnica, a multimedia artist whose alias, V5MT, is an abbreviation for the region in the brain responsible for the perception of motion, uses streams of Internet data and software (ranging from simple lo-fi applications to powerful complex workflows) to create digital artworks. Woźnica’s film, flo\/\/ (2011), presents rich, colorful, scrolling images with exposed distortions and glitches. The visuals unfold slowly in a vertically scanning stream of imagery based on art history, pop culture, and cryptographic typography. flo\/\/ demonstrates that technology is imperfect, evolving, and representative only of the viewer’s tangible surroundings. 

Jawshing Arthur Liou’s used a 3K high-definition camera to make Kora (2011–12), an emotionally powerful video. The artist captures his meditative walk around remote Mount Kailash in Tibet, a ceremony he embarked upon after the death of his four-year-old daughter. The mountain, claimed to have cleansing effects on the soul, is a spiritual epicenter worshiped by four religions. Circumambulating the site (a kora) is considered to be a pinnacle of spiritual life. There is neither cell phone service nor Internet on Mount Kailash, but Liou’s camera enables the artwork to exist. Kora employs that technology as a vehicle for sharing one man’s intimate journey of pain, suffering, and search for inner peace. According to Liou, “The harsh elements and expansive landscape turned my thoughts inward. There was no immediate enlightenment, but gradual realization—that the pilgrimage is an external mirror to my solemn confrontation with past and future.”

Social scientists Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler state in their book Connected: The Amazing Power of Social Networks and How they Shape our Lives, “The great project of the twenty-first century—understanding how humanity comes to be greater than the sum of its parts—is just the beginning.” The coevolution of technology and humanity at the dawn of Pax Technologica gives art new power to generate insight into the human experience. The ROCI Road to Peace is a legacy of the project Rauschenberg embarked upon in 1984—to create a more harmonious world by using art to promote respect for cultural differences. The works in this exhibition immerse the viewer in alternate realities in way that would never have been possible without the power of technology and constitute a small, but potentially important, step toward peace. 

Nicole Bray

Academy Art Museum, Easton