Art Review: Projecting Identity: Bodies Object at Suffolk Community College

Kaya Turan

On view at Sagtikos Art Gallery at Suffolk Community College from September to October of 2022, the exhibition Bodies Object presented a strange conglomeration of materials, including HD video, hot and sour soup, AI generated imagery, wood, and a mattress. The exhibition presented the work of four artists from Stony Brook’s Future Histories Studio, including two graduate workers, Josie Williams and Diana Mulan Zhu, and two faculty members of the Art department, Coleman Collins and Stephanie Dinkins. The show examined the mediation of physical bodies in digital space, exploring the ways in which identity is altered and transformed in the immaterial. Projecting and printing the virtual back onto the physical, Bodies Object reveals the material underpinnings of the digital. Beyond observing the obfuscation and disfiguration of bodies and identities in the virtual, the exhibition examines the complex entanglement of the material and the immaterial, framing projection as a critical and resistant act.

Josie WIlliams’ together here in Bodies Object

The first piece encountered in the exhibition, directly adjacent to the introductory wall text, was Josie Williams’ together here. AI-animated faces of historical figures (including Harriet Tubman and James Baldwin), the artist herself and people of personal significance to her, and nonexistent (computationally generated) individuals were projected onto a grid of small, square wooden blocks. These transhistorical visages were set into motion, blinking and slightly swaying as they were illuminated by brightly colored lights. In the gallery space, these virtual faces—some no longer existing and some never having existed—were given material form in their projection onto wood. A tension emerges between the supposed immateriality of the virtual and the fragile composition of wood, vulnerable to axing, rotting, and decomposition. Through the act of projection onto a mutual wooden plane, together here combines the disparate temporalities of past, present and future in a single space of interaction. The material becomes a place to creatively and productively combine the infinitely flexible temporalities of the digital. 

Diana Mulan Zhu’s Consumed is a large sculptural installation that occupied the center of the room. A film made by the artist, composed of vintage pornography clips featuring Asian women, is projected onto a Chinese-takeout-stained mattress. Referencing her traumatic experience of being exposed to pornography as a young child, the piece finds connections between different modes of consumption: binge-watching and binge-eating. Projecting pornography back onto the bed on which they are both produced and (often) viewed, Consumed resists the abstraction and instrumentalization of Asian female bodies. The piece challenges Western mediation of Asian culture by projecting (and thus re-mediating) images, anchoring them to a specific location rather than letting them drift aimlessly. 

Diana Mulan Zhu’s Consumed in Bodies Object

Dispersion, a video by Coleman Collins, occupied a gallery wall in the rear of the space. The video loops footage of a small motorized boat traveling from the former slave port of Badagry, Nigeria to the open water. As the brief clip loops, it gradually degrades, becoming increasingly pixelated and abstracted. Overlaying text slowly emerges, reading: “Dispersion seemed inevitable.” Projecting HD video directly onto the gallery wall, Dispersion placed the digital in and on the material. The “dispersion” of the image—its falling apart, degrading and decaying—reveals that it, like the people and places it depicts, is vulnerable to violence and death.

The final piece included in the exhibition was Stephanie Dinkins’ A ______ Woman Smiling. Dinkins fed prompts to a text-to-image machine learning algorithm, filling the blank in A ______ Woman Smiling with various phrases such as “African-American,” “Black,” and “null.” Dinkins’ piece differs from the others in the show in that it involves printing rather than projection—the resulting portraits were printed onto metal canvas and hung on the wall. Printing, though technologically and aesthetically distinct from projection, nonetheless functions to give material form and format to the digital. Taking up AI’s fragmented and biased understandings of identity, A ______ Woman Smiling explores the entanglement of human and machinic agency. Data and aesthetic production, caught between the human and the non-human, are hung on the wall for all to see.

Cutting through myths of the digital as immaterial (with metaphors like “the cloud”) and as offering a post-identity space, Bodies Object projects and prints mediations of bodies back onto and into the material. The increasingly fragile status of bodies as objects is explored, complicated, and questioned. Rather than strictly separating and binarizing the immaterial and material, the virtual and the physical, Bodies Object demonstrates the ways in which these domains are mutually constitutive and inseparably enmeshed.