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In Mills College Art Museum Show, Technology Becomes an Active Collaborator

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A white hand reaches out to touch a black and white photograph of a hand holding dirt against a green background
A still from Liat Berdugo's video work in the Art+Process+Ideas exhibition at Mills College Art Museum. (Sloane Larsen)

For at least 15 years, I’ve been trying to break up with my smartphone. Banning it from the bedroom at night, only to long for its dim glow. Exchanging it for a flip phone, then exchanging it back.

The problem is actually bigger than my phone. Digital technology makes me passive. Instead of doing things with it, things happen to me. Texts accrue. Photos amass. I seem stuck to the screen. Sometimes, I don’t even know where my body ends and the technology begins.

Like the rest of us, I’ve been inundated lately by images of slaughter, armament and exile. But I’ve also been inspired by images of protest, plea, and resistance. I’ve begun asking myself: does technology cause me to be more passive, or can it inspire me to become more active?

That question also lies at the center of the Mills College Art Museum’s annual Art+Process+Ideas residency exhibition, on view through Dec. 3. Each of the Bay Area artists featured in this year’s exhibit — Liat Berdugo, Ranu Mukherjee and Heesoo Kwon — answers by embracing digital technology as an active collaborator. Their work demands, even revels in, crossing boundaries of space and time.

White building with ornate entrance and a tiled roof bears signs for museum and show
The Mills College Art Museum’s Art+Process+Ideas program was established in 2015 to support Bay Area artists with a residency and exhibition. (Sloane Larsen)

Nestled into the northern corner of the campus, the MCAM can feel anachronistic: the building’s Spanish colonial style resembles some sort of rural monastery, while the gentle roar of Interstate 580 traffic lingers overhead.

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But once inside, the A+P+I exhibit is distinctly contemporary. Liat Berdugo’s Seeing It for the Trees greets visitors with a multimedia piece that explores her Israeli American heritage and the experience of motherhood during the pandemic. Berdugo scraped the digital, photographic archive of Keren Kayemet L’Israel – Jewish National Fund. Founded in 1901, the organization originally encouraged diasporic Jews to sponsor the planting of trees on Ottoman-controlled land; today, it continues to play a role in Zionist nation building.

In the museum, walls are covered with 22,000 images Berdugo culled from the KKL-JNF archive. Some picture children playing, others tanks patrolling; Berdugo describes the overall rhythm as “survey,” “build,” “plant” and “guard.” The collection can be overwhelming: it makes the experience of a massive digital archive — usually reduced to a swipe — palpable and impending. On a return visit, it felt like a digital Western Wall; I looked for cracks between the images of war in which I could place a prayer.

Gallery wall covered with thousands of small images as wallpaper, shelf with books at right
A view of Liat Berdugo’s ‘Seeing It For the Trees’ at Mills College Art Museum. (Sloane Larsen)

Like all great feminist art, Seeing It For the Trees is political but also deeply personal. To bring the archive closer to home, Berdugo created a bot to send one image to her phone every hour. It was a kind of artistic prompt, one that engaged the interruptive rhythms of being an artist parent during the pandemic. An accompanying film installation features some of these single images in the context of a Zoom call between Berdugo and her father, who disagrees with her politics wholesale. “What do you see in this image,” she keeps asking him. There’s something deeply touching about watching them grasp for a common language, even if they can’t find it.

Fellow A+P+I artist Ranu Mukherjee also explores the relationship between trees and digital technology, albeit in a more abstract sense. In Ensemble for Non-Linear Time, a “hybrid film” toward the back of the museum, she collaborates with choreographer Hope Mohr to orchestrate five dancers as they improvise arboreal movements. Set against a green screen, images of existing and painted forest flicker in and out. Digital technology, in Mukherjee’s work, activates the interdependency between the human and the non-human, and even questions the distinction. Asked about the role of motherhood in her work, Mukherjee echoes Rebecca Solnit, saying “you can be mothered by things other than humans.”

Two dancers lean against each other while audience watches in gallery, floor is covered with colorful patterns
Johnny Huy Nguyen and Jay Carlon perform ‘float the mark’ on a floor piece by Ranu Mukherjee at the Mills College Art Museum. (Sloane Larsen)

At the center of the exhibition is another Mohr/Mukherjee collaboration, a 420-square-foot floor installation titled this is a map of a mine in a forest/this is a drawing/this is a dance floor/this is a question/this is an invitation. The piece gestures toward the “paradox of sustainability” — or what Mukherjee describes as the painful truth that “as we move toward more sustainable energy source, we still have to mine.”

But the installation is playful, almost childlike, full of glowing primary colors and Seussian arrows. The title of the piece came alive on Sept. 30, when two dancers improvised across its surface. Dressed in soft pastels, as if they had fallen out of one of Mukherjee’s nearby collages, they moved with athleticism and grace, eliciting and then refusing each other’s embrace. Towards the end of the performance, a young boy in the audience stood up and lifted his leg over his sister’s head. In this moment, the artwork merged with its audience, and time stood still.

Time never settles for the exhibition’s third artist, Heesoo Kwon, who embraces digital technology to mine her own personal history. (This is the only kind of mining, I think, that could lead to any sustainable future.) Kwon’s work stems from a trip home to Korea, where her mother issued a familiar refrain: get rid of these boxes.

Ghostly CGI nude woman sits above table as men dine in a restaurant
A still from Heesoo Kwon’s ‘A Ritual For Metamorphosis.’ (Sloane Larsen)

As Kwon revisited these old videos and photos, she saw her mother mostly in the kitchen and her father wielding the camera like some in-house ethnographer. Kwon’s work at MCAM mediates these images with digital avatars she calls “Leymusoom.” The neologism stems from the Korean word 무성별, or “agender,” and it refers not just to the animated figures but also to a religion she created inspired by Korean Shamanism.

The Leymusoom aesthetic thus offers a direct challenge to the misogyny and religious authoritarianism of her upbringing. The video piece A Ritual For Metamorphosis re-presents home footage populated by these digital avatars. In one scene, a nude, animated version of the artist interrupts her parent’s wedding. In another, a reptilian Leymusoom hovers around religious iconography. The sound of this piece, a galloping quake, haunts the museum’s high, ornamented ceilings.

In 2023 Leymusoom Firefly, Il-won-dong 1990–1996, Kwon situates old family photos in the middle of a digital canvas, then uses the artificial intelligence tool Adobe Firefly to expand the scene beyond its border. The effect is a series of haunting images in which realism decays as the eye moves outward. Objects morph and human-like figures emerge. A frame is to an image what the present is to the past: it separates now from then. But by embracing digital technology, Kwon reminds us that memory is never so simple.

Family photo at center of larger print with dark shadowy edges and a blurry figure
A print from Heesoo Kwon’s series ‘2023 Leymusoom Firefly, Il-won-dong 1990–1996.’ (Sloane Larsen)

This question of how to represent the transition into a technological present extends beyond the museum to a campus in flux. After years of financial troubles, Mills was acquired by Northeastern University in 2022, which describes itself as academically positioned “at the intersection of technology, healthcare, science and business.” There are no longer any MFA programs offered on campus, and though a small cohort of legacy Mills students remain, most of the campus is made up of first-year undergrads and graduate students.

The A+P+I residency program, now in its seventh year, precedes the Northeastern merger, offering what MCAM Director Stephanie Hanor describes as a “laboratory.” Combining financial support and studio space, artists are encouraged to develop new work, and stage talks and performances on campus. All of this year’s A+P+I artists said that working at Mills was a kind of refuge: Kwon described it as “cozy” and Mukherjee as a “quiet” second studio space.

While the museum is clearly a holdout for the visual arts on campus, it doesn’t shy away from engaging a technology-focused student body. Hanor says that students taking arts and humanities electives are invited into the museum for class visits, and that the school’s curriculum has yet to be finalized, offering hope for more hands-on arts offerings. Because of the Northeastern merger, budgets have finally been met: the museum now has an ADA-compliant entrance for the first time in its history. Still, I worry about the museumification of the arts more generally: that universities like Northeastern can justify slashing the humanities by shifting not only art but the study of art into museum spaces.

The artists of the A+P+I program don’t shy away from the politics of the merger. In a video installation entitled Shattered Reflections, Berdugo asks ChatGPT to draft lyrics for a student protest at a campus art museum, effectively turning the technology into a karaoke machine. Time spent in the A+P+I exhibition reveals just how each of the artists, sometimes explicitly and sometimes subtly, explores the tensions of a changing campus — and a changing world.

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‘Art+Process+Ideas: Liat Berdugo, Heesoo Kwon, Ranu Mukherjee’ is on view at the Mills College Art Museum through Dec. 3.

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