Chilean Experimental Artist Confronts Past and Future Through Tech

Visitors in Chilean experimental artist Juan Downey’s interactive “Radiant Nature” exhibit.
Visitors explore Chilean experimental artist Juan Downey’s interactive “Radiant Nature” exhibit. (Akshaya Amarnath / The Student Life)

Walk into the Nichols Gallery at Pitzer College before Dec. 8, and you’ll be greeted by the Pollution Robot’s eye-level mirror. Ask it a question, and it will respond with a blast of hot air.

Since Sept. 9, the works of Latino artist Juan Downey will be on exhibit at the Pitzer College Art Galleries. Organized by Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions (LACE) and Pitzer College Art Galleries, the “Juan Downey: Radiant Nature” experiential exhibition is designed to help visitors understand the symbiotic relationships between technology, environment, and humans.

What makes the Pollution Robot unique is the time when it was first created. The exhibition is a refabrication, but the Pollution Robot first showed up in 1970 during the opening of “With Energy Beyond These Walls” at the Howard Wise Gallery in New York.

“The Robot is my favorite artwork in the exhibition,” one of the exhibit staffers said.

While taking photographs during the opening reception, she saw many audiences talking with the robot.

“The Robot can respond to the audience’s simple questions pretty quickly, but there [was] a girl asking the Robot [for] its name, and I don’t think it could answer that question,” she said, laughing.

A visiting student who took part in the opening reception said she was amazed by the robot.

“It is interesting to look back to 1970 from now,” the student said. “A robot is not a new idea in the 21st century, but it was definitely a very advanced idea in [the] 70s. The exhibition makes me more aware of the natural communication between my body and technology.”

Downey’s ideas have foreshadowed technological change in the time since he created his art.

“It is like viewing the anatomy of bodies before the surgery,” said Jelani Lateef, the art director of the Capoeira Angola at Pitzer College.

Lateef appreciated the close relationship between audiences and the artworks in “Juan Downey: Radiant Nature.”

“You can actually touch the robot and talk to it. It is a participatory experience that you can’t get in ordinary exhibition,” Lateef said.

According to exhibit curators Ciara Ennis and Robert Crouch, Juan Downey is generally famous for his later video works, which tend to overshadow while his Electronic Sculptures and Life Cycle Installations.

“We have prepared this exhibition for three years,” Ennis said. “We really want to show audiences how Juan Downey applied the ideology of cybernetics into the Electronic Sculptures and make audiences realize the natural communication between humans, environment, and the machine systems.”

Crouch introduced the “Life Cycle Installations” artwork, a plant with an electrode monitor that can detect human electromagnetic energy. A high-pitched sound will emit depending on the plant’s reaction to a human’s electromagnetic energy.

“By integrating audiences into the performance, audiences can be aware of the energy they carry and the natural communication between organic matters, machines, and people, which people may not realize in daily life,” Crouch said. “Instead of forming distance between artworks and audiences, the exhibition attempts to make the artworks more approachable to reinforce the idea that the environment, humans, and technology are in a united cybernetic system.”

“‘Juan Downey: Radiant Culture’ connects both past and the future,” Lateef said.

While phones gradually replace face-to face interaction, Juan Downey’s works strive to build direct interaction between people and the world, reminding people of how they once communicated.

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