The familiar black-and-white squares of QR (“Quick Response”) smartphone codes were printed on cupcakes given out at this year’s Fashion Week, so it’s clear that they have become the fashionable technology of the moment. What’s not being explored sufficiently is how they are changing the nature of perception, all at once and very explosively. It is this issue that Didi Dunphy’s hand-stitched versions of this ubiquitous technology at Sandler Hudson Gallery address. The show is on view through October 15.
Stitching the codes into samplers on the wall brings home how they have suddenly replaced wall text as the 2011 supplement to gallery-displayed artwork. Scan with your smartphone, and suddenly you have access to video explaining the work before you and its place in the practice of the artist (or, less hiply, perhaps you have access to a Web page with an artist’s statement). So why not make them the artwork itself?
This incorporation of a new technology into a very, very old (and traditionally very, very female) one raises obvious conceptual issues even before the viewer sees where the Quick Response scan has led. One of Dunphy’s videos revealed by this process features long-skirted Mennonite women frolicking in the surf. Another presents young women decked out with Victorian-style pseudo-fairy wings in a garden setting. All of the images are simple enough to be viewed on a screen the size of the large postage stamps that are rapidly becoming unfamiliar in the age of the smartphone. (The world of QR codes is rapidly altering graphic design of all sorts.)
Dunphy’s work constitutes a very productive mash-up of old and new modes of perceiving the world. The general message about how we should examine new cultural collisions seems to be the Athens-based artist’s primary purpose for making this work, but the exhibition reveals something more about social relations.
Anyone without a smartphone can’t even begin to experience this artwork fully. Whole social classes are excluded from this discourse, just as they are from entire genres of contemporary art — or in the case of many classes, from the gallery experience in general. There are a considerable number of smartphone-owning visitors to the neighborhood who will never get the point of Dunphy’s work, because they will never choose to set foot in Sandler Hudson Gallery, or any gallery for that matter. That everything inside is readily visible from the street doesn’t change that relation.
There is one more implication to be gotten from the fact that a key portion of the art (or in other cases, of information about the art) is locked away behind a wall of technology that is not yet universally available (and also one that doesn’t unlock if there is something wrong with the URL).
Contemporary art is about keeping one step ahead of the times (or pretending to do so), and it has been ever since Ezra Pound said a century or so ago that artists are the antennae of humanity. It has also, therefore, been about passing judgment on those who, for personal or economic reasons, can be perceived as being behind the times. This is a relationship of power, not of intrinsic knowledge, and it’s worth thinking about as much as the gender questions implicit in Dunphy’s choice of materials.
The artist’s new work explores these power and gender relations brilliantly — but then, her work has always been about social relations and how objects are deployed in a (usually unspoken) contemporary social context.