Nourished on wistful humor and piercing intelligence, London-based artist Peter Santi’s work embarks on a quixotic journey through a world re-configured by human interaction with machines that erase distinctions between nature, artifice, human, machine, and gender.
It advances powerful commentary on the way that machines (not just computers but everyday tools, as well) have not just always been something external, available for use, but which have become, whether we know it or not, extensions of our consciousness. The work magnificently combines the poetic and aesthetic vigor of Andre Breton’s doctrinal Surrealism and the conceptual vigor of the writing of Donna Haraway and N. Katherine Hayes, cyborg theory scholars who reject the ideas of traditionally recognized boundaries (humans and animals, humans and machines) in favor of a hybrid articulation of the world. The ramifications of his work for a 21st century world are enormous: it suggests the mounting irrelevance of identity, particular feminist identity, kinship by gender, for instance, in place of affinity, kinship by structure,
Though tools have evolved from flint-edged axes to silicon-based computers, we’ve historically had to accommodate technology. Humans have always produced hybrid (human and tool) environments. An artistic example: cave drawings as external storage systems for ritual and protocol. What’s different is the notion that, as computers can be seen, with inroads into artificial intelligence, as becoming more lifelike, so too can humans now be reconceived as an intelligent machine with distributed cognitive systems, as becoming more machinelike, which is simply another way of saying we have as much in common with computers as computers do with us and the sooner we acknowledge that fact, the better.
Though the ideas it embodies are sophisticated and profound, Santi’s work is lyrical and playful; it’s fun, suggesting that the proliferation of virtual reality (gaming, Sim City, Second Life, Facebook and other social networking interfaces) and other digitally-engineered systems of human interaction is not as sinister as science fiction writers might have us think. Even without their philosophical underpinnings, each piece is arresting, coherent, and complete in its synthetic construction. Initial glances reveal a sense of bewonderment and awe. Power tools meld seamlessly into children’s toys; gliders constructed from prostitute calling cards float hopefully, errantly, through cloudy skies; clocks with and without dials play a significant role as the Other Thing in human relationships. In Santi’s painted universe, identity is relative, the utilitarian thingness of objects can be recast in the blink of an eye to reflect an enhanced consciousness as well as serve some purpose, the least of which is magic and transformation, which are two keen and appropriate effects of hybridization. Surrealist juxtapositions are not just the stuff of paintings and record album covers.
Both deadpan and whimsical, the spirit of this trippy (trippy as in voyage, trippy as in far-out) work can best be embodied in Powertoy No. 2. Representing an image of a saw blade connected to a rocking horse, it proposes a Max Ernst rendering of Don Quixote, armed with a lance, mounted on his steed, Rocinante. The piece brims with a sally-forth sensibility, suggesting a new and marvelous odyssey through a post-human world.
Take me away depicts dogfighting airplanes fabricated from prostitute calling cards, suggesting the anticipation of, well, bartered relief as well as personal safety which, because the planes are made of paper and thus fragile and because they possess no rudder and thus their airworthiness is unsound, is doomed to be short-lived, if that. Catching big fish with little nets shows a house constructed with lottery tickets, its landscape too, as seen from the vantage point of Take me away: an homage to the manner in which, via the collation of construction technology and gaming systems, we confuse hope with experience and, metaphorically, stand to bet our house and lose it. of the And Guillotine and still-cross constructs a machine - an execution device - and a ritualistic device - a pulpit - from the tickets, the reference to capital punishment as a result of the higher belief in the ritual of tithing (aka lottery ticket purchase) made obvious and not a little sad.
This deconstruction of boundaries between the human and the man-made sets the stage for a witty and far-reaching series of work. His Time and Date series, consisting of La Deuxieme Troisieme, I'm only going because you wind me up, and I see you in me, shows how the presence of a machine - an analog clock, but it could just as easily refer to the algorithm of an computer dating service - can introduce the presence of a third, cyborg party, which in turn, as Santi writes, could fuel the prospect of a ménage a trios . Together these three[sic] pieces reify Marcel Duchamp’s The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors Even, making a machine, not a human, the matchmaker in the eternal He/She drama.
Given this context, Santi’s work keenly describes the relationship between humans and the machines they create. The relationship he describes is symbiotic; it’s positive and upbeat, if at times a little frustrating. It heralds the inevitable coming to terms with increasingly powerful, increasingly human constructions but does so in a gentle, probing manner. Recent movies aside, the cyborg theory that informs and illuminates his work offers a 21st century aesthetic that, among other things, deliciously recasts the embodiment of Cupid from a cherub with a quiver full of arrows to an all-knowing, perfectly efficient, binary-based, digital chaperone attired in a silicon-threaded suit of natural selection: a Darwinian matchmaker, if you will because, dating-wise, it’s still a jungle out there.