I arrived at Cloaca Projects (pronounced clo-ay-ca) on an inconveniently hot Bay Area afternoon with one concern in mind: my phone battery was in the red, and I needed to find a socket to plug into. How ironic, then, that Mathew Kneebone’s A Small Black Could Looking Substance – on view through August 31 – the installation I was there to review takes up our understanding of electricity and how the gadgets it powers shape us and the world we live in.
(Editors note — this is the first piece we’re publishing on Humble with an embedded sound clip. Clap your hands for us, read real slow, and then take the 6+ minutes away from the memes to actually listen to it.)
Exhibition Review by Roula Seikaly
Mathew Kneebone artfully condenses commonly held experiences and knowledge about electricity into metaphor and technical understanding through six distinct but related projects or objects. Possession Without the Body #6 (2019) explores connection and isolation as mediated by our devices. Imperceptible electrical signals transit between beloved gadgets and our fingertips via screens or touchpads, an unbroken circuit that stokes feelings of connection to the wider world. For this series, Kneebone hacks the system, swapping human touch for a mechanized one. Instead of a person browsing the internet on the floor-based iPad, a machine does the work. Though amusing to watch, it arouses unnerving notions of machine sentience, and more immediately, the isolation that creeps in as we trade real time intimacy for machine-enabled exchanges.
Index card-sized photograms from the titular project A Small Black Cloud Looking Substance (2019) hang in single, uniform lines on three of the gallery’s walls. Kneebone expands Kirlian photography - a novel mid-twentieth century process once thought to record the human aura - to include gemstones and minerals that are associated with meta-physics and electronic production. The inky, irregular blobs evoke ideas of distant celestial bodies, or imperceptible forms that are only visible under a microscope, both laden with mystery.
Inconspicuously situated on shelf next to the gallery door, the text-based Techbane Monologue #6: Visual Artifacts (2019) includes random queries for online tech support aggregated on single sheets of paper. “A small black cloud looking substance” exemplifies the occasionally funny, always euphemistic descriptions of the tech troubles we regularly encounter. The exchanges rely on a shared language, but that commonality only goes so far. Eventually, the gap between lay and expert technical knowledge is too wide to bridge. The queries Kneebone collects call for help with our phones, computers, and tablets, not the power that animates them, but the analysis holds. On balance, we understand the technology that has become central to our lives as well as we comprehend the source that animates it. Kneebone’s text-based project poetically reinforces that hard truth.
As a public utility, electrical power and light are treated as foundational elements in a civilized world. When that foundation cracks or collapses outright, we face a literal and metaphorical darkness that we are not prepared to meet. Mathew Kneebone’s installation subtly reminds us that with such dependence come consequences far more dire than a dying phone battery.