Observation: The Bronx Museum of the Art’s Useless Machines Exhibition

Recently, I went to the Bronx Museum’s “Useless: Machines for Dreaming, Thinking, and Seeing” exhibition. The exhibition was created to highlight the opposite purpose of machines. Rather than creating machines to produce labor or fulfill a practical duty, the exhibition featured artists all over the world who constructed or depicted useless machines “to praise inutility.” The exhibition was a direct “reaction to the materialistic values promoted by capitalist society.” The artists created a collection of machines to stir dreams, feelings, critical thinking, and ironies. I thought this exhibition was interesting because of its purpose to create something useless and meaningless out of machinery. In class, we talked a lot about machine learning, artificial intelligence and how we currently live in a machine culture. And according to Sengers, machines are embedded into every aspect of our lives:

“We are no longer…simply supplied by machines; we live in and through them. From our workplaces to our errands about town to our leisure time at home, human experience is to an unprecedented extent the experience of being interfaced with the machine, of imbibing its logic, of being surrounded by it and seeking it out…” (Sengers, 2000, p.5).

Fernando Sanchez Castillo, Method on the Discourse, 2011, video screen shot

I thought that the exhibits at the museum highlighted what Sengers explained as the “shortcomings in technology.” The collection was a mixture of video, digital photographs, interactive sculptures and robotic machines behaving in curious ways. One exhibit by an artist named Fernando Sanchez Castillo displayed a video (pictured above) of a military robot that was originally designed to disarm explosives creating a painting in a slow, sarcastic manner. It was interesting how the artist inverted the function of the military robot by turning it into an artistic device. Technology is what we create it to be and as we rely on technology and machines to carry out dangerous or important tasks for us, the magnitude of its presence is felt even more when machines fail to (or are reprogrammed) complete the tasks we program it to do or they become useless. Transforming a machine so crucial as a bomb deactivating robot into a mere painting device changed the value of it as it was stripped of its former programmed task. This showed how machines can be used and recreated for other things than what it is originally meant for.

Unlike the artists, computer scientists are trained to identify these shortcomings and make solutions to those problems (Sengers, 2000, p.5). However, they are also blinded-sided by their myopic focus on improving machinery and not on the cultural context the machine is being made in (Sengers 2000). Thus, there can be unintended consequences of designing or creating a machine without discussing the need for it, the context it is being made in, and how it can be used in other ways if placed in a different environment.

I went to this particular exhibition with the intention to observe how visitors interact with the pieces within the space/ environment of the museum. But when I got to the museum, I found that visitors were not allowed to touch any of the art displays even though some of it incorporated interactive features for people to try out. I wanted to see if people were more inclined to go to the interactive exhibits which included displays of machines, video and robotic devices rather than the “non-hardware”/non-machinic ones such as photographs or drawings. Unsurprisingly, I found that people were more drawn towards the machine and robot displays. This brought to mind Norman’s Being Analog chapter, in which he explained why humans are inherently analog beings while technology and machines are created to be digital (2008).

According to Norman, “the world is not neat and tidy.” The world is naturally analog but with the advancement of technology and machines, people are forced to fit the world into digital models. Computers are logical and strict. Humans are unreliable and dramatic beings who are susceptible to making errors even if they are forced to behave in a machine-like way. Norman has described a world where technology destroys the mercurial essence of humans, but does not take into an account a world where both technology and humans are seamlessly integrated. Technology is no longer a separate entity of our world. AI and robots are becoming more human-like while humans are using advanced technology to enhance physical bodies and improve their health. In addition, AR devices are being created to integrate the real and the digital.

Algis Griškevičius, Toned photograph

We are constantly interacting with machines and technology that someday maybe we will become as one–a concept that artist Algis Griškevičius depicted in his photographs at the museum. The photograph showed a nude man with numerous tools stuck and screwed into his body as if he was a living magnet or a hybrid. Within the scope of the exhibition’s theme of depicting useless machines, I found this photograph very telling of the future we may live in. The tools on the man’s body seemed useless, placed in a illogical or unhelpful way. It’s there because it can be; they are tools without purpose. Soon, perhaps we will live in a future world where technology is not only all around us, but just another extension of our bodies.

The exhibition’s concept of “praising inutility” reminded me of how technology cannot be studied separate from its cultural context in which it is made in. Even though the exhibition wanted to depict the uselessness of technology and machines, I realized by doing just that they created meaning out of the displays by making it art. Thus, the machines and collection of pieces were useful in an artistic setting of a museum but they, of course, will not be useful in a non-artistic setting.


Sengers, Phoebe. “Practices for a machine culture: A case study of integrating cultural theory and artificial intelligence”. Surfaces, vol. 1,  2000, p. 2-58. www.pum.umontreal.ca/revues/surfaces

Norman, Don. “Being Analog”. The Invisible Computer, 2008. https://jnd.org/being_analog/

Preserving our Digital Afterlives

This morning, as I was scrolling through Instagram, I came across an interesting post by Oroma Elewa, a Nigerian-born visual and performance artist, writer and director. Under the Instagram post, Elewa captioned “Please make this go viral. Don’t love and follow me secretly. Show me you care. Do not let me be erased. This is very painful.” Elewa was addressing a viral quote she had originated in 2014 on her personal Tumblr that has been repeatedly falsely misattributed to Frida Kahlo since 2015: “I am my own muse. The subject I know best. The subject I want to better.” If you Google that quote, you’ll find hundreds of images, articles, products, and social media posts attributing it to Frida Kahlo. In the comment section, people who followed Elewa through her journey as an artist on social media, supported her while others were skeptical. Frida Kahlo, an iconic artist and figure in popular culture and an inspiration to all women of many different backgrounds, didn’t say those words–but, who would believe that Elewa originated the quote?

As a young rising artist, Elewa was inspired by Frida Kahlo’s actual words: “I paint self-portraits because I am so often alone, because I am the person I know best.” Although this is an issue of the spread of misinformation and the blurred lines of ownership and authenticity in the online world, Elewa’s fear of erasure brought to mind Michele Valerie Cloonan’s concept of the paradox of preservation and the transient or ever-changing manner of one’s digital remains. Cloonan wrote that “it is impossible to keep things the same forever. To conserve, preserve, or restore is to alter” (235). Frida Kahlo is not alive to disprove that she ever said Elewa’s quote. With endless digital copies of her image being attached to the quote, how can we manage to support Elewa’s claim? How can Elewa make sure her work lives on without the fear of being erased, silenced or altered in the digital world? And most importantly, how can we protect and preserve our digital afterlives?

The Digital Afterlives Symposium was held at Bard Graduate Center in honor of Professor David Jaffee who was the head of New Media Research. Prof. Jaffee was instrumental in introducing and creating a new direction for the Digital Media Lab at BGC. After his death, not only was his legacy as a leading historian missed, but he also left behind a plethora of files and media pertaining to his personal and professional projects throughout his life. The topic of the symposium came about while his late daughter and a few of his colleagues started a project to archive and preserve Jaffee’s work. This endeavor has led to the exploration of finding innovative ways to protect, prolong and preserve our digital afterlives and the impact technology has on the sustainability of our digital projects as well as the privacy and accessibility of our personal information.

Technology has become an extension of our physical world. As we increasingly develop and interact with technologies, we end up with a constant re-experiencing of the past. At the symposium, Abby Smith Rumsey, an independent scholar, spoke about her research paper on how memory creates identity and how humans create artificial memory through the use of digital technology. Our transformation from an analog to a digital environment has made us reliant on digital technologies to preserve memory and be reminded of the past. And there is a moral weight of dealing with a person’s memory, especially if the person can be immortalized in the digital world. In her presentation called, “Death, Disrupted,” Tamara Kneese spoke on the proliferation of “dead users” in the online world, particularly in social media. Social media is so embedded into our lives that it has become a space for ritualized mourning, memorialization and perhaps immortalization as personal profiles transform into actual shrines after users’ deaths.

But, not everything lasts forever in the digital world. Rosenzweig pointed out that the “life expectancy of digital media [can] be as little as 10 years, [and even so] very few hardware platforms and software programs last that long” (742). Platforms will eventually disappear over time. MySpace, Orkut, Friendster and OpenDiary are all remnants of the old digital environment. Inevitably, we have to address the issue of digital decay. In her presentation at the symposium, Robin Davis, an Emerging Technologies and Online Learning Librarian at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, proved the fragility of the digital world through her case study on the lifespans of digital humanities scholarship projects that were created in 2005. She found that only half of the 60 DH projects she studied were accessible online 10 years later. In some cases, she found that other projects had a shelf life of 5 years due to issues with hosting and the lack of funding while a couple of web projects were even taken over by fraudulent companies. Davis reiterated that digital scholars need to build a preservation plan into their projects and consider the longevity of their choice to create content for the web.

So, ultimately, our digital remains will disappear, but can individuals maintain and manage their own digital data in the hopes of living on as information after death? Is it possible to save everything? Rosenzweig wrote about “the fragility and promiscuity of digital data,” which requires yet more rethinking–about whether we should be trying to save everything…” (739). The debate over whether it is worthy or not to preserve everything was also discussed at the symposium. Overall, all of the speakers agreed that we do not have the proper tools or policies in place to be able to. And also that it is important to preserve more ephemeral data now in order to understand its significance in the future.  

According to Cloonan, “preservation must be a way of seeing and thinking about the world, and it must be a set of actions…[it] also has broader social dimensions, and any discussion of preservation must be include consideration of its cultural aspects” (232). Like Cloonan, Rumsey said that the primary issues of digital technology preservation are not just technical but are in light of larger political, economic, and education issues of our world. Companies like Amazon, Google, and Facebook and libraries as well as government agencies need to put more effort into creating preservation programs. They also do not have the right capacity or policies of dealing with the ramifications of digital remains. If Verizon Media, the owner of Tumblr, were to step up and protect Elewa’s words from being misquoted as Kahlo’s, would it have stopped the proliferation of companies and individuals attributing the quote to Kahlo?

At the end of the discussion, Rumsey left us with a parting message–it is important for us to remember that there are people behind these machines or technologies. People program and create software and applications so that machines behave in a particular way, so it is only up to us to change how we use and think of digital technology. Technologies have no built in moral bias other than what we program them to be, but it is has become an expansion of who we are. The material and digital world are a connected space now. Therefore, we must take responsibility over our digitized selves.


Cloonan, Michele Valerie. “W(H)ITHER Preservation?” The Library Quarterly, vol. 71, no. 2, 2001, pp. 231-242. The University of Chicago Press, www.jstor.org/stable/4309597

Elewa, Oroma. “Elewa’s quote.” Instagram, 18 Mar. 2019,


Rosenzweig, Roy. “Scarcity or Abundance? Preserving the Past in a Digital Era.” The American Historical Review, vol. 108, no. 3, 2003, pp. 735-762. Oxford University Press, www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/52956