The sculpture, âMonument I,â had been created for a show about the Hereafter Institute, a fictional organization that now lives only online. It purports to arrange a digital afterlife for its âclientsâ â preserving their online presence and, through virtual reality, even the memory of their physical existence. On its website, the institute greets visitors with such deadpan sales pitches as, âWhat will death mean when our digital souls outlive our physical bodies?â
In fact, sculpture and institute alike were the work of Gabriel Barcia-Colombo, a 35-year-old New York artist and teacher at New York Universityâs Interactive Telecommunications Program. Working with a grant from Lacma, Mr. Barcia-Colombo invented the institute as a way of exploring the rituals of death in the digital age.
Now, at Mr. Goodmanâs invitation, he has curated the digital art exhibition at Sothebyâs. The young artists in the show â several I.T.P alumni among them â tend to share, despite their immersion in digital technology, a profound ambivalence about where it is taking us. They also seem to share the âBlack Mirrorâ sensibility behind the Hereafter Institute: The perception, endemic to the satirical British TV series, that technology has led us into a digital fun house where nothing is as it seems and everything is as we fear it might be.
The show at Sothebyâs, called âBunker,â runs through Aug. 10. It includes Jeremy Bailey, a Toronto artist who merges Snapchat with art history, portraying individuals through an augmented reality lens in poses that recall famous portraits from the past. A digital C-print of his wife as she stares at a tablet that appears to be coming to life recalls Dante Gabriel Rossettiâs âLady Lilithâ gazing into a mirror.
âItâs the idea of looking at oneself through the technology of the day,â Mr. Bailey said by phone. An adjacent self-portrait shows him in the guise of the persona he has adopted â that of an obnoxiously ebullient naÃ¯f who proclaims himself a famous new media artist. âHe believes deeply that technology can help, and yet technology consistently lets him down,â Mr. Bailey said of his alter ego. âSo damn it, why doesnât it deliver?â
Elsewhere in the show, you can don a virtual reality headset to navigate the childhood home of Sarah Rothberg, who reconstructed her experience growing up in Los Angeles from old photos and home movies. Or view lacy, metallic sculptures by Ashley Zelinskie â self-portraits whose surfaces are made up of the letters that spell out her genetic code. One piece â in a series called âAndroidâ â has a cube embedded in the face; the cubeâs surface is made up of the computer code that was used to generate it.
Ms. Zelinskieâs human-digital mash-ups are about âhow weâre becoming one with our technology,â she explained in her studio in Bushwick, Brooklyn â a small, crowded loft with NASA fliers and âStar Trekâ posters taped to the walls. In theory, the computer code on the cubeâs surface means the cube could be âreadâ by a computer â which is why she sometimes says sheâs making art for robots as well as humans.
In fact, like the label on a can of pet food, the code on Ms. Zelinskieâs sculptures is meant for humans. Aliens, too, perhaps. âI like taking ideas that have been reiterated again and againâ â the human face, geometric forms â âand putting them in a time capsule made of math,â she said. âTo me, this is preserving human culture.â
Another Brooklyn artist in the show, Carla Gannis, seems less intent on preserving human culture than on documenting its degradation. In âThe Garden of Emoji Delights,â based on the early-16th-century triptych by Hieronymus Bosch, she reimagines one of the best-known paintings of the Northern Renaissance as a gleefully hacked computer file, its frolicsome figures and hellish beasts transmogrified into cartoonlike characters. There are two versions â a 13-foot-by-7-foot C-print (roughly the same dimensions as the Bosch), and a smaller electronic variant that lights up like a video game. The e-version presents a deliriously animated tableau that ends in catastrophe on all three panels â Eden wiped out by a plane crash, Earth overtaken by forests, hell freezing over. Itâs mesmerizing, in a twitchy sort of way â but in place of depth and enigma, we get candy-colored titillation and a nagging sense that nothing exists beneath the surface.
The most haunting work in the show is Jamie Zigelbaumâs âDoorway to the Soul,â which consists of a white pedestal surmounted by a 16-inch-high video monitor that stands at average human height. On the screen is a face every 60 seconds. You may not realize the feed is live, or that the faces belong to workers at Mechanical Turk, Amazonâs micro-employment site, who are being paid 25 cents to stare into their computerâs webcam for one minute.
âThat archetypal looking into someoneâs eyes â itâs a very powerful moment,â Mr. Zigelbaum said.
But in this case, the other person is disembodied, and the moment you share is mediated by technology â by video cameras, by digital networks, by Amazonâs âmicrotaskingâ platform. âYouâre looking into someoneâs eye, but you donât know if they can see you or who they are,â Mr. Zigelbaum said. The technology that makes the Mechanical Turk workers visible also renders them intangible. Communication is enhanced and impeded at the same time.
Whatâs not on view at Sothebyâs is anything by Mr. Barcia-Colombo himself. After seeing his âMonument I,â Mr. Goodman asked if he wanted to bring the Hereafter Institute to Sothebyâs. âAnd I said great,â Mr. Barcia-Colombo recalled, âbut itâs a complicated show, and itâs about death, so your clientele might not like it.â With the show he did mount, he added: âSome people are like, reserve that piece â I want it! And others are like, this is Sothebyâs?â
Mr. Barcia-Colomboâs Lacma installation was indeed complicated. For two days last August, museumgoers were offered a free consultation on their digital afterlife. To ensure a fully customized experience, they were asked to sign up in advance and to share access to their Facebook profiles.
When they showed up at the museum, they were greeted by actors in white lab coats and given a 3-D body scan that was used to generate a life-size digital avatar. They were shown a memorial virtual-reality film such as the one Mr. Barcia-Colombo made about his grandfather, a Spanish poet who fought against Franco and ended his days an emeritus professor of Spanish literature in Los Angeles.
Then they got to attend their own funeral, complete with a eulogy based on their social media posts. As the eulogy concluded, their avatar appeared onscreen, only to turn and walk off into the clouds.
As this suggests, Mr. Barcia-Colombo is actually less concerned with death than with memories of life â with what happens to peopleâs Facebook pages when theyâre gone, for instance. Itâs a common concern â so much so that two years ago Facebook started allowing its users to appoint a âlegacy contactâ to manage their profiles after they die. But is that enough?
âI wanted to design a digital urn â some kind of object, some kind of memory machine you could step into,â he said at N.Y.U., where he teaches animation and video sculpture. âWhat if Facebook goes down?â
An unlikely prospect at this point â but were it to ever happen, he pointed out, âthere would be no recordâ of the many billions of lives and trillions of âlikesâ that have been so casually, trustingly, innocently recorded on it. âThe whole point is to make that data physical,â he said, âso that a record exists of that personâs life.â
Gravestone makers and turntable manufacturers, please take note.