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'Screen Time' explores art and technology in the digital age at the Charles Allis Museum

Two large photographs of a man wearing futuristic-looking glasses are hung above a bookcase. Old light fixtures illuminate the pictures one either side.
Nadya Kelly
Cyrus Kabiru's "Macho Nne (Roman Attire)" and "Macho Nne (Confusion)" reside in the Charles Allis Musuem's library.

Earlier this month, a new exhibit called Screen Time opened at Milwaukee’s Charles Allis Museum. The exhibit explores how art has been influenced by the digital age and modern technology.

Currently playing in the Allis Museum's kitchen is a video of a man running through the pages of an open sketchbook. As he runs, big hands flip through the book. Then, handwritten notes, drawings, and metronomes suddenly appear on the blank pages, and silhouettes of a small marching band walk through the book.

The film is called Anti-Mercator. It was created by William Kentridge. Phoenix Brown, Senior Curator at the Allis Museum, explains the idea behind the film.

"Mercator is the person who invented the grid on the world like you see on maps," Brown says. "What Kentridge is doing is critiquing the use of tools that measure time and scale and questioning the function of them and how they're applied to the world." 

Much of the art in Screen Time explores how the internet and new technology have changed the way we interact with each other and the world. And also, how art is consumed.

As part of the exhibit, another film is projected onto the curtains of the museum's dining room. The video is called Universal Art Translator. In the film, the artist, Mary Sue makes hand gestures and facial expressions, but, her hand signals are gibberish. You don’t know what she’s trying to say.

Sue’s film critiques the jargon of the art world, sometimes referred to as International Art English, or IAE. Many critics of IAE say using complex language to describe art excludes people.

"At some points in the film, she slaps herself and then just keeps talking like this is normal," Brown says. "It's a really funny piece." 

As the video plays, Brown explains how the film can take on new meaning in this setting.

"We're thinking that maybe she's critiquing the whole room because everything in our museum is really a historic object, whether if it's from the art library days or it's a donation to the museum or part of Charles and Sarah's art collection," Brown says.

An art curator with tattoos on her arms poses for a picture next to a video projection of a woman making hand gestures.
Nadya Kelly
Senior Curator at the Charles Allis Museum Phoenix Brown stands next to Mary Sue's "Universal Art Translator."

The Charles Allis Museum’s permanent collection includes European bronze sculptures and fine furniture collected by Charles and Sarah Allis, who donated their house and artwork for the public good in the early 20th century. Much of the artwork was made hundreds of years ago, with some pieces dating all the way back to the sixth century BC.

For Brown, figuring out how to place Screen Time’s contemporary artwork in the museum’s historical setting was a challenge, but it’s brought the house to life in a way she hasn’t seen before.

"I wanted to see what the house would be like if different textures were moving throughout the museum [...] just to liven up the home and also just kind of juxtaposing modern technology with like a historic house. Like what kind of conversations will emerge from where these two different timelines collide," Brown explains. "It's kind of sometimes like a time capsule. And we're kind of shaking up the time capsule a bit."

The last stop on our tour is Charles Allis’ library. Above the bookcase, there are two large photographs of a man wearing big glasses made of copper wire, aluminum, steel, and mesh beads.

"But the funny thing is that they're not technologically advanced," Brown explains. "They're more like an aesthetic. They don't have cameras or anything embedded within them. It's kind of a reflection of where we are right now in time with like, you know, Apple coming out with those new like, I don't know, Vision Pro things.

Two pairs of futuristic-looking glasses and various ceramic and glass bottles sit inside a glass case.
Nadya Kelly
Both of the glasses in Cyrus Kabiru's photographs sit inside a glass case with pieces from the museums permanent collection.

The artist, Cyrus Kabiru, is originally from Kenya. The glasses he created are inspired by a concept called afrofuturism. This aesthetic often takes Black art and fashion, and combines it with elements of sci-fi.

"The artist is reimagining what will Black people wear and people in the future wear on their eyes," Brown says.

The glasses from the photos are displayed in a case alongside ceramic vases and bottles from the museum’s permanent collection — another contrast of the old and the new.

Screen Time will be on view at the Charles Allis Museum until July 24, 2024.

Nadya is WUWM's sixth Eric Von fellow.
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