The global situation has left few of our collective rituals untouched; the MFA thesis exhibition is no exception. During a moment in which our notions and demonstrations of intimacy are being rewritten, reflecting on relationships to those we are close to, by choice or otherwise, comes easily. Like our neighbors, a cohort is a relationship that begins with an imposition and only with some luck slides into more substantial intimacy. The 2020 UCLA DMA MFA thesis exhibition NEARREST NEIGHBOR reflects and enacts a navigation of proximity, with the title referring at once to permutations of closeness, as well as its various applications as an algorithm (the nearest neighbor search).
The swift and unexpected transition from an IRL to online format is not unique to this cohort, and yet is perhaps particularly relevant given the program’s focus on fostering practices informed by technology and digital media as much as the discourses of contemporary art, culture, and design. Together the artists have built a website to host the exhibition, using in part the nearest neighbor algorithm. Feminist theorist Astrida Neimanis calls collaboration “a doing-in-common, more than a being-in-common…” applied to “doings, engagements, or unfoldings amongst and between (human, non-human, chemical, physical, biological, meteorological, other) bodies.”  A focus on transhuman collaborations and ways of making offers a common ground from which to consider the eleven individual practices that together make this single exhibition that counts AI, bees, and sunlight among its agents.
The increasingly more apparent tensions between embodied and mediated experience is a through line. Dalena Tran’s Acts in Translation is a web installation, consisting of a video of two windows, overlaid with infinite configurations of ambient audio recordings collected from individuals in isolation around the world and stories written by the artist. Tran’s use of cinematic framing emphasizes the fixed and limited format in which we are being given information: the ambient audio originates in specific human moments but now complicates context. These kinds of cultural gaps and losses that occur through mediation and translation are key interests of Tran’s, which are reflected in the narratives.
Hirad Sab’s Figure 1. probes the ontology of digital personhood in a video populated by computer generated bodies, faces, and voices. Sab’s video encourages reflection on the increasing ease with which embodiment is attributed to these digital bodies without referents. It is tempting to label the computer generated voice reciting a dialogue as “disembodied,” while it is no more or less so than the faces and bodies that originate from a single digital model. Orcs and aliens, as non-human extremes, replicate the violence and fear of subjugated others in virtual worlds. Grounded in Sab’s background in computer science and AI, the work is informed by the ethics of the field, and its connections to broader issues of postcolonial subjectivity and representation.
Blaine O’Neill similarly considers the affective reach of synthetic personhood and its networks in a programmatic and in-browser work entitled ISOLOG . The language that forms the personalities of each AI agent, Sudo, Pseudo, and Maude, comes from specific datasets (including, among others, O’Neill’s personal social media and correspondences for one voice, online psychic communities for another.) From this, an infrastructure was created to allow the three agents to “converse” via linguistic patterns. The resulting script was given to voice actors, who pull textual affect from their lines and inject it back into the conversation. ISOLOG uses these voices to dispatch affect without substance, and while their conversation signals its synthetic origins, it is uncomfortably reminiscent of many real exchanges in which vibes have broken away from the deadweight of facts and definitions.
Clara Leivas investigates the potential of translating a highly specific embodied and affective moment into her first screen-based work. A Muay Thai fighter, Leivas invites us into the moment just before a fight, in which intense training, anticipatory jitters, and potential energy collapse into a meditative state of hyper focus. I am defeat is a looped video with no start or stop point consisting of digitally generated visuals and sound recorded through her body. In selecting a heightened state informed by bodily, emotional, and mental experience as subject, Leivas explores the limits and potential of digital mediations.
From the body, there is a shift of our mediated focus to the physical and digital landscapes it moves through. Ben Lerchin’s practice incorporates photography, digital fabrication, and software to explore the American West, its existence in images, and the physical yet often invisible structures that make it habitable. Lerchin has been developing interventions relating to land use and energy production in the Antelope Valley, where electrical transmission lines, the LA aqueduct, a wind farm, solar farms, and mines dominate the landscape. The work shares a name with the video presented for the exhibition: YIMBY (Yes, in My Backyard), in response to the NIMBY movement, which, among other things, has had the effect of relegating infrastructure to rural communities with limited political power. The video is a stand-in for Lerchin’s material explorations, consisting of drone footage, cell phone videos, and photos of Lerchin’s trips there. Confinement and distance have come to have a two-fold effect, as the site exists to be used, visited, and experienced in response to alienation from the natural world.
In Memory Place , Zeynep Abes considers the social distancing particular to those in chosen or imposed displacement from the place they once considered home. From Turkey, Abes’s mother sends her photos of the childhood home, street, and city she left a decade ago. These are processed as photogrammetry scans, whose tenuous appearance makes visual the tender pain of fading memories. While the domestic space remains largely untouched, with the same foods and furniture waiting to welcome her, the Istanbul she called home exists increasingly more as an idea than a place. Private and public memories overlap like images and their referents, with significant sociopolitical events experienced via social media and family coming together on screens. Now, this alienation only proliferates, too nimbly grafting onto our collective moment.
Erin Cooney’s Now a Room, Now a Landscape emerges from the center of this moment. Confined to a home meant to be temporary, Cooney redirected her ongoing research on built environments, situated knowledge, and place to the surroundings that she suddenly was forced into sustained intimacy with. Mapping a labyrinth based on the one in Chartres Cathedral onto the apartment, Cooney walks the entire pathway, which covers the apartment's surface area from wall-to-wall, scaling every surface, including furniture, recording the journey with cameras attached to her feet. As with any pilgrimage, transformation, both external and internal, is at stake. Cooney makes the unfamiliar known, while simultaneously defamiliarizing that which is ubiquitous to the point of invisibility.
Graham Akins creates uncanny valleys in which the notions that determine much of our society—binaries of nature and culture, the self and the other, the animal and the human, are rendered and revealed as absurd. Akins also takes interest in the mediation of the West, and photographic processes and the history of image-making run as undercurrents throughout the work. In Approximate Other, landscape and place become non-spaces created through layers of both digital and sculptural means. In this hyper saturated world, human movement and its motivations are awkward and non-sensical, only as knowable as any other animal’s.
The blurring of previously sacrosanct boundaries is another negotiation of intimacy. Miles Peyton’s interest in membranes that enclose material from the outside world as the minimal entity that can be considered a self led to Sunlit waterneither, consisting of a liquid lens, which sits on conductive glass etched with a pattern, becoming both image and electrical circuit when the liquid is illuminated by the sun. The elements lend an alchemical bent to Peyton’s image-making technology, as well as his use of the word “sigil” to describe the etched patterns. Faced with the projection, one is caught between an identifying moment, a recognition of life in its primordial form, and the creepy uncertainty of whether what is moving is dead or alive.
The slipperiness between the living and the non-living is also explored through Berfin Ataman’s kinetic fabric sculpture Raising Quills. A motorized electronic system creates movement from within the fabric, whose shape and color is designed in conjunction with its gestures. They are meant to be interacted with, as people’s reactions to these animate objects are key to Ataman’s practice. Again, a synthetic system is designed to induce the emotional pull of a silent but sentient creature to create layers of stimuli to invite perception and its emotional effects.
Continuing this vein of inquiry, Leming Chung presents My doctor's prescription for my pollen allergy is to let the light illuminate everywhere the video element of a larger installation stemming from her interest in biopolitics and networks. The uneasy division between the self and the other, what belongs and what does not, is narrated through the story of a single bee who experiences an allergic reaction. Like the allergen itself, this bee is an innocuous part of a whole turned into an invader. Unlike say, a virus, an allergy is an internal process that consists of the body’s overreaction to an otherwise harmless event. Taking these minuscule life forms as starting points, Chung encourages reflection on the diseased and disrupted individual body, as well the social body’s efforts to control it.
The artists negotiate movement through landscapes and networks, among the human, non-human, and the in-between. This with a recognition of nearness, the gravity of our intimacies, calculated proximity and distance in computation, within a cohort, a socially distant society, an exhibition.
 Neimanis, Astrida. “On Collaboration (for Barbara Godard).” NORA - Nordic Journal of Feminist and Gender Research, vol. 20, no. 3, 2012, pp. 215–221., doi:10.1080/08038740.2012.703689.
Lucy R. Lippard’s famous formulation, “The Dematerialization of the Art Object,” has a permanent place in the mythology of contemporary art. Coined in the 1960s, it referred to a broad transition in art, which seemed to be moving away from its traditional material forms, paintings and sculptures, toward new forms like land art, happenings and conceptual art. Video art and performance art joined the trend, which seemed to be permanently changing what art was all about. Figures like Marcel Duchamp and John Cage had already been taking steps into the same direction: questioning the centuries-old liaison between arts and crafts - that art could only be made by someone who had been trained in the “tricks of the trade.”
Of course, things have got more complicated during the half a century that has passed. Material artworks have not disappeared - their role on the heated commercial art market is stronger than ever. In the other end of the spectrum, artists have indeed proceeded further toward dematerialization. There are works that leave only faint traces and documentations behind - created for the here and now and allowed to fade into oblivion. There are artworks that question the relationship of art to other creative genres like video games, fashion, street art, ‘outsider’ traditions, DIY tinkering, ephemera collecting, etc. Art is made for digital platforms where it sometimes truly immaterializes - url’s disappear, sites crash, works get lost in the thick of things digital. Sometimes it is meant to be so, not always.
Media arts, as they have evolved since Lippard’s slogan started gaining ground, have normally situated themselves somewhere between the immaterialized and the material. Internet art was largely immaterial, whereas the post-internet art went to the other extreme. Gallery installations have a physical presence, but many contain digital components. When the exhibition is over, many elements are often silently disposed of. They can be replicated if a need arises; many installations - not to say anything about performances - only have an afterlife as video or photographic documentations.
The current Covid-19 crisis has suddenly opened new perspectives to the speculations about “dematerialization” and its (non)reality. With museums and galleries closed, the access to physical artworks has been denied. How should the institutions and - above all - the artists react? Has the time for the true dematerialization of the art object finally come? If so, how would it best be realized? For whom should it be addressed? Even though the times are hard (and especially then) it should not be forgotten that the artists have to live. So where does the new slot for art making reside and how would it create links with audiences?
Such thoughts must have occupied the minds of many aspiring artists preparing to graduate in the spring 2020 from art programs all around the world. The crisis came suddenly, so there are certainly no pre-packaged solutions available. Everyone must come up with one’s own. Even though the situation can be stressful and extraordinarily demanding, it may also open gates to new forms of creativity, ones not even considered a few months ago.
This is the situation in which the M.F.A. exhibition of the UCLA Department of Design Media Arts has been created. With the university’s New Wight Gallery currently unavailable, the students had to rethink their ideas and strategies in a very short time. They managed to do so amazingly, forming a strong collective that took the task seriously and started working to find collective solutions, while concentrating on the individual contributions, which in many cases are very different from what they were meant to be in the beginning of the year.
With the graduate studios closed and access to the labs denied, the artists had to use those resources that were available. This did not lead to “arte povera” or the “next best thing,” but to full-fledged and ambitious creations both the artists and the department can be proud of. Hard times can inspire imaginative solutions that do not uselessly wallow in pessimism. The newly ‘immaterialized’ artworks exhibited in the DMA’s Spring 2020 graduate student online exhibition refuse to give up hope, providing flashes of better times ahead.