When Is Now, 2001. Wood, aluminum, electronics, and LCDs, 27 x 46 x 18 in. Courtesy Haines Gallery, San Francisco.

Alan Rath: Meta Mechanics

We’ve all had about enough of machines. Computers break down; ATMs swallow bank cards; cell phones, MP3s and DVD players inconveniently die in the midst of declarations of undying love. Galleries and museums often seem like the last vestiges of unmechanized culture, packed with objects made, as we like to say, by hand—never mind that even brushes and chisels would have once been considered high technology by our ancient forbears. But recently at San Francisco’s sleek new de Young Museum, just upstairs from the Hatshepsut exhibition, newer media stealthily stole the show. Poking out of a weathered wooden crate like a postmodern lobster in a trap was a creature all spindly appendages and small screens, human eyes winking and watching viewers as they approached, and craning its long metal necks for a closer look.

“I was interested in the tradition of people looking at art, and art being a passive object that people go visit,” says sculptor Alan Rath of his piece When Is Now. “This is the first time that art can actually look back at you. It would be interesting if objects being observed could recognize you, the way people remember a piece.”