NORTH ADAMS — Inside a giant cave built with wooden palettes, gray industrial felt is coiled on the floor and hangs from the ceiling like soft stalactites. It enfolds you like a blanket fort, and it’s the first thing you encounter in “Liz Glynn: The Archaeology of Another Possible Future,” the massive dystopian installation at Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art’s Building 5.
A physical experience more than a visual one, Glynn’s “TOUCH CAVE” centers us in our bodies. It’s a brilliant first act for an installation that postulates that the rise of technology — of robotics, artificial intelligence, and virtual worlds — threatens to make our bodies vestigial.
There’s no figurative art in “The Archaeology of Another Possible Future,” but it’s all about the body and physical labor. Glynn expertly twines notions of the physical and the economic, both crucial to our sense of security in the world. She invites us to remember the subjective experience of the flesh: the sensory and intuitive knowing seated in our hearts and guts and hands. The body has wisdom that the mind, always busy figuring things out, cannot approach.
Astonishingly, such knowing, once ordinary, has grown easy to lose touch with.
If we’re beyond the tipping point between manual labor and robotic production, Glynn asks, what does an idle workforce mean for society? It’s a poignant question to pose at Mass MoCA. For more than a century, the industrial powerhouses of North Adams’s economy were based on its campus, first as Arnold Print Works, then Sprague Electric Company.
The artist, who is based in Los Angeles, has witnessed how a changing economy affects workers. Growing up in Gloucester in the 1980s and ’90s, she saw the shipyard where her grandfather worked shuttered. Her father, after more than 20 years at one company, lost his job and thereafter bounced from one startup company to another.
In “The Archaeology of Another Possible Future,” Glynn craftily moves along a trajectory from kinesthetic and sensual — “TOUCH CAVE,” and two more sense-stirring enclosures aimed at smell and sound — to digital. Along the way, the art grows increasingly abstract, then chillingly sterile.
Sculptures in “The Shape of Progress” series, embodying economic concepts, balance this show’s teeter-totter between real and virtual. There’s a jagged, L-shaped fiscal cliff, a three-dimensional bar graph charting how many minutes per day women spend on household chores versus how many men do, and a rainbow-colored peak skirted by palette slats illustrating distribution of wealth in America. Glynn calls that one “Whittle (the 1%).” It’s almost pretty, until you realize its silvery tip — representing the richest — looks like a weapon.
With these sculptural abstractions, she brings us up into our heads. The next stop: three shipping containers, each a work world unto itself. One is papered with patent drawings, many of analog inventions. The second shows one video of workers vanishing into a fog, and three others trumping Y2K panic. If Glynn is reminding us that predictors of technological doom have been wrong before, it’s an unconvincing aside — her “possible future” looks bleak.
Tony Pisano, a former machinist at two local factories, mans the third shipping container on weekends. He plays music, builds looms, spins wool, and champions working with your hands. Like Glynn’s sensory caves, Pisano, a lone man tinkering with an accordion in the middle of a vast installation, brings us to ground.
Talking with him, I felt the contrast between life now — zipping along as fast as data travel — and life before the Internet. Back then, people spoke in person and wrote letters. The American economy rested on the strong backs of people who built things in factories. We don’t put the same value on manufacturing now that digital companies drive the economy. And working with your hands? We call it “artisanal.”
Progress, as ever, is double-edged. We gain speed, solve problems, and synthesize data in ways we never imagined, and concurrently abandon laborers and gut industry. We lose touch with the magnificent perceptual tools we were born with.
A world of glistening aluminum rises beyond the shipping containers, called “The Age of Ephemeralization.” Glynn has built scaffolding towers upon which 3-D printers do their gleaming, incremental work, fashioning objects people used to make: knee joints, models, and hardware. They’re 14 feet high, and we move from one to the next on catwalks — unrooted, up in the air. So much work is no longer rooted. It’s a gig economy: Fend for yourself.
In “Brave New World,” Aldous Huxley speculated that in 2540, workers displaced by machines would be depressed and bored. Glynn offers her own vision on view in the last section, “Post-Industrial Vacationland (After Aldous Huxley),” and it won’t take 500 years to get there.
Shiny metal hospital gurneys are set up like lounge chairs, strung with IVs filled with Vitamin B12 and antifreeze. Tanning lamps suspended above them emit a cold violet glow. Rusty cast-iron columns salvaged from the museum’s recent renovation stand around; one lies along the floor. The factory’s pillars are toppling: It’s the fall of the industrial empire.
Granted, the story of that empire is fraught with misery, abuse, and pollution, but it has been the engine of society’s progress. Likewise, there is still plenty of work to do before artificial intelligence overruns the labor force, and even after. But in Glynn’s dystopia, when many people no longer have something productive to do, our bodily knowing will atrophy. Perhaps even worse, a large part of our place in the world will, as well.
LIZ GLYNN: THE ARCHAEOLOGY OF ANOTHER POSSIBLE FUTURE
At Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, 1040 Mass MoCA Way, North Adams, through early September. 413-662-2111, www.massmoca.orgCate McQuaid can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @cmcq.