Artist Nancy Baker Cahill’s New A.R. Work Unleashes a Surreal Interspecies Creature on the Terrace of the Whitney Museum
The artist also opens her first solo museum show survey in Georgia later this month.
Yesterday, a new piece went on view at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art, a massive work by Nancy Baker Cahill on the eighth-floor terrace. But you’d be forgiven for missing the unveiling—you need to download Cahill’s custom 4th Wall app to view CENTO, the new media artist’s latest augmented reality creation.
Hovering above the museum’s top story, CENTO is a hybrid, interspecies creature of the artist’s creation, her vision for one possible future for the planet in light of the current climate crisis. With a scaled serpent’s body covered with feathers, CENTO is part mycelium, part cephalopod, part bird, and part machine—bio-engineered to survive planetary collapse.
“None of the tautologies we’ve been working with, none of the models, are going to ensure any kind of survival or adaptability,” Baker Cahill said. “The idea is, could we co-build a species that could that be a model for survival, really embracing a kind of radical acknowledgement of our interdependence?”
To do just that, Baker Cahill delved into the realms of both philosophy and science-fiction, particularly Posthuman Feminism by Rosi Braidotti. She is somewhat skeptical, she admitted, about synthetic biology. “On the other hand, I don’t know. What if it could, in fact, offer some sort of adaptability in the face of the climate crisis and ecocide?”
The project—which is named after a “collage poem” that combines lines from other poems, as reference to the creature’s inter-species origins—is a commission from Artport, the Whitney’s portal for internet and new media art. An accompanying video that allows you to tour CENTO’s otherworldly habitat can be viewed online.
Although the artwork exists without any physical objects, its creation was still labor-intensive, from the research behind the creature’s biology, to drawing its design, to rendering it in 3-D, to animating it, to geo-locking it in place in the sky above the museum. (You can see it from various vantage points, including the fifth- and sixth-floor terraces, and the nearby High Line.)
There’s also an interactive element, in that viewers can help CENTO grow, adding one of 12 different types of feathers to the creature, each with different properties intended to aid its survival in an increasingly hostile world.
“Feathers are an evolutionary miracle. They provide insulation, aerodynamics, and camouflage in some cases, and they are used for species identification,” Baker Cahill said. For CENTO, they are even more useful, serving for defense, offering toxic filtration, and even improving the creature’s education. As viewers add new feathers in the app, CENTO is updated in real time, allowing it to evolve over months or even years, becoming stronger and more resilient.
The piece marks the first A.R. project Baker Cahill has done with a museum. Her first major foray into the medium came in 2019, at the Desert X biennial in southern California’s Coachella Valley, where she created two animated sculptures superimposed over the desert like a kind of modern-day, leave-no-trace Land Art.
Those works, too, were about climate change, suggesting two possible timelines—one of destruction, the other, where the embrace of renewable energy has led to a brighter future.
The artist’s other A.R. pieces have also touched on political issues. In 2020, New York’s Art Production Fund commissioned Liberty Bell, a red, white, and blue animation inspired by our country’s political divisions and the inherent flaws in the concept of liberty throughout U.S. history.
And earlier this year, Baker Cahill weighed in on the debate over women’s reproductive healthcare by installing State Property, a bright red exploding uterus, above the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., and state house buildings in Idaho, Texas, North Carolina, and Georgia.
“That was kind of a guerrilla project,” Baker Cahill said. “I’m trying to isolate the state legislatures who have passed these absolutely barbaric laws and whose infringements on body rights and on body sovereignty is every bit about restricting reproductive rights as it is restricting voting rights. This is all connected to democracy and to the dissolution of democracy.”
She has hopes of bringing the work to Florida and Tennessee, if she can get the necessary on-the-ground help from local collaborators—but Baker Cahill, who received a 2022 LACMA Art and Tech Grant, is also quite busy with other projects.
There’s a new A.R. commission, Lifelines, from the Lancaster Museum of Art and History, opening this week in California’s Prime Desert Woodland Preserve, featuring Joshua trees and native bird song. And next year, Baker Cahill will unveil SEEK, a 30-minute immersive film that is being billed as the world’s first shared reality artwork, as the inaugural project for Cosm, an immersive technology and entertainment company launching with a Los Angeles venue equipped with a massive LED dome.
But first, Baker Cahill’s first museum solo show opens later this month at the Georgia Museum of Art in Athens, Georgia. A mid-career survey, the exhibition tracks her artistic evolution from drawing and paper sculpture to 3-D animated video and A.R.
For the occasion, Baker Cahill will install Margin of Error, an A.R. vision of a toxic explosion first shown on the dying Salton Sea for Desert X, at the museum’s sculpture garden. It’s a reminder that should the impending climate disaster come to pass, we’ll face the fallout in our own backyards.
Though the artist’s message is bleak, it is not without optimism. Even in embracing A.R. itself, Baker Cahill is illustrating her own personal belief in the potentially transformative powers of emerging technologies.
“I don’t believe in ‘solutions.’ I really think we have to completely upend the way we think about all of these things, and acknowledge our own animal nature and limited intelligence as a human,” she said. “There’s a wonderful term called simultaneous implicating, which is really about mutual learning. How can we work much more collaboratively and with humility to find better solutions? And that’s really what CENTO is about.”
See more photos of CENTO below.
“Nancy Baker Cahill: CENTO” is on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art, 99 Gansevoort Street, New York, New York, via the 4th Wall App from October 3, 2023.
“Nancy Baker Cahill: Lifelines,” presented by the Lancaster Museum of Art and History and the city of Lancaster, California, will be on view at the Prime Desert Woodland Preserve, 43201 35th St W, Lancaster, California, via the 4th Wall App from October 6, 2023.
“Nancy Baker Cahill: Through Lines” will be view at the Georgia Museum of Art, 90 Carlton Street, Athens, Georgia, October 28, 2023—May 19, 2024. It will travel to Villanova University Art Gallery, Connelly Center, 2nd Floor, 800 Lancaster Avenue, Villanova, Pennsylvania, in fall 2024.
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