Max Pinckers & Thomas Sauvin – The Future Without You

Text by Sunil Shah
First published on The Art Newspaper, 18 January 2024

The introduction of computers in the workplace well prefigures the advent of the internet. Before the release of the PC in the 80’s, computers were mostly vast, immovable machines which by today’s standards had relatively low processing power. Located in air-conditioned comms rooms, various forms of cabling sprawled out from them into patch cabinets resembling a telephone switch panel. The operator end was known as a VDU (Visual Display Unit) or terminal from which user operations could be input, output was often vast reams of print paper reports. It was the invention of the microprocessor which transformed the potential of computer power into what we recognise today, steadily becoming integrated into our work and personal lives.

The growth in technological change in the workplace, in the closing decades of the last century, never arrived without a high degree of anxiety and general mistrust. Humans tend to want to stay within safe zones of knowledge and the transformation between manual and electronic automation, although welcomed from a production standpoint was naturally greeted with suspicion and resistance by workers. After all, since the beginning of the computer’s development, it’s technical workings have been perpetually shrouded in mystery. Computer logic as basic as it was in its origins, was always perceived as sophisticated and complex. This is especially true today, algorithms attest to this as well as how fast Artificial Intelligence and machine learning is growing in use, yet it all largely remains conceptually unintelligible to the vast majority.

What computer technology has always done is reflect us and been subject to a kind of humanisation. It has always, nearly always, been programmed and developed by humans for our direct benefit, to ease tasks that would otherwise take human-power a very long time to do. In sci-fi, characterisations of computers have usually been humanised. The robot, the cyborg, the computer consciousness all take some form of human embodiment. The human figure of Terminator and C-3PO or some endearing human traits as found in R2D2 or Wall-E, or the human mind, in the god-like voice emit from a light source, for example HAL (2001, A Space Odyssey) and KIT (Knightrider). These have all manifested as ways in which the opacity of computer technology can become relatable.

Thomas Sauvin and Max Pinckers’ new book The Future Without You reveals a human-computer relationship through a found archive. Its content was stumbled upon by Sauvin in China through his well-known Beijing Silvermine project. In this, Sauvin’s archaeology mines and literally recycles waste photographic film which he arduously pours over in the search for aesthetic and cultural tropes, specifically for book publication projects. Partnering here with his friend, Max Pinckers, an artist, academic, researcher and self-publisher, the collaboration draws in critical interest from Pinckers’ wide-ranging interests in representation around the photographic medium. Pinckers longstanding project has been a doctoral inquiry and critique of the documentary mode but includes forays into the examination of the technological apparatus associated with visual culture.

The material collected had its origins of production in the US as stock photography for broad commercial and business-related applications and interests. Originally intended as universalised imagery communicating simple concepts relating to the use of information technology in the corporate business environment, these images would typically be utilised in promotional material, advertisements and for visual presentations in seminars. The producers of this stock photography had seen a market for them in Asia and so this explains Sauvin’s discovery of them in Beijing. The images, all constructed studio photography, are remarkable in that they were produced before the ‘Photoshop’ age and so were produced in analogue ways as positive film stock, not as digital files. Such is the era of their production, on the cusp or threshold of a digital transition.

On initial examination of these pictures, the duo didn’t immediately identify their endgame. At first, they merely appeared as unique and quite sensational as an archival find. However, it became apparent that beyond their rudimentary signifier, as a collection, they signalled an uneasiness in relations between computer technology and those who occupy the workplace. The depictions range from images of office scenes, portraits of glossy corporate figures variously engaged in precarious workplace acts to outlandish and fantastical representations of hurdles in productivity and profitability. Huge computers and peripherals, giant, towering stacks of printouts and visualisations of data and networks are negotiated by Lilliputian figures clambering to find their way across technological “fortifications”.

What unfolds through the book, cunningly presented as a flipchart-cum-iPad, begins as a humorous display of 90’s workplace cheese. However, this soon transforms into a kind of Orwellian nightmare introduced through an image sequence that leverages every ounce of potential meaning from the stock images. The visual language of corporate business is pulled towards psychic spaces of ethereal sci-fi computer consciousness. This duality initiates a visual dialogue with the human perspective experienced by the reader. Akin to Kubrick’s HAL, a ChatGPT induced voice spells an AI driven apocalypse, an end to humanity and the takeover of machines. The conversation between machine and human initiates a love story and betrayal towards the greater good. A narrative that effectively well supersedes the stock imagery.

Beyond this narrative, the book effectively casts a prophecy. Evocative of Donna Haraway’s concept of the cyborg in her book, Cyborg Manifesto (1985), the cyborg here might not be the confluence of man and machine but the blurring of boundaries between the separation of nature, culture and technology. Haraway’s model stands as a metaphor for how the computer reflects us and how we have evolved in the image of the machine – proposing the future as a post-human or transhuman existence. It suggests that although our identities coexist across both real and virtual domains, our reality is tending towards a conglomeration of both, one lost without the other.