If you are feeling stressed out, anxious, or overwhelmed, might I suggest going into an empty room and dancing, jumping up and down, or generally throwing your body every which way? That’s what I did on Friday night at Red Hook Labs in Brooklyn to experience the artist and musician Moses Sumney’s first-ever installation, technoechophenomena, which is presented by Pioneer Works. The art piece, on view until September 26, explores the relationship between human beings and technology, and looks at isolation as an act, confronting the concept of what we do when we’re all alone, with nobody watching.
Here’s how it works: you walk into an enclosed space that is, essentially, a box with a blue spotlight in the middle. Stand underneath the light and Sumney’s song “Me in 20 Years” and multicolored lights suddenly flood the space. By moving your body, the music and lighting bend, warp, and change—a series of suggested poses including the “selfie” and the “crouch” can separate Sumney’s vocals or create reverberation. But you aren’t limited to those suggested poses—you can essentially do what you want, as I did, running around the perimeter of the box and waving my hands in front of the four cameras that scan your body’s movements. After a long and tiring week of attending IRL fashion shows for the first time in a year and a half at New York Fashion Week, it was a welcome release of some pent-up energy. It’s important to note that none of your activities in the box are recorded, nor can anyone see what you’re doing inside—this is key to the concept, according to Sumney, with whom I spoke after I emerged from the technoechophenomena zone and walked down the street to Pioneer Works, where a cocktail party celebrating his exhibition opening was held.
“I wanted to do something around isolation and create an experience where a person could have both a public and a private experience simultaneously,” Sumney explained. He’d flown into New York City from his home in North Carolina especially for the event, along with some fashion shows he planned to attend. “How do we design an experience where people can feel like they are alone and shut off, trapped emotionally—which is where I like to have people—but also in control of their environment?”
Moses Sumney demonstrates various poses, including the “selfie,” inside the technoechophenomena box.
Being isolated with nothing but a smartphone or laptop is an activity most people can relate to, especially after 2020. Although Sumney said he began working on the concept for technoechophenomena in late 2019, the idea of isolation came into new focus during the pandemic. “As things locked down, it made me think about the installation a lot more,” he said. “My work has always dealt with and explored isolation. Suddenly, everyone else was plunged into this self-isolated state.”
He started thinking about the ways in which he’d interacted with technology over the course of the pandemic, and how that pertained to his loneliness. “There came a point where I couldn't tell what was me and what was a computer. What was me and what was my phone?” Sumney became particularly interested in the human relationship with technology—“what we teach it and what it teaches us back,” he explained. “I realized how much of our language and culture and our preferences, down to the way we move our bodies, has more and more to do with how we interface with the computer. Slang now comes from the words you see on social media, and popular dance moves are proliferating on TikTok, instead of at the club.”
He’d been pondering where the human being begins and technology ends when Microsoft approached him with the body-scanning technology used in technoechophenomena. The tech uses cameras to read skeletal movements, then traces and inputs that information and transforms it into 3-D or point cloud data. At that point, the multihyphenate artist spent much of his time in lockdown managing his anxiety by dancing alone at his house in Asheville, (“Some of my favorite moments were just thrashing around,” he added, laughing). The body-scanning technology, he found, would work perfectly with his concept.
Sumney said the installation, which officially bowed on September 2, and his other artistic endeavors in general, are intertwined with his music—they are one and the same forms of expression, and they inform one another. Technoechophenomena, he added, has inspired his upcoming musical projects. While music may be what Sumney is chiefly known for, having performed with Solange, James Blake, and Sufjan Stevens, he isn’t relegated to just one art form. As he tells it, there must be lots of ways for him to discuss loneliness—one of the main themes that runs throughout his work. “I’ve always been a loner,” he said. “It wasn’t always something I chose, but in the moments that I did choose it, I have always found it incredibly healing and restorative. Alone is a beautiful place.”