Curious Digressions: The Sensuous Sci-Fi Of Apparatus 22

In shows at Bucharest’s SUPRAINFINIT Gallery and an ongoing series of domestic interventions, Romanian collective Apparatus 22 offer a more intimate approach to the vexed question of art and artificial intelligence, finds Andra Amber Nikolayi

Apparatus 22, Sex Tape III (Atletica Ideal x Lovers of Beaubourg by Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries), 2022, installation (video: 6min53sec, metallic beds, leather, birdhouse, wooden bird, TV, mirrors, sand), 196 x 120 x 114cm. Edition of 5 + 3AP in unique variations

It was a particularly rainy Friday evening when Dragoș Olea appeared at my door with a large Ikea tote covered with garbage bags. He was carrying the device used in Apparatus 22’s The Continuum Broadcast (2016–ongoing ), a performance piece the collective catalogues as “a free public service”. Nicolas Bourriaud describes relational aesthetics as a way for artists to reclaim and transform public or commercial spaces such as galleries or museums and turn them into places of social gathering and exchange that exist outside the capitalist thinking which has replaced our piazzas with mall food courts. Apparatus 22 attempt the opposite.

The Continuum Broadcast is not just a portable music media player but an ongoing repository for various forms of radio art that can only be experienced by inviting the artists into your home. With that, they have taken this prompt to its almost absurd logical conclusion. One or more members of the collective will physically conduct a listening session in your living room. In the age of streaming and audio as an increasingly volatile medium, Apparatus 22 harkens back to an era when people gathered around a big radio. It is this flair for old Hollywood nostalgia with a hint of porous boundaries that makes their work so fascinating.

Olea assures me that the five pieces currently part of the programme cannot be accessed anywhere, neither online nor in the gallery. The device itself, together with a calendar and email address, was present in the gallery space only so that people could book a visit of their own. He comes dressed in a funky, colourful sweater and Chelsea boots with thick, bright green soles which remind me of a Bottega Venetta collection from a few years back. He lights up at the sight of my circa 1970s, casually disco living room. We bond over our love for sparkly lamé curtains and the Falkor plushie I thrifted, which we’re both old enough to remember from Romanian television channels aggressively showing reruns of Neverending Story in the 90s.

The listening session is rather formal. He came prepared with transcripts of all the radio plays printed and bound in tiny dossiers for all the participants. He also describes the project to my friends who have not seen the show and recounts some of his experiences presenting it in Brussels, where people would invite them either because they were curious to talk to artists from Eastern Europe or because they found the concept of art happening in their living room intriguing.

The five pieces alternated between interviews on imaginary radio shows where Apparatus 22 space dandy Rozalb de Mura chats to some glamorous queen they met at the club about gender, fashion and fabulosity (‘The Broken Grid’), or a highly intimate piece on how to cruise in a gallery (‘Erotic-Mnemotechnic Poem’ by Simon Asencio). There’s also a novel radio play featuring the newest addition to their fantabulous pantheon, Atletica Ideal, where she falls in love with Róisín Murphy and Maurice Fulton after hearing a new track they wrote (‘About the curious digressions of Atletica Ideal. A report’).

Apparatus 22 is a rather unique presence in the Romanian contemporary art landscape. Unlike many of their peers from the post-89 generation whose work tends to be rather explicit in its exploration of Romanian society after the revolution and its wrestling with the communist legacy, Apparatus 22 are creating their own series of personal mythologies. Heavily influenced by music, fashion and speculative fiction in order to address these issues, they touch on gender, socio-economic movements and religion. Operating as a collective, Apparatus 22 gets its edge from a membership coming from a wide variety of backgrounds, mostly outside the contemporary art world. Siblings Erika and Dragoș Olea came from sociology and economics respectively, while Maria Farcaș studied literature. Ioana Nemeș (1979–2011), their late fourth original member, was the only one with a formal art training at the University of Fine Arts in Bucharest, after having a successful career in sports.

Self-defined as “a transdisciplinary collective of dreamers, researchers, poetic activists and (failed) futurologists,” the group came together in 2010 after a brief stint in the fashion industry. Their avant-garde label Rozalb de Mura, featured all of its current members alongside designer Olah Gyarfas and producer Rita Ferencz. Their penchant for storytelling and intricate world-building can be traced back to their Rozalb de Mura years. The label merged intricately designed pieces with a futuristic aesthetic that incorporated highly conceptual presentations. Many of these were presented as the adventures of a titular character, Prince Rozalb de Mura. By connecting often disparate subjects while constructing highly aesthetically pleasing pieces that comment on specific issues, Apparatus 22 comfortably inhabits the space between theory, fashion and contemporary art.

Of Pleasure: The Learnings and Strange Fortunes of Atletica Ideal, their latest solo show at SUPRAINFINIT Gallery in Bucharest, echoes their designing days by using an imaginary protagonist as the conduit for their ideas.

Arriving at the gallery on a particularly chilly Thursday afternoon in December, right after sundown, I first meet the bubbly Olea showing the pieces to a small group of mixed ages and genders. Although I personally prefer seeing a show at my own pace, the gallery informs me that the artist has been conducting a series of guided tours for the audience if I were interested. He is wearing a silly sweater with a colourful landscape, chunky boots and talks with his hands a lot. I am immediately at ease.

Apparatus 22, Sex Tape III (Atletica Ideal x Lovers of Beaubourg by Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries), 2022, installation (video: 6min53sec, metallic beds, leather, birdhouse, wooden bird, TV, mirrors, sand), 196 x 120 x 114cm. Edition of 5 + 3AP in unique variations

As the artist was enthusiastically explaining the complex narratives behind the pieces, it felt less like a tour and more like a performative addendum to the exhibition. He also mentioned that the gallery name itself was part of one of the group’s ongoing conceptual branding projects. In his words, the show told the story of an AI called Atletica Ideal and her quest to find love. Each piece is accompanied by a lengthy explanation with the artist going back-and-forth between various exhibits, pointing out the ways in which they are connected.

The space is delineated by an undulating black fringe curtain made out of VHS tape (The Owls Are Not What They Seem, 2017–ongoing), an item they’ve been reiterating through various shows, including 2019’s HOPE SANK TEETH INTO THE NIGHT at Closer Art Center in Kyiv. This haptic element both reveals and obscures, functioning almost as a portal into the sensuous sci-fi universe they’re invoking, being the first thing you encounter. You need to go through it in order to enter the space.

The rather austere rectangle with grey concrete floors is populated by various objects that merge leather, metal and neon. The initial impression is not so much state-of-the-art futurism but the impression of a sci-fi universe that reads more like Neuromancer or Blade Runner than the current sleek fantasies of endless screens and computer-generated art. Perhaps it’s the use of secondhand leather jackets with obvious 80s padding that make up some of the wall pieces – or maybe it’s the aura of the magnetic tape-turned-disco curtain.

Apparatus 22’s futurism is not hi-fi but high-concept, using the guiding narrative of Atletica Ideal to create an added layer of meaning to imaginary fetish objects made out of bike saddles, thorns, psychopomp metal birds and seductive neon lettering.

According to the artist, Atletica Ideal, is a “highly evolved artificial intelligence” (perhaps not dissimilar to Scarlett Johansson’s character in HER). On a quest to experience love, she searched far and wide through all of humanity’s artistic fields: literature, music, film – but to no avail. Finally, she reaches the world of fine art where she is able to commune with the pieces and experience something akin to both religious and orgasmic ecstasy.

Two of these communions are documented in video installations dubbed “sex tapes”, that function as elaborate music videos presenting Atletica’s incarnation as she interacts with famous artworks such as Edvard Munch’s The Scream, with musical accompaniment. The lyrics, specifically composed for the piece, refer to the cannibalistic act of watching someone else’s gaze turn into an erotic union with self-destructive undertones.

Munch’s painting was chosen not so much for its iconic subject matter, whose titular scream may denote terror as much as pleasure, but due to the apparent fact that the pigment used in it tends to disintegrate from someone just breathing near it, a fitting metaphor for the ongoing Eros– Thanatos dichotomy that pervades the show as a whole. The exhibition concludes in a smaller room where visitors are invited to take part in a different performative experience, as they are presented with riddles and clues, the guessing game becoming itself a part of the show.

However, the group’s interest in interacting with their audiences goes much deeper, as The Continuum Broadcast (2016–ongoing) suggests. Originally commissioned by Kilobase Bucharest, that piece perfectly encapsulates the group’s obsession with narrative and obsolete technologies, their striving to bring their artwork beyond the gallery confines. It makes for a fascinating twist on the question of accessibility in the art world, especially with the trend of everything moving online since Covid and discussions about envisioning other forms of art interaction, especially for those homebound or living with disabilities.

Of Pleasure: The Learnings and Strange Fortunes of Atletica Ideal offers a refreshing take on the sometimes-too-trendy subject of AI in contemporary art. By going against the grain and showing how limited resources and obsolete technologies might yield a stronger emotional response, it posits an alternative to the current hype over virtual realities. The viewer can engage in a different kind of immersive AI journey – aided, of course, by a heavy dose of imagination.

Work by Apparatus 22 is currently featured in The Seduction of the Bureaucrat at Cultuurcentrum, Mechelen, Belgium, until 4 June, and 1.5 Degrees at Kunsthalle Mannheim, Germany, until 10 August

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