DeWittt Cheng

Curatorial Statemet

"Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."— Arthur C. Clarke

In 1962, an IBM computer defeated a master checkers player, and the term “machine learning” was born shortly afterward. Machine learning employs statistically-guided algorithms—long chains of computer commands—operating on input data sets to make predictions: to be, in effect, creative, if we relinquish human claims to that word. Now, sixty-odd years later, the algorithms are seemingly omnipresent, omniscient and omnipotent. They operate our entire infrastructure, and even, to a concerning extent, how we think (or, considering current politics, don’t think, but react as if programmed). Remember the cargo cultists, those pre-industrial Melanesians who, during World War II, constructed life-sized straw cargo airplanes in order to induce, via sympathetic magic, industrial manna to waft gently down from the skies with parachutes; are we less credulous or prone to magical thinking? Informationally, we live in a golden age, but, with robotics becoming increasingly ’lifelike,’ but a utopia with surrealist distortions due to the innocence and ignorance of the machines, that are, after all, just learning, and “uncanny valley” concerns. What will it mean to be human when we are in many respects superseded? What will it mean to be an artist when software like DALL-E can match and even surpass the abilities of human brains and hands?

The photographs of Adam Chin pose this momentous, multi-faceted question succinctly and sometimes humorously—without, of course, providing a simplistic answer. Art is driven by curiosity, and its meanings are often ambiguous or open-ended, although the form it takes is often memorable, an accidental discovery to the artist who simply wondered: What if. Jorge Luis Borges posited that the aesthetic experience is one of delayed or deferred meaning: of mystery suspended in a form that, like objects in dreams, exudes meaningfulness even if the literal meaning remains open to interpretation— or if the effect of the work surpasses its initial inspiration or intended message.

Chin’s preparation for this body of work is twofold. He has had a long career with Pacific Data Images in developing computer graphics in movies (Shrek, Kung Fu Panda, Madagascar) and television (How to Train Your Dragon). Chin can also claim an illustrious art pedigree as nephew to the photographer Benjamen Chinn (1921-2009), a student of photography in San Francisco at the recently closed San Francisco Art Institute with Ansel Adams, Minor White, Dorothea Lange and Imogen Cunningham, all of whom became lifelong friends; and, in Paris, as a student of painting with Fernand Léger and of sculpture with Alberto Giacometti. His black and white photographs of Paris and San Francisco, especially of Chinatown, exude “an Atget-like quality of a moment from everyday life frozen in time (Alexandra Chang).” Adam Chin began his serious pursuit of photography studying with Barry Umsted in San Francisco; in 2020 his nontraditional work using real photographic databases processed by machine learning was judged one of Photolucida’s Critical Mass Top 50. He has been active in the Bay Area photography world for over twenty years, as board member and chair at Intersection for the Arts. His dual background in computer graphics and traditional photography (and aesthetics) lends his work, which suggests a Matrix-like surveillance state in its technological infancy, a poignant appeal, balanced with the recognition that this powerful new technology is literally inhuman—like, perhaps, some of the ‘magical’ forces, hinted at by Arthur C. Clarke’s quotation, above, that monitor—smoothly and seamlessly, behind the screens, our every action online and off.

About the Curator