College of Liberal Arts | Spring 2021

Questioning technology’s growing presence

Björn Schülke does not categorize himself as a technology skeptic. Quite the opposite.

However, the German artist – whose exhibit “Sentinel is Watching You” is on display at the Stewart Center’s Robert L. Ringel Gallery through Dec. 8 – argues that society must consider technology’s growing presence and how the information our devices collect can be used.

“For myself, I can’t answer (about being a technology skeptic) because I’m also very fascinated by technology,” Schülke said. “I’d like to answer, but humans have to be trained in a way, or influenced, about who writes these rules. There are so many questions, and you can’t switch the clock back.”

Schülke presented earlier this month at Dawn or Doom, Purdue’s annual event designed to ask these very questions about the risks and rewards tied to emerging technologies. And make no mistake, there are potential risks and rewards involved with putting most advances to use.

“I think that’s what makes it interesting for us, as well,” said associate professor of visual communications design Fabian Winkler, who helped plan the exhibit. “There’s these nuances that we also don’t want to say up front that we’re dawn or we’re doom, but that it actually is more complicated than that. It needs more discussion. It needs this discourse that Dawn or Doom is creating, so it’s good to have this here at Purdue.”

For example, Schülke brought up the smartphone – a device that millions of people depend upon to organize their lives, to entertain them, and to communicate with others. Many of them would be lost without these devices, but Schülke reminds us to also question what tech companies like Google, Apple, and Amazon do with the data they collect when we use their devices and programs.

In what ways might they be able to use that information to influence our behavior? And what if another entity – like the government – began using them as a propaganda tool in an effort to control the society?

“I like to ask questions about, ‘Is it useful for us? Where are the more evil sides in this technology?’” Schülke said. “A lot of things in the world are both sides. Lots of people are often, in my feeling, using technology without thinking about what’s going on behind.”

The robotic sculptures in Schülke’s Ringel Gallery exhibit revolve around this theme, with moving pieces that use cameras, motion sensors, mirrors, and small screens to convey to visitors that the art is watching them and responding to their presence. Some pieces, jagged and angular, imply a theme of danger. Others are meant to look and behave like friendly creatures, Schülke said.

“Some of them let you see yourself and others deny that,” said associate professor of visual communication design Shannon McMullen, another exhibit co-planner. “You think you’re going to be seen in the image and instead you see the ceiling or you see something else. That helps you question what is being done. Who’s looking? Who has control of the camera? I think they raise some other questions.”

Schülke has incorporated cameras into his artwork for roughly 20 years, although his interest in the tools of observation dates back to childhood. His love for building things with his hands and fascination with technology naturally led him to the style of artwork he now creates, he said.

It also allows him to use his artwork to ask questions that he feels are largely being ignored because of the conveniences that technology creates.

“We give everything, our whole identity, in this smartphone in a way, and nobody asks anymore about it,” Schülke said. “Society has changed so quick without thinking about it. So this interests me.”

While on campus, Schülke also visited with McMullen and Winkler’s multidisciplinary art students in a variety of settings. Of course he interacted with them in the gallery – where they got a rare, up-close look at works of new media art that create an immersive atmosphere – but also in the classroom. In fact, the professors said they like to plan their syllabi around when they know artists will be on campus.

“We go to the exhibit and we actually see something that demonstrates the concepts that we’ve been reading about,” McMullen said. “That’s a very powerful moment because then they have a chance to comment on what they’re seeing based on what they’ve been thinking about. That’s an opportunity that only comes through an exhibition like this.”