At the Samek, the miniature metropolis covered an expansive 12-by-48-foot space. Director Richard Rinehart said the experience reminded him of a toy train model built on the set of Blade Runner.

Circuit City

Digital metropolis exhibit asks Samek visitors to consider their existence in a big-data society

by Mike Ferlazzo

photograph by EMILY PAINE

Welcome to The Nemesis Machine: a technology-driven city where ubiquitous smart devices and algorithms predict, assist and monitor your actions. Is it a utopia, an interconnected environment where systems operate seamlessly and improve quality of life? Or is it a dystopia, where inescapable technologies erase agency and provoke anxiety?

The tension that lies between those worlds is where The Nemesis Machine lives. The thought-provoking exhibit made its U.S. debut at the Samek Art Museum, where it attracted Bucknellians and community members from January through March.

It’s the creation of Stanza, an award-winning British artist who specializes in installations, sculptures and paintings that examine technology and surveillance culture. For The Nemesis Machine, Stanza constructs a scale-model cybernetic cityscape out of silicon and circuit boards.

It’s ever-evolving: He reconfigures the exhibit for each specific venue, so no two encounters are identical. It’s also performative: The Nemesis Machine uses micro-cameras to capture images of visitors and project them onto digital screens within the space. This entangles the viewers in the technology, conveying how this seemingly fictional, futuristic city reflects reality.

“We have a long history of imagining the future — as both good and bad — often premised on what technologies exist and how we utilize them,” says Samek Director Richard Rinehart. “This is very much in that tradition, but it is as much about the present as any imagined future.”

Rinehart, a new-media art scholar who co-authored Re-collection: Art, New Media, and Social Memory, said visitors were captivated by the exhibit, struck by its tension with a mix of wonder, genuine contemplation and reflection.

“People love seeing things in miniature; there’s this beautiful snow globe or diorama effect,” he says. “It’s visually seductive, but the serious concepts behind The Nemesis Machine counter the emotional enchantment of it.”