Wake Windows: The Witching Hour at MacKenzie Art Gallery, Online

By Jenny Western

Mothers have long relied on innovation and technology to assist in their caregiving. I bought a smart phone part way into my first child’s infancy, and access to social media truly got me through some long and solitary feeding sessions. But what of Silicon Valley’s latest darling: AI? At first glance, motherhood and AI seem incompatible; one evokes feelings of tenderness and warmth, the other a cold and unfeeling algorithm. Yet the group show Wake Windows: The Witching Hour interrogates the relationship between these two seemingly disparate entities, perhaps finding them not so incompatible after all.

Wednesday Kim, Sleep Deprived Workers, 2019-2020, animation

Curated by Rea McNamara and created through the MacKenzie Gallery’s Digital Exhibitions Toolkit and Art Installation Launcher (DETAIL), the website for this digital exhibition explains that it is “led by a rebellious AI chatbot.” This interactive experience follows a choose-your-own-adventure format wherein the audience plays the part of a friend visiting a curator/new mom to assist with some art files while mom handles the baby upstairs. The aforementioned rebellious AI chatbot Edgar steps in to help sort through the files on the computer which have been divided into three categories: Reproductive Futures, Maternal Worldbuilding, and Early Childhood Education.

Leading with Wednesday Kim’s Sleep Deprived Workers, we experience something like a fever dream or the very real paranoia that can come from those sleep deprived early days with a newborn. The images verge on delusional or perhaps the intrusive thoughts of postpartum depression. A C-section scar is hazy but visible in one scene. It is unsettling and familiar at once. Seeing an artist respond to motherhood in this way is jarring, real, refreshing, and unexpected. This is far from the paintings of Mary Cassatt.

Lauren Lee McCarthy, Surrogate, 2021, video still (image credit: Gabriel Noguez)

Surrogate by Lauren Lee McCarthy is an experimental documentary about a winding path toward surrogacy. As the video deals with questions of autonomy and authority, one woman points out that while McCarthy desires to give full control to the parents who she hopes to provide surrogacy for, it is really the baby who will be taking over. Within the larger context of the exhibition’s theme, this simple line stands out and introduces a parallel inquiry about who is calling the shots when we consider AI.

Skawennati, She Falls For Ages, 2017, machinima (courtesy of the artist/ELLEPHANT)

Skawennati’s terrific 2017 piece She Falls For Ages is an Indigenous Futurisms retelling of the Haudenosaunee creation story of Sky Woman. In his preamble, Edgar the AI talks about the creation-creator relationship with his maker rather than it being a paternal lineage. This makes for an interesting foil with Sky Woman’s story, which is one of motherhood as well as a creation tale. While the exhibition visitor isn’t a programmer/parent/creator, does simply using the AI make one a caregiver in this way?

Also including works by Claudia Cornwall, Alejandra Higuera with Magnolia Higuera, Faith Holland with Ben Bogart and Hildegard Holland Watter, Rory Scott, and Rodell Warner, Wake Windows: The Witching Hour is layered, nuanced, and clever. McNamara has done a nice job tying the narratives together, eschewing the sentimentality of art about motherhood for something much richer. While I had trouble at moments navigating my way around, it is not for lack of much supporting instruction on the side of the website’s creators. And the online component makes it accessible to the mother, father, parent, caregiver, cultural worker, or anyone nap-trapped under a sleeping baby.

Wake Windows: The Witching Hour continues until August 11.
MacKenzie Art Gallery: https://mackenzie.art/
The gallery is accessible.

Jenny Western is a curator, writer, and educator who lives in Winnipeg.