ARTS & COLLECTIBLES
THE WORLD IS CATCHING UP
Pioneer Digital Artist Yucef Merhi has Opened Portals to the Leading Edge of Art and Technology for 30 years.
Compassion, by Yucef Merhi (2020). 5 CRT TVs, 5 Atari 2600 game consoles, custom Atari cartridges, directional sound system. Photo by Zachary Balber.
I n 1985, when pioneer digital artist Yucef Merhi was only eight years old and growing up in Caracas, he reverse-engineered his ATARI 2600 and turned it into a programmable computer. He used the Atari Video Computer System to produce generative videos based on language instructions. A leading art critic at the time saw this and proclaimed: “What you have created here, Yucef, will be considered a work of art in years to come.”
One year later, at the age of nine, Merhi figured out how to calibrate the atomic clock of Venezuela, and the National Ministry of Defense commended him for achieving this breakthrough. When he was 15, in 1992, Merhi was already consulting for AT&T and created one of Venezuela’s first electronic communities by programming a Bulletin Board System (BBS). The child prodigy even built his country’s first-ever website (for a local Mayor who also happened to be a Miss Universe). “As a child, I felt I could actually communicate with these ATARI machines back in the 1980s. Electronic toys were so important to me because I built my reality with them,” says Merhi.
However, as time progressed, these whimsical connections between his home country and his art would take a more somber turn: reflecting the years ahead filled with turmoil and painful obstacles to restoring democracy. By 1998, Merhi had developed his first Datagram; a concept Merhi coined to visualize the movement of hacked information (he prefers the term “intercepted data” instead of hacking). Throughout the years, Merhi intercepted Venezuelan government email accounts and databases in protest of the dictatorship, turning these revealed secrets into art that raises awareness. The Chavez regime in Venezuela feared Merhi because they realized he could access any server and any email platform in the country ‒ he even intercepted the emails of Hugo Chavez. The government in Venezuela stopped inviting Merhi to exhibit at museums and even blocked him from representing Venezuela at the Venice Biennale in 2013. Merhi was now on a cultural blacklist.
Poliverso (detail) by Yucef Merhi (2012-2014). Wood boxes, glass and vinyl.
Fast-forward to now, and Merhi has reached international acclaim with major museum exhibitions, biennials, and gallery shows across the U.S., Latin America, Europe, and Asia. Opening up a panoramic view of Merhi’s inner worlds, the new show Yucef Merhi: Open at The Bonnier Gallery captures the far-reaching consequence of his orbit around contemporary culture. For the viewer experiencing Merhi’s art, this often results in mind-expanding encounters with language. The gallery show presents 15 works from five different series that map out his creative diaspora. The show ushers in Miami’s Art Basel season’s eagerly anticipated return and opens on September 2 at the Bonnier Gallery in Allapattah, Miami’s burgeoning art district. “This new show will allow people to experience digital art that is of substance, as opposed to the speculative NFTs that seem to dominate that conversation,” says Grant Bonnier, the curator of this show and owner of the Gallery. “Yucef Merhi has packed the equivalent of several lifetimes leading up to this critical mid-career point of his trajectory,” adds Bonnier. “Merhi is poised at the leading edge of the technology and art.”
Yucef Merhi has produced bodies of work that engage a broad spectrum, including poetry, facial recognition, artificial intelligence, sound, virtual reality, hacking, and retro video games. By ensuring that his works always connect with the warmth of human engagement through language, Merhi’s momentum continues ahead of the curve.
From data hacking as protest art against totalitarianism and police brutality to his new vision called Retrocycling that rescues obsolete tech devices from landfills; from perfecting a universal language as new source code for planetary awakening to digital interventions that make poems come alive, throughout Merhi’s 30+ year journey, the artist’s work has remained front and center in the current thinking about art, and especially digital art.
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Artist Yucef Merhi
No Fly Security, by Yucef Merhi (2018-2019). Intercepted data on laser paper.
Perfect Language (Wood: Te #1), Yucef Merhi (2014). Guatemalan cedar wood.
Artificial Stupidity, Yucef Merhi (2019).