It’s a Numbers Game

Charles Atlas’ vivid trilogy, The Illusion of Democracy (2008-12), currently on view at the Museum of Modern Art, is a mesmerizing study in order and chaos.

Consisting of three immersive video experiences with the digits 1-6 serving as protagonists, Mr. Atlas creates an unpredictable world for his characters and places them in varying positions of rest and unrest—always changing and never calm for long. As a statement on the ever growing algorithms that affect and direct our daily lives, the numbers run amok in black and white fields and can at times seem an ominous, controlling presence just as easily as they are playful and inviting.

In the opening piece titled 143652, each large scaled number morphs into a different number as a colored band crosses over it while a white band keeps the numbers intact. In a way, it’s like a game as you try to guess what the number will become as the band passes. With only 6 digits in play your chances of an accurate guess are pretty good, despite the randomness of the alteration.

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Can you guess what the number behind the red bar was and is becoming?

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Painting by Numbers is the most exciting of the trio. Again, the numerals 1-6 play across three video screens in wild, exhaustive configurations that can appear as something else altogether when joined and congealed—the Milky Way, a flowing river, bands of DNA, a massive explosion—whatever your imagination can fathom.

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A giant spiral forms…

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Soon to spin off…

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Mounting pressure…

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And a final explosion!

The final work, Plato’s Alley, starts with the slow, meditative creation of a grid which, when completed, is filled with numbers and continues to expand beyond the screen, spreading to the floor, ceiling and walls, creating an effect of being engulfed by the numbers, yet oddly protected by them as the grid comes toward you.

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Numbers rule…

The video work is brilliantly constructed as both a visual and intellectual commentary on our dependence on numbers and the mathematics that dominate modern life. The silence only adds to the drama of the pieces as Mr. Atlas displays a keen awareness of factors that we know exist but don’t see. The overall lesson: a number is not a silent partner.