Thomas Struth. Continental Tire Factory, Hannover (Continentale Gummiwerke, Hannover). 1984. Gelatin silver print, printed 1988, 14 3/4 × 21 1/8" (37.5 × 53.6 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of the Dannheisser Foundation. © 2023 Thomas Struth

On the occasion of our June 2023 collection rotation Gallery 203: Random-Access Memory, we asked exhibition organizer Paulina Pobocha to share some of the inspirations behind the installation, which looks at the anxiety and optimism of the last decade of the Cold War.

When did you start thinking about what this gallery might focus on?

The ambitious pace and frequency of the collection gallery rotations at MoMA, not to mention the research each presentation requires, necessitates a long lead time. The germinating ideas that eventually evolved into Random-Access Memory started popping to mind and into conversation about a year ago.

Can you tell us a little bit about how you brought this diverse group of objects together? What’s the process for how you decide what to include, and where it should be installed within the gallery?

Different curators work differently. I always start with the objects in our collection. In this case, I wanted to show Isa Genzken’s Red-Yellow-Black Ellipsoid Twin. This is a work that has been in the collection since 2014 but has only been shown in the Museum once, during the artist’s 2013 retrospective exhibition, before the work even entered the collection. And this is not a minor sculpture! Physically, aesthetically, it is an incredible work, and conceptually it’s just as brilliant. Designed on a computer with help from a physicist and computer programmer, the work is made from wood, a conventional material used for sculpture, with a particularly long history of sculpture in Germany. You can feel the tension between the wood and the shape it takes—it doesn’t exactly make sense, which makes it all the more beguiling and, for me, so alluring. We have several major works by Genzken in the collection, and there’s usually something by the artist on view as part of a general “Europe, post–World War II” presentation.

I wanted this gallery to be more specific. Digital technology and its often militaristic origins is my way in to exploring the anxieties of what I’ll call a “1980s Cold War condition,” with a focus on West Germany—and even more specifically Düsseldorf, where all the artists in this gallery were based. (Rosemarie Trockel is the one exception, but she later taught at the Kunstakademie in Düsseldorf so also has strong ties to this city.) With regard to where things should be installed: In this case, the objects tell me. Genzken’s Ellipsoid Twin is very large and has to occupy the center of the room, while everything else is wall mounted.

Isa Genzken. Rot-gelb-schwarzes Doppelellipsoid ‘Zwilling’ (Red-Yellow-Black Double Ellipsoid “Twin”). 1982

Isa Genzken. Rot-gelb-schwarzes Doppelellipsoid ‘Zwilling’ (Red-Yellow-Black Double Ellipsoid “Twin”). 1982

Thomas Struth. Continental Tire Factory, Hannover (Continentale Gummiwerke, Hannover). 1984

Thomas Struth. Continental Tire Factory, Hannover (Continentale Gummiwerke, Hannover). 1984

What are the approximate dates that this gallery covers, and what interests you about what was going on in the world at the time?

This gallery focuses on the 1980s in Germany. For the past several years I’ve been working with the artist Thomas Schütte, so I am very familiar with this period in history, not only in Germany but globally. I was a child during the 1980s, so I remember much of what was happening even if I didn’t necessarily grasp it fully. One thing that has always come into high relief for me is that in the United States, the Cold War, the threat of war, the threat of nuclear war, was certainly real but abstract, distanced. In Europe the situation was very different, and especially in West Germany, literally the Easternmost point of the “West” (“freedom!” and “Democracy!”). The US operated dozens of military bases in West Germany, and this country’s military presence was felt concretely, not abstractly—jets were flying overhead all the time. The US military was there to reinforce the Eastern border, keeping West Germany, and Western Europe, safe from the Soviets. But I always find it so confounding that the populace of a country that had been bombed beyond recognition by the US military just 30 years prior was expected to trust that same military to safeguard their interests. Of course there was anxiety. The advancements in technology, especially in surveillance and the remote deployment of weapons, hardly eased matters, even if ostensibly everyone was on the “same side.”

The idea of a computer having memory, inflected in your title, has become a little more real in the past year with the incredible gains in artificial intelligence. How do you see the relationship of the computer to art?

The title of the room, Random-Access Memory, had little to do with AI. Random-access memory was simply a means to make the retrieval of information faster on a computer. I found the title evocative in its address of technological advances that were reshaping the world and how it might function as a metaphor. Random-Access Memory connotes potentially unwanted flashbacks, things that enter your thoughts without warning, often having their origin in trauma. It seemed like the perfect title to speak to the 1980s in the present-tense, and to the long shadow of World War II.

Is there a work on view here that you think might surprise a visitor?

I think all of the microchips will be a surprise to our visitors, especially when they learn about their origins. So many technological, medical, scientific advances have their origins in the military. Maybe this is common knowledge, but I still am shocked by the realization that the device I’m using to respond to your questions arose, at least in part, from war. Naive, maybe, but also disturbing, no?

Intel Corporation, Santa Clara, CA. Intel486 Microprocessor Microchip. 1989

Intel Corporation, Santa Clara, CA. Intel486 Microprocessor Microchip. 1989

Gallery 203: Random-Access Memory opens June 2, 2023.