Fine Arts & Exhibits: With ‘The Dress That Eats Souls,’ Toni Dove Erases Boundaries

Ms. Dove chuckled when it was pointed out that the title of the artwork sounded a bit like a Dementor from “Harry Potter.”

“I think of her as chick ‘Pacific Rim’,” she said, referring to the monster movie. “There’s a sense of having created these deranged pets.”

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Ms. Dove demonstrating how “The Dress That Eats Souls” reacts when a user controls the robotic movements. Credit Vincent Tullo for The New York Times

But, jokes aside, Ms. Dove has a serious purpose with the piece, adding, “She’s the wreck of the ship of progress.”

Technology is the delivery system and the subject of her work, and she has been exploring the nexus of interactive machines, performance and installation art since the 1990s. That zone has recently become popular among artists, but Ms. Dove was arguably one of the first.

“I am interested in dissolving the boundary between audience and performer,” she said. The “Dress” takes that to an extreme.

Depending on the movements Ms. Dove made, a different one-minute film would appear on the screens, tailored to one of 10 different decades. Depending on the user’s movements, the robot cues up a dark, neutral or more lighthearted story. Of 30 possible stories, a viewer can experience five.

In one, set in the 1940s, a woman goes to the movies and becomes immersed in a Gregory Peck picture, losing track of what’s real.

In a story set in the 2040s, the protagonist “can download her memory into a chip embedded in her hip,” she said. “Everything is recorded, each moment. But you can’t stop it or turn it off.” She collaborated with the novelist Rene Steinke on the narratives.

“At the end, the dress captures your image, and you show up over the dress,” Ms. Dove added. “It says, ‘I’m done, I’ve consumed, now you go away.’”

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“The Dress That Eats Souls” is a robot of sorts, composed of various video screens and suggests a body and a long skirt. The work will be featured as part of “Toni Dove: Embodied Machines,” Feb. 25 to May 20 at the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota, Fla. Credit Vincent Tullo for The New York Times

Ms. Dove, 71, was raised in New York, and she attended the Rhode Island School of Design. She comes from an artistic family: Her grandfather was the painter Arthur Dove (1880-1946), one of the most important American Modernists, whose work is in the collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art and other major institutions.

In the same way that he pioneered abstraction with his suggestively simple shapes on canvas, pushing art forward at a time that his technique was considered avant-garde, Ms. Dove has had a similar role with interactive automation.

“I’m kind of a geek,” she said. Her studio seems to have more screens, cords and power strips than your average P.C. Richard & Sons outlet.

Though Ms. Dove works independently as an artist — she is not represented by a gallery, relying on grants to produce her work — she enlists various expert teams to help her create her works.

Students from the Parsons School of Design helped her configure the vinyl underskirts of “Dress,” for instance. She often has a software designer on the project, Tommy Martinez, in her studio manning the control panel for the “Dress.” And the company Brooklyn Research created the robotics.

Ms. Dove usually takes three to four years to finish a major work.

“This is less a Rembrandt and more a limited-edition Porsche,” Ms. Dove said. “It requires maintenance and upkeep, and it could become obsolete.”

Her previous works show just how fast the technology landscape has changed. The Ringling show includes her 1998 work “Artificial Changelings,” an interactive piece that links 19th-century shoplifting to 21st-century computer hacking.

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Ms. Dove in her TriBeCa loft. Credit Vincent Tullo for The New York Times

“It originally traveled in four large road cases that weighed a thousand pounds, with laser discs” Ms. Dove said. “Now it’s run on a small laptop. Everything gets smaller and faster.”

According to Matthew McLendon, the former Ringling curator who organized the show, Ms. Dove was an early adopter among artists.

“Toni is a major influence on the younger new-media generation,” Mr. McLendon said. “That’s why it’s time for this show.”

Ms. Dove, though, he added, was not a captive to her medium.

“Toni is at her heart a storyteller,” he said. “She doesn’t let tech define her practice. She has a concept, and then finds the tech to meet it.”

The Ringling, the state art museum of Florida, was founded by John Ringling, one of the five brothers who established the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey circus and his wife, Mabel.

The museum has two very unusual specialties — a strong old master collection, including five canvases by Peter Paul Rubens, and a circus-related collection.

Ms. Dove, who referred to herself as “a cinema director, but cinema on Mars,” said she identified with the idea of a big show for everyone. “I felt a complete affinity with the Ringling, I love the circus context and the populist side of it.”

But unlike a trapeze artist or lion tamer, Ms. Dove has some thorny issues on her mind. “I use spectacle as a seduction, hopefully to draw people in to spend time with complex ideas,” she said.

At this point, “Dress” was silent and powered down. But there was an uncanny feeling that she was watching all the while.

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