The most financially successful artists these days divide into three camps. There are those who manufacture glossy status objects that are expensive to construct and even more expensive to own (think of Damien Hirst). Facing off against them on the auction house floor are a bunch of conceptualist types who have parlayed a single, long-ago brainwave into a lifelong job (that group includes Christopher Wool). Then there are the directorial auteurs (Maurizio Cattelan), whose festival-scaled, show-stopping installations spin off a market for high-priced mementoes. All three factions treat the art establishment as a machine that ploughs creativity into cash.


Surround Audience, the latest edition of the New Museum’s young artist triennial, offers a fourth way: the unclassifiable and uncollectable act of resistance. If the world of galleries and fairs resembles a soulless department store, this show is more like a yard sale where you sort through the junk for intriguing oddments and unidentifiable contraptions and, when you’ve found one, wonder admiringly who would ever buy such a thing. The works here are mostly smallish, intimate, rough and mysterious, with the occasional treasure scattered around floors full of flotsam.


You might as well begin in the basement, where four screens show Steve Roggenbuck trudging through a bleak landscape and screeching mind-numbing verse: “I wanna kiss you! I wanna kiss you on a baseball field in the middle of the night! I’m gonna bring cookies! And juice! Are we’re gonna eat them both!” My heart bleeds for the guards who stand by the assaultive speakers hour after hour, day after day.

Roggenbuck’s one-man-and-a-camera piece bears a passing resemblance to the spasmodic soliloquies and Ritalin riddles of Ryan Trecartin, but without any of his visual polish. That’s not a coincidence. Trecartin organised the show with Lauren Cornell, and the result reflects their shared pursuit of technological rapture. Sometimes they find it, as in Oliver Laric’s brilliant mash-up of archival animation clips, with animals morphing seamlessly into people and vice versa, fluidly shedding fur or growing claws.


Despite the exhibition’s dizzying variety, a steady hum of monstrous transmutations and frightening evolutions runs through it. Almost all 51 artists, from 25 countries, deal with technology’s impact on the human psyche. The New Museum drills into this theme with obsessional frequency. A few years ago, Ghosts in the Machine asked whether humanity’s new tools have re-engineered perception. The current show returns to the same topic and revives the same torrents of opposites: terror and fascination, robotic relentlessness and volatile paranoia, technical precision and amorphous ambiguity.


Too much of what fills the building begs to be ignored, and many visitors oblige. Crowds wander listlessly from one occult grouping of objects to another without pausing to decrypt the jargon-riddled labels or look beyond the works’ limited visual appeal. Fortunately, a handful of pieces focus all that jittery attention with visual alarm bells. Eva Kotátková mocks technology’s promises to liberate the mind by inventing surreal cages for the body. A wire box fits over a performer’s head. A pair of stiff metal leg braces sits in a wooden chair like a personalised instrument of torture waiting for a victim. (The piece has two arm cages, too, joined at the back.) Another pair of artificial legs supports a bicycle seat, chain, and pedals, turning a bike into an immobilised pedestrian.


Nadim Abbas has a similarly jaundiced view of freedom. His concrete cubicles recall prison cells, disease isolation units, or modular bedsits. From the exterior, they accumulate into a gloomy fortress; inside, each boasts a bed, playfully printed bedding, and crummy artworks that might adorn the dispiriting walls of a cut-rate motel. Shiny rubber gloves, built into the transparent wall, promote attachment at a safe distance. Abbas is surely alluding to physical plagues such as Aids and Ebola but his sanitised chambers also swipe at the illusory intimacy of social media, with its hands-free friendships and its strange mixture of conviviality and loneliness.

Casey Jane Ellison too shrugs off personal connection by fabricating 3D avatars of herself, digital dolls that perform disjointed monologues. In “It’s So Important To Seem Wonderful”, she reveals her variously profound and petty fears in a robotic drawl that undercuts her sincerity. As she worries out loud about developing a bald spot, it’s hard to tell whether she’s embracing a confessional mode or mocking those who do so too much. Ellison probes the fragility and falseness of the online persona, where fantasy and narcissism meet in new identities.

Self-perception, change and DIY identity building lie at the heart of the best pieces in the exhibition, a duet of striking collage paintings by Njideka Akunyili Crosby. In an extremely literary triennial, Crosby’s self-portraits cast words aside and address us directly through form and colour. “Thread” depicts the artist leaning down and kissing the most vulnerable and unreachable spot at the base of her husband’s spine. The Nigerian-born artist has painted the man’s white flesh as a grand, de Kooning-esque pink expanse, and composed her own body as a collage of images from her native country. Snapshots of family, friends and compatriots, clippings from magazines and newspapers all meld and morph into the outlines of a single person. We all contain multitudes.

So does this show. It’s not worth trying to make too much sense of Surround Audience, any more than it’s rewarding to decide what the internet means. Its essence is fragmentary, its quality erratic, but it has its buried rewards.