Tuesday, 11 August 2015

Carla Adams: Devastate me: Free Range: 11/7/2015

By Graham Mathwin

(from July 11)
I had never had cyber sex before I went to Adam’s show.

The scene was set with candles around the entire room, lining the walls, and casting a dim, romantic ambiance over everything. On the wall was what appeared to be a conversation – perhaps one Adams had had at one point – yet we couldn’t be sure who was who. We waited in line for the artist, and were given her number and texted her to start the conversation, while sitting in the couch right next to her. The artist was silent for the duration, and so were we.

I did not realise how quickly a persona could develop in this field. Although I had never partaken of the online world of cyber sex before, I found myself familiar with its particular nature – I crafted myself to be slightly sarcastic, yet more revealing than if we were in conversation. The abstraction of technology seemed to permit almost any form to be taken. I could pretend to be anyone, anywhere, even while I sat there, next to Adams in the couch. It was a very odd experience, to transition into a different persona so rapidly. I don’t know if it was only a subjective response, or how other people felt, but there seemed to be an instantaneous shift, I suddenly appeared to be engaged in some kind of ten-minute stand. I say persona, yet it was still undeniably my own self, simply a self that was able to reveal or cover itself under the shield of technology, it is the puzzling shift that occurs when one is enticed to play a game.

Being in close proximity meant that you could see the phone that would soon send you the message, and Adams typing away. The shield of technology was an invisible one - as it always is - yet the act that we perform through it did not disperse for this - it was the effect of the performance to bring it to the fore. I am sure that Adams could also see me nervously typing on my phone, and then scrolling incessantly to see if she had sent me the next message. I would watch her hands out of the corner of my eye; it was like a game of chess with infinite moves and anywhere to go. But it was not so abstract or arbitrary as a system like that. The rules are off, and anything goes.

I had always perceived technology abstractly, and I was largely consigned to behaving online as I did in real life, with a few minor alterations. Yet I had never really changed into anyone else. Here, I found myself struggling not to have a ‘good time’ online, to try and maintain any semblance of distance, and not to say the first, usually irrational, thing that came into my mind. Yet I was laughing inside, and found myself, quite quickly, involved with my phone. I have rarely been as entertained and enlightened by a performance as this one, and its very simplicity was a function for its success.

Obvious parallels can be drawn to such works as Abramovic’s The Artist is present. Here though, the involvement is a lot less about that mainstay of performance –‘presence’ than it is about absence; it is also less spiritual, and less creepy. The particular absence is that very visceral connection that performance seems to demand of you as the ‘truth’, an order is established within it that places that biological flesh somehow at the heart of itself. While there is still the clear issue of ‘the flesh’ in this work, it is not that physicality – that strange, spiritual cult of the body that performance that focused on intimacy often seems to engender. Abramovic definitely developed into a cult at the end of the artist is present (the last day, when people ran through the museum to see her, and waited all day in line, just to sit opposite her); here there was no pseudo-spiritual separation of the silent artist and the audience staring into her eyes. While there, Abramovic turned into the blank canvas for the audience’s desires, naivety, love, or hate – here, the artist had a very specific voice. And a very specific role, and could direct the interaction. Abramovic’s performances are often about the audience’s control. Here, Adams (at least in my case) took control, and I became the participant in her theatre.

The theatre that is the gallery space was utilised to its full effect as well. There was a circumference of candles that illuminated the walls. They provided an ambiance for the activity that was taking place: a micro romance involving tea lights in abundance, and mobile phones.  On the wall was an example conversation, a kind of model for the conversations that would take place. Within it was the phrase that stuck in my mind, and is perhaps the key to the exhibition: ‘isn’t this real to you?’ It is so suggestive of the very space that Adam’s work inhabits, on the edge of the unreal – a space at the edge of our daily social limits, where we are free to be whoever we want, whoever we desire, or want others to. The pluralistic space of the virtual world is a fascinating example of subverting the social constraints that limit, deny, and protect us.

The interactivity of this work is also something to consider. I was discussing it with a friend who was talking about performance and interactive art and their problems – not at their heart, just in general: people make performance and interaction as if being performative or interactive was enough to make something interesting. The difficulty of extending form is that you still have to have something to give, or it remains a hollow gesture. The success of Adam’s work is its ability to be performative and interactive in a way that not only speaks concisely about the oddities and possibilities of the online world, yet succeeds in invoking that gift – a personal, extremely personal, exchange – of numbers, and words: small things, but important. It was so simple in its operations, so pragmatic in its presentation of its subject matter that it enabled the true subject to be developed discursively, without recourse to any distracting tactics of performativity or interactivity.

The physical intimacy to the artist was not, as many would expect, a simplistic critique. There is often confusion of what form does when we encounter it, and physicality does not necessarily make us remember that we are non-virtual beings, that we are somehow essentially biological. Here, the intimacy seems like proof of the ability of humanity to inhabit yet overcome its physicality. Here is a physical person, right next to you, living, breathing, and you are texting to her, and she is texting you. You aren’t lovers, but you say things like you were. As if you could be. The effect – at least for me – is still one of dissonance, but not one that demands a solution. There is no immediate or easy solution to this, no critique to be had. Here are our inert, silly bodies, and yet here are our words on LCD screens – and what games can be played there! The entrancement of this exhibition was in the very sensation of being somewhere totally other, yet as close as you were in life. It was a strange, weird place – made of fantasy, dream, words and computer code, but it was not a place that demanded return to earth. Much like that question ‘is this not real to you?’ we partake of two acts, in one reality, simultaneously – sometimes I would watch the screen, sometimes Adams, out of the corner of my eye. How odd to have your own constructed self, through the phone screen, come out and inhabit your body! We are no essential beings, but people made of masks, and the phone is the black mirror through which we can distort ourselves.  

As I left, I did not look at the artist. I felt it would ruin the moment. A strange thing to feel, but perhaps not – and it was neither guilt nor shame. There is safety in the virtual world, and power. There was the possibility of physicality, yet somehow I felt that to take it down to the physical would have been naff, almost sickeningly dull compared to the small fantasies we can enact in that realm of plasticity. Yet it was physical as well, but perhaps it was more an example of our ability to project than to embody - yet perhaps this was only a personal preference: it is the meeting of the projected and the embodied that is the locus of the work.


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