Tag Archives: performance art

“The face you have today won’t belong to you”

Q: In the guise of your artistic persona, Famous New Media Artist Jeremy Bailey, which I believe you’ve said is an homage to/parody of Steve Jobs. What about the jorts? I take them as a general signifier of an effeminate, vulnerable maleness—but maybe there’s more to it than that.

A: I’ve experimented with various looks over the years, but generally you can divide my career into two periods: Black Turtleneck and White Turtleneck.  I started out wearing black jeans and a black turtleneck as a simple parody of a typical new media artist. At that time I toyed with the idea of denim jeans but felt a straight rip-off of Steve Jobs would be limiting (though he has always been an influence). I retired my black turtleneck by framing it for a 2011 show at Pari Nadimi Gallery

I did so after reading Steve Martin’s Born Standing Up in which he describes the function of his signature white suit as a way to make his movements more visible to an audience in large stadium shows. I thought the same technique could help me stand out in the crowded world of an art opening and maybe even eventually in my own stadium performances. I also really liked that white was the fashion of the future and the color of gallery walls, which I could now embody. After deciding white turtlenecks were the future, I also abandoned black jeans. I didn’t replace them with jorts immediately though, because I couldn’t make up my mind I actually just wore underwear which you can see in Public Sculpture, the first video of me wearing white.

I actually started wearing jorts later in 2011. I had bought them several years before at a thrift store as what I imagined could be cutoffs of Steve Job’s own signature jeans. I wasn’t brave enough to wear them at first but I made the switch when I decided that my legs should be getting as much attention as my upper body. When I did finally put them on they were an immediate hit, so the look stuck.

In conclusion, jorts serve several functions. One, they help my legs get noticed, and therefore by extension help me get noticed. Two, they reference Steve Jobs now that I don’t wear black turtlenecks. And three, though I don’t disagree with you that they represent male vulnerability, to my persona they actually represent the exact opposite: total confidence, comfort, and androgynous sexuality. If they make you uncomfortable then they’re doing their job.

Q: Besides clothing, what other mannerisms and affectations of tech CEOs, nerds, and geeks do you incorporate into your performances? Do you watch TED talks to get ideas for facial expressions and gestures or what?

A: I watch TED talks, product launches and demos constantly. I used to mimic them much more closely, especially the unpracticed ones with CEOs attempting to make scripted lines feel natural, but nowadays you could say that my parody is actually a reaction against that style. I now prefer to embody the reckless free-styling spirit of an entrepreneur without a filter who is in way over his head. This more “authentic” style is meant to appear simultaneously over-confident and desperately overwhelmed at the same time. Essentially I’m out of control. I’m the over-branded artist of the near future, doing his best to be a better person but making work with technology he barely understands or controls in a world swirling around him with increasing speed.

Q: Do you have any observations or thoughts about how the tech industry establishes masculinity, and how this might depart from the conventional trappings of machismo/alpha maleness?

 

A: Obviously the tech industry has too many men and not nearly enough women. It establishes masculinity by excluding women from the conversation, rewarding brash alpha-male overconfidence, and promoting the myth of the meritocracy. This is true in a bunch of industries though. Where I may fancy to depart from this convention is that I believe that the actual products this industry creates are having a larger impact. Software is designed to take away control from the person using it. This is actually what’s considered “intuitive” among designers. Not having to think about what you’re doing may be fine if you’re using a fork but if I’m recording video of a protest or writing a poem for my mother this control may be shifting my perception and behavior enough that it changes the final outcome in ways that I might not have originally intended. This effect is only amplified over the network, turning mass misintent into social norm. Will the always-on video recording of Google Glass make creep shots as socially acceptable and inevitable as the Instagram selfie? Or will the prisoners of the panopticon censor themselves, fashionably reversing the polemic of the burka as a form of social control? I don’t know… Probably?

Q: How did you get into video performance?

A: It was 1999, my pants were baggy and my T-shirts were tight and I had just begun my undergraduate degree at the University of Toronto.  I was only at U of T because I was rejected from the Film and Television programs of two other Toronto universities. I was obsessed with video all through high school, but only really knew it as a medium of the entertainment industry. Looking for some kind of video fix I enrolled in a seminar taught by a video performance an artist named Colin Campbell. Colin was the kind of art teacher you see on TV or read about in books. He was hilarious, fabulously gay, he brought wine to class, and a he was literal inspiration to everyone around him. Colin was the first person in my life to pull me aside and say, “You’re talented, you can do this.” I fell in love with Colin, enrolled in Visual Studies as a major, and became one of his trusted studio assistants. That is, until he suddenly died of cancer two years later. I never made a performance video while Colin was alive. After he died I decided to honor our relationship and say goodbye by making a performance video called Bye Bye Bye. That was in 2001, and over ten years later I’m still doing the same thing and I’m still in love with Colin.

Q: If I’m not mistaken, you did video performances before there were webcams, or at least before they came built into Apple products. Did anything change in your work when webcams became widespread?

A: You are not mistaken, my first performance work dates back to 2001. The webcam changed my work a lot. I went from being fascinated with post-production as something we perform for in our imaginations (e.g., imagine what this gesture could be interpreted as by someone in after effects) to a reflective perception of performance for the computer as a real-time mirror more similar to the way performance for the camera arrangements were conceived in 1970s video art performances.

Q: You’ve said that Rosalind Krauss’ “Video: The Aesthetics of Narcissism” is an important text to you. Could you say a little about why?

A: Ya, it is. Krauss talks about the self-reflectivity of performance for the camera, which is basically a mode of working you find in a lot of 1970s performance video works. These works consisted of camera on a tripod hooked up to a television monitor, where both were facing the performer. In this way, the performer was able to watch herself as she performed. Only the reflection wasn’t in a mirror, it was on TV, and the way artists reacted to their image on TV, especially when they’d never seen anyone on TV but famous people and news anchors, was very different. Artists became objects, first consumed by themselves and then recorded and shared with others. I like to think this is where the use of persona in art was first popularized, as artists began merging their own identities with critical parodies of the television world.

Q: Do you feel like Krauss’ ideas still hold up now?

A: Yes, of course. Except everything is compressed and accelerated. We are still self-consuming and everyone has a camera/mirror they perform for called the internet. The reflection they see of themselves is highly distorted by the software they use. In my work I make this mediation literal in the form of augmented reality. We are actually heading toward even greater relevance of this mode of thinking. The popularization of augmented reality in products like Google Glass will only further conflate software and identity. Our identities will literally be transformed by software in the coming decades. The face you have today won’t belong to you, the gestures you use today won’t belong to you—you’ll invent new ones, or buy them. I was talking to a friend who observed a neighbor on his rooftop using Glass. He watched him, looking up and down repeatedly and often as if he had a twitch. Glass makes you look up to look at your messages so that people around you know that you’re reading them, but if you’re constantly receiving messages then you are constantly being prompted to look up. So he actually did have a twitch, or maybe it was choreography, but of course it was designed by software, not by him.

Q: I’m interested in moving discussions about production and dissemination of images of the self away from narcissism and other pathological areas, and being open to a broader spectrum of what these images do as social objects. The discourse of narcissism that Krauss’ essay popularized in criticisms of video performance seems very limiting to me.

A. I think you’re right. It can get boring, but the aspects of narcissism that fascinate me are the ones we have no control over. You could look at distribution through the same lens. How much of your dissemination are you actually in control of, and for that matter how much of your own production do you actually control? Marx has this great distinction between a tool and a machine. To paraphrase it loosely, he refers the tool as something that you use, whereas a machine is something that uses you. An example of a tool in this case would be a pencil whereas an example of a machine would be a machine at a factory where you have to pull the same lever over and over again to make it work. Most of the things you do are created by machines that are using you. They are observing and measuring you, and adapting to your behavior to present choices to you that they predict based on the patterns of others. Just like the factory worker whose arm is eventually useless from repeated injuries, you are being consumed by the machine. After a while you are useless and everything looks the same. Maybe thinking of the computer as the narcissist would be more interesting for you?

Q: I like that idea and will think about it more. With regard to your work in particular, I wonder if Krauss’ ideas are relevant because the computer has so many functions besides that of a mirror, or of something that captures the image. You have a lot of control over what happens with the image, a fact that you foreground by using animations in your videos (although you create an impression that the images are not totally in your control). So, to rephrase the questions I asked above a little more pointedly, how do the expanded capabilities of the computer relative to the video camera require revisions to Krauss’s ideas, if at all?

A. Computers actually consist of only inputs and outputs, that’s it. Honestly, I’ve landed somewhere where for me everything in the world is a mirror of some kind as long as there is the possibility of a response to an action. The computer is more like a pond than a bathroom mirror, though. If you get up close on a calm day you can see your reflection in it, if you drop a stone in it, the waves will distort it. If millions of people throw stones in the lake at the same time the waves will become so turbulent that multiple reflections become intertwined. It’s easy to turn away in disgust at this distorted reflection, but it could also be a really beautiful to think that my reflection and another’s are rippling together. The millions of things you can do with a computer are just millions of stones you can throw into a pond. Maybe one day I’ll stop looking for my own reflection and start looking for the one where I’m all tangled up with other people instead. I might stop waving my hands to find my reflection among others. I might just accept that we are all the same.

“I worry about reaching outside the camera frame”

Robby Rackleff makes video performances around fantasy gaming scenarios or everyday situations, sometimes both at once, and he plays all of the characters; some characters are more powerful than others, some characters do violence (physical or psychological) to the others, but all of them are played with a faint sadness. I wanted to talk to him about it. “When did you first turn the camera on yourself?” I asked him. “Had you worked with other actors before that? Or do you ever?”

“I think it was in the fall of 2007,” Robby said. “I got to the Mount Royal MFA program at MICA and had a rough start. I was doing a lot of drawing and collage that wasn’t really going anywhere and I decided that it would be a good idea to learn something new. Video was the obvious choice for me since a lot of the artists that I was around before MICA were going in that direction and turning out some great work. I started taping myself for a couple reasons. The first was that I was just trying to get the ball rolling and the idea of trying to schedule a bunch of other people to conform around each others’ free time to make a more complicated piece was too much of a hassle. The other thing was that I was still incredibly nervous performing around other people.”

He paused. “In other words I was impatient and shy and over time I just got used to working that way.”

“I have a feeling that for male artists, turning the camera on oneself is generally a gesture of self-abasement or self-deprecation,” I said. “It makes a kind of loser aesthetics. Does that sound like something you’re interested in?”

“Absolutely,” Robby said. “I am a huge loser.”

“OK,” I said. This made me feel kind of awkward… It was, I suppose, exactly what I wanted to hear, but the way he put it in those blunt terms made me feel bad for asking. Anyway, I kept going, turning it to the specifics of his work. “What interests me about your work in particular among loser videos is the theme of gaming subcultures and how you connect the figure of the gaming nerd to guys in offices, at Subway, or in other everyday situations. What does the gamer mean to you?”

“One set of my videos represents the fantasy, the world of supernatural science fiction,” Robby said “That’s Dark Fortress Occult Master of Space. That’s the adolescent fantasy of comic books and video games. The videos where I dress up in a button up, tie, and slacks are more a stylization of what I perceive to be adult reality: vague and oppressive visits to doctors, awkward forced reunions… They’re both fantasy of course. The fantasy of adult behavior is for me just as unrealistic as super heroes and space travel. That’s something I struggle with psychologically. I’m still playing video games and reading sci-fi comics, but I spend more time wondering about whether or not I should get an Amtrak credit card or buy a new suit than I do wishing I could summon lightning.”

He continued: “There was that article a year or two ago in the New York Times about people my age (early thirties) who are taking their sweet time to grow up… Another way of putting it is ‘redefining adulthood.’ I am absolutely stuck in that situation, but from my perspective I have trouble seeing it as positive or constructive. It feels like the by-product of political and economic largesse and going through puberty during the 90s when America was the unmatched world power. I had so many people telling me to follow my dreams and I did and it got me to the point where I am an adjunct college teacher with no job security and I deliver cakes on the weekends to make ends meet. I don’t blame anyone but myself.

“In this new reality, it’s impossible not to daydream about the world of something like Mad Men or The West Wing in the same way I once idolized Batman and the X-Men. Making videos that mimic these daydreams is really just catharsis. I can spend a long bus ride to work thinking about how great my breast pocket is for storing my MTA day pass and then turn that into Interview. It’s just a way of objectifying wandering adult thoughts.

“There is no one figure of the gamer because there are so many variations. There are those who play for sport, those who play for the social experience of co-operative gaming, those who are just casually gaming on the way to work… It’s like asking what the figure of the reader is. I can tell you this: I’m not personally drawn to the multi-player arena games like Call of Duty or to the more organized team-based games like World of Warcraft. I still respond best to the single-player video games. Part of that connection is based in the fact that single-player games are usually the ones that set technical benchmarks and create milestones for what games are expected to be… Think of Doom, Final Fantasy VII, Half Life, Resident Evil 4, Crysis, Skyrim… These all contributed to the advancement of what I think of as the soul of the gaming technology and its maturation as a medium. There are, of course milestones created by multi-player games—Mortal Kombat, Ultima Online, Second Life, etc.—but when gamers harp on video games as an art form, they usually point out a single player game like Shadow of the Colossus over World of Warcraft.

“This is a long way of explaining how I view myself as a gamer. I was 12 when Doom came out and I was 31 when Skyrim did. Part of me likes to think that the maturation of games paralleled my own rise to adulthood. Most likely, however, we (me and the games) are still stuck in a cycle of adolescent fantasy and coming up with images and situations that somehow validate that.

“I also wonder if you see the characters in your videos as avatars, or characters in games,” I said. “Or are they roles in the more traditional sense of theater? Do you even see any distinction between those two?”

“I see gameplay as more of a performance,” he replied. “I have a real knack for suspension of disbelief and I try and use it to the fullest when I’m playing a game. I try and play games as if I (as in the ‘I’ who is writing this) am in whatever fantastic situation the game sets up for me. In a game like Fallout 3 where you create a character and then make decisions that affect the story and place you somewhere on the good/evil spectrum, I always ask myself what I would actually do given the circumstances. I would like to point out again that I play only single-player games and so the performance of trying to squeeze my own conscience and politics into these rigid game rules is really done for no one else but myself.

“The end result is that I start to have these really intense feelings toward the action of playing a game that requires my decisions beyond where to jump or where to point a rifle. I like to think that the level of emotional involvement I have with my favorite games goes beyond nostalgia, competition, or irony. The characters and situations in videos like Dark Fortress and Guild are tools for communicating that involvement.

“Where do you get ideas for facial expressions and gestures?” I asked him. “Are there certain comedians/actors/cartoons you draw on?”

“When I was a young teenager I was overweight and I spent a lot of time in front of my bathroom mirror trying to make faces and poses that hid that fact,” Robby said. “If Facebook had existed in the early 90s there would probably be a very interesting historical record to back this up. Point is that I did a lot of weird stuff in front of that mirror and got into the habit of having these sessions with myself that, I am embarrassed to say, continue to this day.”

I tried to imagine him at the mirror, grimacing and frowning and looking surprised, but when I did I kept seeing him in one of his videos. That is, I could only picture him on a screen—not in a bathroom. I thought about myself in the bathroom, trying to make a selfie, but my actions in front of the mirror were more about getting the right angle and light than what was on my face. Meanwhile, Robby kept answering. “Those expressions and gestures are limited by the border of the mirror, however, and similarly they’re limited by the frame of my dinky camera (and the monitor that faces me when I’m shooting myself). I’m a big guy and so I worry about reaching outside the camera frame, over the edge of the small green screen I set up in my tiny living room… and that makes my movements tense and (somewhat accidentally) a little subtle. I think my favorite gesture I’ve come up with so far is in the video Interview when I tap my breast pocket. I basically have all my fingers spread except my middle finger is crossed over my pointer finger. Something about the way I hold my hand in that video has an effect on people watching it and I don’t have any constructive perspective on why that is…

“Whenever I watch Spalding Gray movies or videos I feel SO intense. His presence is like that of a superhuman. I am entranced by every gesture he makes and every time he stumbles over a line or stutters. The level of control he appears to exert in all these subtle half-seconds is spellbinding and he is probably the single most influential performer on my work.”

I don’t know who Spalding Gray is… something to look into. “Thanks for these great answers!” I said. That was all.