Tag Archives: video 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.

Societies of Out of Control

Ryan Trecartin likes to play with language and a bit of wordplay that recurs in his work—sometimes in the words of the scripts, but more frequently in the way characters and scenarios are constructed—is a confusion of the corporate and the corporeal. It’s like a folk etymology or a pun in the way Trecartin exploits a superficial resemblance of two words to generate idiosyncratic connections between them. But there’s a real etymological connection at the words’ root, and Trecartin’s play animates the forgotten bond between the corporeal reality of a person and the social body of a corporation.

Vocabulary review: Corporeal means “of a body.” Corporate means “united in one body.” To incorporate is to “to put (something) into the body or substance of (something else).”

“Corporations are people.” The corporation is the instrument by which a group of people act together as one in order to to make money, to make things happen, to create changes and disturbances in the world and in the social world. How does the corporation do it? How does the corporation unite so many bodies in its one to achieve its ends? It does it with corporate culture, with human resource management, with guidelines of professionalism—all techniques for controlling behaviors and actions and bodies. Corporations are people but their bodies are huge and grotesque—its avatars have stunted bodies, their impulses and affects are subjugated to the fluid discourses of a brand identity, they speak the stilted business tongue of PowerPoint slides and memos. We live in the time of corporate personhood—when corporate bodies and perlocutionary corporate speech make the models of how a person should be.

Look at K-Corea INC.K (section a)—the title of Trecartin’s video is a corporate name, taken on as a collective name by a bevy of career girls. (What does K-Corea INC.K produce? Nothing, other than its own collective subjectivity.) Korea is a geographic entity; it is a place name—a word that transforms a mass of land into a concept, making the substance of Earth legible in discourse and politics—and it is a near homophone of career. Korea, career. A career is a social concept, a technique by which a person identifies as an avatar of his profession and obscures his individual body to merge with a corporate one.

All the Koreas—Argentian Korea, Iran@-itzerland Korea, French adaptation Korea, Post-Canadian Retriever Korea, Another Greek Korea, Mexico Korea—are dressed identically. They must have gone shopping together for ladies’ business casual at Kmart or T.J.Maxx: white blouses, dark skirts, blond wigs. The clothes and the white pancake makeup makes them identical, in a way, but the forced identity just makes the differences of the individual bodies pop out: this Korea has a moustache, that Korea has real female breasts; this Korea has big biceps, that Korea is paunchy. Traits of individual bodies betray the unity of the incorporated one. But they try their best not to let them! The Koreas are mostly silent, or their speech is an inaudible whispered conversation between co-Koreas. Global Korea is the boss; she’s played the charismatic Telfar Clemens, and she speaks for them all. “We had a meeting,” Global Korea says. “So Lets Have A Meeting!” And the avatars of K-Corea INC.K assembles around a picnic table, outdoors, at night. Having meetings is a habit of the corporation’s inner life, and the word “meeting” has accumulated an array of associations: the conference room, the conference table, the hierarchies of who sits where at this table, a water cooler, an agenda, items, goals, objectives, directives… (Etymology facts: The Old English metan meant to encounter or to find; the “meeting” became an assembly in the sixteenth century.) The way K-Corea INC.K has meetings evokes the contemporary corporate usage while returning the word to its most basic bodily meaning: the simultaneous presence of two or bodies in spatial and temporal proximity to each other. What’s more, at K-Corea INC.K the meeting never ends. This corporation is nothing but a meeting: “We had a meeting. So Lets Have A Meeting!” In the script, when it doesn’t matter which of the Koreas speak, or when many of the Koreas are to speak at the same time, the speaker of the line is given as “Meeting.”

Besides Global the company has a few other very important avatars, including Trecartin as USA Korea, who interviews a wannabe career-girl named Jessica. She’s dressed like the rest but she doesn’t have a Korea name. She’s an intern, an outsider on the inside. She’s a slut: interns are promiscuous, commingling with the corporate body for a limited time, unpaid. “Contemporary Slut!” Mexico Korea (Raul Nieves) rages at Jessica/Cindy. “Every Body’s’ Got the Agenda!” Note the split of “Every Body’s” and think about how a collective is named by indicating its constitution in all of its individuated bodies. And this is important to the business of K-Corea INC.K, which produces a group body that is mobile and communicative and regularly grooms itself by designating its avatars and its Others as hires and fires. This meeting of drag queens and their gofers incorporates—incarnates—corporate corporeality.

And what does “corporate corporeality” mean?? Incorporation is the realization of a dream of a body that can be bigger, more powerful, more durable than a human body—better than the gross animal vessel our spirits carry around. But with the new spirit of capitalism the corporation aspires to be flexible, mutable, and fluid, unlike the old kind of company, the generations-old family business, with its rigid mimicry of aristocracy and sturdily pious Protestant values, its emulation of king’s immortal body. In a time when corporations are people, the incorporated body is more like a real one—or at least the model it sets for how a person should be is gross. The corporate body (or its avatar) lives in a state of precarity, much like the real body is vulnerable to disease and mortality; it leaks, strains, and bulges. It screams at the world and it can’t make sense of itself. It is like K-Corea INC.K.

Look at another Ryan Trecartin video, Roamie View (History Enhancement), from the Re’Search Wait’S cycle. In this one, stock video is a stunt double for the idealized corporate body and it is cut with shots of the weird real thing. Glistening skylines and pristine office corridors of stock footage give way to the plain bodies and grotesquely made-up faces in Trecartin’s own footage. Pseudo-corporate business calls between Trecartin’s players are interposed with stock views of suited corporate employees in a brightly lit office corridor; the speech in the handheld devices gets implicitly compared to the bodies in the office, and both sets of footage are juxtaposed to a tracking shot of a big city’s waterfront, apparently shot from a boat: as the camera moves it shows the glass pavilions and twinkling lights around a port, the node of an international trade network. One thing that all of these pieces of footage share is the color blue. Blue is a soothing decorative element in the stock corporate corridor. Blue illuminates the buildings by the waterfront at night, and blue is the color of the water in front of them. Blue is in the streaky make-up and the cheap fabric of the attire on Trecartin’s players—like the white T-shirt emblazoned with a gridded blue globe that brands the body of the player who wears it with global aspirations. Blue represents water, a substance that enables vessels to be transported from one place to another, a substance that takes the shape of the vessels that it is in. Blue represents the values of fluidity and adaptability; it’s in the branding of Chase and Citibank and it’s the new spirit of capitalism.

So much mobility! And yet—have you ever noticed this?—bodies never move very much in Ryan Trecartin’s videos. (The Re’Search begins with a dance number by the pool—moving bodies, still water—but this is an exceptional scene, not a normal one.) Bodies are meat that sits around—but it sits around expressively! The physical movement in these videos is about gestures and facial expressions: grimaces, turning heads, cocking heads to the side, fidgeting in swivel chairs, waving arms, moving mouths to make words. If people are going somewhere, they’re sitting in cars—and sometimes they’re sitting in airplane seats that have been removed from an airplane, pretending to go somewhere but actually going nowhere, talking into their phones and at the camera lens the whole time. The absence of bodily mobility even applies to the stock footage that Trecartin uses in Roamie View. In one sequence, a man stands with a stoic look on his face; he doesn’t move as his colleagues’ bodies (which are depersonalized as a metonym of the bustle of office life) flow around him. In another sequence, the stock models are all frozen in place as the camera twists around them, exploring the corridor. Bodies don’t move much in Trecartin’s videos yet the videos are characterized by a feeling of constant movement. What makes the movement is editing. Movement is reserved for speech and for technology; bodies move thanks to these things, or as them.

“Neoliberal subjectivity,” the way that bodies behave (are handled) because of (by) the late spirit of capitalism is about subdividing the individual into nameable affinities (Facebook likes, dating profile stats) or competencies (the school assessment report, the HR office review), in order to incorporate bodies as other, more usable substances. Networked social being and bureaucratic procedure reify personal attributes and redefine subjecthood as situational and mobile—but the mobility is a characteristic of the attributes and the tools and technologies that move them, rather than of the bodies they came from.

Bodies become objects of operations. Trecartin, as J. J. Check in Roamie View: History Enhancement, says: “I thought it would be neat and cute if someone took out all the times they say ‘people’ or ‘humanity’ [in the U.S. Constitution] and replaced it with ‘situations.’” Meetings are situations (bodies meet because they are situated in the same area). Situations are states of people. Veronica Gelbaum, as North America Korea in K-Corea INC.K (section a), says: “The New Look for This Company, IS re-Thinking the Word |Humanity| as an Object with a (Goal).”

All of these innovations and disruptions, these subdivisions and operations, are related to everyday techniques of control, but their representation in Trecartin’s videos suggests obsessive-compulsive disorders or cases of borderline schizophrenia. When manifested in the corporate body they are normal and acceptable. But when they return to the individual body they appear as psychic maladies. Recall Melanie Klein’s observation that conditions like schizophrenia, narcissism, and so on are considered psychotic when they manifest in adults but the same conditions are normal stages of infant development. Thus the conditions that are normal to the corporate body appear as psychotic when embodied in Trecartin’s individual players. Trecartin often casts children and teens in his videos, as living reminders of how the body grows and changes—as as implicit suggestions of how the body might grow further, in incorporated bodies, and how all of these kinds of bodies have conditions that inhere in them, and look weird when transported to others, when people behave in a way that might not be suited to their bodies, in order to be part of a bigger one.

Does incorporation MAKE people the way they are? Or is incorporation a manifestation of how people ARE already—of their pull toward the whole? This is one of the antinomies that Trecartin presents, and of course there is no way to resolve it.

People like to say that Trecartin’s work is about contemporary networked technologies. OK fine. But only insofar as these technologies are integrated in the array of social techniques and habits characteristic of human life at this point in time. THIS IS ART ABOUT THE HUMAN CONDITION!! Trecartin’s players hold Blackberries—but they’re just as likely to be hold a sledgehammer, or a flute. Any object implies a use but it doesn’t have to be used in that way.

Any system has an organizing principle, and any organizing principle can be broken. It creates a system of control—and at the same it creates ways of how that control can be defied. (When J.J. Check reads the Constitution he gets talking about how the law can be adapted to suit situations.)

Trecartin’s world is a carnival and it shows everything as it could otherwise be. If a tool can be used to make something it can be used to break something. If a technique is applied to achieve an end it can be applied wrongly, to fail. If telecom technologies enable communication they can also be used to disrupt it. Every ideology opens itself to misinterpretation, abuse, and defiance by any individual. Where there are societies of control there are societies of out of control. Ryan Trecartin knows this and feels this; he likes to play with language and so he knows how any word that means one thing can be misheard, misread, misused, made to mean something else.

Tools, techniques, technologies, ideologies are like language. And in language where there’s a right syntax there’s a wrong syntax; grammar begets mistakes. (Look at how Trecartin tweets: “I publicly believe that cardio clot & your god ends with you.  Let’s go on a hike mudda cutta ,” he tweeted in September 2012.) Moreover: language is the medium of incorporation (and other types of transformation). Language provides the techniques by which one substance can be understood as another one. Even if bodies are separate from language and all the things that are like it—and I’m not sure that they are!—language opens up the possibility that they are not. There are languages and there are bodies, and Ryan Trecartin makes videos about how one makes the other, and the other way around.

“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.

Look Away

Last year Constant Dullaart made a video, Crystal Pillars, about leaving Facebook behind. It was edited from footage he’d taken with his phone over the previous few years, with a voiceover that mixed introspection regarding his own feelings about Facebook with some found texts: the prospectus from Facebook’s IPO, a statement by Mark Zuckerberg, the “About” section from Klout’s web site, tweets by Lil B. Crystal Pillars was shown in 2013 at the Rotterdam Film Festival and at bubblebyte.org, an online exhibition series. I didn’t see it in either of these contexts but Constant had sent me the video by email in the fall of 2012 and I watched it then.

For the most part I liked it. I liked the imagery and the editing. I also liked the open, confessional nature of the first-person text and the strangeness of its contrast to the found excerpts collaged with it. I was excited by the personal turn in Constant’s work, which has always tried to identify the traces of human presence in information technologies, but usually does so in an aloof, generalizing way. Take his series of “internets,” the tweaks of the Google homepage—the default gateway to the internet for so many people—that remind us that even though the page is white and blank as if it came out of nowhere, the default is not nothing; it’s a setting that someone chose to put there, and as such there is a flexibility and vulnerability to it. The Revolving Internet spins end over end as users try to navigate it. The Disagreeing Internet waggles in the browser window as if shaking its head no. The Censored Internet changes every character to an X. The Sleeping Internet dims and brightens to the rhythm of a sleeper’s breath, suffusing the coolly empty site with a human warmth. These give a personality to a web site, they make it weird in ways that only people can be weird. The default is already designed to be open and understandable to everyone, and Constant gives them traits that anyone can imagine—though more human than the default, they still have the generalness of the default. There is nothing particular about them.

In other works Constant has featured his own body, if not himself (his self)—like his performances that mimic the DVD screensaver, where he moves the logo to the edges of his webcam’s frame, and Poser, where he adds himself to group photos of strangers that he found on Facebook—but even then the work is not about him, it’s about his transformation into a generalized human presence.

I like Poser a lot and it’s probably my favorite of the landmark net-art works that address social media group photography (others worth mentioning: Guthrie Lonergan’s Internet Group Shot and Daniel Chew’s Cropped). The aloofness feels right in it because it means he’s not putting himself above the strangers in the found photos—he’s embodying the distance felt when encountering pictures of strangers and it’s something that’s easy to relate to. As in the series of internets, feeling is generalized, yet it’s still more effecting and vital than a template or a software setting. But in Crystal Pillars the generalizing feels wrong, because the video is largely about Constant’s personal experience, and the attempt to generalize obscures that. The voiceover text is read aloud by Henna Hyvarinnen, who was his intern at the time. She wrote parts of the text, based on interviews with Constant; Constant wrote the rest himself, and compiled the collage. The single voice partially smooths the differences between the cut excerpts—but not fully, because besides the various styles of writing the voice itself is ragged, with awkward pauses, sniffles, stumbles, and mispronunciations. I liked how the audio track included mistakes. It was unlike videos by Constant’s peers (Oliver Laric or Harm Van den Dorpel) where the text is read by text-to-speech robots or hired voice actors. But I didn’t like how it was a woman who carried the burden of the voice in its abject, imperfect physicality. It seemed sexist, especially when all the texts were written by men, except for one that the voice itself—the intern—had to written to vocalize for Constant.

Besides the phoniness of personal branding and the affective labor that goes with it, Constant’s criticisms of Facebook targeted the atmosphere of the “perpetual high-school classroom” and the feelings of jealousy and competitiveness that it exacerbates. I identified these as Constant’s personal experience of using the site, based on conversations when he’d told me about this. I suppose it’s a common experience but it’s not something I personally feel so I can—personally—attest that it’s not universal. And that’s the source of the contradiction that I think undermines Crystal Pillars. On the one hand, Constant is trying to deliver a critique of ironic distance and packaged personal connections. Yet the artistic methods used in the creation of the audio track replicated the social media conventions of the commodified self that mask vulnerability, weakness, doubt. I think it could have been more honest and effecting if he had recognized the particularity of his own experience and related it in his own voice—and let his audience chose how to identify (or sympathize) with him.

I’ve never given artists suggestions on changing a work but I wrote him an email to tell him all this and urged him to re-record the audio track with his own voice. Constant defended his choices and argued for them and left the video as it was, which is what any artist should do.

“I Don’t Always Like Being in My Videos”

“Ben Coonley,” I said, “when did you start filming yourself?”

“It started in the home,” Ben said. “When I was ten my family got a VHS camcorder and my friends and I would act in each others’ videos. We made little narratives (endless ketchup-soaked parodies/sequels to Psycho) but most of the time we would just goof around in the basement and show off for/to the camera. This continued through high school, when my friends and I had a cable access show which looked kind of like Global Groove crossed with a bad imitation of The Kids in the Hall.’”

“Why did you continue to point the camera at yourself when you grew up?” I asked.

“It would be nice to say it has something to do with theoretical interests in the video medium and unraveling its narcissistic inscription of subjects,” Ben said. “But the real reasons are probably a combination of poor organization (which makes it difficult for me to set up shoots with other people), a lack of confidence in my ability to direct others… and maybe some residual exhibitionist thrill carried over from pre-adolescence that’s been reinforced by years of pointing the camera at myself. I’m not always in my videos, you know… I don’t always like being in my videos.”

“Yeah it can be weird,” I said. “You’ve incorporated some of the videos you made in your childhood in your exhibitions and screenings. Is there any difference recording yourself as a child and as an adult? Or to put it another way, do you ever feel like there’s something infantilizing about performing for the camera?”

“I’ve only shown excerpts from childhood videos in exhibitions and screenings a few times, and it’s always been for a specific event where I think I’m going to know a lot of the people there,” Ben said. “But to answer your question, I don’t think it has to be infantilizing. For me, I guess I do trace the exhibitionist thrill of performing for the camera back to adolescent experiences. So… yes.”

It was time for me to shift the conversation a bit, to get to the point. “One of the things that interests me about your work is that video performance is something of a female-coded medium,” I said. “Or at least, video performance and photographic self-portraiture have been dominated by women. And I think this is partly because the video camera came into use in a period when women were (are) the default object of the camera.”

“Hmm,” Ben said. “Are you building toward a thesis about how male performance videos are trading in some sort of sexist assumptions about what it means to be put in front of a camera? I kind of want to hear more about your theory before I inadvertently support or undermine it.”

“Well it’s something I’m still working out but I think it’s less of a ‘trade in sexist assumptions’ than an abnegation of some of the privileges of masculinity,” I said.

“I think it’s a theory you should pursue,” Ben said.

“Ok thanks,” I said, and went on: “It’s like ceding a measure of authority or subjectivity to the camera—which is something that women are expected to do to a greater extent than men. And since ‘straight white male’ is basically the default identity of the artist there’s something weird about that identity being thematized or foregrounded. It seems to me that since Vito Acconci male artists have turned the camera on themselves as a gesture of self-abasement or self-deprecation… It’s a kind of loser aesthetics.”

“Acconci’s complicated though, no?” Ben replied. “You think he’s the origin of this tradition? Acconci’s videos oscillate between self-abasement and self-aggrandizement. It’s hard for me to think of him as interested in ‘loser aesthetics.’ I think self-abasement and self-deprecation are different things. And plenty of female artists performing for the camera trade in some kind of self-deprecation and self-abasement. But I can go along with the idea that there’s a strand of self-deprecating male performance on video, especially with artists interested in comedy. A lot of losers. There’s William Wegman, Mike Smith, Joe Gibbons, Jeremy Bailey…”

“Mike Kelley, Paul McCarthy, Ronnie Bass…” I interrupt. “As you say, a lot of the artists who do this are interested in comedy. But the results aren’t just funny haha. They’re funny strange. Matthew Barney is arguably the most macho of video performance artists—but even when he gets in front of the camera he puts stuff up his butt and dresses like a monster.”

“Are they (or we) a phenomenon though?” Ben asks.

“Maybe you are a phenomenon,” I said. “Or maybe I’m just trying to make you one. Haha. I wanted to talk about your Valentine for Perfect Strangers, which was about putting yourself—and I mean “yourself” in the generalizing second person, not necessarily you, Ben Coonley—online, about the risks and rewards of objectifying yourself in an image. Can you tell me about why you made it?”

“In late 2005, I was asked by Thomas Beard and Ed Halter to make an e-card about love for a Valentine’s Day show they were promoting,” Ben said.  “The video was originally going to be a Flash-animated e-card. But in the process of researching how to distribute an e-card, I came across YouTube, which still felt new and exciting in 2005. Aside from its scale and global reach, one of the novel things about exhibiting on YouTube—as opposed to showing work in theaters or cable access TV or whatever—was that all these amateurs were directly addressing an audience comprised of individual users sitting in close proximity to the screen. So it was a very intimate one-way form of exhibitionism with a slim-but-tantalizing chance of reciprocity in the form a video responses from a viewer. (At that point YouTube was encouraging ‘video responses’ from viewers.) So I wanted the video to be about this new exhibition arrangement and the psychology of putting yourself on camera on YouTube.

“When I started to make the e-card/video, I had just moved to a very small apartment with my cat, Otto, who was a feral rescue. Otto wasn’t taking the move very well. He’d do laps around the apartment all night long, running right on top of me while I lay in bed, knocking over the TV, clawing up the doorframes, tearing up papers, etc. He was a shitty roommate, the Balki to my Larry.  I concluded that the only way we could continue to live together would be if I made him feel “safe and loved.” So I was trying very hard to empathize with him. And part of that process was to make him the ‘author’ of this video. Personifying Otto actually worked really well! We got along much better after Valentine for Perfect Strangers.

“And as for Perfect Strangers, that was a show about this physically comedic binary, which I saw as a parallel to me and Otto, or like the first-person creator of a YouTube video and its viewer. I also have some sentimental attachments to that show. My childhood friends and I had made a parody of it in which both Balki and Larry get stabbed to death. So using the theme song and clips from the show in the valentine was also about imbuing general feeling of nostalgia…and yearning, searching for completeness across a distance.”

Thanks Ben ❤