“What the fuck am I looking at?”
This is what Beatrix Ruf thought when she first encountered a work by Ed Atkins. The new Stedelijk Museum Director is not one to get caught up in diplomatic niceties—and at the press preview of Recent Ouija she didn’t mind repeating the question. Her confusion has turned out to be inspirational, though: last year she curated a show with the British artist at the Zurich Kunsthalle, and now she has landed him his first solo show in the Netherlands. To boot, the Stedelijk has purchased three of Atkins’ works, amongst them the three-channel video Ribbons (2014), the glowing centerpiece of the Amsterdam show.
Quite a few visitors to Recent Ouija will probably identify with Ruf’s initial reaction. Atkins drags viewers into a fragmented virtual world, bombards them with snippets of music, references to pop culture, and obscenity, only to spit them back into the physical world, heads whirling and eyes blinking. Avatars such as Dave in Ribbons, a sophisticated hooligan downing numerous pints of ale, farting but singing Purcell as well, talk to viewers directly, burdening them with their tragedy or anger, begging them to listen or telling them to shut up, to fuck off. It’s a kind of existential theatre in a parallel universe, Kierkegaard 2.0 delivered by bad tempered talking heads with a short attention span and a scrambled memory.
Born in 1982, Atkins is routinely referred to as one of the most prominent representatives of the digital natives in art. And although he does not warm to the term (nor any other label for that matter) and his work is very much about the uneasy relationship between the virtual and the physical, his working domain is 100 percent digital. In earlier work he was still using images shot in the real world, but as soon as technically possible he started working with CGI exclusively, employing a motion capture camera and modelling avatars after himself. The images produced are of a hyper-realistic quality, nonetheless, down to flares, flecks of dust on the imaginary lens, and out of focus shots.
Ed Atkins, Ribbons (still), 2014, Collection Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam. Photo: Gert Jan van Rooij
Edo Dijksterhuis: Could you explain the exhibition’s title?
Ed Atkins: A Ouija board—or Ouiji as Americans would call it—is a talking board used to talk to the dead, to ghosts. It’s an esoteric means to communicate with the ephemeral or the fictional—depending on your position. But it’s also a generic cinematic reference, a narrative device often used in horror movies. The characters in my films are like the ghosts to be contacted; they have one foot in this world and one foot in the digital.
ED: To what extent do you relate to the language of traditional cinema? On the one hand you seem to want to break away from it, to go into uncharted territory. On the other hand you have to make do with visual conventions in order to be able to communicate. How do you deal with that?
EA: I don’t have to “make do” with conventions—those conventions are an important critical function of the work. I relate very deeply with so-called traditional languages of cinema—they are important, along with other familiar and established formal means of communicating, in order to access certain kinds of fluency and presumption in the audience’s ability to read—or not read—the work. I make a few presumptions about what people—myself included—are able to “read”: to rely upon as far as the legibility, narrative, meaning, emotional content, might be solicited, attained, perverted. For example, the music in the work is the most baldly manipulative, defining emotional solicitation of the work, but it only works because we can more or less agree on what chords make us sad, angry, threatened, etc.
Reiterating these things sets up the possibility for their interruption, their failure—and the insistence that the audience notices these things for what they are: devices, tropes, sleights of hand.
(both) Ed Atkins, Warm, Warm, Warm Spring Mouths (still), 2013, Collection Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam. Photo: Gert Jan van Rooij
ED: Besides cinema, what other sources do you draw from?
EA: Performance art and early video art are definitely part of my DNA. Someone like Vito Acconci, whose work is about the relationship between the body and technology, is close to me. I’m also using technology as a mirror, holding it up to show our narcissistic relationship with it: the selfies we make, the way we present ourselves at our most attractive in social media. I don’t produce narratives in a conventional sense, but rather performances. What I do is also part of a classical tradition of theater; working with avatars is like wearing a mask but I’m still acting. It’s melodramatic acting, pushing emotions to the brink of overkill.
ED: These avatars talk about love, sex, melancholy—rather conventional subjects for inhabitants of a virtual realm.
EA: Technology is often turned against itself as a reminder of the mortal, physical world. But the digital world in itself is less immaterial than we like to think or try to make it sound by our misuse of language. The “cloud” is a beautiful image but in the end this cloud is generated by a shed in the desert filled with computers. That’s very material.
ED: In an interview you once said that “the digital world has the possibility to store so much more information than we can possibly understand.” Does that mean that our human cognitive capacity has simply not evolved fast enough to keep up with technological advancement? And if so, do you see an adjustment somewhere in the near future?
EA: I don’t think it’s a problem of our cognitive evolution. It’s more that the digital world—I would change the parlance now, I think—is filled with a lot of dreck, a lot of raw data, a lot of everything: it is always already excessive. Which is to describe a different kind of “excess” from one that we might understand as specifically human: desire. The excesses of the digital are still, finite, too—in that they are materially incumbent.
Ed Atkins, Even Pricks (still), 2013. Collection Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam. Photo: Gert Jan van Rooij
ED: You use state of the art technology in your work and to a degree that technology is also the subject of your work. With the rapid rate of technological development, do you feel there’s a danger of your work becoming “dated” in the near future?
EA: I look forward to it. It’s already happening, I would say. Most interestingly is the body of work dating itself: the models are updated occasionally to newer, more complex models. Within Recent Ouija there is already a palpable sense of technological turnover: of obsolescence abutting mortality. The work looking dated is part of the discourse of the work, not something that comes along to scupper it.
ED: Your works are part image, part music and part text. In the creative process where does it start?
EA: Usually with text, text describing an image. I like aphorisms, metaphors, allegories. It’s usually a description of looking at something but it’s somehow blurred.
Of course, everything is made on the same computer—the writing, the music, the images—so it quickly becomes a holistic object. In the process the writing is often heavily edited and cut in size. For Ribbons I had first written a fairly long script, but it got reduced to snippets, rushes of text.
Ed Atkins, Happy Birthday!! (still), 2014. Photo: Gert Jan van Rooij
ED: In Recent Ouija text is not only part of the films but also pops up on white panels with mysterious statements such as “Never fuck with systems administrator.” What is so important about text?
EA: Its failure to truly describe something. The text panels I’ve made for this show are something of a parody of museum design. They are framed as quotes and look like they might reveal meaning, but in fact they are just another layer of failure.
In Ribbons sentences are shown in letter types resembling advertisements, referring to a blockbuster feeling. As a viewer you’re constantly thrown off balance: are you looking at the letters or are you reading a text? Are you looking at something or experiencing it?
ED: There’s a lot of music in your films, especially singing, ranging from Bach’s Erbarme Dich to eighties pop music and usually in short bursts. Why?
EA: The shortness of the fragments has to do with my mode of attention, I guess. That’s the consequence of living online so much; there is always the lure of another hyperlink, a certain impatience.
For me music is the most emotionally manipulative force in the world. Like when you’re in a karaoke bar and you’re singing a particular song, that song becomes all about you. Music makes you fantasize.
But music is also part of the basic vernacular of filmmaking; it brings everything together. You can’t imagine looking at Psycho without hearing Bernard Herrmann’s score telling you what to feel at which moment. I tap into that. The viewer is aware of the manipulation but also gets confused. He is stranded and does not know how to feel. It’s the nature of the multimedia experience: it does not frame how we should feel.
ED: The world of social media does tend to be bland and extremely affirmative. It does not invite criticism or discussion easily.
EA: Online a culture of consensus rules. Social media are presented as a-political platforms but, of course, they are deeply political. The only thing you can do is retweet or give somebody a thumbs up. YouTube is one of the last places where you can actually give somebody a thumbs down. When you write a comment, you run the risk of being called a troll. It’s very difficult to be critical, you’re constantly been told to shut up—a lot like my avatars tell viewers to shut up. I want to show that we can be ugly, even behind our shiny virtual façade.
Ed Atkins, Ribbons (still), 2014, Collection Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam. Photo: Gert Jan van Rooij
ED: So your work is basically a plea for imperfection?
EA: Most definitely! Imperfection is part of being human. The characters in my work are stuck, they are frustrated. The technology drives towards the highest level of reality but fails to do them justice. They are cadavers: part object, part spiritual but never alive.
ED: The (im)possibility of communication seems to be at the core of your work. Do you think technology is offering a way out of this or is it just making communication more complex and taking us further away from truly reaching out to others and understanding each other? In other words: are you a techno-optimist or a techno-pessimist?
EA: I’m techno-ambivalent. Certainly I think it’s a matter of correct (mis)use. Knowing what to augment with what technology—and what to defend as an a-technological, or a-digital, means of relating, communicating.
ED: Your work is very much about the disembodied, virtual world. But in real life are you like those dubstep producers, creating intricate soundscapes using digital effects and otherworldly sounds while living out in the country and going for a stroll in the woods every afternoon? Or do live an online life like those Japanese youngsters (hikikomori) who hole up in their bedroom with a computer and never venture out into the real world?
EA: I live somewhere in between, like most people I would think.
ArtSlant would like to thank Ed Atkins for his assistance in making this interview possible.