Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. A self-conscious avatar, pair of floating lips, and President Obama walk into an art show…
What seems like the beginning to a potentially funny joke is actually half of the nearly mirthless exhibition Suspended Animation at the Hirshhorn Museum. Eschewing humor as a staple of animation and postmodern critical tool, the show soberly promises to introduce the audience to six contemporary artists using computer animation to “challenge conceptions of reality” and “explore...the impact of virtual worlds on tangible physical experience or the digitization of identity.” The show achieves its aims with mixed accomplishment. The most successful works embody a useful model for alternative mental mapping and raise timely ethical concerns for the future of digital appropriation, while others contain elements that undermine their critical and exploratory relevance. What is the impact of digitized identities if they are devoid of meaningful stakes or situations that can shape how we act and think?
Agnieszka Polska, Still from I Am the Mouth, 2014. Courtesy of ŻAK | BRANICKA, Berlin
We begin in a black box. A darkened narrow room hugs us closer to a large projection of disembodied lips. In Agnieszka Polska’s I Am the Mouth (2014), a mouth—superimposed over an undulating body of water—recites excerpts from a scientific text on sound waves, speaking with hypnotic cadences. She attempts to understand her essence (as an artwork) and (digital) impact on the (physical) world. Because the animated mouth possesses neither real agency nor consciousness, the reflection feels Descartes-lite—or rather, like simulated Cartesian thought in order to appear self-aware. The work is engaging less for its self-referential quasi-essentialism and more for its aesthetic virtues: with its haunting rhythmic speech, tranquil moving water, and enticing bright colors, the video could still enrapture audiences with a reading of U.S. tax codes. It is not the animated figure that impacts the world as the monologue suggests, but rather the Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR)-inspired sounds her voice produces. Ironically, her visual presence is almost rendered unnecessary.
Helen Marten, Still from Orchids, or a Hemispherical Bottom, 2013.
Courtesy of the artist; Sadie Coles HQ, London; Greene Naftali, New York; Johann Koenig, Berlin; and T293, Rome/Naples
This cannot be said of the video in the adjoining room. Undoubtedly, some people will roll their eyes or pull their hair when watching Helen Marten’s Orchids, or a Hemispherical Bottom (2013). Some will shrug at the floating cat, classical art buttocks, or origami toad, and shortly move on. The Surrealist video progresses for nearly 20 minutes through an array of digitally created objects while a narrator tangentially rambles on a variety of topics (sensuality, heroism, cat food, etc). Such seeming incoherence is frustrating until you realize the work offers a model for reorienting our preconceptions of how we build connections in our lives among things we encounter. The collage-like process, aided by the ability to digitally create and transform any object in ways that may not be physically possible, is not dissimilar to Haruki Murakami’s writing process, which the author described in a Paris Review interview: “I get some images and I connect one piece to another. That’s the storyline.” The result is an atypical way of thinking that may expand how you make sense of your own experiences. Paying attention to the loose associations created by an uninhibited stream-of-consciousness may break up habitual thought, and make us more receptive to creative, non-instrumental thinking and problem-solving. With all of this in mind, Marten’s work still tries the viewer’s patience. The longer it advances through incoherence, the more viewer confidence in a payoff may wane. But ultimately, viewers should see the specific details of the video as less important than the process, which offers an alternative model for mental mapping.
Ed Atkins, Still from Warm, Warm, Warm Spring Mouths, 2013.
Courtesy of the artist; Cabinet, London; Gavin Brown’s enterprise, New York; Isabella Bortolozzi Galerie, Berlin; and Dépendance, Brussels
Speaking of mental, Ed Atkins’ Warm, Warm, Warm Spring Mouths (2013) feels like being trapped inside someone’s head. An isolated figure seated in a fluid room compulsively repeats Gilbert Sorrentino’s poem “The Morning Roundup,” fusing wistful memory and defiance. The artist used motion-capture technology to create this avatar-ish protagonist whose meta-winking reminiscence of lost friends and sunnier days borders on the uncanny. We know the character is merely a fabrication, but we can’t help but empathize with his very real, human pain. Occasional text and voice-over narration excursively speculate on the nature of this human digital copy (“A compromised surrogate for REAL fucking experience”).
We would be ready to accept the figure as having an existence of his own (though in a virtual world) if he had a modicum of agency. But he doesn’t. His existence is scripted, doomed to repeat his obsession for however long the video file that contains him is cycled through the museum projector. His value as an alter-identity is metaphorical only and limited by his closed circuit. Artists and programmers like Angela Washko and Zoë Quinn have used animated avatars, communicating within animation and gaming platforms to challenge and influence those communities’ perceptions on issues such as feminism, race, sexuality, and mental health. Perhaps one day, people will use motion-capture technology, like Atkins, to create virtual identities and interact meaningfully with each other in a virtual world to create a positive, tolerant space for those identities in the non-virtual one. Until then, the artifice is merely entertaining and perhaps modestly therapeutic.
Antoine Catala, Installation view of The Pleasure of Being Sad, 2016, in Suspended Animation at the Hirshhorn Museum and
Sculpture Garden, 2016. Photo: Cathy Carver
Antoine Catala’s The Pleasure of Being Sad (2016) wants you to cry, but serenely. Conceived as a propaganda video against a future social norm aimed at eliminating sadness, tearful models evince a rare smile through their wet faces. A panel of embossed teardrop shapes occasionally appear within the screen. The effect is meant to reinforce the concept of sadness and perhaps hint at the idea of future objects (such as a projection screen) physically embodying the affective emotional states they are transmitting. But the result is a little cheesy and entirely unnecessary. There is definitely something unsettling about watching people cry. However, the pseudo-cultural resistance that the video represents is subverted by the notion that people should look for or glean pleasure from being sad. The video becomes complicit with the hegemony’s avoidance of pain. Sometimes sadness is not pleasurable at all, but can be equally valuable as being happy.
Josh Kline, Installation view of Patriot Acts, 2015, and Hope and Change, 2015, in Suspended Animation at the Hirshhorn Museum and
Sculpture Garden, 2016. Photo: Cathy Carver
Have you ever felt hope and fear simultaneously? If not, I recommend seeing Suspended Animation for Josh Kline’s work alone. It will startle you. Hope and Change (2015) stands out as one of the most ethically questionable future uses of digital technology. In the video, President Obama gives a speech from his 2009 inaugural address. Only this time his words foretell things to come—Republican obstructionism and the Occupy Movement—and opportunities missed, like holding accountable those responsible for the recent financial disaster. The effect of collapsing time is truly uncanny at first. To accomplish this, Kline hired a former Obama speechwriter to re-write Obama’s inaugural speech with the clarity of hindsight. He then face-mapped Obama’s face onto that of an impersonator delivering the speech. Save for the appearance of technical glitches from the face-mapping, minor voice variations, and the speech’s slippage of time, the transformation is believable.
And here is where technology and ethics duke it out, truly challenging our conceptions of “reality,” as the exhibition promises. Most conversations on appropriation center around ownership of content, such as college athletes’ likenesses in the NCAA video game lawsuit or the Pictures Generation’s use of copyrighted material. But there is something far more troubling at stake in Kline’s work: truth. Because we have become accustomed to the manipulation of images via Photoshop or benign CGI stand-ins for actors, we often forget that attacks on facts can have significant consequences. Just look at the impact on perceptions and policies that the American far right’s willful disdain for facts has created. Sure, we may be able to identify a doctored document now, but it is not hard to imagine face-mapping technology becoming more accurate and flawless. Will advanced uses of such technology create false representations of others, of you? Suddenly entered into the world as historical documents are videos of you saying or doing reprehensible, humiliating, or illegal things. More than a simple photograph’s visual likeness, the video would also replicate your gestures and speech patterns. How would such digital appropriations of people’s likeness impact our judicial system, where video evidence is often proffered as proof of innocence or guilt? We’d like to believe that traces of video manipulation would be detectable by authorities, but what if technology gets to the point where such manipulation is seamless? This is truly scary. It does not seem that Hope and Change was meant to raise such frightening potential problems, but it does. And it is Kline’s marrying of face-mapping technology with an accomplished impersonator while willfully distorting historical facts that heralds this potential maelstrom.
Ian Cheng, Still from Emissary in the Squat of Gods, 2015. Courtesy of the artist and Pilar Corrias, London
Suspended Animation ends with Ian Cheng’s Emissary in the Squat of Gods (2015), a live simulation whose premise and potential exceed the result. Cheng programmed “characters with basic behaviors within a virtual ecosystem” to influence each other without pre-scripted directions. It is a sci-art examination of the development of consciousness. In theory, these characters can utilize agency with budding intent to shape their environment. In reality, the characters repeat rudimentary actions akin to rituals and tasks. No matter what they do, any expression of agency is artificial since they were given “basic behaviors” and environmental limitations that will inevitably shape what they do. Some cognitive scientists would argue that human beings are born with inevitable behavioral characteristics (some of which are genetically unique and others which are shared by all human beings) just as these virtual characters are “born” with certain traits. However, the programmed virtual world these characters live in and the range of possible actions within it are far more limited. The metaphorical resonance is not even close. Cheng should continue to pursue his work. As it gains greater complexity the more interesting and relatable it will become. But for now, it is in its infancy.
Suspended Animation introduces audiences to a short variety of artful uses of computer animation. But many of the works undercut their concepts or rely too heavily on a metaphor of agency as a substitution for real agency. In an interview, curator Gianni Jetzer claims “the strength of this show” is in how bodies are represented digitally. I disagree. Digital representations devolve into mere entertainment without consequence if they lack meaningful stakes or situations that can influence how we think and act. All of the work in the show is entertaining on some level, but fortunately Marten and Kline offer two examples of computer animation that can directly impact our lives—one cognitively, the other ethically. Now armed with this knowledge, the question is: what do we do?
Art Vidrine is a D.C.-based artist and writer whose work primarily focuses on issues of abstraction, perception, and agency.
(Image at top: Josh Kline, Still from Hope and Change, 2015. Courtesy of the artist; 47 Canal, New York; and Candace Barasch)
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