As more and more of our interactions are mediated by machines, it's probably the case that most of what people understand about who we are is conveyed not by what our organic bodies are doing on the ground, but through the things we write, express, upload, point to, and interact with via the various online channels that we are a part of — either knowingly or not. We are more connected today than ever before, but also, arguably, more alone, as it's possible to spend days at a time working and communicating with a community of people but without any physical contact.
In 2000, feminist artist and gallery director Martha Wilson wrote an article for Art Monthly about the history of Franklin Furnace Archive, from its beginnings in her Manhattan live-in loft to its current setup as a virtual institution. She begins by quoting from one of her own video pieces from 1972, Premiere, which even then touches on some of these issues.
Individuals play at being themselves in order to realize themselves, so in a sense, all human beings are performing in front of video monitors or audiences, fictive or real, at all times. What this means for the concept of "self" is that the self does not exist as anything but a dramatic effect. The self others deal with is the image we project into a scene of action, and what is at stake is whether this image will be credited or discredited.
The question of the self and how we understand, perform, and perceive it is not new. The quest to understand who and what we are could be said to be the catalyst for research in all fields — in science, philosophy, religion, and art. But in a world where concepts of 'near' and 'far' as well as of 'community' have beeen disrupted by trans-geographical 24/7 connectivity and where the scope of our interactions reaches further than we could ever imagine — our words taken in by people we do not even know exist and our photographs retweeted to scores of unseen eyes in places we have never been to — the question becomes all the more pressing.
For this issue, I selected work by four artists who collectively examine the questionable or tenuous place of the physical body or object in the digital world. All four are also part of a multi-venue exhibition entitled FRAME_birmingham that I am curating this winter, which sees unique and small edition work by local and international artists installed into thirty non-art venues across the city. The project encourages, and relies upon, human-to-human interaction as work is explained by a variety of voices, to a variety of audiences in different contexts.
Cologne-based artist Linda Franke gathers snippets of material from the world around her and puts them together into sculptures, performances, videos, and collages, creating juxtapositions that nod to the way in which we sort and wade through data as it's fed to us, both online and off. In her video, Can't Stop (2012), she takes anonymous confessions from the Internet and (re)performs them through a variety of repetitive, yoga-like movements, digitally inserting her skin-tight-clothed body into a stark computer game-like black and white setting against electronic music she has written. These repetitive movements, along with her computer-like voice devoid of emotion, renders her nearly a cyborg — detached and unfeeling in a variety of settings and scenarios. And yet the confessions that are described are not only very human but also, at times, shocking. The detachedness and stark aestheticising process that Franke has put them through, and the resulting juxtaposition of the highly processed performance by the artist against the truth of the text, rather than removing the power of the stories she tells, creates a disjuncture that could be understood to mirror the way we have to carry on regardless. The pain of being human is inserted into a world that is increasingly mediated by machines, with less and less room for error.
Rotterdam-based British artist Kym Ward makes performances about the body in terms of labour. For an exhibition I curated in 2011 entitled The Mobility Project, she created a performance that directly addresses the limitations of the organic body in a digital world, setting it not into a computer game, but into the future. Clad in gym clothes, Ward stands mostly very still, gaze fixed into the middle distance, moving her arms or legs occasionally or taking a sip of water as a computer-generated voice dictates a nostalgic lecture about how it was when people had bodies, describing sex as something people once did, the excitement of going to an office to go to work and speaks of the disconnect between the needs of the body on the one hand and the role and duty of the digitally-connected worker on the other.
Lisa Jugert's photographs and installations are records of events that never happened. In her photograph, Coming Too Late — The Best Performance I Have Never Seen (2005), and her installation, Performance 3pm, 5pm and 7pm (2010), the message is that the anticipation of a performance that has not yet happened, or the remnants of one that has, is more exciting than the actual thing. Ultimately, it is only the photograph that remains, so why not just focus on that.
Finally, Nurul Huda's extensive photographic study of the demolition of a shrine in her hometown of Singapore, Sufi and the Bearded Man (2011) talks about the shift in attitude towards places and objects that have ideas attached to them beyond their physical properties — holiness, myth, narrative, and superstition — as the capital value of the land the shrine sits upon becomes worth more than the stories that surround it.
To conclude — and just to be clear — this is not a manifesto against connectivity. Far from it. It's about considering the impact that the increasing digitisation of the world has upon the way we inhabit it, the role we play within it, and upon the status of the physical body and object in a world where more and more can be done digitally. I propose that some elements of physicality are becoming redundant, which has implications for us as human beings, as well as for art, the art object, and perhaps, eventually, for the art market as well.
Elly Clarke is an artist and curator based in Birmingham, UK and Berlin and has had exhibitions in venues that include Milton Keynes Gallery; Franklin Furnace Archive; The Other Gallery at Banff; Kiasma, Helsinki; Techno Park Studios, Melbourne; and the National Museum of Contemporary Art in Moscow. In October 2008, she set up Clarke Gallery in her Berlin apartment but for the past two years the gallery has been nomadic, taking exhibitions to other people's spaces. FRAME_birmingham is the latest Clarke Gallery project, which sees the work of 42 local and international artists installed into a variety of venues (32 frames) across the city. Elly Clarke's next exhibition of her own work takes place in December, at WIP Konsthall in Stockholm and is curated by Charlie Levine and Suvi Lehtinen.