Curating a group exhibition about identity construction in our mass digital culture seemed, at first, like the recipe for a car crash. I am referring of course to those curatorial tour de forces that coalesce around grand social ideas that seem to justify the expenditure (tax payers money) and the private sponsorship (the guilt of the rich) in the public art institutions.
‘Looks’ is a group show that takes place at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London and gathers works by Juliette Bonneviot, Andrea Crespo, Morag Keil, Wu Tsang and Stewart Uoo. Through a wide range of media, from film installation and painting, to sculpture and photography, this exhibition aims at problematising the way technology has affected our idea of the self in relation with the body. If this is considered as a modernist show where objects with visual content are displayed, this show is an unsurprising failure.
These days, however, art exhibitions are more than places to see art. In other words, if social media give anyone the possibility to achieve instantaneous celebrity, the art world provides as a fast track to social mobility, education and sex appeal. What is the point of reading the classics if one can first obtain an MBA, do the same thing over and over with different levels of intensity until the bank account is full and then, and only then, dedicate some time to buy some art and instantly believe that social acceptance and erudition are easily achieved almost by osmosis. The problem is that deep down inside no one really believes that and the Emperor is more naked than ever before.
A show like ‘Looks’ has works that could be purchased by that kind of collector but they are not its typical visitor. During my visit, the people around me felt were tourists and students that felt uneasy, self conscious and utterly disconnected from the aesthetic experience. In a time when people spend almost all day in isolation in front of some sort of screen, museums are places where we can look at something (that usually is not a screen) without the need to talk or to connect with other human beings.
This feeling of social discomfort and bodily alienation that this show gave me makes it an unexpected triumph. I am not completely sure whether this was the intention of the ICA curators but it worked. Upon arrival, on the ground floor gallery entering from The Mall, there are a series of photographs, figurative sculptural works and a new carpet work by Stewart Uoo (1985 NYC). They revisit elects from his exhibitions Life is Juicy at 47 Canal (2012) and No Tears in Rain at Galerie Buchholz (2014). The photographs feature DeSe Escobar, an influencia transgender in the New York underground scene in a futuristic world where everything seems to be in flux. Positioned alongside these photographs, Uoo has included his darkly fetishistic and post-apocalyptic mannequins. The rest of the room was occupied by a carpet where different comments from Cosmopolitan magazine are reproduced as in a chat screen. The works are silly but the curatorial work is interesting because the small photographs are lost in the white walls confusing the viewer who suddenly does not know whether to step on the carpet (it is a carpet after all) or view it from its ideal viewing point (on one of the sides). In other words, the visitor ends up being bodily self conscious and his idea of change is less autonomous than that of protean DeSe. It was at that point that a hipster-ish ICA employee descended to the room making it clear that he knew what to do instead of us. Not only that because he started flirting with a rather cute room guardian. I felt I had to either compete or leave. The truth is that I wasn’t interested in any of them but as in the social media, it was about wanting for wanting sake. The self in times of a mass digital culture.
The showed continued upstairs. In the first room there is the best piece of the exhibition which is a film installation by Wu Tsang (1982 Los Angeles). The film is called ‘A day in the life of bliss’, an it is projected on two out of four giant plasma screens placed against each one of four corners of the room. The story follows BLIS (played by American performance artist boychild), a young performer who lives i a world where an artificial intelligence called the LOOKS controls humans through a pan optical social media platform known as PRSM. The looks evolved from present-day algorithm-based metadata systems; they track all exchanges between people and consequently controlled public space. Society has grown dependent on the LOOKS, but there is a growing resistance which comes from friendship. The film is appealing and performance artist ‘boychild’ is stupendous. The beauty of this piece is what it generates in the viewer. Its music video pace and eroticism makes it an object to be detached but the room did not allow that separation. The fact that there are four screens surrounding the room made it impossible to lean on a wall and, so to speak, disappear. There were two Chinese tourists that did not stop taking pictures and speaking out loudly. It was as if Wu Tsang’s controlled human being not only existed inside the film.
The following room had a plasma screen with a rather pointless video by Andrea Crespo (1993 NYC) called Parabiosis-Neurolibidinal Induction Complex. The screen is placed in front of a bench with two sets of earphones. The two viewers that view listen to the same sound in different earphones. What came next were a very awkward five minutes because I was sitting beside another human being watching and listening the same message of disconnectedness and isolation without making any contact. There was nothing that the screen would say that was not already happening between my neighbour and I. At this point, the show was a success only because of its outdatedness. Reality seems to be far lonelier than art these days.