Therapeutic BodiesOctober 15, 2014
Locating Technology considers technology and artworks in rather broad terms, such as: mechanical objects, analog and digital photography and video, and computer and web-based work. Through these types of works, writers explore the evolution of technology and its effects on artists’ processes, disciplinarity, and the larger social context of media creation, dispersal, access and interactivity.
Rottenberg and Kessler playfully indulge in and critique each with their elaborate systems of meaning and cosmologies.
Mika Rottenberg's and Shana Moulton's absurdist and surreal bubble worlds grapple with embodiment through mechanization and mediated imagery. For SEVEN (2011), Rottenberg collaborated with Jon Kessler to create a chakra “milking” laboratory in New York that coordinated with a sub-Saharan African cohort. In Whispering Pines 10 (2011), a collaboration between Moulton and Nick Hallett, the ill and homebound character Cynthia uses technology as a platform for imagination and healing. In these two projects, both teams of artists mix performance, video, and technology to probe the body as therapeutic or ailed. Moreover, both works lightheartedly approach collective and individual healing through narratives and multimedia representations.
Commissioned for Performa 11 (2011), Rottenberg and Kessler produced SEVEN at Nicole Klagsbrun Project Space. The artists mix references to spas, factories, and laboratories as places that attend to, are dependent upon, and investigate the body. The performance begins with seven actors dressed in white terrycloth robes waiting in a room, as if at the spa. With the regimented timing of a factory or laboratory, the actors punch a time clock and have a specific chakra extracted from them eight times a day, four days a week, for three weeks. In another portion of the gallery, the charismatic scientist “Empress Asia” attends to an elaborate laboratory with beakers, test tubes, and mysterious machines and fluids. At the heart of the performance is a bicycle-like contraption that, when pedaled, powers the “chakra juicer,” a glass-enclosed sauna where a sweating actor sits in lotus position. The subjects are panned across by a scientific-looking unit housing a camera with a vertical series of lights in the seven chakra colors (violet, indigo, blue, green, yellow, orange, and red). The device somehow culls the chakra from the actors while the video camera records the process. As some actors’ bodies exert energy to power the mechanism, others sweat to create a circular process of physical labor and production. This physicality adds to the project’s intensity and duration, which pushes the actors’ physical and, possibly, psychic endurance.
After “Empress Asia” extracts and processes the sweat, she teleports it to a small village on the African savannah. Video monitors display footage of the African cohort as some quietly watch and others examine the chakras and dig a hole in the ground. On a dry salt flat, an actor pours the chakras into the hole, returning them to the anthropological origins of civilization. With simple computer graphics, the ground bubbles up in a rainbow explosion of energy as multicolored, tweeting birds encircle the blast. The African villagers and their New York counterparts applaud, suggesting the healing or cyclical unity of humankind and the earth. In mixing Eastern understandings of the body, pseudo-modern science, and anthropological references, Rottenberg and Kessler playfully indulge in and critique each with their elaborate systems of meaning and cosmologies.
Moulton and Hallett create a narrative of transcendence
Like a nerve center, the live performance constantly dialogues with video running throughout the installation. In the waiting room, a monitor displays the action occurring in the laboratory; video of the sweating actors appears on the monitor in front of the bicyclists; and footage of the African team synchronizes with the activities in the laboratory. Live bodies in action and video representations clash and accent each other. Additionally, the space was collapsed between what is occurring in front of the actors and viewers and in other spaces, some seemingly across the globe. In absorbing all of the activities in the gallery and on the monitors, viewers develop an all-seeing synthesis of the event.
In Whispering Pines 10, Moulton’s character Cynthia obsessively attends to her body as she bathes, basking in her atomizer’s spray, preparing and drinking her Crystal Light, and dancing/exercising. In contrast to Moulton, who is in her late thirties, Cynthia’s homebound state and rather matronly housecoat and hairdo render her prematurely aged. While Cynthia never appears to be in serious physical distress, her frequently forlorn expression suggests a general unease in the world. With Cynthia’s ailment never revealed, viewers are left to speculate about its nature and if it is real or imagined.
For most of the performance, the video projection directly behind Cynthia operates as a theatrical backdrop to contextualize her body in a cartoonish domestic space. At moments in the performance, Moulton synchronizes her movement with her projection to reference the type of gestures common in interactive devices or games. As Cynthia scrolls the screen with her arms, the video moves like a touch-based tablet to simulate her climb through her chimney and up a tree. Additionally, as in an interactive video game, Cynthia swats household objects, causing them to flutter and disappear. Cynthia’s physical relationship to the screen is further complicated as she ungracefully flails on the floor in her housedress, as a video of dancers in leotards plays on a television monitor depicted in the video projection behind her. The discord between the elegant dancers and Cynthia probes the difference between exercise and dance, and the disjointed realities between the physical body and screen-based images. This rupture is reinforced as Cynthia stands in front of her projection and the video depicts her in a mirror, where, like in a fun house, her reflection bulges and morphs. In Whispering Pines 10, screen-based narratives and live bodies interact to create a fusion of fantasy and physicality where Cynthia exists in front of, within, and in contrast to the image.
While Cynthia toggles back and forth between her physical body and imagination, the piece’s narrative culminates with video of her body falling from a tree. As Cynthia’s body smashes into pieces in the video, on stage she lies on the ground. With the video transforming into a computer monitor and keyboard, the default “Aurora” Apple wallpaper fills the background. Two enlarged images of Cynthia with bandage-like Biore pore strips on her nose flank the screen. The video transforms to simply rendered footage of Cynthia’s fragmented body gravitating to the gauze square on an enlarged Band-Aid. Moulton and Hallett create a narrative of transcendence, in which Cynthia’s body is, while disjointed, somehow healed with drug-store health and beauty items. This unity occurs in the virtual space of the computer monitor, another screen where imaginative or escapist narratives occur.
Moulton and Hallett use theater and music to produce several levels of narrative, activity, and screens. While Cynthia and a projection occupy most of the center stage, off to the side ethereal, muse-like singers complement and narrate her actions. Two additional video projections also flank the main-stage activities and either dialogue with or repeat video displayed on the central screen. As opposed to an immersive installation, Whispering Pines 10 put viewers in a theater-like space—in the case of its exhibition at SFMOMA, in the media gallery as part of Stage Presence: Theatricality in Art and Media (2012). From their stationary distance, viewers follow and stitch together the multiple actions and screens to create an overarching view or transcendence of the performance.
Rottenberg and Moulton never explicitly identify the condition that the world or individual suffers from, allowing the viewers to speculate that it could be imagined or cyclical. As early media artists and feminists have done, Rottenberg and Moulton construct imaginative narratives that probe the unsettling relationship between the body, screens, technology, and contemporary life. In contrast to the raw medicalized or cyborg body of artists like Orlan or Stellarc, SEVEN and Whispering Pines 10 offer uniquely lighthearted critiques. Moreover, their hybrid mix of performance and video position the artist within and up against the picture place, renegotiating the imaginative space and the borders between viewer, screens, and narrative. With these porous spaces, both teams of artists combine ordinary and fantastical spaces to produce their own cosmologies or inner fantasies.