2.21 / Review

Heterotopias/ MATRIX 238

By Genevieve Quick July 12, 2011

In Heterotopias/MATRIX 238, at the University of California, Berkeley Art Museum (BAM), Desirée Holman addresses the fantasy and transformation that occur in virtual games such as Second Life. Through drawings and a three-channel video, Holman creates a complex space in which academic ideas (e.g., the role and extent to which the media facilitates fantasy; the perimeters and relevance of virtual realities; the extent to which and the ways we perform identity; and membership and the significance of subcultures) coexist with the emotional exuberance her characters display as they “get down” while wearing sateen and spandex costumes. Holman creates a collision between Computer Generated Imagery (CGI), live action, and video effects, thereby probing viewers’, artists’, and participants’ willingness to suspend their disbelief.

Holman takes her viewers through the process in which seemingly regular people transform into CGI avatars to establish the duality and overlap of the virtual and the real. Holman transforms live-action characters into abstract wireframe portraits in which we see the geometry, linear contours, motion icons, and rotational points of her subjects. In this second stage of transformation, she applies a diffuse map, where flesh and hair wrap around the polygonal forms. In the final stage of transformation, we see the CGI avatars in their costumes. Holman creates a parallel between the digital and psychological transformations that her subjects undergo, moving from abstract forms through stages of rending and specificity, thus approaching believability.

While heavy with video effects, Holman dedicates most of her video to live-action sequences. Encased in radiant red biomorphic auras, her live-action avatars battle and dance. The red aura surrounding her characters is a residual mark of chroma keying, a video effect that differentiates background from foreground by removing a color range (in this case red). While chroma keying allows Holman to collage her subjects in different contexts, they never seem to be fully believably placed in their scenarios. Rather than being distracting, Holman’s chroma keying acknowledges the way that fantasy is frequently a merging of fact and fiction that tests viewers’ ability to suspend their disbelief. In addition, Holman toggles the backgrounds between landscapes and fantastical scenes but repeatedly returns to the original studio shoot with its blank red backdrop. Through these shifting backgrounds, Holman disrupts the presumed tie between a subject and its environment in lens-based media, making each an independent element with an unlimited number of permutations. Holman’s video suggests an openness to the ways fictions may unfold, which is echoed in the plasticity of virtual gaming.

Desiree Holman Heterotopias

Video still composite from Heterotopias, 2011; three-channel HD video; 13 mins. Courtesy of the Artist and Silverman Gallery, San Francisco.

Desiree Holman Primary Framework 1

Primary Framework 1, 2010; colored pencil and mixed media on paper; 19 x 19 in. Courtesy of the Artist and Silverman Gallery, San Francisco.

While the television set was the portal to the world in which the fictional Cosby and Barr families “danced off” in Holman’s earlier work The Magic Window (2007), the Internet, as represented through the laptop, connects and facilitates the characters involved in the virtual game in Heterotopias. In contrast to television, the Internet has innumerable nodes through which individuals may access and create fictions, thus creating many places and virtual non-places as sites. In her drawings Primary Framework 1 & 2 (2010), the red screens on the laptops create a parallel with the mutability of image production afforded by chroma keying and the web as a site where subject and context can be inserted and altered to play with narrative.

Holman frequently uses choreographed dance scenes in her videos as the characters become fully immersed in their imaginary worlds. While many of us are hideous dancers, some of us may fantasize about dancing, may dance in our private spaces, or may project a romanticized film over our days at the disco, club, or rave. Holman’s dance sequences resonate with the way that dance may be comic, fabulous, and something that is excluded from our daily lives. From my perspective, Holman creates an uncomfortable dilemma: a viewer is either emotionally drawn to championing the liberated dancing avatars or tempted to take this argument to its new agey but logical conclusion—that bodily movement equals and facilitates freedom. However, within Holman’s narrative, when we see her characters dance, we peer into their private spaces void of self-consciousness. The ridiculousness of their costumes balances out the sincerity of their bodily movements, while the characters express a comfort within their own skin. 

Heterotopias continues an investigation of role-playing and subcultures that Holman began with Reborn (2009), which was based on the phenomenon of women who purchase lifelike dolls and nurture them like real babies. While there are taboos associated with both reborn and virtual gaming subcultures, Holman’s work never feels pejorative. Generally speaking, within dominant culture, having an elaborate fantasy life is frequently equated with being socially or emotionally stunted. The elaborateness of the fantasy and the extent to which it affects one’s daily life suggest greater psychological trauma and an actual need for escapism. However, Holman’s work honors the imaginary and brings to bear that all identity is performed. The extent to which our lives and identities are performed may be a matter of parsing the complicated, and possibly conflicting, construction of reality, virtual and narrative. Second Life, while virtual, may in fact be a more honest reality in that all of the members are united in the idea that they are performing an identity.

Holman’s work tests the boundaries between virtual and real for participant and viewer. While the work is clearly the artist’s fictional construct, the banality of the live-action characters at their laptops tinges it with a plausible reality. By contrasting the everyday with the fantastical, Holman poses questions about the role and extent to which we all participate in fictions. Moreover, she interrogates her own practice as an artist and her viewers, whereby a painting, drawing, or lens-based and digital media all share the common allure of constructed narratives.


Heterotopias is on view at the University of California, Berkeley Art Museum through September 18, 2011.

Comments ShowHide