3.10 / Review

Julia Vering and the Unfettered Place

By Victoria Gannon February 27, 2012

It’s pessimistic to say that we never see people as they truly are. But after a particularly insidious misunderstanding or breakup, I start to feel this way. I become convinced that our perceptions of others are so prejudiced by our own identities as to become essentially invalid, even hallucinatory. To confront a person in a space uncluttered by projections, expectations, hopes, and fears—can such an interaction occur? Is it possible to meet in a third space, one not delimited by competing subjectivities? I thought about this possibility during Art Practical’s three days in Kansas City, as we met with artists who told us about themselves, their practices, and their arts community. Charged with producing an issue of Art Practical based on our impressions, I wondered if we would be able to see beyond the artists’ versions of themselves, beyond our regional lenses and biases, into that imagined, unfettered place.

I thought about this especially during Art Practical’s interview with artist Julia Vering, whose practice involves a process of creative reflection similar to the one we undertook during our short trip. Vering is a social worker at a Kansas City senior center and collaborates with her clients to create multimedia performances. Just as we heard, digested, and interpreted artists’ stories, Vering listens to and absorbs her clients’ memories. As we planned to shape our experiences into a series of articles reflecting our interactions, Vering creates dense portraits of herself and her collaborators by interweaving their stories with her own imaginings. Both endeavors engage with the challenges of reflecting one another and the possibilities for interpretation (and misinterpretation).

Using a methodology of mimicry and mirroring, Vering produces works riddled with fractures: personalities split, appearance and actuality diverge, and storylines deconstruct. In You Live Here Too (2011), she performs as a mannequin who converses individually with a series of elderly women, each adorned in the same red wig. The senior women are data entry specialists for Essentially You, a self-help service that advises mannequins on their wardrobe choices. Vering’s mannequin speaks to them in real time, while the women’s words and actions play on a screen behind her. The footage is ostensibly contained on a VHS tape titled Essentially You’s Guide to Becoming a Better Person Through Clothing Choice, which we see a doll inserting into a VCR at the start of the performance.

The irony of an animated inanimate object speaking to a projection of live women echoes the greater irony of Essentially You: while the service purports to help mannequins make better clothing choices, the life-size dolls are defined by their inability to choose. If a mannequin could choose its own

You Live Here Too, 2011; performance by Julia Vering, the Brick, Kansas City, MO, November 4, 2011. 

 You Live Here Too, 2011; performance by Julia Vering, the Brick, Kansas City, MO, November 4, 2011.

clothes, it wouldn’t be a mannequin. They function to blindly accept whatever clothes we choose to dress them in, serving as mute surrogates onto whom we project our preferences. Vering’s body double gets a body double when a doll is projected onto the screen behind her, a superimposition that underscores the piece’s concern with the multiplicity of identity.

The specialists rotate as the performance progresses, but each is dressed in the same brocade dress whose fabric echoes the wallpaper. Despite the seamlessness of their outfits, each woman enacts the role differently. Clumsily entering information into the keyboard of a primitive computer (or sometimes just punching the machine, dubbed the Unicornidore 64), each is persistently idiosyncratic. The first specialist is stiff and serious, looking at the camera as she says, “We have a lot to talk about.” The next is animated and goofy. She hits the keyboard with her fist like she is pounding dough and rolls words around in her mouth before finally spitting them out with a grin. Their consistent costuming and inconsistent personalities contradict the narrative’s core premise: that clothing can transform one’s identity. This dissonance between wardrobe and character suggests that clothes cannot in fact alter our fundamental selves.

The third specialist is pensive. Holding up her hand so it appears beside the mannequin’s head, she says, “We share intimate space. It is almost like we are holding hands.” The mannequin replies by holding up her hand so its shadow falls on the image of the woman’s hand. Robotically she answers, “Almost.” Their inability to physically touch highlights the deception implicit not only in the work’s plot but also in its form: though the central conversation mimics a dialogue, it is actually two parallel monologues. The characters exist in two distinct realms—one prerecorded on screen, one live on stage—and this spatial and temporal separation prevents their words from accreting. Instead we get a simulacrum of a conversation whose false appearance speaks to the piece’s other instances of duplicity.

Vering’s work suggests that there is no unfettered place, no calm shore where our perceptions of others are uninterrupted by the way we perceive ourselves. There is only a feedback loop, in which the way you see me affects the way I see you, and this continues ad infinitum. While the journalistic impulse proposes that a mirror image is a re-creation of the original, the illusionistic impulse emphasizes an original’s opposite and inverse. Vering takes this possibility to the extreme, creating reflections of reflections and opposites of opposites. Truth is doubled, tripled, until it is indistinguishable from fiction. Though this hall of mirrors is more disorienting than a pure facsimile, it may ultimately be more realistic.

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