installation views, mixed media
Elizabeth Cohen and Michael Talley; Random Access: Sideshow Gallery • Brooklyn, New York
by Martina Pachmanová
by Martina Pachmanová
In exploring our evolving relationship to space and movement, we were discussing the changes taking place in our culture, especially those changes effected by advances in science and technology. We were thinking about the shift taking place from what Katherine Hayles calls “a paradigm of absence/presence” to one of “pattern/ randomness.” This shift is underscored by an emphasis on access as opposed to ownership. The acknowledgement of an informational pattern must occur in order to gain access to something, as with computer codes and bank account numbers. In social circumstances, patterns of behavior allow access to certain things as well. When a random event occurs within a prevailing system, it is that element of chance that can change that system or pattern in new and unforeseen ways, providing new varieties of that thing.
—Elizabeth Cohen and Michael Talley
How does our relationship to space and time change in the world of new technologies? Do these technologies create totalizing systems for unifying all subjects in a single global network of values, behaviors, and desires, or do they reach a higher level of diversity? What impact does the virtual environment and computer-based design have on our perception, motion, and processing of information? Do new modes of communication, production, consumption, and entertainment demand new kinds of minds and bodies? When Michel Foucault analyzed the nineteenth-century Industrial Revolution, he claimed that Modernization produced new modes of subjectivity through “a certain policy of the body, a certain way of rendering a group of men docile and useful,” which “called for a technique of overlapping subjection and objectification.” Foucault’s notion of institutional mechanisms and rationalized mass technologies as key instruments for imposing a normative behavior on the subject continues to be a viable mode for examining operations of social power in both Modern and Postmodern societies. Vis-á-vis expanding global information industries, one wonders: to what extent do these industries establish new, highly sophisticated, and barely visible forms of social and political control? Do they allow new liberating experiences, desires, and visions to emerge? Last but not least, are our emotions, bodily processes, knowledge, and social relations really transformed when we enter a cybernetic terrain?
In their interdisciplinary work, Elizabeth Cohen and Michael Talley explore the ways in which science and technology change our lives, and the questions raised above seem to have a particularly strong resonance in their most recent collaborative project “Random Access.” The exhibition, recently on display in the Sideshow Gallery in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, is comprised of four installation or video-based pieces in dialogue with both one another and the viewer. Emphasizing interaction between the work of art and the viewer perhaps seems redundant for its self-evidence. This exhibition, however, explores the dynamics of such a relationship as far exceeding the traditional object/subject hierarchy. As the viewer’s body moves through the gallery, it interacts with the works on display—be it through actual physical participation or through subtle, psychophysical, almost unconscious responses. In “Random Access,” one doesn’t passively look; rather, confronted with strangers’ bodies and voices talking about daily experiences of space and movement, one becomes more conscious of one’s own body, senses, and gestures. Viewers start to experience their subjectivity as something performative rather than something given.
The most striking example of such performativity is “Untitled (Camping, 2001),” an installation piece composed of green carpeting, tall poles from the Czech military surplus store, a US military gas can and two small DVD-players and monitors with headphones. In this semi-military setting, while sitting on a camping chair, the visitor watches a young couple telling each other stories about how unexpected events, new objects, and unknown environments (real or virtual) change their acquired modes of inhabiting space and their regime of vision and cataloging—and, consequently, how these random experiences and sharp breaks reconfigure access towards their own subjectivity. These stories—funny, dramatic, bizarre, banal, mysterious, intimate—come from Cohen and Talley’s authentic experiences as well as from those of friends, but they could be anybody’s. They reveal undercurrents which we usually don’t register but which inconspicuously disrupt our habitual role in the social network. Although no political connotation is explicitly emphasized in this piece, the encounter of military devices from two sides of the Cold War “iron curtain” in one camping site metamorphose the installation into a secret spying zone, from which other peoples’ bodies and activities are surveyed. However, considering the fact that spies are usually also spied on, and that even the two sides of the “iron curtain” were mirror images of each other, the spectacular economy turns out to be much more complicated, and the observer’s agency paradoxically becomes both mobilizing and regulating, liberating and disempowering.
How complicated and obscure the distinction between power and powerlessness can be, not only in the immaterial field of vision, but also in the arena of social and political practice, is manifested in Parade. The videotape, recorded during the Fuck Parade in Berlin last year, features a hip colorful crowd of young people, slowly moving and dancing through the former East section of the city. Slowing down and reversing the footage with hundreds of youngsters, musicians, artists, DJs, and decorated parade vehicles, Cohen and Talley show a humorous dimension of mass spectacle, in which individual freedom is demonstrated as a collective “ornament.” As the crowd moves back and forth and repeats the same gestures over and over again, it reminds us of how ridiculous and funny we sometimes appear. More importantly, Parade points out how easily a protest against co-optation by uniformity could itself turn into what Walter Benjamin calls the “phantasmagoria of equality.” While the corporate model of the global economy imposes on the masses a sophisticated dictatorship of variety within sameness, the anti-corporate reaction could, paradoxically, lead to a similar pattern of highly organized diversity. Of course, this is not to say that Cohen and Talley disqualify the political importance of such protests (they chose the Fuck Parade, as a vital response to a huge, big-business sponsored Love Parade, which took place in Berlin at the same time, and as I learned later on, they found it to be an inspiring and liberating event). Rather, through their ironic attitude, they emphasize that humor and criticism, or laughter and revolution, should be seen as two sides of the same coin, and that mimicry and mockery, when used in the right context, could maintain an explosive and subversive politics of the body instead of shutting it up.
Although Cohen and Talley’s main concern is our constantly changing relationship to a world increasingly dominated by technology, the people “performing” in their videotapes—be it actors or randomly chosen participants of urban processions—seem to inhabit low-tech rather than high-tech bodies. They might appropriate specific, perhaps even uniform body language to communicate (however anonymously) with other members of a community, or they might spend 12 hours a day surfing the internet, but they never look like programmed robots. In Numbers, a videotape screened as a counterpart to Parade on the opposite side of the gallery, a severe female voice commands people to imitate the form of numbers from one to ten. Their bodies bend, twist, and wrench, creating funny, sometimes almost acrobatic figures, and with the uncompromisingly tough voice in the background, the entire scene reminds us of a circus where people instead of animals are being trained to perform and to obey. A slight tension arises between the counting commander and awkwardly staging men and women. Their distorted limbs leave no doubt that it is a psychophysical rather than mathematically driven relationship to space and time which continues to govern their bodies, and through which their private “selves” resist becoming depersonalized public property or mechanical “toys” of instrumental reason.
If the “Camping” installation tells us stories of our Phenomenological relationship to the world around us, and Parade and Numbers transform the spoken word of oral history into action, the last piece in the show expresses this relationship in a more subtle and metaphorical way. “Untitled (Motor Scooter)” is a functional, hybrid looking vehicle constructed from a lawn mower motor, wheelbarrow wheels, and old refrigerator doors, and hand painted to match the braided pattern of a rug hanging on the wall behind it. With a global positioning system mounted on the handlebars, and the rug woven from leftover scraps from the domestic environment, this ‘50s-style scooter embodies both utopic expectation of the future and nostalgia for the past; adventurous travels into hyperreality and the amicable atmosphere of the household. However, the similarity between the vernacular pattern of the rug and the technological pattern of the scooter bridges past and future, private and public, slowness and speed, or even the body and technology. Thus, it reminds us that even our patterns of behavior, movement, or body language are more variable, diverse, communicative, and potent than they might first appear, and that the “revolution”—personal or social—could, after all, be done in the street, in the kitchen, or on-line.
In the language of technology, random access memory (RAM) signifies a computer’s capacity to retrieve any information at equal speed and in arbitrary order. Although it is here where Cohen and Talley got the title of their show, the pieces on display in the Sideshow Gallery refer to a different kind of random access than the one mediated through micro-chips and hair-thin wires. Cohen and Talley are too much concerned with both our physiological functions (or, in fact, dysfunctions) and our social and political agency to let us transform into perfect Post-humans subordinated to the dictatorship of computer programs. Rather, they let us think about our position in the Contemporary world in a dialogical form, which doesn’t prevent mistakes or misunderstandings, but which perpetually changes the meaning of our words, bodies, needs, and desires.
After the opening of “Random Access,” my friends and I went to explore Williamsburg. We were passing cozy cafés, bookstores, and groups of youngsters in funky clothes. Then, all of a sudden, this entire noisy street hubbub was over. Crossing an invisible boundary inscribed in the urban topology, we appeared in an orthodox Jewish neighborhood: men in black suits and heavy fur hats, women in long skirts with their hair carefully covered by scarves, small boys with long curly payos, and then us—three people from Prague where Jewish culture is either already history or an object of endless tourist exploitation. We were thrilled by this unexpected change of ambience, but we also felt like nasty invaders. Lost in the maze of side streets, we wandered around for more than an hour. Our steps were reluctant, and our bodies and gestures felt awkward, as if some inner voice imperiously commanded us to posture and move differently in order to match our surroundings and blur in them, but our motions stubbornly resisted. It was through randomly breaking the “pattern” of the cityscape that our bodies and identities became more apparent and yet less tangible for us; we were closer to, and alienated from, ourselves at the same time. When we finally started to ask passers-by where the closest subway station was, we got a different direction every time. With a touch of irony and desperation, my friend joked that we should have taken the navigating device from the scooter in the gallery. And yet, reflecting on this experience on our way back to Manhattan an hour later we all agreed that having access to any technological appliance would have deprived us of experiencing unknown coordinates of random access not only outside, but also inside of ourselves.
Boston, Massachusetts; Prague, Czech Republic