Postmasters Gallery | May 15th - June 19, 2010
Once upon a time, when web space was still considered vacuous and alien, avatar meant something very different from the cat-eyed, loping creatures of James Cameron’s imagination. But oh, haven’t we evolved. Now, in the online land of digital simulacra, we exhibit ourselves in the company of exhibitionists, failing to recall that before avatar was the term for digital personae populating online games, it possessed another, more austere meaning: a manifestation of spirit in corporeal form.
These definitions, however, serve only as tangential points of entry for the mostly online performances of Eva and Franco Mattes, aka 0100101110101101.org. For although the web is their stage and they use avatars in some of their live collective performances, to limit their work to the digital medium would be to downplay the premise of its psychodrama. Bristling with behavioral exposés and anti-authoritarian experiments, the work of Eva and Franco Mattes reflects cultural narcissism from the online void.
“No Fun” (2010) reveals how Chatroulette enables socially perverse responses to horror. On one half of the screen, Franco Mattes hangs from a noose, body limp and facial muscles distorted, aping rigor mortis. In the corner, the alleged suicide victim’s computer screen serves as a blank letter, an indication that the performance is happening in real time (and a visual quote of the volley of gazes in “Las Meninas”). The screen within the screen is not the crux of the artists’ artifice but a telling clue of an uneasy spectatorship. So long as we watch we cannot preside as moral authorities, but become subjects of an artistic play on voyeurism itself. On the left side we witness a rotating cast of anonymous spectators looking at the webcam image on the right. Two girls scream, and then one expresses concern while the other can barely suppress a smile. Teenage boys give the finger, spout profanities, or click off. As expected on Chatroulette, one man is obviously masturbating, indifferent or perhaps aroused. None of the viewers on the web fully trust the reality of the simulation of which they are now part, and many express their extreme skepticism, or a resistance to being hosed, typing “this isn’t real.” One lone exception alerts the police despite his uncertainty, motivated by personal discomfort.
“No Fun” clearly represents the bystander effect, in a medium where we are privy to the bystanders’ psychological bargaining. In the end, the ethical backlash against “No Fun” (it was banned on YouTube) is perhaps more reassuring than most live responses captured by the artists. The artists have since revealed that their staging of online suicide was an art project, and hopefully the lone intervener will feel, eventually, the reassurance of having taken the right action.
Postmaster’s co-founder and curator Magdalena Sawon described Eva and Franco Mattes’ work as an uncanny, nearly “prophetic operation.” Sawon described how they anticipate future norms in communication, such as a project in which viewers could track their movements through GPS before it was available on the market (the artists secured corporate sponsorship). Provocateurs, they use these platforms to question authorship, the role of artists and their public, and the destructive impulse of the avant-garde to deface old masters. Their assessment should help us to recover some of the original meaning of the avatar, namely its possible spiritual, intuitive contributions to the collective, a collective hopefully not limited to the art world.
In their earliest stint, “Stolen Pieces” (1995-97), which set the standard for their transgressive behavior, they stole various fragments of modern masterpieces: skin from an Alberto Burri painting, a porcelain chip from Duchamp’s urinal—one can only hope he would have approved—and many others. These are displayed as specimen in a glass cabinet. As much as the earlier “Stolen Pieces” resists coveting art objects that, once inducted into museums, become dead artifacts to them, Eva and Franco Mattes nonetheless entered into art vicariously by claiming its fragments. At Postmasters we see a shaky video of the couple walking through a contemporary art museum. They look as innocent as any bewildered museum-goer, but the video takes on the charge of a spy-thriller as the couple confers and the camera looks away at the moment of their vandalism.
“Medication Valse” makes use of actual avatars, computer-generated simulations, of the artists and audience participants within a digital gallery setting, to create a haphazard online orgy. The artist avatars levitate, torque, and merge into each other, naked, while the avatars of users, mostly clothed, join in to make a symphonic clash of bodies.
A 2007 video performance has the Mattes artist avatars reenact Marina Abramović and Ulay’s 1977 performance “Imponderabilia,” essentially becoming surrogates of Abramović and Ulay. The virtual audience passes the narrows of the two nude gatekeepers with diminished tension. Eva and Franco Mattes approached Abramović about reinterpreting her piece digitally before the current reenactments at the MoMA, which positions their own work as an extension of the performance art tradition into a new experimental domain. In an ongoing dialogue with Abramović they were encouraged to make their “synthetic reenactment” a live durational piece lasting four hours.
If we are wondering where art is happening, Eva and Franco Mattes deliver us to an active, if heavily sociological, domain. Their portrait of online interaction discloses how we operate under the gaze of the webcam, creating a collective avatar as mythological and phantasmagorical as it is real.