Monday, 21 May 2012

The Frame: Ikea, Facebook, Bodies and Performance

This is a transcript of a talk I gave at Fierce Festival, as part of Lucky PDF's School of Global Art. You can read more about it here. 

In this talk I want to look at space and framing space – both physical space and virtual space - and I want to talk about the body, making specific use of the performative metaphor throughout; I’m going to talk about performance as survival strategy, which is the only strategy I know, since my own background is in dance and performance - hoofing, entertainment. It’s as much a mode of survival as is the service industry; in fact, this kind of entertainment (circus, club dancing, the sex industry) has everything to do with service. But that’s another story.
The talk will be followed by some experiments in performance technique, for which we’ll all have to be standing in the space, out of our chairs. But we’ll work up to that, don’t worry.

Anyway, since this is an art school, let’s take it back to basics. I’m going to start with the frame. In theatrical terms we might think of the frame as the stage - think of proscenium arches! In the meantime, the Merriam-Webster defines frame as:
1. a border or case for enclosing a picture, mirror, etc.
2. a rigid structure formed of relatively slender pieces, joined so as to surround sizable empty spaces or nonstructural panels, and generally used as a major support in building or engineering works, machinery, furniture, etc.
3. a body, especially a human body, with reference to its size or build; physique: He has a large frame.
4. a structure for admitting or enclosing something.

We need a frame to exist and it was ever thus. At some point we might have defined ourselves by occupation, which we might have trained for in youth and where we’d expect to remain throughout our lives. In the precarious liquid modern, however, we might have several careers or non-careers throughout our lives –  the latter might include the service industry, for example. Something they still don’t address in art school, since art is supposed to be a bourgeois concern, is how to survive when you get out of there; and I intend to talk more about survivalism in a minute, but bear with me.
In the world of work we talk about “performing roles,” which makes transparent the sheer theatricality of professional identity. Super-curator Bourriaud talks about the figure of “the Radicant,” who he sees as the nomadic artist figure in an Altermodern world that is “global from scratch.” Certainly it’s true that our sense of self and community is no longer rooted in the same kind of geographic spatiality as it once was: as actors in the social world, in other words, we don’t have a set stage. I’m not sure this is something to celebrate unambiguously, so I take issue with the unquestioning privilege implicit in Bourriaud’s discourse – his liquid modern nomad is just fine bouncing from vip airport lounge to art fair to vip airport lounge; another nomad of the liquid modern might be walking between borders carrying 1.5 kilograms of pure heroin in her stomach or her anus. But this, right here, is also a privileged discourse, so let’s stick to the point; the point being that home and community no longer mean what they did, for many reasons, some of which are to do with socio-economic circumstance and others to do with cultural shift. Zygmunt Bauman, who writes a lot about precarity and modernity, observed that “One thing which even the most seasoned and discerning masters of the art of choice do not and cannot choose, is the society to be born into - and so we are all in travel, whether we like it or not. We have not been asked about our feelings anyway. Thrown into a vast open sea with no navigation charts and all the marker buoys sunk and barely visible, we have only two choices left: we may rejoice in the breath-taking vistas of new discoveries - or we may tremble out of fear of drowning.”

Whenever we encounter a new temporality or spatiality, there’s a lot of talk of survival; it’s hard to imagine now, but the big cities in which many of us grew up were once brave new metropoles, socio-economic hives of a density seldom seen before in cultural memory (at least in the Western world, quote unquote). Back then, psychiatrists and urban theorists were talking a lot about agoraphobia and claustrophobia, which are spatial malaises concerning the scale and density of place; nowadays, meanwhile, everyone’s talking about Asperger’s syndrome and ADHD, which can be seen as pathological sensitivities to [hyper]stimulation. Or otherwise, perhaps, as evolutionary prototypes for survival in a blinking, popping, semio-capitalist world of wall-to-wall screens and nonstop hyper-connectivity. So if this talk jumps around a lot, it’s because I’m especially contemporary in that sense.

One thing I’ve been thinking about lately, in my own work and research, is how and why IKEA and Facebook have become such ubiquitous, omnipotent, world-dominating psycho-spatial paradigms. My current conclusion is that it’s because they offer a very seductive illusion, or mirage, of a kind of order that simply doesn’t exist any more. They offer us a frame to exist in, to shelter in, when all else is in flux and crisis. Right now I can’t see this - 
as anything other than a brilliant, genius, terrifyingly cynical play on the psychological homelessness of not just one generation but several. The frame has now literally become a box, or several boxes – space-saving storage solutions we will fill with the objects we use to underpin our sense of self, our very identities neatly compartmentalized like so many shiny little horcruxes. Facebook, too, offers a whole system by which we might organize and present our social and demographic selves – there are boxes to fill in and a < frame > to inhabit < / frame >. We love this shit because it makes us feel like the contingency and terror of growing up in the uncertainty of post-postmodern times can be controlled, or at least temporarily eluded; as though the tastefully veneered cabinets - with doors that close neatly on their hinges - could possibly save us from the skeleton in the closet and our detonating nuclear families - to which IKEA is especially proud to cater. As though having your status Liked by the object of [your] desire could ever replace a real kiss; as though a Facebook poke (not that one ever gives a Facebook poke) could ever replace a real fuck. The only way to survive Facebook is to see it as a stage of sorts, and to see yourself as a performer. Be professional. Put on a good show, but recognize when and where the show is over. Strippers, clowns and drag performers - my colleagues and contemporaries, historically - all recognize a very clear divide between their performative avatar and their irlselves; likewise, we use Facebook strategically (choosing to hide or disclose various aspects of our self-identity; collapsing or cementing the url/irl divide); yet nonetheless it remains a performance, inasmuch as it remains a stage. And in order to survive it (especially considering the propensity of Facebook and Google to use the metadata of our metaselves in the creation and honing of market demographics) it would be wise to recognize it as such: a performance in which you are playing someone a bit like yourself. To survive Ikeafication (and when I’m talking about Ikea, I could also be talking about any conglomerate purveyor of branded goods and lifestyles) we could regard those units and products as sets or props in the great liquid-modern telenovela, and not necessarily as realizations or manifestations of our needs or desires, as Ikea would have us do.

[I know I’ve been implicitly drawing conclusions throughout about where one’s “true” identity may be sited, but I want to make it clear that I don’t know and don’t care about whether there is one true site or however many false sites; I’m proposing strategies that are part of a working process, and I will say now that they’re all utterly subjective, and you all should just do whatever feels right.]

But let’s cut to the chase: I'm here to give you a basic training in physical performance – physical because I want to put the body back into the frame. We are not our bodies, necessarily, but we are stuck with them, the inconvenient truth of them. The fact that we get tired, we get hungry, we get horny, we need to shit: defecation is a seriously messy way of processing data, but so far we haven’t come up with anything better, so we may as well get into it. [Not into that! Unless you're into that.] But into the idea of our bodies as visceral and incredibly sophisticated hardware, running programs that - like Final Cut and the Adobe Suite - are so complex and powerful that we have no choice but to behold their workings as we once beheld the mysterious workings of God. We can get off Facebook, or move house for the hundredth time, or skip town entirely as a nomadic artist-Radicant, but so far there’s only one way to truly escape your body, and that is to die.

And because many of us have become so alienated from our bodies (which has everything to do with socio-economic circumstance, cultural shift, and the nature of labour in contemporaneity and virtualism in general) I want to try out this idea of physical performance, which makes transparent the potentiality and the discomfort of the body; no, I don’t expect it to be easy, and neither should you. And maybe part of this experiment, too, is to see how heavy users of social media feel as bodies in a common space; to reintroduce the gravity of us, and finally to embrace it.

Okay, everyone - get off your chairs and find a space somewhere in the room.