“What’s the realer space?” Ann Hirsch asks the unanswerable at South London Gallery’s Clore Studio during a contextual discussion with historian and writer Giulia Smith closing off the The Posthuman Era Became a Girl two-day event co-curated by Helen Kaplinsky. It echoes the discomfiting lack of distinction a 27-year-old screen name “jobe” makes between online and offline infidelity, in his developing and soon-to-become-sexual relationship with a 12-year-old “Anni” in Hirsch’s most recent play ‘Playground’ (2013). “Does it really matter?” he replies, when the suburban school girl asks via ‘Leet-speak’-informed language whether his current love interest was cheating on him via chat or IRL.
The play, presented the previous night at The George Wood Theatre of Goldsmiths University, is an equal parts funny and disturbing insight into the pre-adolescent experience of an insulated American middle-class raised on the internet in the 90s. Enacted partly via text projected on a screen and partly spoken, the two protagonists access their proscribed sexual fantasies by typing them into the greeny-blue glow of their respective CRT computer screens, from their symbolically isolated desks spaces.
“Forbidden moistures trickle into forbidden places”, says the masculine voice of New Degrees of Freedom: ‘Act 3: Water’ (2014); a performance of an ongoing collaborative production by artist Jenna Sutela. Happening the following day in a transformed studio, the audience is sat on the floor of a by now sauna-like space, the icicles handed out on entry melting in the sweaty warmth of a hot afternoon; Amnesia Scanner’s rumbling soundscape washing through the fishing rope and sea sponges scattered among the bodies. Dimly-lit with a dark blue tone, the room comes as physical expression of the porous “semi-aquatic existence” of its spoken text, now dissolved into “the borderlands of material and virtual worlds”.
Distortion. Confusion. Fear. These are themes that present themselves in the work of both a US-based Hirsch and Finnish Sutela, if not in vastly different, even culturally defined incarnations. There’s the puritanical quality to the heavily manipulated spaces and ashen post-production aesthetics of Sutela’s “real-life avatar”, where within three ‘acts’ and across platforms the ongoing New Degrees of Freedom project constructs its own cyborg grotesque. ‘Act 1: The Birth of a Real-Life Avatar’ and ‘Act 2: The Spirit of a Real-Life Avatar’ (2013) inform this third act where attendees become unwitting accessories as a video camera films the faceless mass of humans strewn around icy puddles on concrete.
Act 2 –featuring another anonymous group of collaborators in Finland’s Turku –is screened to follow. This time the omnipresent lens is turned outward on a circle of standing audience members wearing prosthetic organs and arranged around the marble floor of the Vartiovuori Observatory. Funnily enough, the camera remains to film the follow-up Q&A as Hirsch –whose earlier work ‘Here For You (Or my Brief Love Affair with Frank Maresca)’ (2012) also screens –explains the trauma and manipulation of ‘reality’ television. “Ultimately you have no control”, she says about the “mechanism of production” surrounding VH1 ‘reality’ TV program Frank the Entertainer… In a Basement Affair. Confined for weeks at a time in an externally constructed environment under constant surveillance, Hirsch and 14 other contestants vie for the affections of Frank the Bachelor on camera with no choice in how they’re viewed, edited or represented.
“Hack them. Find out all their information. Toss them from AOL”, brags jobe about his online capabilities on the Web 1.0 instant messaging service he and Anni communicate through in ‘Playground’. These are all things he promises he’d never do to her. But after their year long relationship involving chat forum and phone sex, an argument over the “out of control faggots” jobe insists should be ejected from Anni’s school and a subsequent betrayal by her with ex-boyfriend Chris, jobe brands Anni a “whore” and she’s blocked.
Ideas of control and manipulation are central to both Hirsch and Sutela’s work, where networked media and its false assumptions of personal freedom is incisively interrogated. In Elvia Wilk’s 2013 essay ‘Where Looks Don’t Matter and Only the Best Writers Get Laid’, from which The Posthuman Era… takes its name, the writer suggests that the anticipated cyberfeminist utopia of the 90s did not only fail but was doomed from the outset. After all, “developing online cultures were often male-dominated and heteronormative”, its exclusive binaries already existed, and questions of A/S/L meant IRL mattered. And it still does, as Hirsch identifies cyberfeminism’s rejection of the body as a sort of “cultural shame”, Sutela suggesting potential in bringing back the body “in a more complex way”. Because after all, in order to overcome Wilk’s traditional “material/immaterial; male/female” labor divide, surely the Cartesian mind/body one, on which a largely man-made technological infrastructure is built, should also be abandoned.
“…the very substance of the self is interconnected not only with biological but also with economic and industrial systems”: so go the words read by Julia Burmingham’s feminine narration in Sutela’s ‘Act 3: Water’. Those systems are omnipresent across the performances and characters, artworks and avatars, presented at The Posthuman Era Became a Girl, where there’s as little distinction between physical and virtual space as there is between notions of consuming and being consumed. **
Event photos, top-right.