Gaze is a recurring trope within art, it has been demonised, fetishized and recently techno-ized. Vika Kirchenbauer’s ‘COOL FOR YOU: SEPARATISM’ performance at Berlin’s NGBK on May 20 gives us gaze like we had never seen it before.
Opening NO PLAY – Feminist Training Camp, running May 21 to June 24, Kirchenbauer responds to a program dedicated to creating a space of collective organisation, knowledge and experience through intersectionality in a collaboration between electronic post-Vaporwave beats, thermal cameras, herself and her audience. The Berlin-based artist’s performance uses the traditional protocol of a performer-to-audience scenario, yet the tailored destruction of a singular viewing power obliterates the ability to focus on a single body.
On entering the dusty humid courtyard, attendees are immediately confronted by other guests and not the performer. The architecture of the site offers a temporary forced stage for those who enter, as they quickly seat themselves, back to the wall around the four sides of the space. Perched on the edge’s concrete curb, the audience faces nothing but the void of the inactive patio, and each other. The side door opens for a brief moment as Kirchenbauer herself emerges draped in black, swiftly attaching a Motorola smartphone to the railings that line the windows. She exits again, leaving us outside, alone with the device and the sound of the heavy metal door closing behind her.
Then the music starts, melodic cosmic sounds and beats fill the space as people edge closer to the door and the listless, yet monitoring phone. Their faces emerge on a digital projection behind the grated windows —a thermal camera attached to the Motorola collecting and recording temperature data through infrared technology, remediating it to its audience. Acrid yellow skin tones with blood-red lips, blurred and pixelated emerge from a blue-toned background, projected from inside the room, behind the window, where Kirchenbauer is stood with her MPC music machine. The audience is now present but only a mirage of the thermal data crowd that stands in the screen next to Kirchenbauer, their flesh and blood versions wait outside peering through the window. Eyes strain to see through the panes of glass that are now rattling with the heavy bass line —there’s a dash of peroxide and turquoise hair, Kirchenbauer’s, and a pair of golden sneakers—the artist’s hands swiftly move over the drum machine and the crowd begins to sway; hot and shut-out but not alone. The music is a mixture of industrial drum beats and melodic, pitched up chanting samples that move through scale patterns before they break to a scream. It hammers through your body slightly out of rhythm at times but the nostalgic drops offer your body moments of old skool rave euphoria.
With song titles like ‘I Found Them Staring At Me’ and ‘Emotional Paralysis’, Kirchenbauer acknowledges contemporary western society’s gaze rhetoric between humans and technology. When you Skype your best friend in New York, the camera sees you before they do, or when you tag someone on Facebook, or take cash out from an ATM, technology is always observing. Yet, we generally only concentrate on what has been seen or is seen, the final portrait. Checking our selfies for imperfections, or scanning crowd shots for proof of attendance, we generally plagiarise technology or ignore the programmed autonomy of it.
Kirchenbauer works with the machine simply by mapping clearly the senses of seeing, through temperature, sound and the crowd as a unit. She becomes one with the technology performing alongside it. Presenting the visual senses of the image itself as the ultimate conclusion of seeing. ‘COOL FOR YOU’ creates a collective body of observation. The crowd looks at Kirchenbauer. The machine looks at us. We look at the thermal data interpretation of us via another machine, the projector. Listening to the collaborative chant of abstraction from Kirchenbauer’s sound desk, the music and machine in unison, becomes one.**
Header image: Vika Kirchenbauer, ‘COOL FOR YOU: SEPARATISM’ @ NGBK. Performance view. Courtesy the artist.