Sweat, tears and condensation roll off bodies like rain water. Mascara runs down faces that stare without direction into the distance. Forms of liquid are filtered through bodies frozen in a state of anxiety, numbness, confusion and speechlessness. Housed within a triangular shaped structure, each person performs an activity as if in slow motion; levels of emotion and despair are caricaturised by mundane moments like riding a stationary bike, brushing teeth, smoking or lifting a weight. A woman playing a gong creates a tranquil backdrop for the motionless scenario, where footage from Colorado’s Never Summer Mountains is interspersed and morphs into a booming soundscape of an approaching avalanche. The video cuts away to a still, clinical shot of a vending machine filled with water bottles.
This is Institute for New Feeling‘s recent live outdoor performance for the public at the Denver Wastewater Campus on September 9, made into a video and installation for Avalanche at Denver’s Vicki Myhren Gallery, running September 14 to October 1. The exhibition, produced by nomadic curatorial project Black Cube, is what the press release describes as an “enhanced water beverage,” as well as a “human pipeline” where water flows through city and body, becoming available for purchase in the gallery.
With an ever-shifting identity, and founded by Scott Andrew, Agnes Bolt, and Nina Sarnelle, Institute for New Feeling (IfNf) is an art collective who explore “new ways of feeling, and ways of feeling new.” Their research looks at product, wellness, market research and propaganda through a self-described “familiar yet fragile voice of authority.” In a conversation via email, the group talk to us about the work; situating it at the ‘point of sale’ within a “reckless production mentality,” and approaching the concept of enormity with humor and humanity.
** Were the participants collaborators or more actors in that sense?
Institute for New Feeling: We designed the different roles, costumes and actions to bring out idiosyncrasy and diversity among the performers, but I guess they were more like ‘actors’ in the sense that they were following specific direction from us. The cast came to us with a broad range of experience, from theater and music to burlesque and hip hop dance, while others had done little performance in the past.
** It’s a big project, how did you arrive here, and where will you go next with it?
IFNF: It’s been about a year of preparation with Black Cube. The project was actually originally inspired by the catastrophic drought in California (two of us live in LA) that began a couple years back. We were interested in the Rocky Mountains as a source of water for much of the Southwest and Mexico, so planned to trace that path of water flow from Colorado to LA. However, in talks with Black Cube we got excited about the potential of investigating municipal water usage much closer to the source, and specifically about the Denver Wastewater Management site where the live performance was held. Coming out of this performance and video shoot in Denver, we’d like to tour the vending machine with Avalanche water accompanied by a 17-minute video. We’re interested in situating the video narrative directly at the point of sale, influencing one’s decision whether or not to buy a bottle.
** Are you interested in the space of hope at all?
IFNF: Of course. I think our work typically finds hope and beauty by indulging in the strange specificity of everyday objects and people. While Avalanche is quite dark and dramatic in tone, its also absurd and even funny at times. The work faces some enormous — even apocalyptic — issues, but obliquely, with humor and humanity.
** Within and between the spaces of anxiety and calm, there’s also an emotional deadness within the work; a lack of feeling or the feeling feels like fog, dissipating as soon as it arrives. Can you expand on what type of ‘feeling’ you are trying to tease out here?
IFNF: The overall feeling of the performance is definitely ominous, perhaps even melodramatic. This is, of course, juxtaposed with the inconsequential nature of the actions the performers are carrying out ad infinitum (watering plants, brushing teeth…). We were interested in creating a kind of assembly-line out of mundane, private activities, as if these were shift-workers, laboring over the production of this water. To this end, the quality of their movement conveys repetition, exhaustion, and boredom — not so difficult to conjure when you’ve been washing the same windshield for two hours. But for all the running makeup and sullen looks, one could also read a hint of teenaged angst or even punk attitude. Maybe by taking itself so ridiculously seriously, the work begins to tip back towards humor again.
** Could you talk a bit about the idea of the ‘loop,’ it feels like a quiet thread running through the project?
IFNF: The project is made up of concentric loops. The performers are working in repetitive action, driving a production process that itself activates a cyclical system. As the sound generated by the performers at the Wastewater building causes an avalanche in the Never Summer Mountains, the descending ice and snowmelt provides a ‘pristine’ source of water for bottling, as well as fresh ice harvested to begin the process again. Each bottle of Avalanche water requires ice to begin filtration and more ice to finish it, compounding.
Even as a kind of mythical proposal, this bottling process that generates a new ecological disaster every 15-minutes reflects a kind of reckless production mentality that feels very familiar by now. Indeed, according to climate scientists, it is precisely this kind of feedback loop set into motion that is responsible for the amplification of climate changes over an ever-shorter period of time. Acceleration from the feedback loop plays a very frightening part of our future narrative on this planet.
** Could you talk about what attracts you to inhabiting the space between scales and perspective?
IFNF: In-between spaces are certainly of particular interest to us, they define a pretty good territory for exploring ‘new’ feeling. In a broader sense, this sort of liminal space is an area that art can thrive and play with, while other disciplines may not be as appropriate or make as much sense. Perhaps that is a cliché to say. But I think it’s why so many artists are drawn to spaces like this. **