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The Disembodied Chorus: Ed Atkins at The Kitchen

Installation view of Ed Atkins's "Performance Capture" at the Kitchen (All photos by Jason Mandella)

Ed Atkins: Performance Capture at The Kitchen
April 15 - May 14, 2016
512 West 19th St, New York

By NICOLE KAACK, APR 2016

From the heavy glass doors of The Kitchen’s entryway, it is a steady murmur, a ghostly hum through the walls as a voice calls from a distant room. Scaling the steep steps to the second-floor gallery, the noise grows and resolves into words, lines, and stanzas. A voice in solitary dialogue declaims, “And this, um, was another / Perversion of the transubstantiate / — A concealing of the declarative hocus / This, here, is really honestly NOT my body, / My body is precisely NOT here.” I step into a low-lit, bare room. Painted a fleshy pink and illuminated by a spotlight, an empty stage to the right suggests immanent performance. To the left, on a large-scale projector screen, a CGI human head speaks in time with the resonant dialogue.

Disembodied and floating in an apparently dimensionless digital world, the realistically animated face attempts to mouth the words that flow by turns mellifluously and awkwardly from the speakers overhead, while the corresponding text scrolls across the bottom of the screen. “More often than not I wanted bodies rendered / Properly alien.” I am startled to hear the voice change from masculine middle-tones to a deeper base. As the narration proceeds, the aural transformation continues, switching from the high-pitches of a young person to the soft vocalization of an older man, from the harsh, emphatic articulation of a British woman to the assertive drama of a man’s theatrical expression. With each change of voice, the CGI resets to adopt new motions and mannerisms, but always returns as the bust of a white, bare-headed man.

"Performance Capture" at The Kitchen (Installation view)

Ed Atkins’s Performance Capture centers around a soliloquy written by the artist on the mediation of identity by the technological media through which we present ourselves. In 2015 at the Manchester International Festival, Atkins invited 130 participants to be recorded reading segments of Performance Capture in a CGI rig. The audio taken from their spoken words and the movements registered by the kinetic camera were aggregated into the single, false face projected upon The Kitchen’s screen.

We are made keenly aware of Atkins’s control of our gaze as the perspective zooms in and out, the image blurs and refocuses. The text is an equally assertive presence in the work, forcing the voices to act in its service, speaking in that special tone that we reserve for words that are not ours, words that are read from a page. The intimacy and sincerity of Atkins’s poetry is contradicted by this quality of speech that communicates the falsity of an assumed identity. Performance Capture is composed of layers of aliases, merging to a single form that never truly attempts cohesion.

"Performance Capture" at The Kitchen (Installation view)

Atkins emerges from this aggregate form in the video’s periods of silence, moments that feel as though the performer has walked away from the stage and we awkwardly await his return. As we are blanketed in this visual and aural stillness, our eyes are drawn to the continued motion of the text across the bottom of the screen. In these words we are allowed a glimpse behind the curtain, offered a direct line of connection to the artist who is present in the work all along, but so much harder to hear above the clamor of these imposter voices, these false selves.

Atkins’s work enacts the struggle to maintain individuality in mediated selves. In some sense, Atkins commits violence against his subjects, compressing their motion into the expressions of a single face and forcing their voices to act in service to his own text. However, Atkins does no more to his collaborators than he has done to himself; if the identities of participants are limited by the capabilities of the CGI, his words are equally strained by the medium of the voices that deliver them. Performance Capture is an allegory of our relationship with technology staged reflexively through the relationship of individuals with a new medium. In spite of our desire to respond to each other’s authentic, real selves, we are limited by the extent to which we have interfaced, have written our DNA in code.

"Performance Capture" at The Kitchen (Installation view)

Already amalgamate in form, Performance Capture offers amends as a work that continues to grow. Last week, voices alone whispered to gallery walls. Today, they are reinforced by the crash and patter of instrumentation: concerts associated with the installation that are incorporated as aural additions and supplementary video. Atkins subverts the reductive act of representation by creating a work that exists in a constant state of mutability, never presuming to represent a fully dimensional model, ever refusing to be fully captured. WM

 

Nicole Kaack

Nicole Kaack is a freelance writer from Northern California. Currently based in Harlem, New York, she is a contributing author to Whitehot Magazine of Contemporary Art and Art Critical.

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