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If not you not me

Ruth Catlow

Featured image: Annie Abrahams creates an Internet of feeling – of agitation, collusion, ardour and apprehension.

This essay accompanies If not you not me, an exhibition of networked performance art by Annie Abrahams at HTTP Gallery in London. Where social networking sites make us think of communication as clean and transparent, Abrahams creates an Internet of feeling – of agitation, collusion, ardour and apprehension. This exhibition presents three new collaborative works alongside documentation of recent networked performances created and curated by the artist.

If not you not me

2002. My expectations and behaviour have been shaped by years of work and play at my personal computer. I have habitually ignored my hunched body whilst my attention is projected through key-stroke and mouse click into a social space made of people, digital technologies and the cables, hubs and protocols of the global network.

separation/séparation: A click on a blank web page, displayed in a tall, thin browser window, is like a poke at the body of a sleeping animal. “Do something then!” On the first two clicks, the words “lonely soul” appear in a standard font at the top of the screen. More clicking calls up the following words “…not knowing how to differentiate between you and me, you don’t feel my pain…” Accelerated mouse taps provoke an imperious message on a new screen. “You don’t have the right attitude in front of your computer, either you clic (sic) too fast or with too much force…” With more measured interaction I am allowed to continue with the soliloquy, interspersed with instructions drawn from Workpace, an exercise programme used to assist in the recovery and prevention of Repetitive Strain Injury. The first illustrates a facial work-out. An animated download bar sets the duration of the exercise. I wrangle with the regimen to find a way to skip the prescribed exercises, to get to the end of the story. Finally I comply, performing the therapeutic stretches by the light of my machine. In my imagination other viewers/participants, located around the world in their various domestic settings, are roused from their physical inertia, illuminated by their PCs, in animated, undulating fleshy frills at the edges of the Internet. Returning to the screen for the next chapter, one gentle click at a time, a story of unrequited love unfolds; between an implacable machine and a human-being laid low by their own computer-inspired dreams of control and unlimited power.

This is the first time that my body has been directly addressed, indeed disciplined, by a Net Art work. This is made possible by its complex composition. separation/séparation is made of many parts: a web interface, an economical visual aesthetic, texts (the monologue, the instructions, the commands), human-to-machine interaction. Most of these ingredients are also active in the real-time installations and documentary videos exhibited seven years later in If not you not me at HTTP Gallery. The addition of human-to-human interaction, physical space and objects produces ever more complexity in the structure of the work. However while its many different parts often remain visible, separate and present for the viewer/participant, the effect is not one of disconnected components. Abrahams continues to connect them with the sociality of viewers/participants, generating powerful, singular, artistic affects. More recently her favoured vehicle for artistic exploration is collaboration without which there is no relationship: no me, no you, no other and therefore no artwork. If not you not me asks visitors to explore how relations constitute identity and consider the corporeal implications of an emerging human sociality mediated by complex digital networks.

In 2007 One the Puppet of the Other/ L’un la poupée de L’autre explored the experience of solitude on the Internet while straddling both physical and virtual public space. In this collaborative telematic performance at the Pompidou Centre, Paris, Abrahams and co-author Nicolas Frespech each sat in an igloo tents on stage. Their shadows could be seen moving about within, and who communicated via a system of webcams and microphones. They improvised according to a simple rule where each had to respond to the other’s instructions – “sing a song” or “say something sweet” – to make each the living doll or avatar of the other. The webcam images and amplified conversations were streamed into the auditorium and displayed on a simple double screen projection above the tents. The hazy, flesh-tones of the webcam images had a unifying effect giving the impression of a shared dream. At the same time their physical proximity on stage reemphasised the way in which they were separated by their attempts to control and resist each other as they chose whether or not, as Abrahams writes, “to give flesh to the projections of the other.”

One the Puppet of the Other/ L'un la poupée de L'autre explors the experienc eof solitude on the Internet while straddling both physical and virtual public space
One the Puppet of the Other/ L’un la poupée de L’autre

The artists collaborated to negotiate the co-evolution of both a relationship and a performance. This was the first of Abrahams’s networked performances that scrutinised real-time intersubjectivity. More recent works in this area include The Big Kiss with Mark River and Double Blind (Love) co-authored with Curt Cloninger. Distinct from pointing and clicking to control a machine or a game, performers adopt the more complex and subtle rituals and tuning-in techniques of improvising musicians and lovers. This requires them to acknowledge the similarities and differences in the nature of the sentient-other and to accept the other’s autonomy. Unlike Paul Sermon’s reassuring installations such as Telematic Dreaming that invite participants to cooperate within familiar and intimate domestic spaces connected by videostreams, Abrahams’s stark interfaces amplify the performers’ awareness of their solitude. They are alone in their physical space and yet they are responsible for co-constructing an image or a soundscape to express their experience of a relationship with a distant other. The unexpected result for the viewing public can be a disconcerting impression of intense intimacy. Viewers (as voyeurs) witness the emergence of boundaries as they are made and remade in the co-creation of the performance – each piece is a dynamic double portrait of every negotiation, every partnership.

Abrahams’s fascination with collaboration and participation means that she has a strongly developed sense of the context for artwork (not uncommon with artists who work with the Internet – think Jess Loseby’s Digital Kitchen, Andy Deck’s Panel Junction, Avatar Body Collision’s Upstage). She understands the many subtle ways in which curatorial and technical infrastructures impact on the meaning of the work and others’ experience of it. She knows that in order to best familiarise herself with the mechanics and affects of collaboration she has to move through all positions from initiator and director, to participant, to viewer. Her two series of curated performances Breaking Solitude and Double Bind (which she created with technical partner Clement Charmet and are remarkable in that they demonstrate the power of a simple interface, a curatorial frame and an extended community of artists experimenting across networks. Breaking Solitude was simply set up as “Web-meetings of about twenty minutes long using chat and streaming to experiment (sic) new ways of being together.” For Double Bind Abrahams creates a more focused context based in her own earlier experiences as a biologist, where she came across the concept of the Double Bind; “a situation with no exit, whatever one chooses one looses [which] leads to illogical, inhibited, ambivalent and misplaced behaviour. Double bind is the result of conflicting cues about a particular situation. An animal that cannot decide between attack and flight is going to eat or scratch.” For this series she asked six artists to reflect on whether double bind describes our relation to technology, within a double webcam performance which could be viewed online and commentated on by up to thirty visitors within a simple message window. Abraham asks: “Is our relation to the computer and internet double bind, bound, bond?…Remote presence, ubiquity, multiple personality, absence of the body? Does this make us schizophrenic? How do we adapt?”

We are unaccustomed to experiencing either art or online social interaction in this way. Most artworks do not require us to participate with so many aspects of ourselves. Most social media interfaces are designed to smooth out the disconcerting glitches and vacuums created by the inevitable interruptions in data-flow. They aim at transparency to give an impression of irrepressible and unproblematic social exchange – as if the last thing we should be aware of when “using” technology is its impact on our physical and psychological well-being. On the one hand this transparency creates an exciting speed of exchange and a froth of production. On the other, however, the bandwidth of our communication is eroded and along with it the range of things that might be conveyed and relations evolved. If it can’t be said in 140 characters, it can’t be said. A voice disappears – no-one notices; the babbling stream of confabulation bypasses, drowns out – bleaches out – absences and depressions. With these ubiquitous interfaces we interact less with other people than with the social utility itself and with our ideas of ourselves.

Abrahams’s work always invites us to acknowledge, feel and imagine in our interactions the many aspects of the machine and the other human being speaking through it. Her current artistic research project Huis Clos / No Exit directly addresses how each person will react in a context of collaboration, at the same time as studying its technical and formal limits and possibilities. Her work’s place in the proliferating network of machines and human-beings (their emotions, desires, even their hormones) makes us aware of the artwork’s simultaneous openness and resistance to our contribution. It encourages us to bring our whole selves to the question of the part we play in the co-evolution of future relations.

About Annie Abrahams

Annie Abrahams was born to a farming family in a rural village in the Netherlands. She obtained a doctorate in biology in 1978 and found that her observations of monkeys inspired curiosity about human interactions. After leaving an academic post, she trained as an artist and moved to France, where she became interested in using computers to construct and document her painting installations. She began experimenting with networked performance and making art for the Internet in the mid 1990s. Her work has since returned to the questions raised by the monkeys, concentrating on the possibilities and limitations of communication on the Internet. She has performed and shown work extensively in France, including at the Pompidou Centre, Paris, and in many international galleries including among others Espai d’Art Contemporani de Castello, Spain; the Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo; and the Armenian Center for Contemporary Experimental Art, Yerevan; festivals such as the Moscow Film Festival and the International Film Festival of Rotterdam, and on online platforms such as and Turbulence.

Artist, theorist, curator and recovering web-utopian, Ruth is co-director, of Furtherfield, co-founded in 1996 with Marc Garrett, for labs, debates and exhibitions around critical questions in arts, technology and society.

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Artist, theorist, curator and recovering web-utopian, Ruth is co-director, of Furtherfield, co-founded in 1996 with Marc Garrett, for labs, debates and exhibitions around critical questions in arts, technology and society. Share: Twitter Instagram Facebook