Narrative. Seemingly everywhere in 2013. When Frieze Magazine recently asked how – in light of technological advances in presentation platforms – narrative structures will change, Ian Cheng described an “intuitive technology for normalising change, for coherring the experience of reality into a series of consequential developments.” While this sounds plausible, it also feeds into the (now normalised) idea that narrative is what constructs the valence of truth and meaning. Thought of like this narrative derives directly and contingently from the ideological and material conditions that birthed it. Wall paintings sermons frescos pamphlets novels cinema modernism TV YouTube-comments: what we read, in time, becomes truth.
While the above telos is somewhat perfunctory – of course developing technologies must be built into coherence with lived reality, pulling itself towards unfoldedness – it is worth asking why ask this question of narrative, and increasingly as narrative filters increasingly through commodities, what truth it is establishing?
This question feels especially pertinent to Tom Huett’s exhibition So I Thought I’d join the 21st century & get in on the act at Carlos Ishikawa; an exhibition who’s dryly self-knowing title, and surface absorption of many of the popular debates and aesthetics of contemporary pop-culture, suggests very much an emersion in both the question of what is it about narrative now that we read it in public and the actual practice of simultaneously writing of this narrative and truth.
The show’s title feels appropriate: thematically it apparently points to user-generated YouTube unboxing and product demonstration videos — on one of the dual-channel projections that take up the end wall of the gallery we see a situation framed by the red-slider familiar to many— but also in the artist’s own take up of this debate. After spotting the obvious, it seems we / he are all getting in on the act. Its hard not to read a degree of apathetic irony (that so characterises a lot of work made in the midst of contemporary user-generated capitalism) in the artist’s half-critical take-up of familiar tropes of art that explores what the internet means to its users. Further, elements from the video (bedstead, college cheerleader group photo and Versace blanket) referentially propped against the back wall of the gallery seem to offer a recursive relationship to the show’s title, especially if we see this visual language’s arguable counterpart in the work of Ryan Trecartin. We / he are also all getting in on the art act.
HD-reality / Truth
Getting back to the video: when it comes to reality as some sort of medium, by which artists make or narrativise truth, very much at stake is the degree of authenticity this articulation seeks to lay claim to. The narrative turn is nothing necessarily new. Perhaps it is more the blurring of the distinction between the forms that we expect narrative to turn up in that feels new. Reality TV, editorialised shopping on ASOS and performance practices such as David Levine (who’s work Character Analysis creates a real-time, real-looking apartment in which fully-trained actors improvise around a script whilst viewers watch in amongst the action), ever-blur the delineations we have historically seen in the presentation of fact/fiction or reality/narrative. Narratives are performed as or in real-life (how else do you deal with a rude customer, work a room of strangers or socialise beyond your gender-appearance?), and re-consumed as narrative anew.
As the second screen in Huett’s installation – sitting to the left of the apparent ‘YouTube’ videos – begins to appear connected with its YouTube counterpart, yet offering an ‘alternate angle’, glimpses of the artist directing the video’s protagonists (it becomes clear that this cutaway exists to provide a different narrative flow to the YouTube video’s edits), and shot in art-world HD, familiar tropes of art’s critical relationship to narrative construction and performativity emerge. The YouTube videos, which we, like everyone else searching for “ABBIE – VIDEO ENTRY 16 – ROOM TOUR!!!”, believe to be legitimate, are in fact staged by the artist. While the degrees of separation in the performance of a reality has been an important strand in contemporary art discourse – especially in the field of gender, sexuality and difference – what is more interesting here is the use of HD as a shorthand for truth. The HD video on the left shows us what’s really going on. In the YouTube presentation on the other hand we are lulled in to the belief that these unknown 2nd person communities are really talking to us. Huett show’s his fascination and perhaps slightly derisory fascination, at the power this has over its viewers with comments of ‘real’ user interacting, through the video’s comments, with the video author which are transposed over the HD video on the left.
So as the way in which this is narrative-reality hybrid is fed through the less and less abstract or metaphorical uses of visuality, the emphasis on authenticity – of the truth beyond both reality or narrative – must be established outside of traditional tropes such as body-based performance art, purity of form for example. Instead we are presented with resolution and high definition as the metrics of truth.
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User gen narratives – obvious ‘we all perform’ aspect of show.
David Levine, interviewed by Dan Fox in the same issue, mentioned above, of Frieze, speaks of art’s preoccupation with the amateur, or at least untrained, actor as means of deploying an authentic gesture. Stating acting’s long history of mistrust – actors are notionally professional liars – of acting he explains: “artists use amateurs precisely because of that mistrust of actors: amateurs lack technique; therefore we can trust them more.”
Levine goes on to say that, conversely, he instead chooses to use actors in his overtly performative works, because they have this technique — they inhabit a character and don’t over perform it. And yet, with works such as Dora Budor’s New Lavoro – a reality TV show with 10 young american artists competing to go to the Venice Biennale in which a group of young, sexily aspirational artists demonstrate their abilities to compete for a VIP ticket to the biennale – speaks of a naturalisation of performance (above and beyond those laid out by gender-studies) that is total aware and at ease with a public, aesthetic, performance of themselves and thus at odds with Levine±. With a preoccupation of authenticity, art moves towards generating a truth or presentation of meaning beyond a reality constructed in or by performance, and yet with less distinction, between actors and viewers, and between whether we care about whether something is fact or fiction, we get works such as Ryan Trecartin who manages to articulate this hybridity more clearly. To be watched by others, to build this social reality is what this performance is, and what it is for. This is projective authenticity; populism authenticity; granular, high definition authenticity. It is, in an aesthetic senses (only) Human Resolution±±.
So why the need to present the constructedness of the user / YouTuber? An actor’s level of skill could be said – if we believe in the market – to equate somewhat to their visibility. The more work they get, the better they must be, presumably. Here lies the tension within the HD presentation in Huett’s installation. On the surface it would appear that, in revealing the degree of performance in the ostensible generosity of the YouTube community, Huett is seeking to question the truth of this visibility. It seems as though he’s asking if we can really trust the view-count, more, can we trust anyone using the power of visibility to tell their story, weaving a narrative, not to mention given the constructedness of any social presentation. It is HD video that is supposed to reveal this to us, yet HD video constructs a truth, outside of narrative, far more concerning than the user front-end experience of performative visibility. While HD might mean an unnervingly rich viewing experience, it also raises the resolution of monitoring and surveillance. However. As Hito Steyerl makes clear in her video How Not to be Seen: A Fucking Didactic Educational .MOV File*, shown at the 55th Venice Biennale (among the stand-out works) increased visibility also means increased invisibility for those without access to technology or the subject-hood wrapped within this access. Following on from this, as made clear by Sanderson’s essay Higher Definition of viewing pushes the production and producers of definition further in to invisibility – the invisibility of the of the visibility-disenfranchised is structurally linked to the devices that offer it to the visible.
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Communities of consumption
Street-style seems like it has something to do with this. The predominant focus of Huett’s videos, is commodities or decor either owner or unboxed (literally, you should google this is you haven’t already) by the video’s author, or the stories that connect them. It is unclear whether Huett’s focus on the constructed or performative nature of expressions of identity via personalisation or customisation through commodities, to be then presented to others: as inferred in such an overt focus on this, or in the communities of consumption formed around this and their aspiration for ‘high-end’ fashion. I say this because, while there is a certain hollowness echoing around the work and its content, there are also (here and in the outside world) communities that care, talk and hate-on, to and about each other. Wolfgang Streek, in his crucial text, in NLR 76, on the development of the Post-Fordist consumer, identifies these congregation as Communities of Consumption. These are brought together in a sociation of loose-ties; held together only by commodity affinity. They may agree on one brand of tablet-device, but might hate-on the same person along with the rest of their Instagram crew. Streek’s contention is that this has lead to politics having to play the same game – resorting necessarily to populism and reactionary politics – and it seems Huett might be making a similar point; that this world of performance is less real, well at any rate less HD. And yet I am brought back to Hito Steyerl’s how to be invisible video – it is Human resolution in HD that renders this view of emptiness and surface.
There is a tension that prevails between artists using and understanding the internet as something where playing by the same rules of aesthetics they have since forever, and, becoming frustrated by its incompatibility, resorts back to the age-old search for truth in mimesis. If there is a conclusion to be made now, Huett’s exhibition looks to reveal a truth behind these contradictions, whether or not truth reveals itself as something at all possible, and in doing so the exhibition embodies the very problematics in the construction and presentation of narrative / truth he seems to wants to uncover.
± see: Dora Budor Interview in HTSF E3 – howtosleepfaster.net