we speak to the artists behind the ICA's new exhibition, looks
Looks is a major group exhibition that opens at London’s ICA today. Featuring the work of five international artists - Wu Tsang, Juliette Bonneviot, Stewart Uoo, Morag Keil and Andrea Crespo - it recalls an 80s era of identity politics and its artistic...
Wu Tsang, still from A Day In The Life Of Bliss
The exhibition's title comes from Wu Tsang's film A Day In The Life Of Bliss, presented in an "immersive" 360° film installation in the Upper Galleries. Exploring links between performance and surveillance, it stars American performance artist boychild, who has "bliss" tattooed on their neck and shoulder, as the young performer BLIS, who lives in a world where an intelligence system called "the LOOKS" mediates and controls public space via the all-seeing social media platform "PRSM". Walking upstairs you can hear the soundtrack to Tsang's film, which features a cameo by Los Angeles DJ Total Freedom, and smell Berlin-based artist Juliette Bonneviot's series of monochrome paintings made with xenoestrogens, hormones present in everyday domestic life that imitate oestrogen. They are painted onto some of the materials that contain these hormones, such as PVC lacquer and linen fabric. Between these two installations a video by New York-based Andrea Crespo, Parabiosis - Neurolibidinal Induction Complex, presents Sis, the system that aggregates the artist's multiplicity.
The ground floor gallery presents sculpture, photography and video by Morag Keil and Stewart Uoo. Uoo's work revisits two of his previous exhibitions: luscious photographic portraits of Manhattan icon DeSe Escobar ("the ALTimate Kardashian" according to Anna Soldner of DIS Magazine) are pasted directly onto the gallery walls, to which two of the artist's sculptures of deftly, delicately decomposing mannequins are attached via wrought metal beams, which seem to want to escape from the gallery as they pull the walls with them. The centre of the floor features a carpet depicting an oversized blow up of a problem page, altered by the artist, from a teen magazine. A site specific video by London artist Morag Keil fills one wall with an ambiguous, close up loop of a lower leg, itself filled by an iconic Amy Winehouse biro tattoo, which towers over you and is gendered by a high heel shoe gradually revealed by the camera. Across the gallery a loop of square-cropped camera phone pictures are projected onto a different wall, and endlessly replace each other. They are arbitrarily intimate encounters onto which we may or may not project a narrative, punctuated by a series of selfies of the artist.
Your work is often collaborative. How does your representation of the communities you are part of relate to your own identity?
I think that, at least to some degree, communities are always projections of ourselves. What does it mean to be a part of something, to belong? I'm always asking myself these questions through the work. I don't have a simple answer, but I think community only really exists through the process of representation. It's like a moving target; as soon as you can visualise it, or tell a story about it, it's usually already disappeared or changed into something else.
The artificial intelligence system in A Day In The Life Of Bliss is called the LOOKS. Does this suggest that artificial technology is a way of looking or a way of being looked at?
The LOOKS are like a metaphysical manifestation of looking, in a society where images are the currency. They evolved from the human behavior of looking (taking pictures, selfies, documenting, posting & re-posting pictures). We can't see the Looks; they are invisible yet omnipresent, feeding like parasites off the human eye and circulatory system. Using evolved face-recognition, they compile every image of everyone into a massive surveillance database. They are powerful and all-knowing, but their proliferation is driven by human consumption and dependency.
Blis is one of a minority of humans born with two hearts. This seems like the dual impulse in your work to document mainstream and underground identities and communities. How does your work bridge these different communities - is this something explored by Blis in the film?
There is a lot of dualism in the film, and I used mirrors in the installation to create visual doubles as well. Blis has two hearts, but she doesn't know it. She is a pop star by day and underground performer by night. As the Looks cultivate a celebrity-obsessed culture to feed their frequencies, stardom begins to corrupt Blis, overtaking her capacity to absorb it all. Everywhere she goes she is being watched, and her feelings oscillate between pleasure (of being looked at) and fear (of being attacked/arrested). Blis has a massive PRSM following, and her fans track every moment of her daily life. She in turn has a talent for channeling their "Looks" into beautiful radiating orbs of light, and thus her act is equally dependent on their gaze. As her fame grows, the number of Looks multiply exponentially, and she senses that this feedback loop will eventually overcome her. Blis senses she is different, but fears that accepting her nature would end her career. So she lives in blissful ignorance, choosing the comforts of imprisoned luxury over self-realization. The film takes place on a day where she has to come to terms with her true nature, and accept her power. It's kind of like a superhero "origins" story.
The exhibition press release states that "today the body and the expression of its identity are no longer automatically linked." Does your work explore identity beyond the physical body, or does it reassert a link between the body and wider technological or chemical ecologies?
My work in the show scrutinises the ecologies of certain chemicals enmeshed with our gendered bodies. I collected and assembled compounds that are called xenoestrogens because they are said to disrupt our endocrine systems.
I think the work reasserts the existence of the body within complex technological and chemical ecologies. My intention was really to highlight how the place where the so-called physical body ends and the technological and chemical ecologies start is very unclear, to say the least. It opens up to discuss further the biological, cultural and philosophical implications of this idea.
You use a number of decomposable materials in this new series of painting. Does this suggest that things like gender and identity are decomposable as well?
I think it suggests to adopt a hesitant attitude when associating with some aspects of gender. It argues for a more distributive look on the usual gender binary.
Is your own identity part of your artworks?
Yes, one of the motivations behind the work was to question myself, when I would claim to identify as a female artist. If I take into account that my body, my own oestrogen receptors, might confuse — for example — lead with oestrogen, how can I conceptualise the idea of belonging to a gender identity?
Morag Keil and Stewart Uoo (work individually but responded collaboratively)
In what way does identity play a role in your art practice?
I hadn't specifically thought about it as an isolated topic within my practice more part of the structures and codes that inform everything, and change all the time.
Is identity always political?
When did you start developing Sis?
We have no recollections of any points of origin; points of shifts and changes, yes.
Could Sis have existed before digital networks?
Sort of, but it may have been much more challenging to develop solidarity/sociality/exchange with other non-subjects with similar embodied tendencies. Networks intensify and facilitate the formation of social relations amongst people who are geographically disparate.
Is identity always multiple?
Identity as is commonly deployed often attempts to foreclose the possibility of multiplicity and transformation. The forces and materialities that produce identity can be thought of as multiple, however.
Text Harry Burke