Given the fact that we belong to the visually saturated Generation Y, it seems remarkable that the manipulation of digital images in the form of hyperreal visual spaces can still catch us by surprise. However, in the case of Ed Atkins, the world of imagery goes far beyond the scope of plain narration. The many irregularities embedded in Atkins’ work are probably even more revealing in the eyes of so-called digital natives.
Until May 5th 2017, the MMK1 is showing two site-specific filmic installations by Ed Atkins. Level 1 of the space contains Hisser (2015/2017), which extends over a sequence of four rooms and five freestanding projection surfaces. The nested architectonical structure of the MMK1 enables its visitors to push forward into the installation bit by bit. Depending on the position of the viewer, he or she can see either just one or up to three screens at a time, on which Atkins’ computer-generated avatar undergoes a somewhat disturbing mixture of intimate situations (physical as well as emotional), nightmarish incidents, and surreal shifts in time and space. The story evolves around a collapsing floor, caused by the dramatic opening up of a deep burrow underneath the avatar’s bedroom (this is actually based upon facts! In 2013, a cesspool collapsed in Florida and swallowed up a young man). In observing the avatar’s private life, the spectator becomes rather resorbed in the avatar’s “mental condition”. The work’s evocation of compassion and fear leads to immediate self-reflection of the observer. However, one must ask him or herself if these are appropriate feelings at all, considering that no person is obliged to follow a social code of conduct whilst on screen.
In a single room on Level 2 of the MMK1, three large-scale LED screens attached to an industrial scaffold house the second installation, Safe Conduct (2016) of the Atkins’ show. This time, the same protagonist is portrayed passing through an airport security checkpoint. Calm and indifferent, the young man gets rid of his inner organs one by one and places them carefully in small boxes on a conveyor belt. Focusing on the augmenting amount of self-estrangement in a post-Fordist market economy, the work metaphorically shows the creeping erosion of modern mankind. The imprisonment in the repetitive processes of exchange value seems to find its equivalent in the three different loops on the screens. Moving around the installation, the viewer experiences a delay in the relay of information, inspiring an anxiety that he or she will never capture the complete story. Some short moments of visual synchronization between the screens intentionally unsettle the spectator and enhance this feeling of incompleteness and dissatisfaction.
Watch Out, Generation Y
Associated with the key terms “hyperreality” and “representation”, it seems noteworthy that the strongest moments in this breathtaking body of work are those that deviate from convincing illusionism. As soon as the avatar starts to move its face in the close-up, it inevitably causes an estrangement to the viewer, who subliminally recognizes the non-human nuances of its facial expression. In withdrawal from Baudrillard’s simulacrum, Ed Atkins’ avatar, in fact, can be distinguished from reality; although, this surely doesn’t mean it’s simply a copy. So what then causes the incredible amount of proximity to the viewer in this exhibition? To me, the sound structure seems to be the decisive factor. Atkins uses words and sound as narrational components to underscore, bracket or cross out the visual experience. During the screening, the avatar harmonizes with Atkins’ gentle voice, which causes an incredible amount of emotional sensibility in the exhibition room. Consequently, the sound backdrop in Hisser includes corporeal moments of breathing, smacking of lips, etc., which increase the feeling of intimacy even further. Then again, suddenly, spoken words are collapsing in repetition and dissolve in a dreamlike storyline: “I didn’t know… I’m sorry…”. On the other hand, Safe Conduct includes Maurice Ravel’s Boléro steadily increasing the volume to underscore the absurdity of the whole situation and to bind the three different loops together on screen. Atkins’ subtle emphasis on sound and language seems to support the questioned role of the digital icon in this presentation.
In a moment of global virtuality, the question of digital humanization inevitably arises. How does one conquer this dangerous territory of unsure borders between reality and fiction — material authenticity and digitally manipulated code? Safe Conduct, as the exhibition guide notices, is the official term for a travel document granting the enemy safe passage to traverse the country without any harm or harassment. Watch out Generation Y, Ed Atkins is crossing borders.
Ed Atkins. Corpsing
3 February 2017 — 14 May 2017