left gallery
July 2016

Quiet Strategies for Survival

curated by Nora N. Khan


Alexis Anais Avedisian, Shawné Michaelain Holloway, and Ryan Kuo were invited to explore creative production under two acutely contemporary pressures: surveillance capitalism and neoliberalism. These pressures create an increasingly stifling social field, in which individuals must navigate unusual cognitive demands of networked identity creation, branded performance, and digital work. For each artist, the choice to be both expressive and vulnerable, within these binds, is an act of subversion.

Considered together, they suggest how the self – as worker, as lover, as radically alienated subject – can navigate the demands of by deploying quiet strategies for survival: survival of one’s creativity, one’s spiritual and emotional life, one’s capacity for intimacy and closeness. Through poetry, double-speak, irony, and play, they posit abstract spaces for renewal, in which we might not be totally degraded.

Alexis Anais Avedisian transmutes the frenetic anxiety over constant surveillance by one’s peers into an expressive practice that is conceptual and poetic. Her body of work forms a studied critique of our work as digital content producers as an inherently debased position. There is a material cost to this war of attrition, in which our identities are compromised by the alliance of corporations and governments. Further, there is a spiritual cost to producing content in an extractive medium, bounded by endless tap-dancing for likes, attention metrics, and a shrinking shelf life. The user censors herself into a tempered neutrality, in order to be seen, considered, made real to others.

Of course, this ‘clean state’ is complicated by ephemeral emotions which are also coded. In Avedisian’s archived, personal archives are minded to reveal truths about their owner. Avedisian transforms buried affective material - all the mess of self-doubt, mild paranoia, melancholic hope - into a moving dream-meditation. The user speaks online out of an exquisite, bittersweet desire to be seen by the fantasy object - themselves an abstraction. Each .gif, tweet, and post becomes a diamond portal of insight on its owner. Being perceived as “authentic” or genuine is nowhere near as important as the daily-renewed performance of self, in hopes of acknowledgement by one person chosen to matter in a nearly-infinite social matrix.

The process of public yearning can paradoxically help the content creator realize herself. She develops herself through creation of a complex and dense archive. Her history is made through a growing relic of thoughts frozen in a server. This reach for intimacy, despite the fractured mediation of platforms, eventually allows the user to reflect carefully on her impulses and choices. The archive is never neutral or clean; it is charged with the entirety of the self. The personal archive may be mutable and in most cases, unseen and forgotten, but the creator is irrevocably changed and deepened through its creation.

In File, artist Ryan Kuo explores the contemporary artist as a valuable member of the team in a fictional white-collar office, surrounded by eager project managers. The creative worker, trapped within a rubric of public production, must produce him or herself through relentless object-making. They toil away in a virtual office, beset by e-mail, by tasks and deadlines that accumulate without relief. They must think about their work, even as it is half-made, in terms of its aesthetic, market, and conceptual value. The producer is tasked with defending ownership of production, and this making is instantiated within digital labor’s shaky constructs, in which exploitation is rife, payment is low, and the dubious promise of “exposure” is offered as reward.

The wry, perceptive and self-aware tone of Kuo’s ‘user’s manual’ just barely holds off a cloud of corrosive anxiety, that lingers heavy outside the boundaries of each text box. Technocapitalism demands artist-workers manage their competitive instincts, their worries about their job’s instability and uncertainty, all while maintaining a bright spirit of cheerful collaboration. This imagined worker grapples with his position as a digital file owner through a rigorous thinking process. His logic and reasoning unfold in nuanced, elegant, and discrete branches, in a type of mental workflow chart. Eventually, much like Avedisian’s subject, Kuo’s worker ends up thinking about himself, his purpose and manifestation in the world, with an eye to success as it is personally – versus socially – defined.

File suggests how such a creator just might resist and maintain integrity through modes of extension, contingency. Treating the abstract creative process as a production of file systems opens up possibilities for the creator to become the source of value. Because the contents of File are subject to change over time, Kuo’s practice is itself the product. Providing shared access to his research, materials, and ongoing speculation on the meaning of the File-Work-Art Object means that the file is not only always unique, but also, never fixed. It cannot be easily archived, meaning: the artist cannot be filed away smoothly.

The films and works of Shawné Michaelain Holloway describes the user’s inner life as one increasingly enacted on, in, and through screens and their emerging ontology. Screens, loaded with our fractured input, our opaque fragments of speech and thorny renders of ourselves, go on to have their own troubling, eerie lives. In holloway’s imagining, these intermediary spaces host dreamscapes in which we can reveal thoughts too fragile, wild, and unruly, in the safety and care of a viewer we somehow have learned to trust. As a ripe space for projection and idolatry, the screen allows for safely working out what closeness and warmth with a desired partner could look like. Before they’ve even arrived into view, traces of imagined conversations, ideas exchanged, and declarations unshared, have already been left behind.

In UNDELIVERED.zip, the unshared expression of desire can be nurtured without limit; private clips, loaded notes, and taped ephemera can blossom repeatedly. They can linger, float, forever here, just on the cusp of being sent out. In this passionately tended dreamscape, what you wished to happen for you (what you dream for yourself) might be just as important to examine as any easily narrated conclusion, any tidy wrapping-up. Crucially, it seems here that the time taken and invested into the longing that makes it valuable. The “formula of [money + time + desire] adds up to Love,” holloway writes, underscoring how we fashion intimacy in late capitalism. If I give my you time, my greatest asset, then that cements my expression of love.

holloway offers up each piece as a visual love letter. Each film is a small room only the viewer knows the password to. Here, we find an unfiltered, earnest care that almost feels radical, particularly when the onus is on the digital user is to edit down and perform indifference. holloway’s affect and intended nearness is immediately felt in the moment of watching. The viewer might be confused at first, caught off guard, and might even be a bit ashamed for looking through these gateways at private smiles. They might be surprised at such an unearned closeness with the artist, and find themselves burnt through, consumed, and haunted by these gifts, given with no expectation of return. New, unselfish ways to love, only mediated through devices doubly removed.

What was love like without a machine to mediate it? In one red-lit room, there are hints at how the propinquity, or closeness, found in our physical lives can be recreated online. The machine, the laptop on the bed, the headphones with heartbeat audible, the cord wrapped around the wrist, are sensual, extensions of the body. It is very late and love always sounds too direct, too honest, up close. Needed information about the intimate flows through our machines to us, but the loop to them closes without our continual care. The effort to try to meet the beloved within these dreamscapes built between machines demands both softness and logic, both emotional intelligence and intellectual commitment. The labor of love and its language, the effort to light oneself up as the adoring one, is rare work of the most difficult order. It is the quietest, surest form of resistance.

Nora N. Khan, 2016