Tell me, as if I were lost
A deceptively simple prompt initiates Simon Fuh’s spare installation Memory Theatre (2021): on a phone call he asks a friend to recall his path to a dance club in the outskirts of Glasgow, with the caveat, “tell me, as if I were lost.” It’s a complex request. Not only does his friend have to recount streets and buildings in detail, he is encouraged to do so while prognosticating a kind of memory mastery that will guide a disoriented Fuh safely to his illusory destination. The projection of this “as if” entreats a multi-dimensional shift between conjecture and memory, asking the speaker to imagine inhabiting the listener’s position while choosing language that will put them on a good course. It is an appeal for an ethical response—in asking, Fuh is asking for care in, and of, his illegibility.
In the bare interior room of Memory Theatre, audio playback of this conversation, mixed with house music, is embedded in a wall. As visitors crane their necks to hear, placing one ear against the wall, plugging the other with a finger, they strain to comprehend. It is a move many of us have done countless times while high at a club. Channeled through voice, this space for replicating sense-memory ironically invites us to project into a social exchange that doesn’t include us. Fuh’s built environment suffuses this paradoxical relation between immersion and alienation—inside, outside—where self is lost until related through another.
This calling outward to find the self via a proxy-voice characterizes each artist project in this year’s MVS Graduating Exhibition. The installations of Simon Fuh, Matt Nish-Lapidus, and Sophia Oppel, and the collected story project of Oscar Alfonso, all include processed versions of the artist’s own voice transmuted through distortion, translation, and computational programming. However augmented and displaced, each artist’s voice returns as a generative interlocutor of their subjectivities, the result of—not in spite of—these transformational aesthetic strategies. Of course, each of these projects developed through two academic years impacted by a pandemic that has mediated communication through online meetings, phone calls, emails, texts, chat, and social media posts. Contra to a detached and skeptical dystopianism, these projects consider our present techno-social deferral through nuanced attempts to sit in ethical relation with distance.
In a collection of stories, No estoy seguro en nuestros nombres / I’m not sure I remember all of our names (2021), Oscar Alfonso caringly processes questions of place and displacement, loss and resilience, contact and privacy, language and its interpretation. Variable in form—as a limited-edition print publication, a website, and as video-based readings by the artist—his work, like Fuh’s, begins from a distanced request. Working from Mexico City, Oscar Alfonso invited family, friends, lovers, and colleagues living in various cities to address avocado seedlings he grew during the pandemic. Many of the resulting intimate letters, poems, and personal histories, sent or told to the artist in English and Spanish and translated by him for the bilingual compilation, begin with the address, “Dear Avocado, / Querido Aguacate,”. Likely originating in central Mexico, the avocado tree offers the artist and his collaborators a complicated metaphor: a rhetorical device to conceptualize the fraught-ness of self in connection to histories of colonization and its intergenerational affects. Though the avocado trees don’t speak back, their hard silence reverberates the voices projected on to them—Oscar Alfonso’s project is to tend these words.
As Oscar Alfonso’s transmedia project allows several points of access, the project is experienced through an interpretative guidance––the artist’s editing, translation, reading––that forecloses a totality. It is a charged act of withholding that conversely enlivens the work—asking for projection and compelling the suspicion of our understanding. Filtered through his translation, this inversion of ‘direct address’, is paralleled in both the hieroglyphics of Matt Nish-Lapidus’ A Path (2021) and the contested legibility central to Sophia Oppel’s being both opened up and flattened (2021).
Intersecting Nish-Lapidus’ installation of five works created through eloquent reimagining of computational programming histories, the four-channel audio work Breath from Breath (2020-21) features the artist’s voice dissected phonetically. Glottal stops and aspirations are reassembled and combined with ambient field recordings through audio synthesis and algorithmic composition software. Heard through speakers connected by excessive spools of reverse-engineered ethernet cable running from an oversized equipment rack, Nish-Lapidus’ machine voice, hovers at the edge of meaning, nearly forming comprehensible utterances, and then retreating. Enveloping the cryptic multi-part installation, Breath from Breath acts as one of many contiguous elements that quickens a compulsion to participate in the puzzle the artist provides us. In A Path the seduction of coding and decoding—the pleasure of deciphering a position in relation—emerges fully engaged with the emancipatory roots of computation. Working through ideas central to early heuristic pedagogies of computer programming, Nish-Lapidus offers a brazen institutional critique of our current dangerously innocuous relationship with communication technology.
Like A Path, Sophia Oppel’s being both opened up and flattened eschews the passivity of our present technologically mediated human relation. Working with, instead of against, applications and apparatuses that characterize immersive contemporary media culture, Oppel’s oppositional critique provides as space of material contradiction organized to mute coercive accelerationism and surveillance capital. Here, stepping onto low-impact exercise matts, bathed by artificial lights engineered to combat seasonal affective disorder, and facing a grid of two-way mirrors housed in a steel frame, we hear Oppel’s voice focusing our attention. We are cued where to look, where to move, and with suggestions of how to feel. This surrender to directive is initially surfeited by the alluring material rhetoric of the installation—miming consumption and capitulation to the products of self-care regimes, shopping mall displays, information kiosks, bank tellers, and airport screening areas; Oppel’s voice part instructional voice-over, guided mediation, and commercial advertisement. However, this piling up of signifiers consciously undermines an integrity of form: as her narrative progresses, altered in speed, filtered in pitch, the authority of her voice erodes and the performer embedded in this recording surfaces more fallible, more lost, more human.
- Jean-Paul Kelly, 2021