“Maybe it’s something about transcending the body, you know, that the internet allows us, that spirituality allows us, to become larger than we are, more than we are, different from what we are.”
from Melanie Bonajo’s Night Soil – Fake Paradise
DIFFERENT FROM WHAT WE ARE
>> There is, in the respective practices of Melanie Bonajo and Marge Monko, a shared interest in transcendence, in the encounter (with an individual or substance or product) that elevates one into a state of higher being, beyond the known or the familiar. One attains a higher echelon, despite the paradox that, while such experiences generally evoke a shared, collective consciousness, their special character derives precisely from the separation of the individual spirit from mundanely ‘human’ concerns. The transcendental moment is what both connects us to and distinguishes us from the masses below.
What is intriguing here is how such experiences are mediated. They are stimulated by new technologies, by ancient remedies, by consumer products and luxury goods, so that these objects act almost as spirit guides, shamanistic devices that facilitate the process of self-discovery. In Melanie Bonajo’s film Night Soil – Fake Paradise, transcendence is achieved through the ingestion of ayahuasca, an Amazonian medicine used in traditional indigenous rituals. The film relates the experiences of several individuals, as their initial apprehension and anxiety gives way to the powerful psychedelic properties of the brew. Bonajo presents her subjects’ commentaries through a set of startling vignettes: a nude woman in an indoor swimming pool, holding a kitsch painting of an idyllic tropical landscape; a tableau of several costumed individuals, posing and preening amidst plants as they snap selfies on their mobile phones; a merman, with his tail constructed from bubble wrap and a broom, lying in a half-filled bathtub; Bonajo herself, listening to the distorted speech of a potted fern (‘I cost five Euro, I’m born in Germany and I’m single!’) delicately balanced on the naked back of a kneeling woman. In one scenario, an individual scans the forest floor through the screen of her iPad, and flips the lens to watch herself watching, as if only able to truly ‘see’ her surroundings, her actions, when they’ve been filtered through the camera (the scene acts as a counterpart to the film’s opening, where Bonajo herself is recorded wandering the city streets blindfolded).¹ In a way, this moment captures the parallels between the psychedelic and the mediated experiences. As with LSD, wherein the pupils are dilated to absorb more light, the mediated image appears more vivid, in higher resolution, and able to represent details unseen by the naked (or distracted) eye. Or, as one subject describes the effects of ayahuasca: ‘after my first ceremony, I felt like I got this USB stick jammed in my head.’ Transcendence also implies more modest aspirations. In Marge Monko’s installation New Romance, furled and folded fashion magazines are pinned against the gallery walls, intermittently emitting puffs of air fresheners (from brands with names like Forest Waters or Lush Hideaway). Like the scents that used to be included in magazine advertisements, where you could peel off a strip of paper and sniff the particular fragrance, Monko’s works extend into the ether, diffused into the air around the unsuspecting viewer. The objects are positioned between two adjacent galleries, forcing one to walk through, to breathe in, the slowly, dissipating clouds, while on the way to the next room and Monko’s film Dear D, where a computer screen types out an email declaring the narrator’s love for ‘D’, clicking through search engines, recorded footage, Google Translate, YouTube, nytimes.com, alongside references to the Beatles, Siri Hustvedt, André Gorz, and Chris Kraus. The format neatly integrates found and foraged materials, readymade applications, databases of images and information, with that most personal and confessional of literary devices: the love letter. However, the sender – and the recipient – remain anonymous to the viewer, with any response left ultimately unclear, possibly even unreciprocated (as the speaker indicates in her concluding lines: ‘I hope that my epistle will stay between you and me and the googlemail. If the content of it makes you feel uncomfortable, I insist that you ignore it. I’ll be fine.’)² As Gene McHugh notes, the connectivity of the internet might also lead to miscommunication, to a profound misreading of the other’s feelings:
‘Hopefully, as the idea of forming bonds online through screens becomes more and more naturalised – as if they’ve always already been part of the fundamental toolbox of life – realistic social and ethical norms (along with culture that analyses and/ or mythologises these experiences) can be established to guide someone through the complexities of communicating intimately online and understanding what is ethical and what is not. The lack of these broadly defined norms creates a disconnected, two-tiered world in which some exist in a pre-internet reality, while others can only be their real selves online.’³
The internet promises everything. It shows you how to be better, how to become more fulfilled, and then insists that we achieve this unattainable goal. So, instead, this disconnection between the promise and the reality becomes a source of anxiety, a niggling suspicion that the persona that we aspire to is, if not a sham, then at least a distortion, a dissimulation. How to overcome this suspicion? One must merely cast off the real, submit fully and shamelessly to this new reality, and make a virtue of the virtual. The integration of new media into all aspects of human life, affecting and subtly transforming our modes of communication, interaction, creation and recreation, introduces another layer of reification to everyday existence.⁴ In place of a rampant, all encompassing capitalism that nevertheless preserved (or at least projected an illusion of) individual agency, this new evolutionary stage infuses the very atmosphere with seamless, ceaseless connectivity. Information proliferates, signals circulate, data is extracted. Without ever saying it directly, both artists’ works speak of this sense of relentless self-assertion, the promulgation of an artificial identity that is simultaneously ‘more’ real, ‘more’ satisfying, ‘more’ perfect.
1. The sharing of roles between the artist and performers recalls Claire Bishop’s notion of ‘delegated performance’. However, while Bishop poses this tactic as an act of ‘outsourcing’ that, at its best, “produces disruptive events that testify to a shared reality between viewers and performers”, Bonajo’s blurring of the distinction between director and actor, artist and subject, emphasises ideas of communality and collaboration inherent in the film’s exploration of the ayahuasca ritual. The viewer is left unsure as to whether Bonajo is a participant or an observer in the ceremony. Claire Bishop, ‘Delegated Performance: Outsourcing Authenticity’ in October no. 140, Spring 2012, p. 112.
2. ‘Communication on the internet is both poly-vocal and notional. One puts things online so that other people can see them, and comment on if they wish – but one has no idea, of course, who will.’ Melissa Gronlund, ‘From Narcissism to the Dialogic: Identity in Art After the Internet’, in Afterall, Autumn / Winter 2014, p. 8.
3. Gene McHugh, ‘The Context of the Digital: A Brief Enquiry into Online Relationships’, in You Are Here: Art After the Internet, ed. Omar Kholeif (Manchester/London: Cornerhouse/SPACE, 2014), p. 34.
4. ‘Reification has proceeded to the point where the individual has to invent a self-understanding that optimises or facilitates their participation in digital milieus and speeds.’ Jonathan Crary, 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep (London: Verso, 2013), pp. 99-100.
Text: Chris Clarke
Thanks to Kranebitter Einrichtungshaus.