Yesterday, on the third installment of Networked Conversations with performance artist Annie Abrahams, it became clearer than ever that Internet artistic research is a necessary mechanism for understanding the convolutions of our networked behaviors. It begs the question, why is this work so neglected? Not just that of Annie’s, but why the entire “genre” of net art and performance is so utterly marginalized from the mainstream artistic discourse. It makes no sense at all: we live in a Webcam-mediated global culture, our social relations are increasingly virtualized, the emerging digital natives are not even aware of a world without ubiquitous third space transactions, and yet, those artists on the front lines of dissecting the characteristics and social dynamics of the Net operate in an insular world almost entirely of their own making.
Annie Abrahams, an artist with roots in biology and behavioral science, has for the past decade worked in the arena of networked performance art. Here, she has staged and directed an experimental online laboratory for “the creation of a situation where we learn together what it means to be connected.” She has worked with an international community of artists, including Igor Stromajer, Helen Varley Jamieson, Daniel Pinheiro, Ruth Catlow, Curt Cloninger, and Nicholas Frespech, just to name a few. In these experiments, she introduces problems, conflicts, absurdities, and other scenarios that illicit even more questions and issues and problems concerning behaviorisms introduced through Webcam mediation. She has blindfolded her participants, muted them, framed closeups, kissed them, screamed, and aroused anger telematically: all in a quest to understand the relationship between networks and intimacy, separation and alienation, remoteness and connection, emotion and distance.
She conducts her experiments as any true scientist, placing her collaborators into controlled settings and testing their responses. Although she doesn’t compile data and make analytical presumptions, she intuitively interprets the results, documents fiendishly, and publishes her research prodigiously on her own Website and in art journals. In her revelatory essay “Trapped to Reveal: On Webcam Communication and Collaboration,” published in the Journal for Artistic Research, she says:
“Besides being a tool to experiment with machine mediated collaboration and communication, these performances also reveal ordinary, vulnerable and messy aspects of human communication.”
Within our perfect world of Facebook, where we often vainly attempt to sculpt an alternate identity and present the polished side of our virtual selves, Annie breaks the mold, showing us the grit and substance of what lies beneath the gloss of social media. In her performances, where participants often struggle to make sense of their networked presence, we recognize the same human dilemmas of real world existence within the virtual space of our electronic lives. She asks:
How can we aim for a better, happier world if we don’t allow ourselves to exist, if we are not ready to confront our sloppy sides and take them as a departure point for our thoughts and actions. How can we pretend to change a world if we are not even capable of looking honestly at ourselves?
The answer is elusive and obvious, at the edge of our fingertips, and far away in the global reach of the network. It is only through questioning, probing, getting dirty, and embracing the messiness of online behavior, can we even come close to any kind of understanding of what lies ahead of us in our mediated lives. That is why the work of Annie Abrahams, along with the other intrepid artist-investigators of the Net, is so crucial to our survival amidst the encroachment of the telematic embrace.
Facebook should be paying us.