Reviews Published 12 February 2021

Review: Present Futures festival (online)

5-7 February

‘Interdependent beings’: Ben Kulvichit writes on a digital festival exploring the complex relationships between humans and technology.

Ben Kulvichit
still from 500nm by Siri Black.

Film still from 500nm by Siri Black.

Present Futures: the title of this online festival curated by Glasgow-based choreographer Colette Sadler, places our focus firmly on the contemporary. The emergent technological possibilities being navigated today, and the ways they intersect with our bodies and political identities are unpacked over works encompassing performance, moving image, animation and sound.

Fittingly for a programme concerned with the new, I’m overjoyed to encounter the work of several artists for the first through a selection of work-in-progress research presentations and talks. Visual artist Siri Black presents a film, 500nm, which documents the process of printing silicon computer chips. The delicate process operates on a nano-scale, and we see the extensive measures taken in the lab to remove any trace of human interference: protective clothing, ventilation which changes the entire volume of air every two minutes, monofrequency light which drains all colour out of the lab but for a dreamy, sulphurous yellow. At the same time, the sound design amps up the ominous bass hum of fans and the rattling of machinery, so as to make this environment feel unstable, imperfect, dangerous. Humans here must try to disappear and erase themselves from the equation, but such a feat is impossible. We affect everything we come into contact with, and rely on everything, too – we are interdependent beings.

In another talk, we hear from artists working specifically with machine learning and artificial intelligence. Jake Elwes’s Zizi: Queering the Dataset raises questions around the reproduction of human biases in neural networks; if a institutionally racist corporation is responsible for training an AI, Elwes explains, then it stands to reason the AI will inherit those biases. Indeed, much has been written about the disparity in accuracy of facial recognition systems when matching white faces compared to people of colour. Elwes subverts not only these biases, but the notion of accuracy itself in favour of the queerness of ambiguity. He constructs deepfakes trained on images of drag kings and queens, including non-binary performers, AFAB drag queens and others whose faces already present multiple layers of identity that resist categorisation. These hybrid computer-generated faces morph into one another in a looping stream, never settling on any one face. As is often the case in art, the most interesting aspects of this project are the instances of failure; the computer often paints wound-like streaks of make-up on foreheads and cheeks, bringing to mind protest strategies for evading facial recognition software. 

still from Zizi - Queering the Dataset by Jake Elwes.

Film still from Zizi – Queering the Dataset by Jake Elwes.

Despite the thematic focus on the present, a couple of pieces in the festival encourage us to take a wider view and think in deep time; far into the past to the earliest forms of technology, and far into the future past the end of the anthropocene. Robbie Thompson and Alicia Matthews’ film Standstill of the Moon in the North: part 1 revels in the organic textures of stone, referencing Neolithic era stone monoliths used to measure lunar cycles – an early example of humans asserting autonomy over nature with the use of technology. Barren, rocky landscapes are interrupted by modern cell towers, looking like alien structures. You wonder how long these new monoliths, erupting out of a landscape that could be ancient or post-apocalyptic, will stand there; what kind of record they’ll provide to future generations.

Carrion, a filmed theatre performance by Australian performance artist Justin Shoulder, treads similar territory. With elaborate costuming and precise physicality, Shoulder assumes the form of a hybrid creature – part larva, part vulture, with a white plastic human mask and iPod headphones for hair. He slithers, scuttles and staggers about the stage. It’s a remarkable feat of design and physical performance – uncanny, frightening and beautiful all at the same time. Shoulder uses artificial, mechanical objects (toy parrots squawking a chorus of ‘I see you!’, a high-powered inflation mechanism, foam bones strapped to his limbs with velcro) as a means of lo-fi illusion, investing these materials with the feeling of organic matter. We feel the fleshy weirdness of the Earth’s mysterious lifeforms through a design vocabulary of constructed, processed materials – the biological and the machinic irreversibly entwined again.

Justin Shoulder in Carrion. Design, Justin Shoulder and Matthew Stegh; lighting design, Benjamin Cisterne. Photo: Alex Davies.

Justin Shoulder in Carrion. Design, Justin Shoulder and Matthew Stegh; lighting design, Benjamin Cisterne. Photo: Alex Davies.

If the common theme of the festival is the many entanglements between humans and machines, the questions that arise are themselves often tangled and knotted. This is the case in the festival’s closing piece, Be Arielle F, a performance lecture by the Swiss artist Simon Senn, adapted for Zoom. The show revolves around his purchase of a digital 3D scan of a female body – the titular Arielle – and the use of motion capture technology to ‘wear’ this body in virtual reality (i.e. when Senn moves his arm, he sees Arielle’s arm on his headset, from her POV).

It’s a distinctly queasy performance – partly, but one senses not wholly, by design. To buy and wear the digital reproduction of this person’s body is one thing, provoking an assortment of interesting questions about the ethics of image reproduction and ownership. Senn takes it a step further, though, by seeking out the model in real life. She is, as it turns out, a university student in Leicester whose agency signed her up for the gig; she got £70 for the session. Senn takes a trip to the UK to visit her, and we watch a video of him entering her student halls (one of those ubiquitous Unite buildings). She seems a little uncomfortable in the video – and, well, you would be, wouldn’t you, if a stranger had got in touch to say that he has been wearing a virtual replica of your naked body for an art project, and flew from Switzerland to tell you about it? She says herself that she doesn’t like to think about how her image gets used – but Senn doesn’t give her the choice to remain ignorant. As he films her, perched on the sofa of the student flat’s bare, anonymous communal space, venturing to ask if she’d be comfortable with audience members trying on her body in the live show, it feels horribly reminiscent of the aesthetics of the casting-couch scenario familiar from porn. Accidental or not, the power imbalance is palpable.

Exploring ethical questions by wading into ethically murky territory yourself is not an uncommon artistic strategy, but it’s one I find hard to get on board with. Arielle later makes a live appearance on Zoom, in a move presumably designed to appease any discomfort and give her agency in the performance (‘look, it all turned out ok in the end’), but actually the appearance feels incredibly stilted and awkward. Her lines feel like just that: lines, scripted and rehearsed. The waters just get murkier.

Simon Senn in Be Arielle F. Photo: Elisa Larvego.

Simon Senn in Be Arielle F. Photo: Elisa Larvego.

The performance is problematic in more ways the one. Mid-way through, Senn shifts the focus away from Arielle herself, and onto the personal impact of trying on her body. He describes an epiphanic moment of euphoria at seeing himself in a female body – it fits him, it feels right. Now, it feels like dicey territory to level criticism at someone based on assumptions of their lived relationship to gender and sexuality – and perhaps I’m wrong in this – but as framed within the performance, this feels uncomfortably like a casual ‘trying on’ of a proximity to queerness and trans identity; an artistic experiment with theoretical, philosophical interest, but which curiously sidesteps the real-world implications of transness as a politicised identity. Certainly, Senn’s approach to representing his experience in Arielle’s body would not have been so jarring to me were it not for his own admission during a closing Q&A segment that he hasn’t felt the same way on any subsequent occasion, within VR or otherwise. From where I sit, this looks to me like a cis man centring himself in a fleeting moment of self ‘discovery’ (gender is”¦ a spectrum??) that is nothing new to those for whom gender dysphoria is a constant and harmful reality; something that doesn’t simply go away when you remove your VR headset.

The artworks that have led up to this piece have elegantly shown how art can play a role in excavating the philosophical, ethical and political questions at the frontiers of new technology. Be Arielle F is an unfortunate outlier, allowing itself to get carried away in the metaphysical sandpit of the virtual and lose sight of the material conditions of our embodied reality. That is, after all, where we ultimately have to live with each other in as empathetic and ethical a way as possible. Technology, one might argue, doesn’t make this task any easier.

Present Futures ran from 5th-7th February. More info here.


Ben Kulvichit

Ben Kulvichit is a theatre maker and critic. He also writes for The Stage and his blog, Smaller Temples, and is National Reviews Editor for Exeunt. He makes performances with his theatre company, Emergency Chorus.

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