TALK TO ME (2011- )

Talk to Me was designed to harness an audience’s distraction. A lack of attention is a plentiful resource that a contemporary performing artist can respond to by either accelerating content delivery or by absorbing the primary means of contemporary distraction, the smartphone, into production. The content of the Talk to Me performance was derived from text messages received from a live audience. This produced material similar to online comment threads. The audience tended to respond self-reflexively and with a high frequency of derisive messages. The structure of the piece was designed to provide instant gratification under a cloud of anonymity: A crucible for troll activity.

We are emphasizing bad behavior here because, in the case of Talk to Me, the medium was the message. The truncated form of instantaneous communication is an asset and a burden that anyone with the economic means to own a smartphone must negotiate. The rate of inter-personal communication is accelerating. Now being alone actually means being alone together (to borrow the title of Sherry Turkle’s most recent book). It was the condition of being alone together that Talk to Me was designed to explore.

When formulating Talk to Me, we were interested in the legacy of 1970s performance art that investigated the fragmentation of subjectivity, perception, and spectatorship. Dan Graham’s Performer/Audience/Mirror (1977) was of particular interest. Graham was intent on constructing a social space while subverting it through the alienating effects of a mirror. The structure of the piece was based on the rudiments of virtual reality. Graham and the audience were physically present and reflected as images in the mirror - both functioned as performer and spectator.

Contemporary audiences, accustomed to the instantaneity of networked sociability, may find the 1977 video recording of the deliberate Graham performance tedious. It is the austerity of Performance/Audience/Mirror, however, that lays bear the uncanny nature of all technologically mediated exchanges.

While Graham is significant, few artists displayed the prescience of Edgar Degas in communicating our distracted future. The most recent iteration of Talk to Me, incorporated an iPhone slide lecture about the 19th century work of Edgar Degas as an engine to generate content for the performance. Among other aspects, we discussed Degas’s sparse and disordered compositions - how his frame cuts figures in two and deliberately reduces them to the state of fragments. His repertoire was drawn from the accelerated life in Haussmann’s modern Paris. Our research came out of frequent visits to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and readings of T.J. Clark’s The Painting of Modern Life: Paris in the Art of Manet and his Followers (1985) and Carol Armstrong’s Odd Man Out: Readings of the Work and Reputation of Edgar Degas (1991).

In our recent performance, text messages announced themselves with a resounding ding and appeared over iPhone photos like track information flipping on a train station big board. Like the distracted subjects of a Degas painting, our restive audience was put to work as accomplices in the finished piece.