Within seconds of entering any of the seven rooms that comprise Ed Atkins’ recent show, Modern Piano Music, at Montreal’s DHC Arts Centre, one is promptly overcome with an odd but familiar feeling. These CGI videos cut at dizzying paces, the audial and visual spaces replete with words and sounds, images and aesthetics, sequences, and even entire songs plucked directly from mass media and popular culture. Title cards and didactic graphics reminiscent of newscasts, movie trailers, and reality television urgently punctuate nearly every work, delivering messages ranging from the banal to the frantic. A cast of exquisitely modeled CGI figures hide under cocktail tables, collapse in bedrooms, and walk through blank spaces, at once confident and conflicted as they alternately speak and sing, apologize, confess, dote, cry, and self-flagellate. A sense of vertigo permeates these works that, although masked, contorted, and brilliantly composed, is indeed familiar. It is the very same one that circulates freely and pervasively across every surface of television, the internet, advertising, cinema, and even “material,” public space in the twenty-first century.
The works in Modern Piano Music explore the slippery and peculiar predicament that has come to define the contemporary, over-technologized landscape: in a world where the forces of mass media have, for over a century, overloaded every single word, sound, image, and sentiment with signification, how does one go about feeling like a “human?”
On the first floor of the DHC’s first building, symbolically opening the exhibition, is the single-channel video piece, Even Pricks. Wisely chosen as the show’s opener, it contains a spread of every ingredient mentioned above, introducing the viewer to a survey of Atkins’ maximalist idiosyncrasies, and offering a partial glimpse of the issues taken up throughout the whole exhibition.
Progressing at a pace alternately crawling and frenetic, Even Pricks takes aim at the corroded wasteland of connection, romance, and sex that lies in the wake of the mass media’s long history of emotional manipulation. An audial backdrop held together by sparse, skittering percussion is punctuated sporadically by generic ad melodies, brief swells of choral singing, or fuzzy, fragmented clips of “Hotel California.” Even Pricks presents a distilled visual inventory of sexual repression. It includes images of thumbs inflating like balloons, vampirically-shaded hands reaching towards disembodied bushes of pubic hair, and flaming chasms opening in the centers of beds. These images are persistently intercut with didactic panels, reminiscent of action movie trailers or sports broadcasts, uttering mysterious, domestic platitudes (“Another One Bed… Pre-Furnished… Split Open…”).
In Atkins’ works, human beings, emotion and configurations of the most personal and intimate pillars of internal life have indeed lived on, but they seem to have refracted into the world of media images. The videos in Modern Piano Music look onto an uncomfortably familiar psychological predicament, in which emotions are only able to be expressed through the relay of pop songs, TV clips, and the many fabricated models that fill our collective minds. For Atkins, a perverse intimacy with the mass media, and a feverish sexual and romantic anxiety are equated and intertwined beyond possible reversal.
In Hisser, another single-channel video, these explorations continue, and find their most incisive and tender address. Throughout Hisser’s 20+ minutes, the media’s suffusion in, and colonization of, the personal and the real recur as a binding theme. Sentiments of uplift are conveyed through generic “motivational posters,” moments of self-doubt and sadness manifest as melodramatic musical numbers, performed for no one. The bedroom’s television at one point swallows the video’s character, and as he walks naked through a blank, white space (equally reminiscent of a Judeo-Christian heaven and the sterile “nowhere” spaces of product advertisements) his “transcendence” is still haunted by arbitrary commands. He shifts his trajectory at the sound of a subway’s chime, apologizing aimlessly all the while.
While certainly continuing Even Pricks’ examinations of sex and love in a post-media landscape, Hisser directs its focus more towards private space, contemplating its erasure at the hands of popular culture, social media, and reality television. Media theorist, Jean Baudrillard, calls this “the liturgical drama of mass society.” Echoing Baudrillard’s prophecy that “reality television’s” arrival had immediately and irreversibly contaminated the notion of “reality” in general, Hisser’s domestic and private spaces seem perpetually haunted by the possibility that someone might always be watching.
In the three-channel video piece, Ribbons, Atkins continues to explore mass media’s imbrication with the real, elevating the exhibition’s maximalist tendencies to bewildering heights. Arranged in a triangle, each colossal screen facing away from one another, Ribbons’ three channels present variations of a common progression, continually falling in and out of sync with each other. A white, male, skinhead-type figure crouches under tables and sits in blank, unidentifiable spaces, as he smokes, drinks, urinates, whispers, sings, and speaks in a confused pseudo-poetry to the viewer or to himself.
In Ribbons, the twin themes that define Modern Piano Music are contemporary society’s oversaturation with media content, and the emotional unraveling that’s taken place as a result. These themes are expressed through the videos’ aesthetic and narrative logics. As Atkins’ hyperactive flourishes of text, speech, and music continue to punctuate all three videos, the viewer’s awareness is quickly overloaded. All three screens differ slightly in pacing, colour, and soundtrack. Depending on the synchronization of the channels, the DHC’s second building is alternately filled with curious musical harmonies, or with the dizzying cacophony of an overcrowded room.
We even see literally inscribed on the skinhead character’s flesh a constantly shifting inventory of downtrodden sentiments, pulled directly from internet and text jargon, written in pen, scratched out, scribbled over – “FML”, “Asshole”, “Troll.” It’s almost as if these epithets have passed through the flesh, absorbed into the character’s being and find reflection is his confused, wistful speech.
The characters in Modern Piano Music, like citizens of media-saturated cultures, are burdened with signification and overloaded with objects of attention, models to emulate, protocols to follow and data to track. Like us, they’ve reached a point where their sensors have burnt out. Their basic instincts and desires operate unfettered, but are guided by bewildered minds that remain unsure what love, happiness, self, or sex can possibly mean in the wake of mass media’s innumerable representations.
Paying attention to the psychological blurring of reality and fiction, or the personal and the public, is not a project unique to Atkins’ works. His work fits into a cultural conversation that has been going on for years and carried out by other brilliant artists, such as Candice Breitz, Cecile B. Evans, Dora Budor, and most spectacularly, Ryan Trecartin and Lizzie Fitch.
Trecartin and Fitch, to whom Atkins is undoubtedly very much beholden, address the same media-saturated, over-coded world as the works in Modern Piano Music, but with shifted emphases. While exploring comparable issues of how the personal and the emotional appear in the post-mediatic world, Trecartin and Fitch are centrally attentive to how the techno-cultural world intersects with issues of class, gender, race and sexuality.
And on this point it’s important to note: Atkins’ works confront their respective issues through a decidedly narrow lens – he’s a white, British male who populates his videos with white, British males. There are many elements in these videos that confront and disrupt the more traditional, problematic notions of masculinity: the sentiments of insecurity, uncertainty, and general vulnerability explored throughout fundamentally clash with hegemonic masculinity’s callous strictures. It’s fairly clear that this is a point of concern for Atkins. Still, the unilateral whiteness and maleness of the characters in these videos delimit the scope of Atkins’ critiques. The state of emotion and identity in a post-mediatic world necessarily differs according to sociological factors and configurations of privilege, and such insights are undoubtedly absent from Atkins’ work. Discussions of gender, race, sexuality and privilege in Modern Piano Music could fill many another article, and perhaps deserve to be written by scholars more qualified in these discourses than myself.
In spite of their shortcoming in regards to identity politics, Atkins’ works offer insights into the aesthetic and sensory climate of post-mediatic culture that bear careful viewing. The joint forces of advertising, cinema, television, and social media figure into the fabric of twenty-first century cultures with near totality. With a seemingly unstoppable momentum, these mediatic forces are systematically invading every corner of public and private space, whether material or virtual. The surface of our everyday world, both exterior and interior, is becoming adorned, and perhaps defined by, a paratactic blur of images, words, lights and sounds that Atkins’ works manage to capture with disorienting fidelity. While never offering up a solution to this tangled state of affairs, Modern Piano Music allows us an alternate vantage onto the raw excess in which we’re all submerged. In the contemporary age, this may be as radical an offering as we could possibly receive.