The Bardo: Unpacking the (un)Real
On ViewFeral File
May 20 – June 27, 2021
The “bardo” generally refers to a transition state after death, before rebirth. Tibetan Buddhism identifies six distinct bardos, the first being mortal embodiment. Life is a liminal space between birth and death. Now hangs between past and future. With these notions in mind, Julie Walsh curates the second exhibit for the new blockchain gallery Feral File. The Bardo: Unpacking the Real proposes that blockchain technology and NFTs position art worlds, markets, and histories in a kind of bardo, a space and time for relinquishing attachments and regenerating. Or not. The choice to flee or remain and deliberate is ours. Such a premise moves the NFT space away from financial speculation, reframing it as something capable of holding intellectual and activist effort.
The seven artists included in this exhibition offer variations on the idea of digital sculpture, and through that format press against the fraught discourse of the un/real within digital art. Matthew Gantt’s sound sculpture Earmark (all works in the show 2021) reminds us that art discourse recognized insubstantial forms—here sound waves—as sculpture decades ago. Entering the digital space of the work, audiences see a computer displaying the sound file and, sitting before it, a Neumann binaural head—a replica of the human head that can be used to center the listener amidst various recorded sound effects. This experimental composition is staged in a replica of the EMPAC room where Gantt worked, its materiality invoked even as he turns off the collisions with objects so that you can glide through the wires, speakers, walls, and floors of the music pod, thus emphasizing the real parallels between sonic and spatial simulacra.
The science fiction writer Bruce Sterling coined the term “slipstream” in a 1989 essay by that title to denote writing that, unlike mainstream literature, “makes you feel very strange.” Nancy Baker Cahill’s Slipstream 001 offers a vision of Sterling’s idea in her simple yet disconcerting breakdown and reconfiguration of a “real” sculpture. Cahill used torn graphite paper to create a sculpture that was transmuted into a 3D object and then filmed so that it moves in a slow semi-circle at a set distance before us. We want to approach but can’t. By purchasing it you gain access to other features, hidden in the layers of the artwork’s simulated reality. Claudia Hart likewise plays with the possibilities of digital layering in Kiki.object, based on an image of Kiki de Montparnasse. This singer, actress, and writer is often reduced to a muse for the male artists of 1920s Paris, but she might be the most radical iconoclast of that time. Plastered in Dada posters, and flickering between various purple, orange, and green hues, Kiki gazes at the viewer, “a rendered 3D simulation of the XYZ model (a gif)—an image of an image of a computer model, a simulation of a simulation.” In so many ways she is the model of a model. The work is also a model of shared ownership, and its 200 buyers receive Manifesta, a declaration of feminist sentiments on the blockchain.
Sculpture’s material form has been celebrated in photography, where many of the questions surrounding digital sculpture first arose. Sophie Kahn’s work extends the fascinating history of sculpture photography, pushing the ostranenie—or “making strange”—that runs through it in the work of photographers like David Finn. In Kahn’s Spectrality (from The Divers, IX), the insubstantiality of the figure, based on a scan of Butoh dancer and performance artist azumi O E, comes from the visual fragmentation not uncommon in 3D capture. Working with 3D files since 2003, Kahn always rematerialized them until turning to XR in 2020. Digitally, we can touch and turn her forms, exploring them in ways typically unacceptable with art objects. As an AR sculpture, we can place it in our own environment. Photography, sculpture and NFTs circle around issues of posterity and access, memorial and lack. Kahn’s ghostly figure bends into itself, a reflection of the self-reflection that haunts the continual work of unpacking histories of representation.
Death is the figure that most effectively sharpens attention on the passing nature of existence, a role that memento mori have long played in art. Auriea Harvey’s The Mystery v5-dv1 is based on 3D scans of classic symbols: a rose, braid, skull, and face. These form into a Janus-like composition that turns with each second, evoking the passage of time. The face is the artist’s, but this can’t really be reduced to a self-portrait, highlighting the challenges still facing those who create an intersectional aesthetic. As Harvey explains in a text provided by the gallery: “Inserting my African American self into sculptural styles that mimic the antiques of Greece, styles of ancient Africa, the Baroque, are my way of searching for or inventing my heritage, as an artist and as a person.” This, too, is the bardo of our moment, as we address history not for an uncertain future but to create a conscious and conscientious present.
The present has a way of leaping into the future. We want to know what we will get. Art markets want exhibitions and reviews or sales and grants as proofs of success before they will support an artist, creating a brutal catch-22. Blockchain platforms, like other web-based sale sites before them, have the potential to circumvent this kind of gatekeeping. Carla Gannis’s peepshow flips these issues of access and transparency by presenting a luminous pale pink box, except you can’t see what’s inside until you buy it. I’d argue most art does the same, deepening as you live with it. In this instance, buyers access one of the artist’s “wwwunderkammers,” but sight unseen demands trust.
New art forms require faith in artists’ effort and intention, because they ask us to engage new senses and sensibilities, question established principles and perspectives. Martina Menegon’s it’s a matter of perspective models such an experience by taking 3D scans of her body and using them to produce a cluster of tumbling virtual figures, any one of whom you can inhabit with a push of the space button. Such a mobile and disorienting perspective is a crucial part of this show, as the seven digital artists included here all represent aesthetics and concepts largely suppressed by the media hype around NFTs. By providing them a platform, Feral File establishes itself as a crucial space to explore the urgent questions raised by this new technology.