Web Only / Features » February 17, 2015
EMA: This is What Anti-Capitalist Virtual-Reality Art Looks Like
A performance at PS1 used the Oculus Rift VR headset to explore being a stranded human subjectivity in a commodified world.
Even though the artist was premiering new material in a great venue, most people didn't approach the stage. They got in line, instead, to experience the Oculus Rift.
Silicon Valley touchstone and media theorist Marshall McLuhan once noted that the real effects of technology are never noticed until it's too late. Any machine we use, also uses us; the real impact of tech, then, is not what it does, but how it changes our thinking.
“The serious artist is the only person able to encounter technology with impunity,” McLuhan wrote, “just because he is an expert aware of the changes in sense perception.”
If this is true, then it’s one more reason to be grateful that Erika M. Anderson is a serious artist. Anderson is primarily a musician, and records under her initials as EMA. Her new multimedia installation, I Wanna Destroy, continues the same fascination with cutting-edge technology and late-capitalist isolation seen in her 2014 album, The Future's Void. On The Future’s Void, she focused on how technology affects what McLuhan might call “patterns of perception:” what it felt like to be a woman, to fall in love, to grieve, with the thick veil of the Internet in the way. It's a deeply intellectual record about trivial-seeming online moments: When she sings about clicking on a link to a celebrity death story to the tune of “Taps,” or sings a line like “feels like I blew my soul out across the Interwebs and streams… and I am terrified that I will never get it back to me,” the lyrics may sound silly on paper, but the palpable pain and dread in her voice convey a world in which being a human means being exposed and commodified in front of thousands or millions of potentially hostile observers. The same goes for Destroy: On the surface, it is a simple song cycle. Yet she also asks audience members to get up on stage with her and strap themselves into a virtual-reality helmet. The tension between the songs and the helmet define the piece. And, like Future, the exhibit works on you in a way that is subtle and alienating, a process of immersing you in a mood and causing you to slowly and increasingly question your own choices.
Destroy was a one-off performance on Sunday, February 15 at MOMA’s PS1. Though I can't imagine that its songs won’t be recorded, the chance to hear them in their intended setting was unique. The feel was uncomfortably intimate. I Wanna Destroy took place in a huge plastic dome just outside of PS1. Anderson sat on a couch in the center of the dome with her laptop, surrounded by potted plants, empty beer cans and full water bottles. The laptop had greeting cards taped to the back, which tied to the theme of the piece. There was also a bottle of Four Roses bourbon on the table in front of her, which was both thematic and practical. (She drank it.) The dome was filled with the blare of synthesizers emitting a thunderous drone that sounded like the score to a 1980s vision of the post-apocalypse. It turned out Anderson was controlling the noise from the laptop. When she was ready, she began pulling out letters from her family and reading them aloud.
“Granddaughter: It’s a whole new world out there. A world that seems like it is always changing,” the first letter began. It congratulated Anderson on her “Hollywood” job as a “big-city gal.” Most of the letters were like this: warm, proud, Midwestern (Anderson is from South Dakota), full of love for Anderson and what she'd accomplished.
Between letters, Anderson described the reality of her “big city” situation. She had a job videotaping depositions in Los Angeles, presumably prior to getting a break as a musician. The cases were harrowing, and certain details haunted her. One concerned a young man, injured at work and put into an irreversible coma. His employers argued that they were liable for less money because he'd been poor. “The defense brought in an economist to testify that since he made $6K a year, he'd probably never make more than that for the rest of his life,” Anderson says. Another man sold human organs on the black market, and told Anderson that her corpse would be worth $250,000. He could get a high price for her corneas because her eyes were blue.
Here is where I Wanna Destroy and The Future's Void intersect: Each deals, in its way, with the dark economies that reduce all human life and feeling to pure profit, the sci-fi-sounding details (a black market for human organs? Really?) that turn out to be pure fact. In Future’s case, one event after another proved the album to be scarily prescient. It was an album about surveillance and data mining written before the Snowden leaks. It was an album about the dangers of being a woman online written before GamerGate. To be sure, concerns about privacy and sexist harassment existed before those events–but, before those events, the primary mode of the Internet was utopian and celebratory. We thought it would democratize everything and fix everyone, and suggesting that there might be a problem with the technology or culture of the Internet itself was usually met with disdain, as the hand-wringing of an out-of-touch oldster. Anderson caught a lot of that stick, before history proved her right. Yes, the album's most controversial song, “Neuromancer,” begins with the line “making a living off taking selfies, is that the way you want to be?” (Anderson wrote it about herself.) And yes, the pro-selfie and #hashtag-prone #365feministselfie zeitgeist was not thereby flattered. But dismissing the song means dismissing its real, and correct, point: It centers on an ominous horror-movie chant of “they know about the things you do, they know more of it than you do.”
It's creepy on its own. It's creepier when a former Google employee writes a blog post, just eight months later, condemning people for worrying about corporate surveillance. “This word, privacy ?— it’s a problem,” wrote Chris Messina, insisting that “I do want companies to know more about me and to use more data about me in exchange for better, faster, easier and cheaper experiences.” He argues people will enjoy corporations that “watch over” and “look after” them, perhaps unaware that the concept of being “watched over” by a faceless entity tends to remind people of something else. He praises the idea of using cloud storage (say, a backup of the Word .doc that contains your diary) to create user profiles without consent. And then there's the pay-off. Messina doesn't even realize he's paraphrasing EMA's anti-Internet anthem when he writes that “Facebook, Apple, and Google… are in a battle to know you better than you do.”
Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to get you. And just because Anderson is skeptical about technocratic capitalism doesn't mean that she doesn't know exactly where it's headed. She has remarkable intuition about how technology is developing and how it affects us.
Yet she also has the will to influence technology right back, to take what she can and repurpose it to make her point. Her work uses drones, Oculus Rift headsets, iPad applications and GIFs to make her audience rethink their relationship with the tools they use. She's not opposed to technology, only to the way that capitalism inevitably causes technology to be used for exploitative ends; her openly Marxist, tech-amplified aesthetic is reminiscent of Donna Haraway's “cyborg feminism.” Anderson calls it “cyberpunk,” after the sci-fi genre pioneered by William Gibson (her song title Neuromancer references one of his most famous books).
While I Wanna Destroy shares these themes with Future, it was a new work, with a new message; less about technology proper than about the experience of being a stranded human subjectivity in that dark, commodified world. It just took some time to reveal itself.
Anderson eventually pulled out a guitar and began to sing between letters and narrations. They were new songs, not yet recorded on any of her albums. The set-up was ideal for a show: The dome was quiet and not too crowded, and you could get right up to the edge of the stage without interference. But even though the artist was premiering new material in a great venue, most people didn't approach the stage. They got in line, instead, to experience the Oculus Rift.
The Rift, if you're not familiar, is a trendy immersive video-game headset bought by Facebook. It's not currently available for consumer markets, but it's already getting massive buzz. “Augmented reality” and virtual reality are about to be big business for entertainment industries. Oculus has created special previews for Christopher Nolan's Interstellar, and has hired Pixar executives so it can create its own movies. Google's forthcoming Magic Leap is wooing movie executives and top special effects teams like Peter Jackson's WETA. VR is set to be the next 3-D, or maybe the next movie screen, period. Most of the people present at I Wanna Destroy were probably seeing it for the first time. When they strapped it on, and looked around in the 3-D world of the Rift, they were also projecting a dizzying array of images onto the walls and ceiling of the dome. The Oculus environments are 3-D and “immersive,” so it was up to the viewers which pieces they looked at; the way they turned their heads determined which pieces of the computer imagery we saw on the screen.
These images, the work of Portland artist Zach Krausnick, looked like the '90s-inspired, primitive computer graphics net art communities share on Tumblr. They also seemed to phase-shift between two worlds. One was a hellish motel room with a framed portrait of the Unabomber. Lizards crawled along its walls, and a giant python slithered through at unexpected intervals. The other looked like heaven: Clouds, blue sky, and glittery paper cut-outs of roses and angels. Loving phrases from the letters EMA read (“you're an angel,” “we're so proud of you”) floated through in gold script. In both worlds, you saw a computer-graphic version of EMA. And in both, a demon—a gigantic, scaly snake-man—sometimes popped up to say hello and seem menacing.
So we lined up, to go to the stage behind the stage, and have the big, clunky set strapped onto our heads. As they did, they moved directly away from Anderson, and her songs became more desperate. It became clear what the theme of the letters and songs was: Every family member who wrote to her begged her to call them, or at least write back. No matter how much they loved her, or reached out to her, she didn't respond. The Future's Void was a piece about the terror of being over-connected, constantly watched and available to strangers; I Wanna Destroy was about being disconnected, unable or unwilling to talk to anyone, even when the tools to reach out were within your grasp. Technology can strip us for the public gaze, but it can also make it possible to go down private rabbit holes, stranded in our own momentary pleasures, away from the people we say we love. “I'm a cold-blooded reptile,” EMA chanted. (Oh. So that's why we needed all the snakes.) The heaven-and-hell imagery, the promise of the Rift versus the reality of the performance, all reinforced this message.
The Oculus headset turned out to be located directly behind Anderson. I wound up sitting about a foot away from one of my favorite musicians, while she was performing a brand-new song. I should have felt incredibly privileged and excited. Instead, I didn’t really notice her, because I was too busy swinging my head around inside of a glorified video-game console, watching out for snake-men. It felt real, despite how intentionally primitive the graphics were. I felt as if I were flying; I felt frightened when something showed up behind me. But I was in the same position as EMA and all the characters in her piece, disconnected, choosing the fantasy—like the choice to let your family believe you’re a happy, fulfilled “big-city gal” even during one of the worst periods of your life, by just not talking to them—over the reality of a musician I’d otherwise happily be watching from the front row. I’m not immune to technology, it turns out. Maybe EMA isn’t, either; maybe none of us can be. But as technology steadily rewrites every relationship and feeling we have, I’m glad that there is an artist like EMA—someone who can use our attraction to shiny new toys to ask human questions, and challenge our addictions. Was five minutes inside a VR playroom worth ignoring a whole performance? Was EMA sitting on the couch, drinking bourbon and keeping a “journal of sad stories” from her terrible job, worth ignoring her mother's phone calls? For EMA, the promise of technology and that of humanity are not at odds, though they often seem to be. They just require the talent and precision of an artist to be used correctly. And they are, refreshingly, unequal: Humanity always weighs more for EMA, always winds up taking pride of place, even when it’s competing with the coolest new toy in town.
Sady Doyle is an In These Times contributing writer. She is the author of Trainwreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock, and Fear... and Why (Melville House, 2016) and was the founder of the blog Tiger Beatdown. You can follow her on Twitter at @sadydoyle.