LOS ANGELES — “You would have to be half-mad to dream me up,” the Mad Hatter said to Alice during her romp through Wonderland, that place where her body and state-of-mind regularly changed shaped. In this fantastical landscape from Lewis Carroll’s 1865 novel Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, everyone is mad, no one can explain themselves because they aren’t themselves, you see, and it’s most likely always tea time. Artist Claudia Hart, whose practice spans visual, virtual, digital and performative aesthetic realms, seems not only enchanted but obsessed with returning to Alice quite often in her art practice. In 2013, at the Arts Club of Chicago, her one-act sculptural opera The Alices created an atmosphere rife with screen-induced reflections and refractions.
Six variously gendered Alices wear white dresses and sit a table looking at the Nue Morte (2013) augmented reality app on iPhones positioned above china plates. Instead of food, they see a woman’s torso with insects crawling all over it. Duplicates of each other and the original Alice herself, they do not wait for the Mad Hatter to return; in fact, he’s not around at all, and it’s unclear whether he even knows of this technosurrealist Wonderland. Alice returned again in 2014 at Eyebeam — but this time, the Alices walked in costumes that looked like they’d been ripped from a visually overloaded, GIF-filled Tumblr stream.
You would have to be half-mad to not wonder where the Mad Hatter went; or you’d just need to talk with Claudia Hart, whose new exhibition Welcome to Alice’s Gift Shop! opens at bitforms gallery on May 3 and continues her explorations at the intersection of populism, technosurrealism, performance art, and augmented reality that translate into new relationships between man and machine. Hart and I caught up by phone and email to sort out these fragmented forms.
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Alicia Eler: Can you talk about your use of the female form and a bit about how this augmented-reality app was built? I’m thinking about your works “Nue Morte” (2013), in which a viewer looks through an augmented reality app on their iPhone to see a sort of peephole view of a female odalisque sculpture covered in crawling insects, and then “Double Narcissus” (2012), where we watch a shirtless man fondling an iPad showing this odalisque through the Nue Morte app. I recently encountered both of these pieces at Plug Projects in Kansas City, Missouri.
Claudia Hart: I think there are actually several sub-texts at stake here and together they explain why it’s been so slow going for the “regular,” meaning the contemporary art world, to connect to digital culture and digital media, meaning post-analog media in general. I’m sort of dinosaur age-wise in the digital context. I was born in 1955. So I feel like my life experience is an example of the transformation of analog to digital, making my personal experiences actually relevant in a broader way. The most obvious read to what was meant in new-media art argot by “arty” is “weird, irrational, emotional, of the body” and yes, well, “feminine.”
The second subtext has to do with another aspect of new-media art culture. When computer art was first developing at places like the Ars Electronica – Festival for Art, Technology and Society in Linz, Austria and in the States at Xerox PARC, the research and development company in Palo Alto, California where experimental computer graphics were being developed in the seventies, there was a Utopian sense of idealism about the hook up between arts, industry, and science. Of course the entrepreneurial digital corporations that emerged, Google and Apple are two that instantly come to mind, are not what was hoped for. It turns out that they are gadget producers invested in the high-speed obsolescence embedded in the rapidly evolving technology industries. All of it grist for an empty consumer-culture mill.
Nevertheless new-media art still holds on to this utopianism, in the form of a theoretical rhetoric about art-design culture that is naively idealistic, and in my mind is totally complicit in the exploitative culture of hyper consumerism. So in this kind of culture, my nudes were “arty” meaning nothing to do with the discussion about art-design “cross-over” as it is called, which in the new-media context is the Standard. This also explains my current show, the one about to open at bitforms gallery on Saturday. I’m calling my current show, opening on Saturday, Welcome to Alice’s Giftshop! because I’m specifically teasing that culture. I’m pushing against it, just as I pushed against the masculinist game industry by making sensual, sensitive and emotionally diffuse nude women rather than porn queens.
But this time, I’m making hand-crafted, artisanal, feminist, irrational “queer” versions of designed objects, in contradistinction to the kind of market-oriented design that you might find at Design Research or in the Museum of Modern Art gift shop. That kind of “real” design, produced logistically, to facilitate cheap industrial production.
AE: I’m interested in your use of Alice from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland as emblematic of populist culture. In 2013, you presented The Alices, a “sculptural opera in one act” at The Arts Club of Chicago, with six Alices seated at a table with Nue Morte apps on their iPhones fixed on their empty plates. It always comes back to Alice. Why Alice?
CH: Alice is a contemporary myth. I’m working off of the dominant post-industrial world of bureaucratic technology: male engineering culture with its Asperger-y hyper-rationalism. I am positing this kind of logo-centric world in relationship to my own personal, emotional artistic space — one that therefore must be the opposite, the so-called “irrational.” And so I use that Alice mythology. My intentions are the same as those of Lewis Carroll, to produce a kind of mad reason, a place where reason breaks down. That is the place that Alice journeys through. I also used her when I was younger for the same reason. In my first exhibition at the Pat Hearn Gallery in 1989, I set myself up as the female Jean Jacques Rousseau, the “natural” (wo)man. Now, years later, I take the computer as the bureaucratic, logo-centric equivalent to the logical French Philosophe that Rousseau inverted in the 18th century. Rousseau also represented the irrational, the subversion of reason. And so Alice is a populist version of that. I am a perverse Alice, or a perverse Dorothy — the little lost girl who subverts reason, who takes it on. My Little Red Riding Hood is a warrior princess!
AE: Is there an opening for a queer Alice as well? Or is she already queered through the use of technology?
CH: I’m interested in a hybrid space where alternative, non-polarized gender identities are possible. And that would mean a queer Alice. So it’s not just the female as the inversion of
the male, but a place where polarities generally break down. If you look at all of my Alices, the gendering melts down and each takes on elements of both. I’ve worked with transgendered people and I personally look like a little boy, a kind of hyperactive ADD-style tomboy with the attention span of a small flea. So I’ve moved away from the idea of a kind of hyper-femininity as the site of resistance and romantic rebellion against male patriarchy into this DARKO land, but which has forced itself into the digital art world, still a very logo-centric new-media engineering culture. But instead my world is a place of where gender breaks down — and a place where opposites bleed together — the land of the grotesque, a place beyond the categories. And that’s the place where Alice — and also Dorothy and Wendy — actually do live.
Claudia Hart’s Welcome to Alice’s Gift Shop! opens May 3 and runs through the 31st at bitforms gallery (529 West 20th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan).