Art

The Urge to Reach Out and Touch Beyond the Screen

"Touchers" (2015) single-channel video (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Jillian Mayer, “Touchers” (2015) single-channel video (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

CHICAGO — A flat description of Miami-based artist Jillian Mayer’s work, such as you might find in wall texts or press releases, reads like it’s culled from the syllabus of an Interactive Arts & Media graduate class. Her work is concerned, you see, with how our identities are affected by the internet and technology, which she explores by using (quote) “video, online experiences, photography, telephone numbers, performance, sculpture, and installation.”

Then you see the work in Touchers, at Chicago’s Aspect Ratio Gallery, and something happens.

A single-channel video plays in a small room. In a box in the upper-left of the screen, there appears to be a live stream of a young woman wearing revealing clothing, looking and speaking into the camera while red and blue strobe lights revolve around the cramped, dark space in which she sits. Filling most of the screen is a scrolling stream of comments, in the blue-black colors and barebones fonts of the 1990s-era internet. The five-minute video records a real chat room that the artist created to document the remarks of participants as she talked to them, flirted with them, sang to them. As she sings a song that she herself composed, the comments from the (presumably all male) spectators start to get predictably crude and sexist, particularly when she croons the words “we can come together.” The same revolving red and blue lights in the video are installed in the gallery space, making the gallery visitors feel that they too are participating in the chat room, or even sitting in a peep show booth in some seedy red-light district. The artist’s performance is clearly ironic, and shot with great humor, yet this seems to go unnoticed by participants with usernames like shlonglong321 and doggie808, for whom the merest simulacrum of desire is as powerful as an invitation.

25.840 N, -80.170 W at 65’ inches, 56.7" x 31.9", photo double mounted on plexi (photo courtesy of Aspect Ration Gallery)
Jillian Mayer, “25.840 N, -80.170 W at 65’ inches, 56.7″ x 31.9”, photo mounted on plexi (photo courtesy Aspect Ration Gallery)

In an adjacent room, two C-prints, proportioned to the same size as the large monitor, document Mayer’s physical interaction with thermochromic material, where she pressed various parts of her body against a sheet of silk coated with a substance that picked up traces of heat. Some of the marks are recognizably handprints, but mostly the result is a ghostly, aquatic swirl of blue and green. We feel the presence of a body pressing itself forward to leave only a vanishing record of its physical existence, a point that is analogous to the situation documented in the video. The guys in the chat room are “touchers” (or self-touchers), as the exhibit’s title implies, while in the prints we sense perhaps even more strongly an urge to touch and be touched that is thwarted by the intervention of a flat, featureless screen. The end result of experiencing this show goes beyond the art school graduate seminar nature of the work and deals with some dark aspects of our online lives with playfulness and intelligence.

Jillian Mayer: Touchers continues at Aspect Ratio Gallery (119 North Peoria Street, Chicago) through July 11.

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