Art

Feminist Explorations of Our Online Wonderland

Still from Ann Hirsch, "Scandalishious" (2008–09), video, color, sound, 42.5 min (image courtesy the artist)
Still from Ann Hirsch, “Scandalishious” (2008–09), video, color, sound, 42.5 min (image courtesy the artist)

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — The small (but densely layered, as always) collection of Ann Hirsch‘s work in the Bakalar Gallery at MIT’s List Center is Boston’s first introduction to her art.

It’s work that has mostly been shown elsewhere, described by the artist in the gallery’s listing as a collection of her “greatest hits” — but it’s still a special show for a few reasons.

First, the sparse but definitely suburban-basement-like environment created in the space is a good approximation of Hirsch’s own entry (via dial-up modem and America Online) into the realm that has become one of her primary mediums, the world wide web. So it’s the perfect place for a Hirsch n00b to start.

Installation view, 'List Projects: Ann Hirsch' at MIT List Visual Arts Center (photo courtesy MIT List Visual Arts Center)
Installation view, ‘List Projects: Ann Hirsch’ at MIT List Visual Arts Center (photo courtesy MIT List Visual Arts Center) (click to enlarge)

You can’t do better than to first encounter her narrative iPad app about her pre-teen online “romance” with a pedophile, “Twelve” (2013), in a dark room where the only light is flickering and screen-colored. The combo of bean-bag-chair-posture and headphones puts you in an instant state of pre-teenagehood: that time of intertwined cravings for acceptance and junk food, marked by a curiosity soon abandoned in favor of ennui.

These are also the kinds of conditions in which her largest audiences to date have discovered her as “Caroline” in Scandalishious (2008–09), a series of faux confessional YouTube videos. The earnest (if sometimes asinine) YouTube community surrounding this project, and you — the viewer approaching the same content, now packaged as art — are nicely equalized by the basementy environment.

Installation view, 'List Projects: Ann Hirsch' at MIT List Visual Arts Center (photo courtesy MIT List Visual Arts Center) (click to enlarge)
Installation view, ‘List Projects: Ann Hirsch’ at MIT List Visual Arts Center (photo courtesy MIT List Visual Arts Center) (click to enlarge)

And finally, it’s a good reminder that these — dark rooms, glowing screens, and headphones — are the conditions of most curiosity in a post-internet era.

For those a little more familiar with Hirsch’s work, and especially for those with a penchant for feminism, a fetish for early internet history, or both, the pleasure is simply the illicitness of this work having infiltrated (penetrated?) this institution.

This “basement” is not the one where a competitor with Hirsch for the hand of the bachelor Frank on VH1’s A Basement Affair had a three-minute-long sexual encounter with the reality show’s star (Hirsch, who was eliminated in episode seven, turned her experience into “Here for You (Or My Brief Love Affair with Frank Maresca)” [2010]). It’s not your own basement, where you’re watching Hirsch dance and chatter and be egged on by trolls. Nor are you flashing back to your parents’ basement and the days when emoticons were still ASCII.

Still from Ann Hirsch, "Here for You (Or My Brief Love Affair with Frank Maresca)" (2010), video, color, sound, 14 min (image courtesy the artist)
Still from Ann Hirsch, “Here for You (Or My Brief Love Affair with Frank Maresca)” (2010), video, color, sound, 14 min (image courtesy the artist)

No, you’re watching Hirsch investigate the expression of her sexuality in one of the main basements where the internet was born. This is where the internet itself spent its pre-teen years. And there’s something almost shamanistically satisfying about watching a feminist unravel the power dynamics of contemporary media culture on roughly the same site where the research that made it all possible in the first place happened. The first sexist or sexually demeaning comments to ever cross the interweb inevitably crossed it here, and this is definitely where the first guide to “network etiquette” became necessary.

The work shown here is all online, and besides the unique thrill mentioned above, there’s not too, too much to be gained — in terms of understanding Hirsch’s overall agenda — by exploring it in a gallery setting. Except maybe seeing her choices of framing. She presents each of the three pieces in different formal ways, and the display of “Here for You (Or My Brief Love Affair with Frank Maresca)” within the frame of a giant, cartoonish 2D TV brings one small epiphany: a new metaphor for Hirsch’s journey through the wilderness of womanly wiles in a highly mediated age, and her onion-like presentation of her personality.

It may be useful to think of Hirsch as a modern day Alice in Wonderland, gone through the looking glass — now a screen — out of curiosity, only to find that everything is simultaneously curiouser and curiouser, and a game of strategy with ever-changing rules. (Especially as the Alice character is based on an actual pre-teen girl, immortalized forever because a man in his 30s found her so very entrancing.)

In any case, it’s worth heading down the rabbit hole of Hirsch’s work yourself, whether at MIT, on her website, or via this past summer’s Rhizome/New Museum commission representing a new project, “IT IS I, ANN HIRSCH: horny lil feminist.”

List Projects: Ann Hirsch continues at the MIT List Visual Arts Center (20 Ames Street, Bldg E15, Atrium level, Cambridge, MA) through February 21.

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