CHICAGO — The chipper song of a recorder may be what lures you into Molly Colleen O’Connell’s exhibition at Julius Caesar gallery, its notes enticing enough to evoke the mysterious Pied Piper. The music plays at the end of a video piece, in which the artist appears in disguise as a troll-like figure, playing the woodwind instrument. To view it, one has to step through a beaded curtain, behind which the video plays in a dark room, in front of tiny wax figures lined up in neat rows. They seem like a little audience of grotesque creatures watching their cult leader perform — a troll army, if you will, huddling in the shadows. They are also candles: they could be set on fire at any moment.
Trolls in the 21st-century exert their presence and identity in digital, rather than physical, spaces. On the internet, we encounter troll factories and troll farms, Twitter trolls and Facebook trolls. There are liberal trolls, right-wing trolls, and, of course, Russian trolls. There is one universal way to respond to the myriad manifestations of internet trolls: do not feed them.
In her show, Why Do Spiders Drink From My Mouth While I’m Sleeping?, O’Connell comically considers the ambiguous, often fanciful identities one can embody on the internet. Here, trolls fittingly reside in a kind of perverse fairytale. In the video, her persona physically recalls the appearance of trolls in Norwegian tradition, with ugly, exaggerated features, but she preaches contemporary conspiracy theories. Her diatribe on CIA surveillance and lizard people is a manic yarn of paranoia and anxiety, and it’s unexpectedly hypnotizing.
The show’s centerpiece, though, is in the back room, where one encounters an immersive troll lair. Three grotesque, wax-covered creatures sit in a darkened space littered with detritus and lit by lava lamps and colorful stage lights. Scowling with disgust or rage, they are lumpy, balding things who tap on their personal devices. Still, their small size and vivid colors, like those of a troll doll, makes them seem more comical than fearful.
Scattered around the trolls are ephemera that evoke the clutter of a neglected basement bedroom, a netherworld perhaps imagined by teens: sculpted socks and snaking power strips; unhooked landline phones; a Chinese takeout box; Cheetos, which serve as political symbols. Above all this hangs a twisted disco ball, making this a party at which everyone stares at their screens. A true hotspot for trolls, the scene is a tableau of the messy spectacle the internet can be.
Those who perform with anonymous accounts and fake usernames — trolls — can be committing innocuous acts or launching volatile campaigns. They can spread conspiracy theories, harass individuals, and interfere with elections. The troll is always the Other, yet O’Connell presents this character with surprising pathos. One can identify with the wax creatures, hunched over a laptop, eating snacks while hitting send on a mischievous message. All sorts of identities are collapsed into these strange creatures. They embody secret intentions, and seem disturbing precisely because they are both repellent and relatable.
Similar to Norwegian folkloric creatures, internet trolls are characters in new contemporary fables. O’Connell is not concerned with whether they are held accountable for their surreal or absurd falsities; rather, she explores the compulsion to cause trouble, no matter the risks or consequences. As her video suggests, the temptation is simple and primitive. “Anonymity,” the weird leader tells her audience. “It’s intoxicating, isn’t it?” There’s truth in that.
Why Do Spiders Drink From My Mouth While I’m Sleeping? continues at Julius Caesar (3311 West Carroll Ave, Chicago, Illinois) until April 8.