At the core of Danielle Dean’s Performa commission, “Amazon (Proxy),” is the name Amazon, which entered the English language as the name associated with the fabled female warriors of the Ancient Mediterranean, before becoming the name of the world’s largest rainforest, and then, more recently, the trademarked name of one of most powerful corporations in history. In this commission for the 2021 Performa performance biennial, the artist makes a connection between the failed 1920s industrialist experiment in the Amazonian rainforest by Henry Ford, Fordlândia, and the internet giant that has made the word part of our daily parlance. The result is a curious reflection on our compartmentalized office lives, ruminating on the illusion of freedom such decentralized work as the Amazon Mechanical Turk once promised, when the reality is far from liberating.
The stage at the tony Amant Foundation was set with a pretty assortment of foliage and backdrops meant to represent Brazilian fauna. But the whole scene — which evokes the scale, playfulness, and aesthetic of her past colorful installations and animations that often look like landscapes — felt too polite considering the overall message and content.
At the center of the scene four cubicles are separated by clear plastic screens. The arrangement suggests an experiment as much as a workplace, and that tension is at the core of the work.
The parallels Dean makes between the two supposed utopias created by two of the richest people the world has ever known sometimes work: One chilling line spoken during the performance, “Instead of rubber, we’re extracting human emotions” captures this perfectly. But often these comparisons feel superficial: The dematerialization of the Amazon workplace versus the construction of Ford’s little model city in the Amazon never quite feels like a very convincing comparison, visually or otherwise. The performers also spend too much time fidgeting about — as when they touch the artificial plants much like keyboards between intervals of typing — and make movements that appear completely unclear and seemingly unrelated.
Overall the performance isn’t as tight as it could be precisely because it fails to offer much clarity, preferring to wallow in the suggestions and allusions of this new virtual dystopia. The insertion of video testimonials by Amazon Mechanical Turk workers who complain about the promise of freedom that has since turned into a $50-a-day gig was a poignant addition, but that too came across as disconnected and unresolved. “Amazon (Proxy)” felt like staring at a browser with dozens of tabs left open but little way to meaningfully connect them.
But if the beginning of the performance starts slowly and is confusing, leaving us unmoored in a sea of suggested associations, the end congeals into something more pointed, and one of the strongest lines is spoken then: “They’re paying us to train the robots; once the robots take over they should pay us to live.”
Where Dean really shines is here, when the Amazonian digital ecosystem falls apart. At this moment the parallels come into focus as the corporate collapse foreshadows the environmental collapse that is looming all around. Like Fordlândia — a spectacular failure that eventually cost the Ford family hundreds of millions of dollars — Dean appears to be wishing the same fate on Jeff Bezos’s digital juggernaut, and who can blame her? Where the performance misses its target is in suggesting that the way human workers are treated is the most horrific part of Amazon, as opposed to their corporate colonization of space and movement into the military space which are both far more disturbing in my opinion. The retail arm of Amazon, which hasn’t been the way it makes the majority of its revenue for a long time may be the target of critics like Dean, but the real spectre of Amazon is that the real money — the BIG money — is hidden by the illusion of selling books, gadgets, tasks, and other merchandise. The most insightful moment happens when one character (the one most visibly impacted by the deteriorating working conditions) says, “I’m still smarter than an AI, but for how long?”
Ultimately Dean’s work touches on our own obsolescence as much as the utopias presented on stage. What happens when our own bodies and minds start breaking down? What do we do then? As the pandemic has proven, the failure of our bodies is not only very possible but very much real, as many of us have encountered new levels of exhaustion we never thought possible. It was beautiful to watch Dean play with these ideas and images in her performance, but ultimately I felt like I was only seeing part of a larger, more complicated story that was not on display.
Danielle Dean’s “Amazon (Proxy)” took place at Amant Foundation (306 Maujer St, East Williamsburg, Brooklyn) October 21–23.
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