Technicolour Yawn
Essay accompanying the exhibition Technicolour Yawn, 2012
The title Technicolour Yawn sets the (multicoloured) tone for a group exhibition featuring four young artists working in the United States of America and United Kingdom. Most obviously, the term links sensorial overload (associated with technologies of representation) to boredom. However, beyond this well-known relationship it also highlights the themes of compulsion and distaste: a colloquial term, ‘technicolour yawn’ is a euphemistic expression for a forceful bout of projectile vomit.

The axis of excess, indifference and convulsive (self)exposure implied by the exhibition’s title is an all-pervasive feature of our contemporary culture. To better reflect this fact the galleries are overstuffed with images and sounds. None of the works in the show are displayed according to the logic of the ‘white cube’ – where each artwork is given its own discrete, neutral space. Instead, they are presented as cacophony. The effect is overwhelming and disorientating, like immersion in a deluge. This curatorial strategy is also inspired by the works themselves, which invoke incessant pseudo communication and the theme of questionable self-revelation. Within their various media, profusion of visual and aural ‘noise’ is the surface rule and the possibility of an exclusive inner space/life is unsettled.

A link between colour and compulsion is highlighted in the work of the featured artists. The latter is seen to operate through boredom and – because, let us not forget, yawning is connected to sleep – subconscious behavior. This critical thesis can be better understood by attending to a claim by the Czech philosopher Vilém Flusser:

[W]e are hardly aware how astonishing the colours of our environment would be to our grandfathers. In the nineteenth century the world was grey: walls, newspapers, books, shirts, tools, all these varied between black and white merging together into grey – as in the case of printed texts. Now everything cries out in all imaginable colours, but it cries out to deaf ears. We have become accustomed to visual pollution; it passes through our eyes and our consciousness without being noticed. It penetrates subliminal regions, where it functions and programs our actions […] the colours of the Middle Ages and those of exotic cultures are magic symbols signifying mythical elements, whereas for us they are mythical symbols at work on a theoretical level, elements of programs. For example, ‘red’ in the Middle Ages signified the danger of being swallowed up by Hell. Similarly, for us ‘red’ still signifies ‘danger’, but programmed in such a way that we automatically put our foot on the brake without at the same time engaging our consciousness. All that emerges from the subliminal programming of the colours of the photographic universe are merely ritual, automatic actions.1

This nexus of deaf ears – or blind eyes – and actions is at the heart of the work featured in the exhibition. James Howard’s digital collages announce this in polychromatic fashion, parading a tutti-frutti field of consumer choice while Ryan Trecartin’s films are a kaleidoscopic whirl of social relations fractured into dazzling shards of the commodity form. Shana Moulton’s video The Mountain Where Everything is Upside Down renders discipline, understood as health (physical and spiritual), granted by material accoutrements in tangerine and pink – picturing demands and desires that are less than otherworldly in an ironically hallucinogenic tint. Finally, Steve Bishop’s quasi-minimalist sculpture makes a fetish of a singular hue while emphasizing its industrial link to bodily hygiene.

The first of these artists is concerned with asserting the relationship between subliminal desires and digital marketing. In Howard’s work the lower reaches of the Internet are revealed as the closest thing to a collective waking-dream that our society has. The junk email folder is a palimpsest occupying territory once held by religious myths, its content – which in another age might have been poetic or prophetic – is the visual and textual vernacular of spam. Its typical cocktail of promises and admonitions takes myriad forms: banal products, amazing cures, low-grade communication, unconvincing miracles, pyramid schemes, offers almost too good to be true and those so painfully redundant only imbeciles take them up. Howard redirects this subterranean flow, plastering the unwanted current across gallery walls in poster and screen grab installations full of lurid colour – gold for money, flesh tones and blue skies. Figures and faces are in low definition, afflicted by rasterization, and typography is little more than clip art. It is both a litany of enticement and a catalogue of insecurities – a twenty-first-century cornucopia that is spectacularly functional.

Howard consumes selected fruits from the online undergrowth and partially digests them in Photoshop. The more questionable the consumer product made available, the more fraudulent the intent of the sender, the more likely he considers them ripe for display. The results are typically gaudy in different senses and the particular texture of this grotesque eruption is telling. The artist is particularly fond of scams that play on the victim’s own greed. In replaying the cons in a public environment – the gallery, rather than the private space of a computer screen – and amping up their awkwardness through a sickly visual gloss, such as attendant illustrations and distortions of scale, he allows us to perceive the issue of automatism. Obviously, the mailout mechanism by which the dubious invitation is distributed is impersonal. But for the scams to be successful another compulsive action is required – on the part of the recipient. The uptake of the bogus opportunity requires an automatic subscription to a logic of quick profit. One falls for the scam because one has unwittingly functioned like a machine, on the basis of an unreflective calculation.

Howard’s collages feature numerous miracle products and their prevailing look is consumer-mystical. This otherworldliness is not merely absurd, it is a signpost to the subterranean functions of a bloodless economic program at work in the apparently higher needs of our ‘new age’ spiritual lives. Such an equivocation comes further into focus in Shana Moulton’s film The Mountain Where Everything is Upside Down. This stars her fictional alter ego, Cynthia, a hypochondriac housewife fixated upon spiritual cures, TV-shopping products and body-focused rituals. She is, arguably, the paradigmatic target victim for the type of scam that so interests Howard, and her consumptive gaze looks upon kitsch trinkets as esoteric revelations. The banality of the items that embellish her modest suburban home contrasts with the intensity of her visions about them. For example, her exercise ball morphs into the signs of the zodiac. She is absorbed by them and, in one scene, actually penetrated through her forehead. She engages with them in a pious dead-eyed fashion, like a robot, while the products shine with ethereal significance. Her seeming ascent – of the mystical mountain – is actually a descent into commodity fetishism. Despite the bright colours revelation never looked so boring. Everything is upside down.

The automatism displayed by Moulton’s Cynthia comes across as a kind of drowsy semi-consciousness. It is as if she is sleepwalking through life, dreaming satisfaction. By contrast, but with no more self-reflective intellectual faculty, the characters of Ryan Trecartin’s low-budget epics are hyperactive apotheoses of the social-media generation – nightmarish grotesques of attention deficiency. Moving beyond Cynthia’s consumer-mystical reverie they are – at least in terms of what they say – as much producers as consumers. However, the post-industrial product is themselves and their social-network: they are virtually self-cannibalizing flesh and blood avatars whose linguistic habits are shattered fragments moving at hyper speed with all the self-referential non-subtlety of viral videos, multi-screen instant messaging and the vapid laughter of wannabe reality stars. They are auto-entrepreneurs: every utterance is a potential branding; identities are one-liners; virtual elsewheres creep into and hollow out discussions of the here and now; things that we, the audience, might consider digital applications – such as the email function ‘merge’ – are their nearest approximations to feelings.

At times, Trecartin’s characters speak a kind of babble that is formally related to that which Marc Augé defines as the language of non-places. ‘[I]f a place can be defined as relational, historical and concerned with identity’, he maintains, then a space which cannot be defined according to these parameters is a ‘non-place’.2, ‘[N]on-places are the real measure of our time’ – he continues, citing de Certeau – they are little more than an ‘intersection of moving bodies’.3 They are airports and freeways, holiday camps and clinics, and the language associated with them is abstract ‘as if first and foremost the consumers of contemporary space were invited to treat themselves to words’.4 From the mouths of Trecartin’s characters the non-placed litany is ever more obtuse: they talk in terms of ‘situation’; they identify with emptiness – “I’m me, the practice space”, states Demo in The Re’Search. In the same film (VOY)Ceader barks "If I’m gonna Design Phycology? # # # I need .SPACE CONTROL!”. One of the characters in Global Korea is actually named Brazilian Space. No people – defined in the anthropological sense – meet in such a consciousness. Within the mind of Brazilian Space there is only disarticulated succession of homunculi constituting events to be evaluated in split-second applications of functionary logic.

Communication between Trecartin’s characters plays out as a fast-extending scroll of pseudo-aphorisms – both spoken and given as on-screen subtitles – whose individual brevity indicates their equivalence to the commands of a computer program. Despite the fact that the characters address one another their incessant verbiage seems to be more a case of instructions issued in staccato bursts of text(uality) than a conversation. Trecartin’s footage is often sped up and the consequent pace at which his characters operate is at odds with lived time as we know it. In this respect they seem like grotesques from a parallel universe. However, recognizable globalist and popular-technocratic buzzwords link their temporal dystopia to our own world.

The nature of this temporal shock – compounded by Trecartin’s quick cut montage technique – is also bound up with virtual space. The characters’ ‘conversations’ jump around and so the initial effect on the viewer is disorienting. Yet this seeming diffusion is – somewhat paradoxically – the result of constant self-situating within symbols: When the characters talk about a subject they make extreme horizontal references to related information in a manner somewhere between free-association and hyperlinks. What appears to be lack of concentration on their part is the manifestation of a subtending ‘web’ of facts. Their thought patterns reflect – or refract – the structure of the internet browsing and, accordingly, they spew forth data without respite. Again, the question of agency rears its ugly head. Wild-eyed and smeared with colourful makeup, Trecartin’s people are like terrible puppets mouthing the master speech of twenty-first century information capitalism – ‘dummies’ in more than one sense. As they tear they way through context after context we are left to wonder – Were they always this way?

Ed Fornieles’s work also addresses the performative dimension of social media, identifying ‘standard’ personas and patterns of group interaction on platforms such as Facebook. In works such as Dorm Daze the artist appropriates the complete profile data – including myriad photographs and biographical information – of unsuspecting users and offers these cloned identities to a pool of actors who then interact with one another in a closed network according to a loose script. The resulting virtual social drama takes its cues from the found identities of the original persons while reveling in the naïve expressionism inherent in the share-everything snapshot aesthetic of their early college lifestyle self-presentation – with inevitable drunken parties, gossip and trolling taking centre stage.5 But not all flows according to Fornieles’ plan. In the Dorm Daze project the actors said too much – improvising and adding their own narratives. A victim emerged. Amy, a popular sorority sister, was the unfortunate victim of a prank gone wrong – left alone to drift on a boat, she slipped, hit her head and fell overboard before being sucked into an underwater engine. The work on show in Technicolour Yawn is the sculptural monument to this online tragedy, and it includes Amy’s blood and mud-caked arm amongst other accoutrements. Apparently, ‘when Barney found her the next day he hurled on the spot’.

In the context of this exhibition, Steve Bishop’s sculpture offers a kind of dubious palliative – a hygienic treatment for verbal diarrhea. Listerine is a well-known brand of antiseptic mouthwash with a notoriously strong flavour that comes in chemical shades of blue, yellow, mauve, green and orange amongst others. Currently, eight different kinds of Listerine are on the market in the U.S. and elsewhere: Original, Cool Mint, FreshBurst, Natural Citrus, Vanilla Mint, Advanced with Tatar Control (Arctic mint), Tooth Defense (Mint Shield), and Whitening pre-brush rinse (Clean Mint). For all the help these products offer sufferers of oral problems, one notable scientific study has linked such alcohol-containing mouthwashes to the increased likelihood of developing cancer. The modern consumer ‘fix’ for oral physiology is also a kind of colourful trauma.

Technicolour Yawn

1. Vilém Flusser, Towards a Philosophy of Photography, Reaktion Books Ltd, London, 2000, p.66.
2. Marc Augé, Non-Places, Verso, London, 1995, p.63.
3. p.64.
4. p.67
5. Fornieles’ focus in American college life relates, in part, to the historical beginnings of Facebook in Harvard.