Artists of digitised life take to the stage


(Image: Katrina Zimmerman)

Avatars, tweeters, poets and provocateurs mix on multiple platforms at The Simulationists atthe School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC). This "mixed reality performance" tackles the well-trodden intersection between physical reality and its digitised form with a surprising amount of wit and inventiveness.

Devised by SAIC faculty members Claudia Hart, Mark Jeffrey (a vet of revered performance troupe Goat Island) and Judd Morrissey, The Simulationists features 11 installations incorporating video, photography, sound, sculpture and good old-fashioned print, over which to meditate (or mourn) what our growing attachment to digitised connections has spawned.

As I perused Chris Cuellar's Understanding People Is Not a Waste of Time, in which he has transformed alphabetical listings of Facebook patrons into a series of print directories resembling telephone books, a man seated beside me launched into a diatribe against the social network, which either revealed a touch of paranoia, or admirable prescience. "Putting everything online, all that's doing is making it easier for them to round us all up," he lamented.

Online role-playing gets played for cheeky laughs in Selected Works, an animated video loop in which Second Life avatars hang out in a lounge as a news crawl provides self-deprecating teases along the bottom of the screen ("Gentrification Scourge of Performance Art.")

Cris Cheek's Limn offered a trip down the rabbit hole of self-reflection, as his self-portrait, obscured by layered images of foliage in a Thai jungle (creating an eerie resemblance to Brando's Colonel Kurtz) rotated at regular intervals on a screen. Accompanied by Cheek's recorded recitation of lyrics from Grandmaster Flash's rap masterpiece The Message ("It's like a jungle sometimes, it makes me wonder how I keep from going under"), the effect was hypnotic and disquieting. How does a person camouflage themself when their personal information and images are instantly available to nearly everyone, everywhere?


Cheek's performance on Friday evening was a highlight, and also incorporated his own portrait - the one above manipulated from a cellphone photo taken at a conference. With his camo skirt, black-and-silver shirt and imposing bald dome, Cheek strutted before the screen like a more literate post-punk version of playwright Alfred Jarry's grotesque character Ubu Roi, creating stream-of-consciousness in response to his own image and "projecting onto himself a self he would like to be" while ruefully understanding that "he had been watching somebody else's feed".

Somewhat less successful but no less ambitious, Ursula Endlicher's Website Annotations/Impersonations placed a trio of dancers before a screen on which a series of verbal images, instructions and musings played out for them to embody, many either tweeted by audience members or typed directly into Endlicher's laptop by participants, and narrated by digitised male and female voices. The performance lost steam at points, but arresting moments of virtual aphorisms translated into physical metaphor stood out, as the dancers interpreted phrases such as "She is showing me a language I can't decipher, but I am trying."

"What exactly is happening in this obscure world of carrots and code words?" asked one tweeter. What indeed. The Simulationists mostly leaves academic theory at the door and invites viewers to take their own guided journey into the shadow world of constructed identities.

The Simulationists is at the Betty Rymer Gallery, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, until 23 March.