What can be said about the art world at large also holds true for performance art: the internet has changed everything. Not only does the web 2.0 allow for new forms of participation and redefine the definition of an active audience, it has also changed the way we think, act and perceive. These impacts have moulded a new generation of performance artists who, through their works, mirror them in a critical way: Anne Imhof makes us feel the angst of a generation that apathetically wastes its time on the highly aestheticized realms of the web, Alex Baczynski-Jenkins mimicks networked forms of communication, Alexandra Pirici reenacts viral stories and Ann Hirsch takes the entire practice of performance online.
The protagonists in Anne Imhof’s “Angst II” apathetically hang around in smog-filled white cubes, vaping, creating drippings out of Pepsi Cola and occasionally checking their smartphones. From time to time, the stunning millennials in normcore clothing burst into action, carrying each other around the room, walking a tightrope, breaking into choral chants or waving their long hair around like metalheads on ketamine. The effect of this complete unpredictability of when and where action will take place was especially palpable at her performance at Hamburger Bahnhof last year, where visitors disorientedly stumbled through the large, smoke-filled hall, ridden by the fear of missing out on a picture-worthy moment happening just out of their sight. Anne Imhof’s long-duration performances have a way of keeping her audiences on edge, and at the latest ever since she has been announced to represent Germany at this year’s Venice Biennale, everyone in the art world has an opinion on her. Deemed too hip and Instagram-friendly by some and ingenious Gesamtkunstwerke by others, there is no denying that her works manage to perfectly encapture the compellingly picturesque apathy, angst and extended adolescence of millennials.
Alexandra Pirici reenacts artworks, statues and viral content, using nothing more than their own bodies. When she represented Romania at the 2013 Venice Biennale together with dancer Manuel Pelmus at the astonishingly young age of 31, the pavilion was made into a blank space filled solely with five performers. Together, they reenacted works from past biennales, including paintings, installations and other performances, creating an immaterial retrospective of the art festival. One year later, at the St. Petersburg Manifesta, she reenacted various famous monuments around the city. And at last year’s Berlin Biennale, her performers acted out a live feed of news stories such as “Kim Kardashian breaks the internet” and “Arch of Triumph in 2000-year-old city of Palmyra destroyed by Daesh”. “Performance is usually understood as a reaction to the alienation from the body that the digital engenders”, she told SLEEK. “I wanted to use this tension but also to examine the connection between these realms”. By recreating monumental and fetish-like objects of our times with “different material”, as Pirici refers to human bodies in the title of one of her Vimeo videos, she renders them imperfect, organic and palpable, stripping them down to their essence while at the same time providing the ground for a demanding game of cultural charade.
Within minimal and adaptive settings, London and Warsaw-based artist Alex Baczynski-Jenkins creates ambiguous performances that bridge the gap between interpretative dance and performance art. These go on to reflect our time’s networked and hyperlinked way of communicating. In “Us Swerve”, for example, a number of performers orbit around each other on roller skates while reciting verses about queerness and inflexions from writers such as Eileen Myles, Langston Hughes and Frank O’Hara. Baczynski-Jenkins’ performances often absorb fragments from poetry, but also include elements from video games and cartoons. Similar to Imhof’s works, they are moulded by the actor’s instinctive decisions and actions. This emphasis on the affective, which probably derives from Baczynski-Jenkins’ experience as a choreographer, affects his selection of performers. Those who he invites into the process, he says, have to be able to work with subtleties.
If you watched a lot of VH1 back in 2010, chances are that Ann Hirsch might look familiar to you. Hirsch was a contestant on A Basement Affair, a dating show in which 15 women competed for the heart of Frank the Entertainer. The show was a spin-off of the dating show I Love New York (which, in turn, was a spin-off of the dating show Flavour of Love), in which Frank had become known as the guy who still lived in his parent’s basement. Throughout the show, Hirsch perfected the carefully constructed persona of Annie, a quirky but loveable artist chick, only to completely break character and get herself eliminated in the seventh episode. After the show had aired, Hirsch created several highly entertaining videos reflecting upon her rigid following of the required steps towards reality TV fame. For another series of works, Ann turned into a Youtube Camwhore, acquiring over two million views on videos in which she dances to pop songs and talks about her everyday life. In the last video she posted on her channel, she reasons: “so, some of you know that, like, I’m an artist or whatever, you know, and I was like, maybe this is, like, my art”. What is most astonishing about this performance are the reactions it evoked, from love declaration videos to aggressive hate comments. Over the years, Hirsch has created several additional alter egos such as the stoner bro Jason Biddies through which she investigates gender and female sexuality in the age of the internet. Her performances speak for a generation of women whose first sexual experiences took place in chat rooms, often with much older men, and who have felt that weird mixture of repulse and excitement when being called “sexy”, for the first time in their lives, by a stranger commenting on their new profile picture. Hirsch began to investigate the relationship between technology, public exposure and validation long before Amalia Ulman set up her infamous Instagram account, and, luckily, still continues to do so today.