[this is a recently finished article commissioned by Camerawork: A Journal of Photographic Arts, based in San Francisco. Thanks to Marisa Olson for the commission, and the artists for their assistance]
Part 1: Three stories about trust.
1: A story about Uncle Roy All Around You by Blast Theory
I’m standing in a red phone booth on the lower half of Regent St, London. Outside, a drunk-looking man in a tweed suit looks desperate to make a phone call, whilst I’m standing here, holding a PDA, waiting for the phone to ring. After what seems like an age, the call comes, and a man’s voice tells me that I have to trust him, and that he has something he has to ask me to do for him. After he finishes the call, I’ve got to head north, take the first left turn, and get into the white limousine that’s parked by the side of the road. I wait in the limousine for about 5 minutes, then a man in a brown suit gets in and sits next to me. Without saying a word, the limousine drives off, and the man starts asking me questions, looking straight ahead all the time. Have I ever had to trust a stranger? Would I be able to help someone I’ve never met if they were in need? Could I be at the end of the phone whenever they needed to call me? Could I commit to that for a year?
2: A story about Surrender Control by Tim Etchells
My mobile makes the two-tone bleep that tells me I’ve got a text message. Scrolling down, the message reads “Write the word SORRY on your hands. Leave it there until it fades”. What should I do with this instruction? Obey it? Delete it? What would happen if I did write SORRY on my hands? I think through the rest of my day – a meeting at work, a packed underground train, meeting my wife in a restaurant… What would people think I was sorry for? Is it a reminder to say sorry, or to be sorry? Would they ask me about it, or would they store the memory, forever affecting their impression of me, of who I am and what I might do? Am I the kind of person who writes messages on their hands about emotional issues? Am I the kind of person who says sorry?
It’s a Wednesday. I’m at my desk, thinking of ways to not do things that I know I should be doing. I flick through the pile of envelopes in my in-tray, and come across an A4 manila envelope. Inside is a questionnaire from someone I’ve met a few times over the last few years – it’s an audit about her and about our relationship. The questions are strange; like a work appraisal, but veering off into more intimate territory – Would she make a good parent? Do I think she should have children? If she died tomorrow, or if we never communicated again, what are the three things I would miss about her? I start filling out the questionnaire, taking it seriously at first, as if it were a tax form, or a reference for a passport application. I feel like I know her, but we’re acquaintances rather than friends, and some of the questions push me to be more intimate, to imagine parts of her life that I don’t know about. What will she do with this? Why is she asking me? If I drew up a list of people to fill in a similar audit about me, would I include her?
Part 2: Trust, art, and technology
Those stories describe three interactions. Or performances. Or moments in the production, or consumption, of an artwork. Or perhaps they are descriptions of how the production and consumption of an artwork can be reduced to the same act, the same moment. They operate within, to use Nicholas Bourriaud’s term, a ‘relational aesthetic’ – these artworks don’t rely on an encounter with a traditional art object, nor do they substitute that with some transcendent concept of a dematerialised art object. In Bourriaud’s definition, these works exist within “the realm of human interactions and its social context, rather than the assertion of an independent and private symbolic space”. They are moments to be experienced, not viewed, reaching out and enmeshing themselves in the messy network of conversations and relationships that make up your life.
But these are not ‘happenings’, ‘live art’ or, worst of all, ‘public art’ – these aren’t experiences created to celebrate the liberation of art from the constrictions of the White Cube, and the high capitalist symbolic value bestowed upon art by those hermetically sealed walls. Enough politics already! For some critics, art cannot exist amongst the quotidian without taking to the barricades. It’s damned if it keeps quiet within the safe walls of the museum, and damned if it tries to live outside that space without constantly reminding you of that fact. For isn’t most ‘public’ art exactly like the worst kind of evangelist – carrying a bundle a pamphlets behind its back whilst it tries to disarm you with a handshake? There’s no real risk there – no commitment to existing more than a toddler’s-step from the safe arms of the curators and critics, plaques and pronouncements that silently re-build white gallery walls around their ‘interventions’ into our city streets. Much harder to just put something out there, to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, to risk misunderstandings and rejection.
If these works have one thing in common, it is this – they understand how communication technologies have created a series of fissures in everyday life, a series of moments when some small act – a phone call, text message or a letter – creates the possibility of stepping into someone else’s world. Bourriaud is right when he says this kind of work isn’t about the modernist fantasy of progress and opportunity – “Art was intended to prepare and announce a future world: today it is modelling possible universes” . But he then coins the term ‘hands-on utopias’, as if artists had slipped the shackles of the avant-garde project only to engage in the equivalent of community service. The fissures these works inhabit are sometimes more like wounds than open doors. They are intrinsically wound up in the dual morality of communication technology – the yet-to-be-answered phone call could just as easily be a bomb threat as a declaration of love.
Of course, we’ve been here before. Photography, the cultural virus that infected the last century, was heralded as a technology for emancipation and understanding. Given the grand project of uniting the world under an egalitarian flashlight, it instead illuminated our darkest shadows, creating unheimlich Memento Mori. Sophie Calle, in her book Suite Venitienne, embraces this duality, and uses the camera as a tool for an uneasy exploration of desire. Taking a chance encounter with a stranger as a sign, she follows him to Venice, keeping a diary of photos taken with a lens that took photos at 90 degrees from the camera driection. The diary documents, in breathless prose, her stalking of the mysterious ‘Henry B.’ through the streets of Venice. There is no clear justification for the act – it’s a folly, but the desire with which she throws herself into the project always threatens to become something else entirely – “I must not forget that I don’t have any amorous feelings towards Henri B.”
The intimacy of the mobile phone creates a similarly fragmented network of communication and desire. In Tim Etchells’ Surrender Control, a series of flyers were distributed in London with the enigmatic message ‘Do you want to Surrender Control?’ with the instruction to send a text message saying ‘SURRENDER’. A week or so afterwards, a series of instructions were sent back, each from an anonymous source, and increasing in risk over the following days from banal thought experiments (‘Look around. See who’s looking’) to actions that have tangible effects on real life (‘Dial a number one different from that of a friend. If someone answers, try to keep them talking’).
But who is really surrendering control here? Subscribers, experiencing the frisson of an instruction from an unknown Other, can still decide whether to actually obey the actions or not. But the artist risks much more. Nothing heralded this work as ‘art’ – in fact, in online discussions that commented on the project, it was frequently mistaken for a corporate viral marketing campaign . The work exists or not in the mind of the receiver (audience seems too passive a noun, whilst participant assumes an activity that might not actually have taken place). The text message, less than 160 characters long, was easily deleted, and there was no avenue for feedback – like Calle, Etchells wanted an unconsummated relationship. Describing the Other, or giving a motive behind the communication, would have greatly diminished its power – better to let people project from their own intimacies, and imagine their own masters:
“At first I felt as though something was lacking. Motivation, I think. Why would I want to follow these instructions? I wanted more of a story, reasons, causality, a role to fill, perhaps? Who was supposed to be sending these messages? I can easily imagine a messaging sequence like this with a clear narrative frame.
And yet there is some narrative here. It’s like a very loosely woven net that I slip through easily, but if I’m careful to stay inside it I can pull at threads and find the connections, feel someone else pulling threads pulling me towards them, imagine from the rhythm of the pulling and the messages who that other person might be.
Do everything in the wrong order, was my latest instruction. Shall I? Hmm…”
Lucy Kimbell’s Audit treads a similarly risky path. By sending out the questionnaire, she risked rejection, or, even worse, earnest responses that could be as disturbing as they were enlightening. In the book published to document the project, she uses a number of critical approaches to frame the responses, from economic theories to sociological. But the work keeps sliding out from under the microscope, with some respondents resisting the format, and Kimbell’s own sidebar comments that never quite give her the last word. So what is it as a document? It’s obviously flawed as a serious piece of research, due to the complicity of researcher and subject, It’s not a portrait of the artist – despite the whole book being ostensibly about her, you could read the whole thing and still pass her by in the street. Instead, it’s a fragile kind of map – a temporary document of a series of relationships, created not according to a strict topography, but by the warp and weft of real life. Those that didn’t respond don’t appear on the map, and the ones that did form a chorus of unreliable narrators. Audit, for the purposes of research, treats relatives and relative strangers with the same even hand, and demonstrates the fragile networks of trust that exist between them.
Part 3: Epilogue
At the end of our car ride around London, the brown-suited stranger asked me for a postcard I’d picked up from a disused office earlier on. Driven by a series of hints and instructions sent to me over the PDA, I’d discovered this office in an otherwise normal block on Regent Street. After rummaging around amongst desks, computers and guidebooks to London, I found a postcard printed with the text ‘When would you ever trust a stranger?’. I wrote, ‘When you have no other choice’, and slipped it into a shirt pocket. Back in the car, we’d parked by the side of the street, near a post box. The stranger asked me to write my phone number on the card, then added an address and stuck on a stamp. “This is the address of a stranger” he said. “There is a post box outside. If you post this card, the stranger will have your number. You will be committing to be there for them, at the end of a phone call, for 12 months. They can call you anytime, for any reason. Will you post the card?”
As the stranger drove off, I stood in the street, the postcard bending in my hand from the wind. I thought about posting the card, about how a simple act would transform a few square inches of ink and paper into a year-long commitment to trust, and being trusted. How many small acts of trust do I commit to every day without thinking about it? How many promises, phone calls, emails, letters? What kind of network is formed by these pushes and pulls – how many knots, how many loose ends?
And finally, how come its taken a stranger to make me think about this?