This piece originally appeared in the first Full Stop Quarterly. The Quarterly is available to download or subscribe here.
In their collaborative poem “(holly),” the writers Holly White and Holly Childs play cut and paste with each other’s words and thoughts, pegging their play to the relationship each has with their shared name:
but we could b any holly
urbandictionary, she’s a holly
but this isn’t getting me any closer to understanding
The result reads like excerpts from a Gchat conversation in which who said what has been left out, which is probably not an inaccurate description of their process. Their loose and rough-edged play feels as though it’s trying to circle in on something: “this isn’t getting me any closer to understanding.” But understanding what? The “Holly Text,” as they refer to it in the poem, reads like an attempt to merge selves and voices, spurred by the discovery of a shared name attached to common interests, styles, and ways of working. Sharing a name is the first step toward sharing a self and a voice, which becomes a pathway to simply becoming friends.
Theorist José Esteban Muñoz introduces his book Cruising Utopia with a discussion of Frank O’Hara’s poem “Having a Coke with You” as a site for the hope and queer futurity that can open up in the space between two people. It is a poem bathed in afternoon light, saturated with the joy of being exactly where you want to be, with the person you want to be with:
and what good does all the research of the Impressionists do them
they never got the right person to stand near the tree when the sun sank
Muñoz writes, “This poem tells us of a quotidian act, having a Coke with somebody, that signifies a vast lifeworld of queer relationality, an encrypted sociality, and a utopian potentiality. . . . The fun of having a Coke is a mode of exhilaration in which one views a restructured sociality.”
This moment of sweet shared consumption and the communion it entails draws vectors spinning off into the past and future, mapping an entire culture in an instant of commonplace intimacy. As Muñoz points out, the relationship at the center of the poem is marked with “a potentiality, which at that point had not been fully manifested, a relational field where men could love each other outside the institutions of heterosexuality.” It is a poem of tiny gestures that point towards a future where people are able to be differently.
Muñoz writes, “The here and now is a prison house. We must strive in the face of the here and now’s totalizing rendering of reality, to think and feel a then and there.” Something like this is happening in the Holly Text as in the O’Hara poem, but instead of sharing a Coke, Childs and White are taking a moment to share a name and an identity, and reveling in the horizons of possibility that their connection points toward.
* * *
As the sun sinks on September 7, 2012, the night of the Dreamy Awards, the air is thick with the quiet buzz of anticipation that accompanies such an elaborate social event. It’s a one-time only art performance of an awards show, taking place as a part of the Serpentine Gallery’s Park Nights series — an exclusive party where everyone is playing like they’re participating in a slightly different kind of exclusive party. Such a shift brings out the fine but important differences between “role playing” and the persona-building and changing that is such an integral part of our everyday lives. Or better put, it shows how hard to parse that boundary actually is.
Outside the Serpentine, in one of London’s seemingly limitless parks, a cohort of stylish youth (with a few outliers: an MP character, a weathered Yugoslavian self-proclaimed “revolutionary,” the real-life Serpentine curator Hans Ulrich Obrist) is milling about, working their way into their assigned characters. British artist Ed Fornieles has gathered this cohort, assigned them roles and given them various plot point-related directions: a rough framework within which the participants will play out the long night to come. Some of the characters have been in the works for months as a part of a bigger, looser project that also resulted in the forty-five-minute reality TV-style video Programme X. These characters have been workshopped through activities like, according to participant James W. Hedges, “hypnosis and regressing into my character’s past,” along with daily meetings and activities: a whole shadow life conducted in character. Others will only exist for the evening.
As the night goes on and awards are handed out, dramas bubble up and burst. It’s all by design, earlier instructions realized, but as the conflicts gain intensity it doesn’t seem to matter. In a complex mesh of sociality layered on top of what is already a heavily mannered collection of London art people, one kind of performance confuses itself with other kinds of performance and vice versa. When rapper and artist Mykki Blanco (playing himself) goes up to accept an award, he’s trolled by a couple of skinny boys who take the mic and try to steal his moment. As the boys fight with Blanco, grins flicker on the faces of everyone involved. But as the conflict drags on, the tensions between Blanco and his harassers begin to feel very real.
Fornieles has had a slew of solo exhibitions at prestigious galleries and collaborated with institutions like the New Museum, in addition to the Serpentine and others. But when I think of Ed Fornieles the artist, I see a crowd — not a crowd in the sense of a particular “scene,” although that is also certainly true, but simply a hoard of people.
In addition to coordinating performative social role-plays, Fornieles makes installation and sculptural works. I’ve heard they’re wonderful, but as a consequence of living in a world where certain types of information and experience are imminently accessible, and others completely out of reach across time and space, I’ve never been to one of his physical exhibitions. All I know of his work is what I can access through the snippets of documentation that exist online, and the conversations I’ve had with participants in his projects and with Fornieles himself.
Hestia Peppe, a longtime friend and occasional participant in Fornieles’s work, described the recent opening of his exhibition Modern Family at the Chisenhale Gallery in London:
I’ve never seen so many people out for a show and the funny thing is you hear people talking and you realize they all feel that they know Ed, you recognize everyone from working on these huge event-based projects over so many years. Everyone in the crowd is a collaborator of some kind, so the line between audience and artist is confused in a very interesting way. I hope he can maintain that balance and goodwill, I think the work needs it.
Says Hedges, “Ed is the hardest working person I’ve ever met. . . . He also clearly expects people to do a lot of work for him, for free, which I can see being a problem for some people.” The nature of much of Fornieles’s work is such that people and their time, interest, feelings, and relationships are his most important resource, and it can be a difficult one to maintain in sufficient quantity.
Within Fornieles’s crowd, there are people who have known each other online and offline, in character and out of character. The freeform chaos of the Dreamy Awards ceremony, not to mention the surrounding social dynamics, holds plenty of potential for real hurt feelings and damaged relationships, but it is also rich with play and experimentation, making room for a surplus of affect that everyday social interactions often can’t comfortably accommodate. As the credits roll and the departing crowd chats away, it’s possible to pick out a sentence through the din: “I don’t actually know where my . . . my faculties are.”
* * *
It’s a common feeling, and not just after too many high ABV craft beers. Persona happens when a very concrete word picks up a little lost a on its end, and with this opening up and out it floats free as a loose, fizzy shadow, cloaking and uncloaking, transforming the corporeal intransigence of the physical person it’s attached itself to. Shifts in persona are an essential part of being in the world, maybe more so now than ever. As we are mapped onto social networking platforms and their templates for self-representation, we dissolve into names and titles, photographs, likes, dislikes, and collections of relationships. Some things become more fixed, and other things more fluid. Working and maintaining personal relationships — romantic, familial, friendly — have always required some level of performance, but now this performance takes place on multiple platforms and in very close physical and temporal proximity. What you show and what you hide, and when and to whom, is a complex game. Every space has its own social norms and linguistic codes, and the phone in your pocket can act as a portal to all of them at once. Code-switching happens in the half-syllable, in the dropped g at the end of a texted word. Sometimes it’s hard to keep a firm grasp on exactly which self is supposed to be doing what when.
Over the course of a given weekday, I send countless emails affixed with my professional signature, which includes the name of my employer and my title: a little pile of letters that have latched themselves onto my name, transforming it into one of many avatars of the company I work for. As I leave the office and send a few personal emails and messages on my way home, the language and protocols of my job persist, sticky in my mind, affecting my words and syntax. Sometimes, I’m not able to keep track of which words to use, what spelling and tone; I’m both too dry and too friendly to the wrong people. I don’t actually know where my faculties are.
This is twenty-first-century labor; Fornieles describes it like this:
Now people have to be a bit like money, they have to be able to move and shift and morph continuously and redefine themselves. They have to be totally convenient. Move from one place to another without resistance. But that’s a very hard thing to do, and almost traumatic.
Fornieles’s work asks whether an antidote to this experience might actually be more breaks in continuities of self rather than fewer: to push our personas to extremes, to find new ones, if only for short periods of time and under exceptional circumstances. As opposed to the personas that we build around our stable, taxable identities, adopting a new name, a new personality, can open up a space of play that heightens interaction. In Fornieles’s work, collections of people, archetypes, facts and numbers, names and places, anxieties and desires that make up a given community are shifted around and their various identifiers and attachments reassigned. Then, with that rotation, the dross in the middle, the rough connections, are opened up and exposed: made available as material, but also disrupting on their own in unexpected ways.
* * *
Fornieles has set up blind dates in character, a social spa, a series of faux American frat parties, dramas played out over social media, an art gala (written about beautifully here), and too many other projects to keep track of. In this soup of social performance, personalities, hopes, fears, and plans are stirred about and re-presented in altered and distorted forms.
Many of Fornieles’s works take their names directly from already-existing American pop culture entities: Animal House, The Hangover II, Modern Family. The 2011 project Dorm Daze, named after the 2003 National Lampoon film, is one of his more intricate and well-documented works. It is a “Facebook sitcom” following a group of American college students constructed from scalped profile pictures. Over several months, the thirty-four characters developed relationships and intrigues, reacting to instructions from Fornieles and living as digital alter egos.
Peppe described the rhythm of her involvement with Dorm Daze as it intertwined with her daily life:
To be performing through such a proscribed format which one is already so familiar with as an everyday user is uncanny, you can ‘be’ someone else while doing what feel like exactly the same actions and gestures you normally use: typing statuses, posting pictures, chatting, but it’s just the content that’s different. The line between being ‘yourself’ and being an other is reduced to a different login and password. There is a lot of blur between the two.
The social experience of Dorm Daze likewise remained connected to everyday anxieties:
The social aspect for me was the hardest part of this work. I am easily alienated socially, was never the cool kid, and in performing on Facebook, the metrics, how many likes or comments you attract, become even more of a dominant concern. It is like reality TV; to stay in the narrative you have to unlock the codes which generate attention. I’ve never been good at this, and very little of my character has made the final edit.
While her relationship with her character wasn’t uncomplicated, the fact of acting through an alter ego did create an exceptional space:
For me it was a little like being a spy or someone so totally uncool that no one even sees. I had a very alienating experience, as I no doubt would have had at an American college, but through my alter ego, Fay, I was able to be much more happy to take my experience at face value and not second guess myself, because I guess, she’s not really my self.
The freedom provided by being “not really my self” carries the potential for extensive personal exploration, offering a way to live out and practice fantasies that one might not be quite ready for in other realms of life. Jonathan Ow was an aspiring actor at the time he signed on to work with Fornieles on Dorm Daze. The experience of playing a gay man and carrying out a romantic relationship through Facebook correspondence was memorable and significant:
I sort of added elements from my own life into Robert to really make him into a believable character. It was through Robert that I had in some way lived. I mean we all kind of wish that we could just leave our normal boring everyday lives in search of something better. With Robert, I kind of had a blank canvas in which to play with and to live out my fantasy. Many things happened to Robert during the sitcom, but one of the best things was him falling in love. I had no idea who the other person was playing the character that Robert had fallen in love with, but in that kind of circumstance, it was kind of nice being able to live out a romance because in real life, I had never experienced what it was like to be romantically involved with someone else before. I would like to think that somewhere out there, Robert Chan still lives on.
These intimacies, born online and in character, could then pop up unexpectedly in social situations, not staying confined to their designated location. Not knowing exactly how one world maps onto another can create fear and distrust, as Peppe explains:
I think a lot of [the other participants] know each other better IRL than I do so there was also this sense of London art world FOMO that makes you think, they could all be conspiring against me, or even those paranoid moments when you’re like, are all these insane people just Ed in disguise? I met the guy who played Fay’s boyfriend socially for the first time at the private view for the first exhibition for Dorm Daze. I’d never seen him before and he was like “Hi Fay”.
But as Hedges attests it can also create moments of strange closeness, impossible to categorize:
My character was called Ricky Nash, and I was a closeted gay man, trying to maintain both a frat-style hyper-heterosexual persona and a secret, intense relationship with an openly gay friend. In classic Fornieles style, the whole thing became extremely anarchic and absurd, with plot points pushing all possible boundaries of taste.
Because of the online nature of the project, I didn’t know who was playing who, and didn’t know most of the people involved. Later, at Ed Fornieles’s show at Carlos/Ishikawa [Gallery], I met my Dorm Daze boyfriend, an aspiring actor, who told me how intense he’d found the whole thing. I also found it very intense, living an extra life on top of my own.
That boyfriend was played by Jonathan Ow, and it might not be completely wrong to say that in some twisty, dreamy way, James W. Hedges was his first love.
Fornieles talks about persona and narrative as forces that can be guided and directed, shaping sociality and experience as though they were clay or stone. As he explains, “The performances seem to act as catalyst, permission or release, they have been these sped up environments that tap into all of these libidinal forces, which once stepped out of can have a jarring effect.” But those jagged moments are also sites of possibility: “The human brain wants to think in terms of stories . . . there is an editing down, condensing process that puts things into beginning middle and end. It’s this space that has the potential to be a liberating force, for change of perception on a social and personal level.”
The process of trying to uncover and manipulate the various boundaries between self and other and other self, and tonight self and tomorrow self and internet self and family self and friend self and work self, can generate a great amount of confusion. But the freedom of feeling and self-representation that Jonathan Ow experienced as Robert Chan shows the importance of spaces and experiences that make it possible to have some times when you are not your self, where you can find some other selves to possess.
* * *
Ed Fornieles has chosen to live on Instagram and Facebook as a cartoon fox. Cartoon fox Ed (his friend and frequent collaborator Dean Kissick has joined him as a cartoon platypus) is sort of an art project, but when Fornieles talks about it, it sounds more just like a positive life choice:
I was finding it quite hard to figure out where I personally exist online, and how I move through the space. It constantly changes and demands a lot from the subject . . . I suppose this is a way of dealing with that stuff, it’s a way for me to be more honest, more personal. I’m experiencing a sense of ease that I haven’t had before, which I like.
There is something very appropriate about living online as an entity that makes no claim to human heft in the digital space. It makes sense for the same reasons that the short-lived 1990s movie trope of live-action cohabitation with cartoons always generated such uncanny friction. Space Jam, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, the Brendan Fraser vehicle Monkeybone: I watched these movies with uncomfortable fascination as a child. Space Jam is not a classic fantasy story — it represents a different kind of impossibility. It’s not like The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, in which a portal to another realm offers itself like a wormhole between universes. Wormholes are real, according to physics. Narnia has trees and rivers and streams. The lion might fly and be more like Christ than real lions, but it has fur you can touch. There is no portal that can transport my physical self into cartoon land. Michael Jordan’s Looney pals were simply made of different stuff.
Maybe Jim Carrey was a big star around the time those movies were made because his face was so elastic. He was the most average looking man, so average I can hardly conjure his visage in my mind, but he had a gumby-like physicality that made sense in the moment just before existing digitally started to become normalized. At that time, maybe it seemed like people would need to be a little more digital in the sense of being more 2D and physically manipulable. As the transition to e-life did occur, we uploaded our selves to the web — or at least all the parts that could be uploaded. People became not animations but rather collections of data and attributes. The figure at the center of these data points necessitates no fixed appearance. Still, platforms like Facebook require consistency between one’s online and offline selves: You should use your name, the one attached to your workplace signature, the one on your lease, the one your parents gave you. You should use a picture that would make it possible to recognize you at a party. But maybe there is actually something very unnatural about trying to force this consistency, as awkward and uncanny as Michael Jordan hanging out with Looney Tunes. We’ve made a little bit of progress since Space Jam in conceiving of ourselves as trans-platform entities, but there’s still much work to be done.
For Fornieles, living on social media as a fox feels more natural: “Now I can go inside of bodies, transport myself through time and space, insert myself into powerful and exclusive moments, I might say hi to global warming or ride bareback on an economic crisis. The cartoon body feels like an adaptation to my environment allowing me to confront things, ideas, people in a way my naturalized self would struggle with.” Permitting himself a different kind of self-representation online means he’s freed from squaring one reality with another, able to happily live through an explicitly multiple self.
* * *
In Cruising Utopia, Muñoz goes on to discuss “Having a Coke with You” in parallel with Andy Warhol’s screen prints of Coke bottles. He writes, “The anticipatory illumination of certain objects is a kind of potentiality that is open, indeterminate, like the affective contours of hope itself.” But what might it mean to replace “objects” in Muñoz’s assertion with “personas,” “archetypes,” or “narratives”: the puzzle pieces of social interactions and the shaping forces of human life? We might be able to discuss such holographic entities in much the way that Muñoz discusses the Coke bottle. “Pop Art” in the 1960s meant playing with representations of commodities. It is a kind of work that, to my contemporary eye, feels almost entirely inscrutable — indistinguishable from advertising itself, probably because Warhol’s work in particular has been completely absorbed into actual advertising. Fornieles’s work is in many ways “pop” in the extreme, saturated with references to American screen culture and pop music, with figures like Lana Del Rey emerging as totemic tabula rasa for the contemporary imaginary. However, as Fornieles explained to me, “I’m not so interested in art. It’s more about a dispersion, like an interpretation of life flow,” which brings with it the possibility of redirecting that life flow. Art is the toolset, not the point.
There are various ways that, in the past half-century, art has been used to build pathways out of the “totalizing rendering of reality” that Muñoz discusses. In her book about the history of participatory art, Artificial Hells, Claire Bishop quotes the Slovakian artist Alex Mlynárčik: “I would like to live in transcendence, somewhere else and be devoted to different values . . . There are much higher gains to consider which do not overlap with superficial worldly planes.” This “somewhere else” is not a place that one can get to via the subway. It is a place that must be imagined and created through reconfigured social relations.
In 1965, Mlynárčik declared the entire city of Bratislava a work of art so that, according to Bishop, “a select group of 400 participants” could “experience the city ‘doubly’ — as reality, and as work of art — with a view to questioning their paradigms of seeing, experiencing, and perceiving reality.” Mlynárčik was interested in the capacity of art to transform the visible, exploring the power that declaring something “art” has to separate it from the everyday. Five decades later, Fornieles takes advantage of this way that the designation of some space or experience as art then grants permission to play and serves to convince others to play along. Whether something is art or not is no longer the question. “Art,” with its perceived social value and intellectual significance, is instrumental. Fornieles likens the coercive power of art to the Milgram experiments of the early 1960s:
The experiment isn’t so much about authority, it is more about the participants’ desire to contribute towards science: I want to help in this experiment, I want to help these scientists make the world better. They aren’t doing it for the scientists, they are doing it for understanding and scientific discovery. And I think within art it becomes about this great thing for a group of people: if they are going to succeed in whatever endeavor has been set, they have to work together and contribute and do something.
Art is the mobilizer and the motivator: It doesn’t change what you see, it gives you the space to play with what’s there and to make it new.
Perhaps this play is most apparent in Fornieles’s work in Programme X, a forty-five-minute edit of a summer’s worth of footage. The video presents a group of people in character as the employees of various fictional twenty-first-century tech lifestyle companies (many of these characters were also in attendance at the Dreamy Awards, which took place at the end of the same summer). Like most of Ed’s work, the project itself greatly overflows the documentation that’s left of it. Any understanding has to be found as much in the memories of the participants as in the videos that now stand for the project. When Hedges describes his time playing the character Jamie Woods, it sounds fun and twisted in a way that adult life isn’t usually allowed to be — a summer of living double complete with epic dinner parties and corporate intrigue:
Early on, we did a workshop in London Fields, where we did various outdoor sports and businessy Team-Building bonding activities, and got to meet each other and improvise in character to get a feel for our dynamics.
Ed had access to a building that belonged to the Serpentine, off Wigmore Street in London, and used it for various workshops and sessions. [Participant] Matthew Drage was in character as a business leader who had many new age/cult-like aspects. He led us through a long session of hypnosis, meditation sessions, staring into each other’s eyes, etc. (all in character, of course). I also remember a daytime party there with a Lana Del Rey impersonator, and a make-up artist doing face paint for everyone. There was also an incredibly disgusting dinner party (all in character) at Ed’s flat where we ate gnocchi out of aluminum cans, and everything was covered in transparent plastic.
The time he lived part-time as Jamie Woods is distinct in his memory, yet it doesn’t quite fit into Hedges’ life:
This project very much dominated the summer of 2012 for me (it basically was my summer of 2012, but the most vivid parts were all lived in character), and I met a lot of people who were also working on it. However, because I was meeting them in situations where we were all in character, I was relating to them as characters. I also didn’t often feel the need to get to know the ‘real’ them — interacting in character was fine.
These characters that populate Fornieles’s work are often archetypes taken to manic extremes. At first it looks cartoonish, but then the performance pushes past some edge of reason into a new fantasmatic space, with everyone devouring gnocchi out of aluminum cans. Fornieles highlights the ways that exactly the most predictable and clichéd life-shapes and stories provide the richest fodder for social exploration. His description of how it feels to experience the exertion of narrative on oneself touches on current conversations in queer theory (by writers like Lauren Berlant, Sarah Ahmed, and Muñoz) about the desires, expectations, and attachments that pull us toward particular futures:
It feels sometimes we live in a pressure chamber, where there are all these forces shaping us, we move through fields of expectation, which guide us from stage to stage. . . . While the lifestyles on display are multifarious they always exist in relation to a ‘baseline narrative’. . . . Narratives and institutions are designed specifically to reinforce this, and while it is constantly in flux and essentially arbitrary it is also incredibly slow and incredibly powerful (potentially damaging).
Where the “liberating” potential lies in this system, however, is in play and invention: in living fictions. Fornieles discusses how archetypes pushed past their limits make way for whole new relationalities and social structures. Discussing the example of Dorm Daze he says:
This process of dismantling became important, none of these pure archetypal forms were able to maintain themselves, the need to feed the group narrative acted as a catalyst . . . in a sense it was falling apart through extremes, once you’ve played your character to the most extreme position in its found form, where do you go from there?
At that breaking point is where Ed’s worlds begin to turn radical, where the cycles and trajectories that we can’t find any way out of start to devour themselves from the inside. In Programme X, the voiceover during the collective hypnosis session Hedges described invokes the trauma of trying to maintain a consistent identity:
So we learn to be professional, and that response results in psychosis . . . we can either exit society and create new conditions we can survive, where identities are not subject to the kind of violence of the need to be emotionally, psychologically subservient to what we’re told that we need. Or we can try to change the society in which we live.
Sometimes, facing down each day’s totalizing rendering of reality, we don’t actually know where our faculties are. Sometimes we need to let go of any commitment to personal coherence. According to the fictional spokesperson for the fictional Coaxiom company, changing the way we live means embracing the psychosis we all already experience, and allowing the stressed, weak points in our links with reality as it’s been rendered to crack and break. The fracturing of self that Fornieles’s work both employs and encourages could be seen as the dissolution of sociality, the disappearance of moral responsibility, the loss of everything solid and graspable in our social world. Or it could be the only way forward.