October 29th, 2017
Xavier Cha in conversation with Jeppe Ugelvig
Xavier Cha’s interrogation of today’s digitally-mediated reality has previously manifested through both screen-based and live performances—often highlighting the uncanny theatricality and alternative temporalities of life online. Though perceived through screens and images, Cha insistently concerns this reality with bodiliness, movement, and lived emotions, as explored between solo commissions for the Whitney Museum, Kunsthalle Düsseldorf, and Frieze Projects in the last five years. With her newest work, opening November 1st as a part of Performa 17 and BAM's Next Wave Festival, the American performance artist takes to the theatrical stage: working with a mix of actors, dancers, and vocalists, Buffer sets out to translate and decipher the alienating processes of digital consumption – glitching, buffering, and looping included.
Jeppe Ugelvig: How did Buffer come about, and what was your starting point with the project?
Xavier Cha: Last year, I was approached by Holly Shen, the curator of Visual Arts at BAM. She was interested in my work, we had a studio visit, and it just happened from there. Holly originally wanted me to do a re-staging of Surveil (2014), but I had already done that twice and wanted to create a new work. I got scheduled in BAM’s Next Wave Festival and was awarded The Harkness Dance Residency, which they give to one Next Wave artist a season. For Next Wave, it's uncommon that they work with individual artists, so this was a risk for them. I feel so grateful.
BAM got me thinking about the specificity of the theater format. Usually people can enter and leave my performances as they please; the work typically exists in a non-narrative form in a museum or gallery so I was curious to explore what it meant for the audience to be forced to sit in a seat for an hour. I was thinking about the audience’s experience of theater and what it compares to. When people sit and view for that amount of time, it tends to be in front of a screen. I wanted to experiment in conflating the two, testing people's modes of spectatorship as well as their patience. If you're in your home waiting for something to buffer online, it's somehow okay to wait, but what happens when you put that into a live situation? I wanted to play with the expectations of the “live” and confront them with digital phenomena like freezing. It makes us feel uncomfortable and slightly anxious, but why?
There are so many parameters that are altered really drastically when you enter a theater, a space of performance that is not only historically loaded, but predates the Internet, cinema, and the moving image as such. At the same time, there are some essential parameters that are very similar to elements of the online realm that you've dealt with before. In some of your earlier work (abduct, 2015), you specifically took on the cinematic apparatus as it relates to human expression—how did you approach the theatrical apparatus when you began Buffer?
I wanted everything I did on stage to have a cinematic presence. I wanted to create a screen-based intimacy that's usually hard to get on a theater stage. As a result, there will be three alternating scenes, like switching channels or tabs in a browser. This also speaks to the attention span thing—our limited capacity to follow a single narrative thread. One scene is a conversation between a man and a woman, and it's very domestic and intimate. They're not doing stage voices, just sharing thoughts in an almost banal way. It's not like theater...it was more about a scene that felt like zooming in on this very intimate moment, like watching through a screen.
You've previously explored the tension between the heightened performativity of the self versus the banal experience of being online. Your work abduct explored highly coded “theatrical” modes of feeling such as “shocked sorrow,” “ecstatic cerebral pleasure” and “apologetic laughter,” or “inhibited sadness,” and your Body Drama (2011) at Whitney also lingered in the overtly “theatrical.” It's interesting to try to compare performance with theatricality.
That’s a difficult distinction, but there is a kind of performance to the everyday. It’s the minute and subtle, or the grand gestures of being and identity. Theatricality has a clearly evident filter or framing that offsets it from “real” experience. In Buffer, I want to multiply or layer the framing device of theater with this lived performance of viewing/consuming.
Your earlier work has dealt with self-estrangement online; the feeling of being foreign to yourself. Is that extended to this project, or is it more about a sort of technical formalism of the Internet?
No. The formalism is definitely there as a kind of structural layer, and then deeper than that, I think Buffer fundamentally looks at the loneliness of being human: feeling a sense of distance even in the most intimate relations. With the dance scenes, there's an alien quality to the movement. Moving from the dance scene and the conversation between the couple to the love scene, there’s definitely a search for human connection. In writing the script, it was about trying to understand where authentic emotion exists, particularly in an experience structured by capitalist interests, where impulses and drives, like longing or love, are manufactured for the purpose of profit and consumption.
Criticism of “post-Internet art” often revolves around it “leaving the body behind.” Much of your work talks about disembodiment, or at least, the extension of subjectivity online. At the same time, you're also a performance artist grounded in the physical body. How do you use the body? Or why is the body useful in studying experiences or phenomena that are highly digitally mediated, like the disembodied experience of surfing the Web, for example?
I like to address these things through the body because I think the easiest way to express that alienation is to look at the residue of the body itself after that feeling of disembodiment, as opposed to trying to express it through the use of more screens, more digital platforms. Otherwise, you don’t get thrust out into that weird space where you’re able to say "oh, wait, this is what feels so weird,” “this is what I'm uncomfortable with,” etc. With Buffer, when I was applying for grants, I think a lot of people misunderstood and thought that the piece involved video projections. I had to clarify that the work is “without the use of screens,” and “purely analog.”
That's really interesting. Can you speak more about the set design? This must be a first for you.
I worked with Felix Burrichter and Michael Bullock of PIN–UP Magazine and Paul Kopkau on the stage design. It’s very minimal. Since the piece primarily revolves around the conversation between a couple in an intimate, domestic setting, the central set element is a sectional sofa, which has been donated by Swiss furniture company Vitra. Felix decided that the stage should be symmetrical, so the sofa has two identical room divider screens behind it, giving depth the to the space. During the dance/opera scenes, the set pieces are turned around so the audience has the inverse view of the stage, which relates to these scenes being the subconscious level of the piece. During the love scenes, the sofa is moved closer to the audience, as if we have zoomed in to the stage.
How have you translated these technicalities of the web—like the zoom or the lag or the glitch—into space or into bodies? I imagine that to be really difficult, but also very generative.
Yeah, it was—in writing the script it was almost like a rhythmic thing, or like writing a song. You suddenly feel “okay, now it makes sense for the scene to freeze or for this to repeat or loop.” It definitely felt like more of a rhythmic decision.
Which creates a sort temporal layer to online activity, like surfing. It's like there's a beginning and there is an end, but with tons of loopholes and no linear time.
Right. And with the dance, it's more subtle, but there are some very technical movements which then retrograde or are caught in a brief loop.
Can you talk a little bit about the cast and how it was working with such a large group of people for an extended period of time?
It's been amazing. I worked with the dancers separately from the actors until the last week of the residency in August. It was the first time we put all the scenes together. I was nervous that it wouldn't work, or that nothing would make sense, but I was really, really happy with it. The abrupt scene changes somehow, energetically make sense. You come back to the actors and you pick up where you left off.
Cory Koons and Cutler X, who play the lovers, were cast by Michael and Felix; they helped me a lot in this process. Both Culter and Cory are well known porn actors. Their chemistry together was beautiful, right from when they first met. The two other actors are Babs Olusanmokun and Cassandra Freeman. Babs also happens to be my jujitsu teacher—and he had a previous role as Omoro Kinte in the History Channel miniseries Roots. Cassandra Freeman, who has appeared in the comedy series Atlanta, has been amazing to work with. They were both very generous and emotionally curious with the piece. I’ve learned so much from everyone involved. It was interesting that after working separately with the dancers and the actors, which initially felt very much like switching gears, it all started to feel more related, altering the environment and manipulating emotions through physical languages.
The sexual scene is between two men. Is there a sexual or political dimension to the work?
Well, I just didn't think it was necessary to proliferate more heteronormative images, especially of men and women having sex—that is just not interesting to me.
Buffer seems to be about desire in one way or another, but particularly, the way technology and media shape it. What exactly do you think happens to desire online? How does desire exist in an age of Grindr, porn streaming sites, algorithmic advertising, and romantic relationships that are maintained via FaceTime? What happens to desire when mediated through a screen?
I guess I would not use the word desire necessarily. I think it would be more about this kind of emptiness. This longing for connection. A loneliness and a questioning of what it is that you're feeling. A feeling of being somehow disconnected from your own emotions. I guess that could be some form of desire, in a way.
Do you give an answer to that? How to solve that alienation?
I want to leave it pretty abstract. You might be left with a feeling of loneliness and maybe you're left with a question of what, if any, emotions are real? Do “authentic” feelings exist when we are constantly swayed by capitalistic, hetero-patriarchal manipulation?
Is this idea or fantasy of the real made obsolete in an online age? Or how do we continue to look for it, despite its displacement?
It’s been displaced so much it's like there is no authentic thought left. Everything is pulling emotions from you, trying to trigger things from you, everything is trying to manipulate your emotions and wants you to consume and buy ... capitalism is so affective. It’s a violently effective tool, a way of seeping into and modifying our behavior. It's hard to know what you'd be, who you would be without all these things pulling you. That's kind of what I’m exploring. I don't know what that means to come back to that question—if it’s possible to look past the point of affective capitalism.
I think it's very beautiful to say that you know the real has been displaced, yet we will always try to look for it and hunt it down. And that can also be counterproductive sometimes.
Like by chasing it, it's pushed further away.
Jeppe Ugelvig is a critic and curator based in New York. He is currently a graduate student at the Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard College, and contributes frequently to publications such as Flash Art, ArtReview, and i-D.
Xavier Cha is a Brooklyn-based artist. Cha received her B.F.A. from the Rhode Island School of Design in 2002 and her M.F.A. from UCLA in 2004. Her work has been shown at the Whitney, the Contemporary Art Museum, St. Louis, The Kitchen, MOCA Cleveland, and venues around the world.