They cry, they smoke, they spout poetry
Video art has come a long way in its few decades of life. Since Nam June Paik made his first buzzy, overloaded image streams, video has proved itself a flexible medium in constant transformation. Video artists may work with more or less the same tools, but they use them to go off in totally different aesthetic and conceptual directions, as much as in any other medium.
Into this context of permanent change and endless possibility, enter Ed Atkins. The British artist has broken new ground with his computer-generated young men who sing, smoke, cry, and pout with a vulnerable air. Forget Max Headroom or other disembodied faces. Crisply life-like and imbued with human voices (often Atkins’s own), the men who populate Atkins’s works seem somehow too real to be real. They’re human beings, but they’re avatars. Beyond animation, not exactly film, and often resembling a kind of virtual theater, Atkins’s works combine compelling images, ambiguous meanings, and uncanny, at times unsettling use of what are, in effect, two-dimensional robots. Curators say his computer composites speak to some of the deepest fears, anxieties, and desires of our age—everything from surveillance to sex to digital language.
“Ed combines a good, dexterous grasp of new technology and an ability to infuse it with profound feeling, and that’s rare,” said Polly Staples, director of the Chisenhale Gallery, a London nonprofit art space which debuted one of Atkins’s first major works, Us Dead Talk Love, in 2012. “He’s able to grapple with big themes and run them through a young man’s perspective. The characters he creates are melancholic and 19th century, and he uses them to communicate our angst today with technology.”
Atkins relies on a geeky roll call of computer programs such as faceshift, After Effects, and RealFlow to achieve what not many artists are doing—create fake people. Whereas they might recall a British figurative tradition that includes Francis Bacon, Antony Gormley, and Frank Auerbach, Atkins’s avatars are taking video art in a new direction by shifting it away from the mere recording and splicing of images. He sees all this software purely as a means to an end.
“I’m not interested in technology per se. It’s what technology does that matters, what it changes. The content, as discursive stuff, is centuries old. These ideas about identity and representation and rendering have been here forever, and that’s what I’m getting at,” said Atkins, 33, taking a break from production of a new video called Performance Capture at the Manchester Art Gallery in England.
His approach becomes clear in Ribbons (2014), a bleak study of manhood in the digital age. Three screens show three different versions of roughly the same video simultaneously, all featuring a brawny young man named Dave as he drinks himself into a stupor. He looks real but he’s actually a computer-generated avatar, sitting in a noisy pub and spouting poetry that seems only to sink him further into his own despair. As his cigarette burns down to the filter, Dave’s tumbler fills over and over again with what looks like liquor, pee, and blood. Words such as “troll” and “asshole” are scrawled across his chest and face. There is something menacing about him. If you saw him at the gym—and he looks as though he spends a lot of time there—you would avoid him. His eyes dart about, and his poetic soliloquies have an imploring, self-pitying quality: “Help me communicate out of peremptory assault, my love.” He sticks his flaccid penis through a glory hole and then croons an old drinking song about lost love: “ ’Tis women make us love, ’tis love that makes us sad, ’tis sadness makes us drink, and drinking makes us mad.” We hear his farts, sighs, and other bodily functions, and although he smiles joylessly, he never laughs. Finally, his head shrivels up like a deflated balloon.
Yet Atkins’s treatment of Dave is strangely tender. In the avatar’s straight-on gaze and whimsical singing, Atkins seems to be appealing for compassion for this unsympathetic character. Wounded machismo becomes almost endearing. “All of them are pleading for empathy. They’re desperate to say, ‘Just allow me this, please. Hear me,’ ” said Atkins of his fake men.
“I think Ed is interested in what people are in fact losing in the digital age, and that includes the ability to express love,” said Hans Ulrich Obrist, co-director of exhibitions and programs at London’s Serpentine Galleries, which showed Ribbons last year. The video screens were at the center of a full-scale Atkins experience that included works on paper and canvas as well as excerpts from his poetry on the walls and video avatars that often sing in his voice.
“He’s a total artist. He’s as much a writer and a singer as he is a visual artist,” said Obrist. “There are many video artists whose work is just about the projected image. People see them at exhibition halls and pop in and pop out. Ed is interested in transforming the space and making an immersive experience, a work that appeals to all the senses.” Obrist’s introduction to Atkins’s work came in the back of a black London taxi about four years ago. He and Julia Peyton-Jones, the Serpentine’s director, watched Atkins’s videos on a laptop. “As the city went past, we were looking at these hyper-real videos. It was a funny, sort of fragmented experience,” recalled Obrist. “I think Ed is one of the great artists of our time.”
Though he uses Atkins’s voice, the clenched-faced avatar in Ribbons neither looks nor acts anything like Atkins, who has heavy-lidded eyes and a mop of black hair flecked with white. He has a warm, well-mannered air and a laugh that goes in a second from dryly ironic to openly hearty. He was raised in Oxford, England, his mother a high-school art teacher and his father a graphic designer at a publishing house—both “very talented artists,” he said. Atkins graduated from the Slade School of Fine Art in London not sure he even wanted to go into art; he found literature, music, and cinema more compelling, and these remain strong influences. It was, in fact, an essay he wrote on dilettantism that first drew the attention of London’s Cabinet gallery, and only after that gallery offered him a show in 2011 did he start gravitating toward video art as “the best chance of convening all the things I loved.” Among his early works is Delivery to the Following Recipient Failed Permanently (2011), a somber monologue whose title came from an auto-message he received after mistakenly sending his late father an e-mail.
A tiny, unassuming space near the Barbican Centre, Cabinet has since become an important venue for early-career video artists, including James Richards, who became a close friend of Atkins’s. The two shared a studio in London for a few years, they were both chosen to be in the Venice Biennale in 2013, and both received DAAD scholarships to live and work in Berlin for a year. Richards is already there, and Atkins will join him later this year.
“I think I’ve learned a lot from Jim, and I would hope vice versa,” Atkins said. “Working in video was quite solitary work, and there weren’t many people we could talk to,” he recalled. In contrast to Atkins’s videos, with their sleek human surrogates, Richards’s films have a poetic, atmospheric quality. They’re often filmed outdoors. “Jim is just editing clips together, and when I say ‘just,’ there’s obviously within that a universe of nuance.” What made Atkins’s work so “solitary” was the fact that the video technology he was using was so new and esoteric that few others could understand it. Atkins still speaks little about the impact on his work of other contemporary artists—except, of course, for Richards.
“At that point in our careers it was about exchanging ideas,” said Richards. “Ed was already interested in avatars, but he wanted to use them to show where our culture is, visually.”
One can detect Richards’s influence, perhaps, in Atkins’s early work Us Dead Talk Love. The piece features twin screens, one showing a male disembodied talking head and the other, objects with symbolic associations—an apple, a nude, a horse. The computer-generated man, who resembles a skinhead version of Atkins, asks why he has found an eyelash under another man’s foreskin and launches into an angst-ridden speech on sex, fidelity, and death. Critical opinion was not entirely kind. Adrian Searle in the Guardian called it “grating and pretentious, precocious and full of itself” (though Searle has praised much of Atkins’s work since). But what got the critics’ goat most was the work’s language, which many considered opaque and overworked. The images, by contrast, were witty, crisply edited, and beautiful. The avatar looks cruder than in Atkins’s later works because computer imagery software improved.
The inspiration of cinema comes to the fore in the piece for which Atkins is perhaps best known in the United States, Happy Birthday!! (2014). It’s an impressionistic disquisition on time and history, starting with a long, cinematic fade-in of a figure approaching the viewer in a haze. Next we see a man, naked from the waist down, striding across the floor while reciting a confusing litany of years and dates. He’s another avatar, we realize, but he’s nothing like Dave. The star of Happy Birthday!! is a good-looking, suave character with an expensive-looking haircut. He has “2016” scrawled on his forehead, as if to remind himself what year he’s in, but he’s doubtful nonetheless about where he stands in time as he recites dates back over a century, looking more and more confused. He’s another nowhere man, but this time it’s his own history he’s unsure of—or perhaps overwhelmed by. Now fully clothed, he hugs another man so listlessly that they look like two mannequins. Then, suddenly, he seems to drown in a sea of his own vomit—a characteristic Atkins mix of anomie and affect, with a visceral touch.
“You sense in Ed’s work that he’s speaking through the mind’s actual processes. He presents these very shattered personas, but he’s reaching subconscious feelings about mortality and the self that we all share,” said Lauren Cornell, co-curator with the video artist Ryan Trecartin of the New Museum’s Triennial, in which Happy Birthday!! showed. “He’s looking at the creepy side of technology, how surveillance, for example, can invade our lives, for sure. But language is also very important and how changes in relationships and attitudes are reflected in the kinds of language we use.”
Trecartin also sees Atkins working at the interface of image and language. “In Ed’s work the body is a prop or a placeholder to mobilize a network of languages.” The two artists have spoken a few times about “ideas in general and things we’re excited about,” but never about their own work, said Trecartin. “I think he has an incredibly poetic sense of audio-visual timing.”
Performance Capture (2015) marked a sharp departure from Atkins’s typically solo process. For that piece he worked with about 120 other people, all of whom sang, danced, administered, swept up, or otherwise participated in this summer’s Manchester International Festival. They came to a sound stage created under Atkins’s direction to record about one minute each of a two-hour poem written by Atkins. Before they read their fragment off a teleprompter, Atkins gave them a zip-up jacket and gloves fitted with wires that recorded their every hand gesture and facial expression. When they started recording, all those tics and motions were grafted electronically onto the face and hands of an Atkins avatar.
In the next room, known as the render farm, a team of animators worked on 20 computers to adapt each one-minute performance to the avatar, with Atkins, in the manner of an orchestra conductor, directing them. In the third and final room visitors saw the preliminary computer-generated images, known as rushes. They’re a funny and compelling sight. It’s Dave again, or another brawny gym rat like him, but now he’s speaking in the voices of all the people who recorded passages of the poem: an elderly British woman, an American man, a working-class Mancunian, a ten-year-old boy, among other performers. Atkins morphs an entire city of characters into one. The whole process was free and open to the public—in effect demystifying the artist’s once-arcane working method, while at the same time serving as a video document of the Manchester festival. The finished video won’t be shown until February, but already, Atkins senses, it takes his work into a new realm.
“Part of the horror for me is producing the work in front of a stream of people,” he said, half-jokingly. “I’ve never worked with anyone before.” In Manchester he had a small army of assistants and hundreds of spectators wandering in every day. “It’s still fetal, but what is coming to life is an avatar created of myriad identities, a figure occupied by many different people.”
The unsettling implications of collapsing a series of human identities into a single, visual robot has not been lost on critics or Atkins. The avatar looks so human, but by speaking in other people’s voices and mimicking their gestures, he lacks that most human of attributes: free expression. His personality has been occupied by that of other people. “When people put on that suit they realize that it’s hugely restricting. The word ‘capture’ in the title can mean capture of movement, but it also refers to the deprivation of free will,” he said.
As the software used to make them improves, avatars like Atkins’s become more and more human. You forget that the creature you’re watching is not a real person, and you may not even care, said Massimiliano Gioni, 2013 Venice Biennale curator and now associate director and director of exhibitions at the New Museum. He sees a generational shift in the way artists perceive computer-generated imagery as an artistic medium, and finds that it’s losing its “creepy” stigma.
“The technology becomes almost invisible,” said Gioni. “It becomes irrelevant whether it’s video or not, especially for people of this [young] generation because they’ve grown up with it. They’re using video to create a new kind of humanity. I hate the label ‘video art,’ but it used to be about recording something, and now it has substance. It has taken on a life of its own.”
Roger Atwood has been a reporter and critic for ARTnews since 1999.
A version of this story originally appeared in the October 2015 issue of ARTnews on page 54 under the title “Guys on the Edge.”