The Man Behind the Screen: Ed Atkins at the Kitchen, New York

Through May 14

Installation view of Ed Atkins's video Performance Capture, 2015–16. COURTESY THE ARTIST AND GAVIN BROWN'S ENTERPRISE/JASON MANDELLA

Installation view of Ed Atkins’s video Performance Capture, 2015–16.


Andy Serkis may be the only actor whose career has been defined by roles in which his image never appeared onscreen. When Serkis played King Kong and Gollum, his body was transposed onto a digital character using motion-capture technology. He received critical acclaim for the naturalness of his performances, which is strange. Most people probably wouldn’t even recognize his face.

It’s not surprising that Serkis comes up in Ed Atkins’s Performance Capture (2015–16), a video now on view at the Kitchen. (Atkins has been extending it since its premiere last year at the Manchester International Festival, and will continue to do so.) In it, a computer-generated man with stubble spews poetry about roses pushing up through tarmac and about police brutality. At one point, his metaphorical gibberish becomes lucid. “Behind the scenes: Andy Serkis,” he says. And then: “Pathos was the only revelation / to materialize / behind the scenes. Through that curtain there, / behind the scenes.” In other words, the only way to understand the people who use digital technology is to see them in person—their avatars are not real.

For the past few years, Atkins has made videos that feature almost solely sad, babbling computer-generated men. Performance Capture is a logical, powerful continuation of Atkins’s central question: Is it possible to relate to another human through digital pictures? With this video, the British artist turns his attention toward special-effects technology and empathy, and the results are by turns affecting and creepy.

Performance Capture feels like a behind-the-scenes look at a blockbuster, almost as though Atkins were presenting special-effects B-roll. Over the course of the video, the avatar floats through flat, grayish space, his image sometimes getting doubled or going out of focus in the process. There’s no plot to speak of—Atkins skips transitions between scenes and ideas.

As we discover over the course of the video, there are many voices for this character, most of which don’t belong to men. This is because, in order to construct this bruised guy, Atkins recorded images of more than 100 people acting out a soliloquy and then transplanted their gestures onto a disembodied head and arms. In the past, I’ve had problems with the white masculinity of Atkins’s work, but Performance Capture resolves this issue. Masses of people’s images coalesce into a single avatar, making this, in a way, a video about how identity disappears through computer-generated images.

Humans inside and outside technology are two very different things, and the performance program that goes with the video drives that point home. When Atkins himself did readings alongside Performance Capture, it became clear that the avatar looked nothing like the artist. Although the CG man looks at viewers head-on, it really is hard to imagine he’s real—he’s simply a digital copy of someone else.


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