Until recently, much of Andrea Crespo’s artwork has involved a pair of conjoined twins named Cynthia and Celinde. Over the past couple years, in videos, drawings, and diagrams, the twins have gained agency. First, these twins, who initially appeared as manga-like drawings, materialized from a set of data. Then they took control of their bodies and, in a video that debuted on Rhizome’s website last year, hijacked a plane. Through it all, Crespo has aimed to relinquish control and release the twins into the world.
“I do think there is agency to these characters,” Crespo told me recently. “They’re not just characters.” The twins are something more—like visions for the art-sharing website DeviantArt done in flat, computer-generated tones and set free with their own personalities. They now have power over their users—and perhaps even their viewers. “It’s a bit gothic,” the artist added, calling Cynthia and Celinde “a bit demoniacal.”
For Crespo’s first solo museum show, at MIT’s List Visual Arts Center in Boston, the artist invented a new character: Alan, an autistic boy coming to grips with himself. An hour-long video, [intensifies] (2016), follows Alan as he learns to relate to the world through memes, digital images, and current events. Like much of Crespo’s past work, [intensifies] and a related series of drawings are about learning to identify with a person who has trouble relating to the real world but finds a home in chatrooms, online forums, and Google.
“The stereotype is that autistic people don’t feel empathy, which is not true, but it’s part of the popular culture discourse around autism—that they’re cold and dead,” Crespo said. “I very much want people to empathize with this character.”
In less than two years since coming out of art school at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, Crespo has shown a talent for conjuring first-person experiences of characters who are, in reality, lifeless. In parabiosis 2.2: neurolibidinal induction complex (2015), a video on view earlier this year in the Whitney Museum’s “Dreamlands” show, Crespo portrays Cynthia and Celinde taking form through a series of slow-moving images. As a scanner light moves back and forth across a black screen, a high-pitched ringing noise plays. Text scrolls across the bottom of the screen—“#transgender #multiplesystem #genderqueer #neurodiversity,” it reads—while words above state phrases like “you are dissipating” and “fluid.” It’s dreamy, calming, and slightly unsettling.
The newer video [intensifies] is also told entirely through its protagonist’s eyes. There’s almost no spoken dialogue in the piece, and it features a number of jarring shifts, in an effort to evoke Alan’s distance from his schoolmates, family, and psychiatrist. He thinks about Sonic the Hedgehog when he should be focusing on a medical test; he wonders if he’ll ever have sex. It’s all very personal, and it draws on Crespo’s own past.
“I’m not Alan, but there is a semi-autobiographical element to it,” the artist said. “I’ve had some common experiences with him, though not all.” The scenes where Alan visits his psychiatrist, Crespo explained, were “sampled from my life.”
Visually, the work portrays a collision between IRL and URL sensibilities. Not only does Alan message with gamers and online forum users, his world is also quite literally made of what can be found on the internet. To create the scenes in his therapist’s office and his school, which are often portrayed using stock photographs with superimposed text, Crespo relied on sounds and images that could be found in Wikimedia Commons.
“I went for very bland, generic imagery . . . and I think that works with the autistic affect,” Crespo said. “There is a stereotype that autistic people will enjoy these kind of indexical data-entry tasks, which is why they disproportionately work with Wikipedia for free or tech in general.”
At times in [intensifies], Alan visits websites that make autism sound like a mystery that can be solved. “There are parallels to cracking the enigma of Alan,” Crespo said. “Autism Speaks”—a controversial autism advocacy organization—“has a program called Missing, which is all about cracking the genetic code. It’s a very much a genetic project, to crack the code of the genome for the cure.” Sometimes, the articles he finds make it seem as though there’s a war against autism. “The Pentagon donates money to autism research,” Crespo continued. “There is very much an odd, militarized aspect to it.”
By the end of [intensifies], Alan remains a mystery, and Crespo told me that it might be developed into new work. “Especially after the election, there’s a lot of ways in which it could branch out,” the artist said. Alan himself remains unresolved, inasmuch as a fixed character can be uncertain. “I must put those around me at ease,” he says at one point in the work, “though they might nevertheless sense that I am not one of them.”