Marisa Olson: Recent Work
The Internet enables anyone with a connection to publish and share their artwork on a global scale. In many ways, this is a triumph of democratic thought as the barriers to creative expression are open much wider than they were twenty years ago. This pleasant vision becomes complicated, though, when one considers that because of this very democratization of cultural production, the landscape of cultural reception transforms, as well.
The viewer or receiver of cultural data is now presented with a seemingly infinite amount of novelty and amateur cultural ephemera to sift through. Because of this, the viewer’s relationship to media becomes one not of audience member to media work, but rather of “prosumer” to media unit.
In the ocean of infinite media novelty, the media viewer is nudged towards, on the one hand, consuming media the way a cable television ”zapper” surfs through television, and, on the other hand, producing media in the hopes of providing another surfer with good, quick zappable content. This surfing/consuming/producing model is, in general, not conducive to deeper modes of reflection or engagement with media. On the contrary, it is conducive to shallow skimming, scraping the surface of works. The pleasure of consumption in an ocean of media is the leap from one drop of media to another to another as opposed to a deeper engagement with a single drop. The media which are most attractive are fast, funny, and immediately clear. They need to be, otherwise the prosumer will grow bored and surf to the next article or the next image or the next whatever of media. The result is that media requiring a relatively greater degree of depth of thought are lost in the shuffle.
Now, with all of this in mind, an artist might grow anxious.
What is the point of making anything and casting it out to this ocean of media if it’s just going to be at best buzzed through or at worst completely ignored? It’s great that the Web allows anyone to put their own production into the sphere of public consumption, but at what cost? For the contemporary artist especially, whose motivation is ostensibly to create culture with a greater depth and preciousness than a “Fat Kid on Roller Coaster” video, it would seem absurd to even participate in this dog-eat-dog system.
Still, though…would anyone earnestly desire for everything to return to the pre-Internet model in which only a handful of individuals are able to put their ideas out there into the world? No, probably not. Fifteen minutes of fame are better than none.
What to do then?
How can an artist participate in this system which is in many ways preferable to the prior model without feeling as though their individual works of art are on some level meaningless?
The artist Marisa Olson’s recent work is not illuminating in the sense that it has any concrete answers to this question, but is rather therapeutic in the sense that it seeks to quell the desire for answers to this and similar sorts of questions by focusing instead on what is creating the anxiety in the first place.
For example, Whew! Age (2010), a performance at PS122 in New York, dramatizes a hallucinatory therapy session in which the patient oscillates between a search for meaning and a cynicism regarding the very idea of search for meaning.
In a set composed of cardboard crystal shards outlined in dayglo duct tape and cheap-o Persian rugs sparkling with glitter and tinsel, Olson’s character interacts with the video projection of a customer-service rep-slash-self-help guru (played by Olson, as well). On the one hand, the guru character leads Olson inside herself on a mission to “chill out” and stop worrying about all the things she thinks she needs. To some extent, it works. Olson comes to the stage in a translucent mask and the guru is able to get her to take the mask off (there’s a gag where after Olson takes the mask off, it reveals another mask, but the guru is sharp enough to have her remove that mask, too). On the other hand, the guru is a sleazy con-man, convincing Olson to put on blinders—avoiding hope in more rigorously intellectual traditions such as empirical science or psychoanalysis. And, in a musical montage in the middle of the show, the new age approach of the guru is marketed as a cheesy, 100% guaranteed enlightenment or your money back-style video series.
This tension between sleaze and truism is explored in a moment in which the guru demands of Olson to put her finger in her mouth and imagine that her finger is a glacier. Olson does so and the guru says to be as chilled as the glacier. This starts to work, but then one remembers that the glaciers are melting. And this melting—ostensibly due to climate change—is what created anxiety for Olson in the first place.
Between wisdom and mass-produced wisdom, chilling and heating, going into one’s self and back out to the world, is the space Whew! Age inhabits. In the process, it produces a therapeutic effect by nudging its audience towards neither one pole nor the other but rather towards an acknowledgment of the inevitable contradiction between the two.
Another example of Olson’s recent work is Double Bind (2010), a two-channel video first exhibited at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley, California. The work is composed of two YouTube videos—one a “response video” to the other. In the first video, one views Olson dressed professionally in a black suit with make-up and styled hair as she wraps her head in hot pink vinyl bondage tape until it’s completely covered. In the response video, one views Olson unwrap the pink tape from her head.
So, in one video, the artist is tying herself up in bondage tape; in the other, she’s releasing herself from this bondage. As they play in a loop side by side—not in perfect sync as the runtime of one video is roughly twice as long as the other—the viewer is presented with two contradictory messages—liberation and submission—each competing with the other and in neither case allowing the two messages to coalesce into a synthesis.
The title of the work, Double Bind, refers to the artist’s binding of herself and unbinding of herself with the bondage tape, and it also refers to a term developed by, among others, the anthropologist/psychologist/cybernetician Gregory Bateson, referring to a condition in which two contradictory pieces of information negate one another. This negation creates an anxiety in a patient in which he or she cannot settle on one piece of information or the other. For Bateson (following, to some extent, ideas explored in Zen Buddhism), the discussion of the double bind underlying these sorts of contradictions possesses a therapeutic value for the patient by demonstrating that the desire for solution or synthesis is not a pressing human concern due to its logical impossibility.
In Double Bind, the phenomenon of “double bind” is demonstrated, thus creating a way to confront the anxiety by pointing out the incommensurability of the information in conflict with one another. Through this demonstration, the subject struggling with the choice of either/or is released from the need to even make such distinctions.
Furthermore, as curator Richard Rinehart points out in his statement regarding the work, an underlying theme of Double Bind is Olson’s own oscillation between digital culture and the world of contemporary art. By presenting her work as a YouTube response video replete with the design elements and user comment structure familiar to users of YouTube and placing that in the context of the white cube art space, Olson engages in another double bind—the push and pull between the democratic culture of the Web and the elitist culture of contemporary art. Without definitively aligning herself in either realm, Olson presents this very conflict between democratic culture and art culture as a subject of the work.