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Cybercy at GOCA 121 explores identity and reality as the line between physical and digital blurs 

Digital you

click to enlarge Finishing School Collective & Yucef Merhi: "Psychic Barber" at Side Street Projects, 2013. - COURTESY GOCA
  • Courtesy GOCA
  • Finishing School Collective & Yucef Merhi: "Psychic Barber" at Side Street Projects, 2013.

It used to be assumed that one could easily have a separate online "self" to take part in digital communities, separate and hidden from life in the real world. But that's not true anymore.

Though they're often invisible, our digital selves are incredibly active and well-documented. From smartphones to app-based point-of-sale systems to personal assistants like Google Home, people are more and more connected to the internet, leaving more digital footprints and making their digital selves more closely resemble who they are offline. From an information perspective, the line between the physical and digital self blurs more every day.

That question of identity sits at the core of the upcoming Cybercy exhibit, opening May 5 at the UCCS downtown Gallery of Contemporary Art. Curated by UCCS student and former Rubbish Gallery owner Caitlin Goebel and GOCA director/curator Daisy McGowan, the exhibit features three installations: "Psychic Barber," a performance installation designed by New York artist Yucef Merhi and Los Angeles-based art collective Finishing School; "W3FI," an installation by Professor Laleh Mehran and Assistant Professor Christopher Coleman of the University of Denver's Emergent Digital Practices program; and American Reflexxx, a film by director Alli Coates and reality performer Signe Pierce.

Cybercy is a portmanteau, combining the words "cyber" and "prophecy." It comes from concepts Goebel was introduced to through the works of modern French cultural theorist Jean Baudrillard — specifically, the idea that the relationship between reality and simulacrum (a superficial image) is not as clear as it seems. He proposed that a simulacrum can become a self-fulfilling prophecy, forcing reality to change to fit.

"When we think about a cyber situation, something like cybersecurity or cyber-shopping, [the algorithms that make them work] function in the way that a self-fulfilling prophecy does," says Goebel. For example if someone shops on, say, Target.com, when they log in to Facebook, all of their targeted ads will be from Target.com.

"Every move you make is fulfilled by your previous self," she says, "and your future self is still fulfilling your previous self."

Ponder that until you feel lost. It's easily abstruse enough to excite a creative mind. But it's not where Cybercy started.

"I had been thinking about the significance of imagery on the internet in internet art, in memes... in this internet art/Vaporwave thing," says Goebel. Vaporwave, a web-based music and art scene, draws visual inspiration from late 1980s and early 1990s video games and computer advertisements. If it's pink and teal with dolphins and checkerboard patterns, it's probably Vaporwave.

In 2015, UCCS Visual and Performing Arts department chair Dr. Suzanne MacAulay encouraged Goebel to apply for a student research grant. It seemed like an opportunity to further explore the internet art scene, but Goebel couldn't find any papers that treated the matter as real art. Most took a sloppy "I know it when I see it" approach.

While she did not ultimately receive the grant, she re-oriented her focus toward ennui online. Collaborating with McGowan, they explored that headspace until Cybercy clicked, taking on its own thematic identity and form.

click to enlarge Cybercy curators Caitlin Goebel (left) and Daisy McGowan. - NAT STEIN
  • Nat Stein
  • Cybercy curators Caitlin Goebel (left) and Daisy McGowan.

"Psychic Barber" was the piece that clarified the concept of the show. The installation/performance exhibit consists of a boxy room with two clear walls and a neon sign. A participant walks inside, and the psychic barber gives them a reading, then a haircut to correspond with that reading. It's an intense, intimate experience that will only be performed on small groups of attendees twice: once at the opening, and once at the Brilliant 2017 art party on June 24.

"What happens in that little, teeny room is an ineffable, esoteric moment," says Matt Fisher, one of five members of Finishing School. "It's an exchange. In one way it's an offering, but it's also a collaboration."

Barber/customer and psychic/customer relationships are deeply intimate in their own ways, he explains. Museum-goers will not be able to hear what goes on inside the box, but they will be able to see, so the confidential exchange inside becomes a pantomime performance. While that's something to contemplate, Fisher says the piece is more of a question than a statement.

"I don't know if we'd be able to agree on [a meaning for "Psychic Barber"] as a whole. Each of us has our own take," he says. For him, at least, it's a look at the relationship between museums and art consumers. Museums need thought-provoking content to inspire conversation and build strong communities. But they also need to bring in enough people to keep the lights on, and spectacle does that well. Fisher hopes "Psychic Barber" will inspire spectators to ponder that balance.

The unlikely origins of the installation trace back to a Seattle building, known to many Seattleites, that housed a barber on the ground floor and a psychic upstairs. Both businesses had neon signs in the same font and color, one above the other, making it easy to mistake them for one sign.

In 2013, Finishing School and Merhi got the opportunity to work with Pasadena arts organization Side Street Projects, creating the first incarnation of "Psychic Barber." The Pasadena exhibit was set up outdoors, but Fisher says the piece gains more meaning when it's hosted inside a museum.

"The fun thing about putting it inside an institutional shell, for me, [it] really helps cement the critical context," he says. There are certain expectations as to what's going to happen and how a person behaves in response in a museum — often assumed rather than stated. Putting a closed structure with its own rules inside that museum can spotlight that assumed behavioral norm.

click to enlarge Chris Coleman & Laleh Mehren: "W3FI: Boulder" in Boulder, Colorado; a multimedia, site-specific installation, 2011. - COURTESY GOCA
  • Courtesy GOCA
  • Chris Coleman & Laleh Mehren: "W3FI: Boulder" in Boulder, Colorado; a multimedia, site-specific installation, 2011.

In the context of Cybercy, that building-in-a-building physically represents the idea of meta-reality, another term Goebel draws from postmodern philosophy.

"There's this world imposed on top of your real world," she says, "and that imposed world becomes the reality... Your understanding of which truth you're experiencing is blurred."

Perhaps the best-known example comes from the Matrix trilogy. While the Matrix has real-world consequences in the films — pain and death translate to reality — it operates on its own rules, from its own history. Strange as it sounds, that framework has a lot in common with a shopping mall, according to Goebel. Even at night in winter, a brightly lit mall simulates a tropical oasis, complete with indoor trees. In these artificial spaces, the rules of reality are changed to suit a given purpose, whether that's art, consumerism or mass control.

The second exhibit in the show, "W3FI," uses a meta-reality to enlighten. "W3FI" immerses museum-goers in a space that superimposes depictions of digital reality on top of the physical, exposing connections between them. On one of the major elements, data visualizations are projected onto the surface of a 3D-printed topographical map of the area around Colorado Springs. It shows the locations of cell-phone towers and their range, where large clumps of Wi-Fi routers are located, and how and when people in the Springs use mobile data.

"I think we believe there is [a schism between physical and digital selves], but I think there no longer is," says DU's Christopher Coleman. In addition to local data metrics, "W3FI" will share info about how social media is used across the country and around the world.

It also offers an on-site "social network" element. On the wall, patrons will be able to read tweets from the area that begin with "I" or "We," allowing them to involve themselves in the experience. Further, patrons can submit a photo and be included in what Coleman calls "the 'W3FI' community."

Coleman and colleague Laleh Mehran have built the exhibit in multiple countries, and the response has been incredibly varied, he says. Americans tend to be surprised at just how big their online footprints are. In Taiwan, that wasn't the case.

"They're so embedded in online culture, and they don't have as much of a negative online culture problem as we do," he says. "They say 'Oh, this is beautiful, I love my online self.'"

In Argentina, generally less plugged in than the U.S., patrons expressed a lot more concern about the extent to which internet-based companies had control over their information. The trending question, Coleman says, was "Why would we join this space if all of the processes in place are not for us?" Argentinians, Coleman says, are asking questions Americans did not collectively ask, preferring, he surmises, to dive in first.

While Coleman says he and Mehran have yet to figure out how to integrate the insight gained from international perspectives, they're in the business of asking a lot of the same questions. DU's Emergent Digital Practices program, their department, looks at the newest tech out there, as well as its short-term and long-term implications.

"[It's] a digital art and design program," he says, "but we also have a strong critical focus where we have students spend a good deal of time questioning the technology they're learning... How is it going to affect people's lives? For the better or for the worse? Am I just creating an addiction?"

click to enlarge Chris Coleman & Laleh Mehren: "W3FI: Arlington" in Arlington, Virginia, 2013. - COURTESY GOCA
  • Courtesy GOCA
  • Chris Coleman & Laleh Mehren: "W3FI: Arlington" in Arlington, Virginia, 2013.

Though there's no meaningful separation between the digital and the physical self, the meta-realities people enter online affect how they behave. Facebook posts, for example, always have a purpose, whether for maintaining social circles, passive-aggressively complaining, or just sharing a joke. However authentic the content, the post itself is a performance. Draw that into a pattern, and it's easy to call someone's digital persona a performance.

Sounds odd at first, but performative selves are normal. Everyone does it, whether at the office or on the web. And it doesn't mean someone's being inauthentic or deceptive, either.

"No one has a consciousness completely transparent to ourselves. We all do this," says Dr. Dorothea Olkowski, professor of philosophy at UCCS and director of the cognitive studies minor. She says that performative behavior, including online behavior, can be a form of self-exploration. The performative self takes in information and stimulus all its own. As a consequence, that performative self can respond in different and surprising ways.

Alli Coates and Signe Pierce explored ideas like that in their 2013 short film, American Reflexxx, now available to view on YouTube but here, more poignantly, incorporated into the Cybercy exhibit.

"[It was] a reality performance," says Pierce. "There was no expectation as to what was going to happen." For the piece, she donned a mirrored mask and revealing clothing they describe as "stripper garb." She then walked down the boardwalk, accompanied by Coates and her camera, in noted party town Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, adopting highly sexual body language. The two agreed not to communicate for the hour-long duration of the performance, whatever happened.

click to enlarge Alli Coates & Signe Pierce: American Reflexxx, film still, 2013.
  • Alli Coates & Signe Pierce: American Reflexxx, film still, 2013.

"We knew that the character I was playing was going to be a commentary on the objectification of women," she says. But the public response shocked them.

Over the course of the film, a mob of people begin following Pierce, at first following and verbally harassing her, some demanding she take the mask off.

"Halfway through, it started shifting into something really political, like 'you don't get to bully me into getting what you want,'" she says. Both surprising and disturbing, the harassment starts turning decidedly transphobic. "By removing my face, it just created a question mark about how I am biologically," she says. Eventually, the scene devolves into outright physical assault, with nobody in the crowd intervening on her behalf.

"When they finally pushed me and assaulted me, that's when [we realized] this could really get out of hand," she says. "By the end of the performance, I was crying behind the mask." At the end, Pierce pulls her neon green heels off and smacks them together, driving off the crowd.

"They feel much less inclined to be taking advantage of me, because they're scared of me," she says. "I think that's really fascinating, how masculine body language and feminine body language are perceived so differently."

Olkowski suggests that the meta-reality they were in may have colored the beach-goers' response. In a late-night flashing-neon party like the Myrtle Beach boardwalk, people expect spectacle with all the substance of cotton candy. They're not primed to reflect on an artistic experience or to distinguish between performative and personal.

That doesn't absolve them of responsibility for their actions — pain in the Matrix hurts in the real world, too. But it's a lot easier to harm something that seems "otherly," even when that sense just comes from a performance.

It's easy to draw a comparison between this behavior and cyberbullying.

click to enlarge Alli Coates & Signe Pierce: American Reflexxx, film still, 2013.
  • Alli Coates & Signe Pierce: American Reflexxx, film still, 2013.

Beach-goers dehumanized a person just wearing a mask; text on a screen can seem even further from a human being. And it's not easy to own one's capacity for unintended cruelty.

Olkowski's advice: "Tolerate the unknown. It's not hurting you, it's not doing damage to anyone."

"There was this movement where... people who were being online-bullied tracked down their 'cyber-assailants,'" says Goebel, "and those people would say 'I don't know what I got into. I'm sorry, I was just angry...' That's a really interesting breach, where you're becoming this person that you thought was somebody else. But that person really is you."

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