To view Pipilotti Rist’s Pixel Forest with levity is to see only the bubbles and not the thing under the surface releasing the air. The New Museum survey of Pipilotti Rist’s work, Pixel Forest, which ended in January after being extended past its original closing date, seemed to gather more and more people to it, tickets selling out and lines stretching around the block. Once inside Rist's show, however, the overwhelming majority of museum-goers were concerned exclusively with the phones fused to their hands. Their fingers moved only to crop and slide and curate the limited dimensionality of their world.
The surprising sensuality of Rist's Pixel Forest reminded me of White Nights In Split Town City, a gutsy new novel by Annie DeWitt. Both artists work with a flat medium to make it flesh. An attention to texture is prevalent, and more specifically, the body’s texture. Now, the rate at which we are losing our connection to the physical is accelerating, what with our increasing reliance on and “participation” in the digital universe. Sensuality is losing traction to technology. There is a war on people, caused by people. Both Rist and DeWitt remind us that something is missing.
Annie DeWitt’s debut novel was released by Tyrant Books this past summer and her forthcoming collection of stories, Closest Without Going Over, was short-listed for the Mary McCarthy Prize. DeWitt’s language takes words on a page and plumps them up into a multidimensionality that moves the sensate body through space. DeWitt’s work, like Rist’s, is completely centered on the body. The not quite pubescent girl-body of the girl, Jean, comes up against the heavy textures of horse hair, the gray chest hair of an old neighbor, swampy creek beds, grass stuck to a sweaty body and the pressure of the summer hose washing it all off. The unbearable heat of the morning sun through floor-to-ceiling glass.
Roberta Smith, writing about Pixel Forest in The New York Times makes a profound observation on the 30-year trajectory of Rist’s work: right from the get-go, with her mid-eighties piece I’m Not The Girl Who Misses Much, all the way to 2016’s Pixel Forest, through her use of video technology, Rist's oeuve has become a historical record of the body-digital.
Rist, like DeWitt, uses the elements, and positions the body in relation to them, in all kinds of textural moves. Water and weather, fire and rot, work on both the bodies and the spaces the bodies exist in. Senses wake up in the presence of of Rist’s leaf-rot, and DeWitt’s dying neighbor lady and dead horses. Coupled with both artist’s subtle use of screaming, these sensual moves contrast with the more banal scenes of suburban life. For Rist this gesture includes setting a video to a cover of Chris Isaak’s "Wicked Game”, the sweet spacey female vocals undercut by a track of someone screaming the chorus. Hanging from the ceiling in one gallery, a chandelier made of ordinary panties, is delicate, poignant. Elsewhere, a wall of white things—more texture of the quotidian—a sink, a baby’s onsie, a condom, parts of things, all blanched, painted white. And then there were Rist’s dioramas, of a house and a yard, and a smaller more intimate bedroom, rumpled with the trappings of life (tiny plastic wineglass, box of partially eaten pizza, a tiny butter knife perched on the edge of the tiny pizza box; a messy bed; magazines fanned out on the floor), have some mysterious other dimension to them. The house and yard are lit by an uneasy yellow light, the bedroom’s intimacy is broken by a gigantic moon bursting through the floorboards, causing the viewer to reconsider the “ordinary”.
DeWitt’s dad character in White Nights, combats his insomnia by screaming into a pillow, behind the protection of the sliding door of his marital bedroom’s balcony. The mother dubs the family home The Bottom Feeder. One can imagine it from above, an uncanny construction, with a persona of its own, not unlike one of Rist’s dioramas.
In the museum, I asked a guard if it had been like that the whole time, people on their phones, not looking, not being in the space. He said yes and began to heat up with his frustration. Standing there with him, it looked almost as if the gesture of the outstretched arm was a gesture of protection. The sensual experience of moving through the Pixel Forest, with its glowing bulbs, hanging heavy and bulbous on their strands, with just enough space between to allow a body at a time to pass through, was perhaps too overwhelming for the visitors. By only looking at the room through the phone’s camera, the experience was reduced to pretty lights, a picture. We have become afraid of living life without the “filter” of our phones. The Pixel Forest experienced bodily took the digital image out of its two-dimensionality and allowed for participants to experience the videos throughout the rest of the show with more inter-sensuality than a purely visual experience would have offered.
In Bachelard’s Water and Dreams, sensuality is praised as a more authentic and immersive way of experiencing the world than the visual alone. He examines materiality and density and the transition from sensory values to sensual values. “Only sensual values offer ‘direct communication’. Sensory values give only translations.” And he goes on to say that the eye itself, “pure vision, becomes tired of looking at solids. It needs to dream of deforming. If sight really accepts the freedom of dreams, everything melts in a living intuition.”
One of the side-effects of our movement toward looking at the world almost exclusively through the miniature eye of our phone, of reading on a screen, looking at images on a screen, of having almost all of our sensory “input” come through via some sort of digital portal, in addition to expressing ourselves and communicating through the same channels, is that we are cutting off our ties with the multidimensional sensual world around us. David Abram in his book, The Spell of The Sensuous, warns that, “Transfixed by our technologies, we short-circuit the sensorial reciprocity between our breathing bodies and the bodily terrain.” He wrote that in the nineties. Abram argues that conceptualizing the world, by assigning it a static position, not fully incorporating our bodies, our senses, into the “enigmatic multiplicity and open-endedness” of the fully sensual world, we limit ourselves—we are unlearning something ancient.
Rist and DeWitt work on the tactile imagination. The people populating their stories aren’t isolated from the landscape or the weather around them. In Rist’s Ever Is Over All the exuberant heroine participates bodily in the landscape, even while also enjoying the solitary anarchy of skipping and smashing. The music of the video plays like a personal reverie, but the friendly policewoman, and the older lady in the red coat, are each encountered as part of her more expansive movement along the street.The girl is an organic moving part in her wider environment. An additional video layer, of a camera panning a meadow, opens up the experience even further. One particularly beautiful passage in White Nights begins right after the ambiguous trauma that the story centers on: “The next morning the rain came. One of those warm summer downpours that follows the opening up of the sky and a great movement of air.” The utter simplicity of a body encountering the weather, water and air. Abram underlines the importance of the “reciprocal nature of direct perception—the fact that to touch is also to feel oneself being touched, that to see is also to feel oneself being seen.” This relationship with the natural world ends when the thing that we are looking at is a device that doesn’t look back.
A German friend who had been to see Pixel Forest, also commented on the proliferation of smartphones. She said that this ubiquity is more specific to the states, and that especially in Germany, there is a suspicion of technology in general, because of the issue of personal privacy and surveillance. She mentioned how important the work of Austrian performance and video artist, VALIE EXPORT, has been in exploring the way life is impacted by encounters with the surveilled body since the 60s. On her website EXPORT says that, “The view of reality is transformed through the intervention of the media. Photographs are not blueprints of nature, each image is a construction.”
This cautious skepticism is in contrast to the impulse to embrace, without much critical hesitation, any new device or technical product pushed on the public by the companies that sell it. But there is something to be said for carefully weighing the impact that these new ways of experiencing the world will have on our lives. There is something to be said for questioning the way in which we are being told that we need something that so completely takes over our means of perception. Here’s Bachelard again, on not experiencing the full depth of the sensual world and how that “does not allow us to be truly faithful to our element. It prevents us from following, in full flight, the real phantom of our imaginary nature, which, if it ruled our lives, would give us back the truth of our being, the energy of our own dynamism.”
DeWitt’s White Nights is a story about the body in danger. The text flexes with the muscular force of a professional pole dancer. Without this sometimes hard to swallow sensuality of the language, the danger wouldn’t throb so under the surface of the skin of the story. In the end you can feel all the fear and the heaviness of the danger syphon off like a noxious gas, while Jean learns to how to be, after. Her sadness becomes a material.
There were ghosts in Rist’s Pixel Forest, flat forms moving through a breathing space. Bachelard says forms are fixed, but matter is the rough sketch for unrestricted dreams. Within the glowing tentacles of some imagined digital world, animated and liberated from the flat inanimate limits of the viewing device, Rist allows us the opportunity to choose to reject that small way of seeing, by inhabiting the imagined digital body. Abram says the sensuous world is always local. All one has to do is to reactivate all the senses. Both Rist and DeWitt have made things that encourage that most ancient way of experiencing the world. Bachelard says that there’s an animism that animates everything, projects everything, mingles, on every occasion, desire and vision, inner impulses and natural forces. All one has to do is to put the phone down.
On one floor of the gallery there were floor to ceiling panels of thin, sheer, white fabric. The panels were hung with spaces in between, people could walk between the panels, lending their silhouettes to the digital images projected on them. It was the least bustling area in the whole show, with people only dipping through to take selfies of their shadows. There might have been a fan somewhere moving the panels like a slight breath of wind or maybe the panels just moved that way because of the motion of the people moving back and forth in the gallery. The joyful hum of Ever Is Over All was running over the speakers. From seemingly out of nowhere, the toddling body of a tiny two year old girl in a windowpane plaid dress, which was white with black lines, over checked leggings, ran through the white tissue of the moving fabric. The digital projection broke over her, giving way to her tiny body. The baby slap of her bare feet echoed over the cold gray concrete of the gallery floor.
Pipilotti Rist: Pixel Forest was on exhibit at The New Museum in New York City from October 26, 2016 until January 15, 2017. Pipilotti Rist’s Open My Glade (Flatten) (2000–17) was on view in Times Square from 11:57 p.m. to midnight every night in January 2017 as part of Midnight Moment, a monthly presentation by the Times Square Advertising Coalition and Times Square Arts. The New Museum hosted a conversation with Pipilotti Rist and Massimiliano Gioni, Artistic Director of the New Museum, on January 19, 2017.
Gnaomi Siemens is an MFA candidate at Columbia University's School of The Arts, in poetry and literary translation. Her work has appeared at thethepoetry.com, Asymptote Journal, Words Without Borders, and in Slice Magazine. She lives in Manhattan with her son.