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ICA's "Dialogues" Presents Contrasting Interpretations of Life in the Digital Age

Martine Syms' Shame Space
Martine Syms' installation "Shame Space" (pictured here) is half of a new annual series at VCU's ICA called “Dialogues.” The scaffolding and detritus left on the floor of the exhibit are intended to make it feel like an unideallized space. Once inside, the public is invited to text with a chat bot created by the artist. The video that appears on the monitors inside the exhibit changes in response to the messages that it receives. Crixell Matthews

This month, the Institute for Contemporary Art at VCU is kicking off a new annual series called “Dialogues.” The showcase pairs artists’ work in a unique two-pronged gallery where visitors are encouraged to compare and contrast. For this week’s Virginia Currents, Peter Solomon reports on the first installations.

Learn More:

"Dialoges" and another show with similar themes, "Give It or Leave It" are are open through early May at the Institute for Contemporary Art at VCU. In this video meet the artist behind "Give It or Leave It" Cauleen Smith.



When you walk off the ICA's elevator on to the second floor, you come through sliding glass doors into what looks like a corporate office space. The dominant color is black. Everything looks sleek and commercial, but instead of the bright and transparent feel of a Fortune 500 company, dark paint and mirrors have transformed the space into a foreboding environment.

Stephanie Smith, the museum’s chief curator, worked with Serbian artist Irena Haiduk to create the installation titled "Tableau Economique."

While photography of Haiduk's "Tableau Economique" isn't permitted, this image of her 2017 exhibit "Seductive Exacting Realism Waiting Room" at Neue Neue Galerie shows how she uses dark paint and mirrors to create a foreboding environment. 

Photo: Anna Shteynshleyger.

Smith:  It's a conceptual art project in which the artist has created an actual corporation called Yugoexport.

While Haiduk herself leads a tour of the gallery, she explains the name Yugoexport was used by a Yugoslavian corporation that’s now defunct. She resurrected and reinvented the corporation to suit the purposes of her art.

Irena Haiduk:  Yugoexport means South is Yug and export is same in all languages: something that issues from one place to another. I t is a copy or an avatar of a former Yugoslav infrastructure that used to make clothing and weapons.  I don't know how about how many of you know about Yugoslavia, but it's a place that used to exist. It was a construct that lasted for 50 years after World War II in the Balkans.  

Haiduk grew up in Yugoslavia and witnessed firsthand how the war ravaged her country’s economy in the 1990s. She critiques Western capitalism, especially the way things are marketed, consumed and disposed of so quickly in the digital age. Visitors aren’t allowed to use their cell phones to take selfies in this space, but for a fee, they can make a rubbing of a large marble table etched with  Yugoexport’s articles of incorporation. Haiduk wants to slow down the rapid-fire rhythm of economic transactions. 

Haiduk: O ur project is to change the way people want things. Because the way we want things, especially in the West is, is a way to annihilate things. 

Borisana Shoes were originally manufactured for Yugoslavian factory workers in the 60's. Haiduk acquired the materials to produce them and adapted them as part of the official uniform that the exhibit attendants wear.  Photo: Crixell Matthews, WCVE 

Then there are the special women’s shoes that Yugoexport manufactures. Haiduk acquired the equipment to manufacture  Borisana shoes, which were originally designed for Yugoslavian women in the 60s working in factories. They’re also black -- with open toes and open heels, designed so you can stand in them for hours and not hurt your back. It’s part of the uniform that’s worn by the exhibit attendants, that is, when the show is in what Haiduk calls “Labor Mode” (Unattended, it’s in “Leisure Mode.”) You can purchase a pair of the shoes, too. But if you do, you have to sign a contract saying you’ll only wear them when you are working. 

Haiduk:  And what the shoe does is kind of further this architecture of labor. It's a clock. When you put it on you work, when you put it off, you don't work.

On the other side of the gallery is Martine Syms’s installation "Shame Space ."  It also has a dystopian feel, but instead of a sleek and refined corporate office feeling, you walk into a space framed by scaffolding that resembles a condemned  building. Trash and debris are left on the gallery floor. Flickering video screens are mounted into the walls and laptops lay open on otherwise bare tables.

Interior view of "Shame Space." The phone number allows the public to engage with a chat bot that the artist specifically created for the exhibit. The video installation changes in response to texted conversations. Photo: Crixell Matthews/WCVE 

Amber Esseiva:  Martine's really thinking about how we interact with social media specifically.... 

That’s Amber Esseiva, assistant curator.

Essieva:  ...and how we choose to present images of ourselves that are idealized, happy, healthy, productive individuals.

Essieva says Syms is interested in the ways images of African Americans are circulated through media and entertainment. 

Essieva: S he's interested in the void of black representation within technology.

She’s illustrated that void by creating a chat bot that the public is invited to text. A chat bot uses Artificial Intelligence to engage in conversation. Like Siri.

Essieva:  Most chatbots, because they're in service to individuals, ask you very pleasant questions and respond to your responses about the weather or wherever you are in a given day.

Peter: But messages from this chat bot are different. Essieva says they’re meant to express "vulnerable, shameful anxieties.” For instance, the bot texts message like:

Essieva:  Why do I have body dysmorphia? Or  How do I cultivate joy? Or, How do I stop being broke? 

These messages, Essieva says, reflect the artist’s personal anxieties as a woman of color. The way she presents them in her exhibit is through a concept borrowed from the tech world called threat modeling. 

Essieva: Threat modeling is essentially what you need to do to develop an application properly. What it is is that you have to think through all of the anxieties and the vulnerabilities or the threats that might be imposed on the website application that you might be building and develop tools to evade those threats.

So what’s the big idea of "Dialogues?"  In Syms’ "Shame Space," you have to  use your cell phone to text the chat bot and fully engage. As soon as you cross into the opposite exhibit, you have to put your phone away. Both artists address the idea of circulating an image. They grapple with aspects of the digital age -- for Haiduk, it’s capitalism and for Syms, it’s self-image. The artists and the Institute for Contemporary Art hope that visitors will draw further connections as they experience the exhibits for themselves. 

For Virginia Currents, I’m Peter Solomon, WCVE News

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