In his essay “The Curse of Tina Part Two,” filmmaker Adam Curtis tracks the rise of the televised hug, from Anna Neagle’s shocking emotional collapse on the show This is Your Life in 1958 to the quotidian hysterias of present-day reality TV.
John Miller and Takuji Kogo, Hi Linda, 2013 (screencap). Courtesy the artists
His intention is to decipher the meaning of such public breakdowns: what they signify for the character and why the public want them with increasing fervor. On The Bachelor, a long-running reality show where tens of female contestants vie for the true love and commitment of a wealthy and telegenic man, we see another codified spectacle of feeling: not the hug, but romantic love. In episode six of the fourteenth season, “On the Wings of Love” contestant Ali declares her love for the Bachelor. “Jake,” she says, “is everything I’ve ever wanted. Every moment with him, it’s just unbelievable. It’s out of a movie, a fairy tale, it’s a way I’ve never felt I could ever feel ever, and I honestly have never felt once in my whole entire life that I would actually get everything I wanted.” Ali goes home unrequited but her statement, one that exchanges genuine intimacy for status quo fantasy, serves to sell the show and to adhere “eyeballs” to a narrative in which “fake trauma,” as the artist John Miller has described reality TV pain, is promised to occur.
In Miller’s “Holiday in Other People’s Misery” exhibition at Galerie Christian Nagel in 2010, a selection of paintings depicting scenes from reality TV chronicle such “fake trauma.” In the portraits, all of which focus tightly on a character’s face, individuals—like Ali and Jake—lose their subjectivity and become part of a sobbing tableau that signals a broader shift in the way feeling is perceived, projected, and consumed, one that dovetails with Curtis’s thesis that “the Hug” signifies a societal turn to look inward—at nothing. He writes: “the Hug has become a part of the modern problem of not being able to imagine any alternative to the world of today. It is restraining, not liberating.” 1
Robot, a collaboration between Miller and the artist Takuji Kogo, uses another public and highly commodified zone of romantic love as source material—the personal ad. Aptly presented through a YouTube playlist for the New Museum’s First Look, the four works, Look 49 (2012), Swedish Gentleman (2006), A Little About Me (2010), and a new piece Hi Linda (2013), are synthetic music videos—each one set to an original score and featuring text appropriated from personal ads overlaid onto a visual collage. While short and visually spare, each video is rendered psychologically dense through the interplay of text with associative images and an electronic score, which mines and mimics various musical genres through condensed, synthetic beats. As a series, the Robot videos investigate the outer vicissitudes of the shift that Curtis describes: how individuals market themselves and their romantic desire amid a visual culture in which raw emotions have come to hold a strong currency.
The tension between authentic expression and rote conventions of feeling and form—for instance, music, landscape, and architecture—permeates the four Robot videos. In Swedish Gentleman, a camera zooms into a looping image of what appears to be a quaint small-town Scandinavian scene. As the artists note, the colorful houses and cobbled street are actually a planned community designed in the style of a medieval village—a romanticization of a bygone Swedish era and evidence of a reactionary reckoning with the country’s changing national identity. All the while, a doleful electronic voice sings the following lines, which appear like subtitles on the screen:
Pretty, nice, slim woman,
You pretty, nice, slim woman,
Asian or African about 30 years.
Are you looking for a nice, good looking,
about 40 years?
I run a successful company.
Unlike the sanitized professions on The Bachelor, here the idiosyncrasy of desire emerges from the templated quest for love, as do the cultural values and prejudices that circumscribe it. As his script attests, the “Swedish Gentleman” participates in the commodification of his own assets—his looks, his age, his culture, and career—as well as the ones he seeks. In a time when our privacy is so related to the control of our personal information, we see how so much can be revealed by fragments of personal description etched into such ads. Robot’s elongated electronic notes dramatize a mood of melancholy, drawing out the narrator’s longing and utter alienation from an actual personal connection. Here, as in other Robot videos, the character is both highly specific and anonymized to the point that his electronic-sounding voice could be a filter in After Effects or a preset for a guitar multi-effects pedal (perhaps “the Swedish gentleman” effect?).
Hi Linda, which premieres through First Look, offers a rendition of a modern-day love letter in which subtlety has been replaced by TMI, and the awkwardness of each phrase, such as “I’m glad you’re willing to give me another try,” is accentuated by a meandering Muzak soundtrack. The Hi Linda text was sourced not from a personal ad but rather from a phishing scam, which replaced the familiar enticement of funds available in an offshore bank account with the draw of romantic connection. The lines of the letter are layered over a desktop wallpaper image of a tree against a deep night sky, interrupted by the subliminal pulsing of a bare torso that suggests a more bodily desire that might underline such moments of romantic reverie. In Hi Linda, as in other Robot videos, the scenes are visually both totally empty—void of place or time—and also loaded with ideology, fantasy, fear, and violence.
Look 49 unfolds in a boundless black environment dotted with white lawn chairs; it feels utterly out-of-time and yet, like the Swedish Gentleman, entirely marked by the cultural specificity and racist proclivities of the narrator interested in “japanese, foreign women. black also welcome.”
In A Little About Me, a timid and whimsical love-seeker who “thrives on feelings of magic” is represented as a cut-out image of a girl layered over a panoramic pan of a parking lot. The video enables her yearning for the otherworldly: as she spins, her figure multiplies and condenses, and her many selves are buoyed up over the parking lot and into the sky.
Both Kogo and Miller have worked with material similar to the personal ads before starting Robot in 2004. Kogo, who has also run a gallery and an online platform called Candy Factory Projects since 1998, integrated junk mail and appropriated graphics from dating websites into his animations. His 2006 video Tokyo Rose Advertising depicts an exocitized girl who sings and sways for the viewer, as if conjured up by some mesh of pornographic, mass media, and consumer desire. Miller, whose installation, sculpture, photography, and performances are often conceived in tension with pop culture, has integrated personal ads into his work, beginning with his 2003 exhibition at Nagel entitled “A Mutually Beneficial Encounter.” Robot’s videos stand at a distance from the love-seekers that inspire them; Robot treats each ad with a dry humor and a modicum of sympathy while simultaneously pointing to the saturation of consumerism into our deepest emotional spaces and into our psychology, individual and cultural. The pieces operate as music videos, as short stories, and as meditations on looking for love in print, online, in person, and in your head today.
1 Adam Curtis, “The Curse of Tina Part Two,” The Medium and the Message Blog, BBC <http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/adamcurtis/posts/the_curse_of_tina_part_two> (accessed June 2, 2013).