As you enter the large, airy exhibition hall where Ed Atkins' Performance Capture takes place, your eyes immediately converge on the enormous, bellowing video playing across the mostly barren room. The head—and, occasionally the disembodied arms—of a bald, white, male CGI character floats around on a neutral gray background while uttering occasionally bizarre but mostly poetic lines like “I’m basically a totally baroque conceit. The ghost of a universe of really big fleas.”
On display at The Kitchen as part of the ongoing exhibition series From Minimalism into Algorithm curated by Tim Griffin and Lumi Tan, Performance Capture highlights Atkins’ ever-ingenious ability to manipulate the intended functions of contemporary imaging technology towards a more philosophical and critical direction.
In this instance, Atkins uses motion capture technology not to simulate an unworldly being like Smaug, but to create an incredibly nondescript human character. And unlike the characters from the The Hobbit franchise, Atkins’ character wasn’t portrayed by a single professional motion capture actor, but instead by over 130 different people from many walks of life.
The base recordings for Performance Capture happened in 2015 during the Manchester International Festival. The participants included “Performers, including ballet dancers, comedians, and actors, but also administrators, guards, cleaners, the whole gamut,” Atkins tells The Creators Project. “The only rule was their attachment to the festival.” The script read by the participants was written by Atkins, which he states, “Was divided in sequence—no curating of what for whom, just what the next chunk to come up was.”
Beyond different gestural nuances, the most jarring effect of the wide range of participants is the immense disconnect between the voice and appearance of the digital character. Every few minutes, the voice speaking to the viewer changes, but the CGI character remains a plain, bald, white, man, and more often than not, the voice emanating from the video does not seem to belong to a figure of such description.
The choice behind the character’s visual appearance has a conceptual rigor behind it: “It was based on the non-neutrality of the protagonist. The process of ‘capturing’ a slew of gorgeous people, ‘rendering’ them down to some essentialized data, squeezing them all into the same white man—this is and had to be a fundamentally violent thing to do to someone,” Atkins continues. “At the heart of the script, the work, the performances—all of it—is more or less explicit critique of the tacit violence that might be inflicted by various technologies in their mediation of humans, their identities, etc.”
Accompanying the exhibition video are a series of performances by an array of musicians including C. Spencer Yeh, Marcia Bassett, and Matthew Regula. Every Wednesday and Friday at 1:30 PM for the duration of the show, Atkins himself will perform, reading his own written work, including the script to his seminal work, Us Dead Talk Love.
For more information on Performance Capture and the show’s upcoming performances, click through to The Kitchen. Ed Atkins’ exhibition runs in New York until May 14th, 2016.