Getting over metadata: connection, presence and dialogue in Alone Together by LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner at Ars17 – Hello World!

Frame invites writers and curators to explore and examine topical themes in Finnish contemporary art they find necessary to write about. In the first article of the series, independent curator Hanna Ohtonen writes about the artistic trio LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner‘s recent performance #ALONETOGETHER, which gained a group of devoted followers at the ARS17 exhibition at the Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art. ARS17 is open to public until 14 January 2018.

 

We look at a box. Someone tells us: inside the box there is a cat, but we do not know whether the cat is alive or dead. How many cats are there, then, inside the box?

Quantum theory suggests the answer is two (1). As the probabilities of a dead cat and a live one are equally possible, theoretically, for the duration of our not-knowing, the two versions of the same cat exist, parallel and entangled with each other. Artist and writer Hito Steyerl has suggested that it is in fact the act of observation—our witnessing the cat’s state of being—that fixes the cat into one form of matter, dead or alive, ending its state of limbo (2). Steyerl sees this—acknowledging the role of the observer in actively shaping reality—as one of the main achievements of quantum theory.

I read Steyerl’s thoughts on the theory about the cat in the box as I was writing about Alone Together, a performance piece by artist collective LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner (Shia LaBeouf, Nastja Säde Rönkkö, Luke Turner) at the Ars17 – Hello World! group show at Helsinki’s Museum of Contemporary Art Kiasma recently. The collective works around the world, creating participatory projects and performances about subjects like emotion, social interaction and celebrity status. One of their key interests lies in possibilities of forming communality across digital and physical networks, a theme also addressed by Alone Together. Their works often involve the artists relinquishing partial power over the work or themselves to their audiences, inviting the participants to co-create and connect with them.

During the performance in Kiasma, the collective spent one month at three unknown locations around northern Finland, each of them alone in a remote cabin. A fourth cabin was built inside the museum, and inside visitors were able to communicate with the artists via web cameras. The artists sat by their computers for the duration of the museum’s opening hours, taking only small breaks. They could hear the discussions inside the museum cabin, but could not talk with each other nor with anyone else, apart from the museum visitors, whom with they communicated by typing messages on the screens to which their web cameras were connected. They were present and available to the visitors, although their presence was a remote one. In physical reality, the visitors were alone in the museum cabin, or in the presence of each other.

 

labeouf ronkko turner alone together kiasmaIn the light of the theory discussed by Steyerl, who was also among the artists exhibiting in Ars17, my question is this: how many artists were actually inside the cabin built inside the museum—zero, three or six? If one was able to see them, talk to them, communicate and connect with them, were the artists present despite the lack of their physical existence in the space? And if so, were they also present this way when the museum was closed? Could one say they were present when people read about the art work, becoming aware of the possibility of visiting the artists in the museum, or when their frequent visitors went home, knowing they would return to them the following day? The work was exhibited in the museum before the active performance, and is still there until the exhibition ends in January 2018. Are the artists somehow still there even now?

“How many artists were actually inside the cabin built inside the museum—zero, three or six?”

Does the (passed) possibility of meeting the artists inside the cabin—or the digital nature of their existence in the space—create a forking in time, where in fact the artists are both inside the box and not inside it at the same time?

One possible answer to this question could be that the presence of the viewers in the shared virtual space of the cabin inside the museum is what brought the artists inside it as well—that the artists were present in the museum only when they were observed and communicated with by the viewers. In this sense Alone Together underlines one of art’s existential questions quite clearly: is an artwork alive without an audience?

However, my personal interest in Alone Together insists on moving further inside my original question about the possibilities of artistic presence. Before starting the performance the collective described it as an experiment in remote communication, and as an extreme example of how we share the world today, being highly connected via technology yet far away from each other in many other ways. Visiting the work several times I got the feeling that true connection via these virtual forms of communication was indeed what the artists were trying to establish. They seemed to aspire to be emotionally present, not tiring of people’s often repeated questions and asking straightforward questions themselves. They also divulged personal information about themselves quite openly into one-on-one conversations, which to me suggested they were truly trying to connect, even though they were, perhaps, not sure whether it would be at all possible this way.

As time went on, one had to wonder about how lonely they were getting, each on their own in the middle of nowhere, the connection to the museum the only social interaction they had for a month. In our current state of existence with smartphones, laptops, messaging apps… all imaginable forms of being constantly online and available, such remoteness seems rather extreme. LaBeouf, appearing as an upfront and direct person, was saying things like “I’m fuckin’ lonely and desperate to be talking with you”. In other words, the artists were dependent on their visitors, not only in the sense that the experiment of the work would have failed had they had no one to try and connect with, but also in the sense that the visitors were their only connection to the outside world. The artists would frequently ask the visitors about current news, and in longer conversations requested the visitors to read out loud the other artists’ messages in order to stay in the loop of the conversations. The observers were shaping the artwork’s outcomes, but also the reality of the artists by filtering their news and forming their temporary social circle.

“I’m fuckin’ lonely and desperate to be talking with you”

Remarkably, a circle of ‘true fans’ was formed during the performance; around fifteen people kept returning to the museum cabin almost on a daily basis, spending hours inside it chatting with the artists as well as with each other. Surely LaBeouf’s celebrity status through box office hit films like Transformers and Indiana Jones contributed to the buzz and interest that Alone Together generated in Finland, resulting, perhaps, in a rare increase in the number of teenage visitors in Kiasma—one of the most challenging target audiences in the museum field (3). For the group that became regular visitors of Alone Together, the work had a strong influence. They connected both with each other as well as with theartists on what one of them described to have been a deep, meaningful level and a “healing, transforming experience” (4). Members of this group bonded and formed relationships that could last long beyond the duration of the performance, which is, in my opinion, quite an amazing achievement for an artwork.

labeouf ronkko turner kiasma alone togetherAs a result, Alone Together definitely expanded in time, not only in the sense that the work was and still is part of the exhibition, beyond the duration of the one month active performance, but also by surviving outside the museum for those who found each other within its walls. I witnessed these newly formed friendships in another performance by Nastja Säde Rönkkö at the SIC gallery in Helsinki shortly after the three artists had returned from their solitude in the cabins. Many of them came to participate in Sometimes forever, which was part of a group exhibition called Good Vibrations, curated by Elina Suoyrjö. During the performance Rönkkö made stick-and-poke tattos for the visitors, exchanging them for memories visitors wanted to either keep or erase, being offered a choice of a permanent or a fading tattoo.

Again, the group of Alone Together fans created an interesting warp in the visitor profile of the gallery; as these teenagers—many of whom I assumed visited SIC for the first time—lined up for Rönkkö’s tattoos, the regular visitors of SIC—largely local art workers—were turned away at the door as the time slots for tattoos ran out. For this one afternoon and evening SIC hosted an unanticipated group of visitors, creating a change in the gallery atmosphere and pushing together people thatmight have not met each other otherwise.

nastja-sade-ronkko-SIC-photo-Hanna-Ohtonen

Could one say, then, that Alone Together succeeded in creating true connections? I have to confess that before visiting Alone Together I was skeptical about its potential for connecting with people, because I was thinking about the premises artists always have about their work. I questioned the power relations the set-up of artist-visitor-museum unavoidably creates, and was wondering whether the collective could get past the expectations they must have had about how the work was going to unfold. I was not sure what kind of dialogues could be formed in this setting, especially as it was also stirred by LaBeouf’s celebrity status. Could there ever be a common ground, or a meaningful, shared journey, in a situation where the metadata (5) of the work —its context, authorship, media and expectations—determined so much of where each conversation set off from?

labeouf ronkko turner alonetogether

Happily I witnessed an encounter that deflated my preconceptions. During one of my visits to the cabin in Kiasma, a young assumed male visitor started talking with LaBeouf. I realised he had been there before, and felt that LaBeouf had confronted him somehow. “Why is he roasting me?” asked the visitor, looking at his friend standing next to him. “I don’t think he is,” I said, having read LaBeouf’s side of the conversation as humorous teasing. They kept on talking, and LaBeouf insisted they would be “pals”, rejoicing when the visitor accepted his request. This seemed to break a barrier between them, and the visitor asked LaBeouf, quite surprisingly: “Who is the person in your life whom you have connected with the most?” LaBeouf laughed again, exclaiming “YES!” on the screen and clapping his hands. “My mother”, he then replied, going on to talk warmly and openly about his relationship with her. The two ended up talking about the visitor’s distant father, and about why so many men are distant from their children’s emotional lives. I got goosebumps in listening to their exchange, feeling both like I was eavesdropping and grateful for having not been excluded from this very personal exchange.

“Who is the person in your life whom you have connected with the most?”

I concluded that whether this conversation was meaningful to LaBeouf or not was, in the end, irrelevant in considering the success of Alone Together. It was clear that it was meaningful for the visitor, for whom LaBeouf was visibly an admired figure. I was in awe of the visitor’s courage in sharing personal information in the company of a cabin full of strangers, and thought that he must have been feeling truly connected to LaBeouf in order to do so. I decided that, in this context, even a one-sided feeling of true connection is enough to establish itself. Shared experiences will never feel the same for all those included. If an artwork manages to open a connection towards its viewer, it has found a way to become alive. For me, this is a success. In a sense it doesn’t matter that the artists are not physically present, that the connection happens via technology, and that there are power relations at play. At least three artists have been inside the cabin box, as their presence has felt real to someone. The cat is simply alive, and the observers have fixed it into this form of existence.

 

Hanna Ohtonen
Independent curator and writer
This theory, originally put forward by Erwin Schrödinger, is referenced by Hito Steyerl in ‘Missing People: Entaglement, Superposition and Exhumation as Sites of Indeterminacy. The Wretched of the Screen’, e-flux journal, 2012.

(2) See footnote no 1.

(3) Studies have shown that there is a significant gap in museum visits from the time when young people leave school to when they settle down and have children. See for example
Black, G. The Engaging Museum: Developing Museums for Visitor Involvement, Routledge, Oxon, 2005.

(4) The individual concerned wishes to remain unnamed in this context.

(5) Metadata is data that describes other data; it summarises basic information about data. For example, author, date created and date modified are examples of very basic document metadata. Data is digital raw material that can build information or just act as digital noise.


Photos: Shia LaBeouf (1986 USA), Nastja Säde Rönkkö (1985 Finland) and Luke Turner (1982 UK). #ALONETOGETHER, 2017. Performance, installation and livestream, photos Finnish National Gallery / Pirje Mykkänen. Nastja Säde Rönkkö’s performance at SIC, photo Hanna Ohtonen.

#ALONETOGETHER on Kiasma’s Guide to Ars17