Ed Atkins' latest exhibition Performance Capture is commissioned by Manchester International Festival and co-curated by Atkins himself alongside Hans Ulrick Obrist and Alex Poots. Staged across three rooms this is an ambitious live project that reveals the enigmatic process behind computer-generated imagery, presented as an exhibition, studio and singular film document of MIF15. The performers in the work consist of this year’s festival directors, dancers, actors and volunteers. Several high profile names are expected to appear but their timing is kept secret to avoid hype.
by Katrina Houghton
Dominating the first room of Performance Capture is large white stage, rigged and framed with intense studio lighting. The air is hot with the distinct humming of electricity. Centre stage a performer stands suited and booted in special Performance Capture uniform enhanced by a gyroscopic inertial sensor-laden jacket, gloves and hat. Reading queued text and exaggerating their facial expressions into a camera, every flinch is being mapped. Their motion is being fed directly into a live ‘Render Farm’ visible through an opening in the far wall where several technicians from Studio Distract (based in Ancoats) are busy. This all seems a bit sci-fi and I feel as though I have stumbled upon a secretive film studio yet something isn’t quite right. The walls surrounding the space are illustrated with a storyboard series of unsettling illustrations; gestured hands, broken fingers and severed limbs, all accompanied by extracts from Atkins’ script. We are told that “Rendering the captured individual brutalizes nuance and vitalizes representation” and to “Read more about the symptoms of dementia”. Trust me when I say that upon refection this will make more sense.
What is apparent from the get go is Atkins’ talent; not just as a visual artist, but also as a writer and poet. It is the prose that adorns the walls of the gallery and directs the script for Performance Capture that evokes the uncanny sense of a synthetic reality that is often associated with computer generated imagery. This is about how it makes you feel. So much of what we see today in photography, film and the media is a product of hyper-real digital manipulations that an untrained eye would struggle to differentiate between what is fantasy and reality. Atkins asks us to consider this problematic relationship in how technologies grounded on their realistic accuracy might open up possibilities to manipulate our perception of the world around us. This is highlighted through the twenty-four hour live news feed playing on a wall in the Render Farm. At first it’s difficult to understand its connection to the surroundings, playing alongside a stream of technicians whom have been carefully assigned to each edit elements of the ongoing performance and apply them to individual body parts of the avatar. After some consideration, you as the viewer begin to realise that the news is in fact a real life depiction of a carefully curated representation of reality. This realisation is an unnerving and witty commentary from Atkins on the ways in which technology can be abused with reference to our current politics and world affairs. Not least for the side offering of text that compares David Cameron to a comedy sock puppet ‘without any arm up it’.
Navigating the exhibition I can’t help but feel echoes of Walter Benjamin’s ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Reproduction’. The spectacle of Performance Capture resonates with Benjamin’s essay written when photography was considered the cutting-edge technology of the time. Benjamin argued that the ‘aura’ of the original unique work of art is lost to reproducibility; but this far from being something to mourn, opens up endless progressive possibilities. Time has proved this to be true and this is how I feel about our relationship with computer-generated imagery. Though this technology has been accessible for decades now, its ability to create seamless realistic detail is becoming increasingly impressive and is unimaginable anywhere at any time before this. We fear what don’t understand and non-traditional image creation has all too often been reluctantly accepted. Photography has regularly been the cheerleader for championing new technology and now Atkins wants to push this artistic engagement to the forefront of today’s digital advances. This exhibition quite literally destroys the mystery of digital manipulation and in doing so awakens a sense of admiration for the men and women who regularly use such expertise to enhance their practice. We are right to be precautious and this unveiling work of art makes us acutely aware of how technology can be misused, however sinister outputs aside we should also welcome its development as a means to evolve.
The final segment is a cinema playing an accumulation of all the MIF performers morphed into the singular avatar. Unsettling as it sounds, this assumingly white male with detailed eyebrows, lashes and pores has a sort of innocent just been born quality and in a sense he has. I am intrigued to see his development as the exhibition progresses over the next few weeks. I must confess I have been twice already but that is what’s interesting about this exhibition, no two visits are the same.
Katrina Houghton is an artist and journalist working in Manchester, you can follow her on Twitter @KatrinaHoughton. This piece is produced as part of Katrina's involvement in the CVAN NW Critical Writing Programme. Read more about Katrina's place on the programme here.
Image at the top by Ed Atkins and Adam Sinclair