On Christian Falsnaes’s “Rea McNamara”

by Rea McNamara on September 15, 2015 Berlin + Reviews

How does it feel to be an artist’s material? For me, it felt like crossing a boundary—or at least it did this afternoon when I was emailed a YouTube link documenting my performance in Christian Falsnaes’s “The Title Is Your Name”. The work is part of his contribution to the 2015 National Gallery Prize exhibition at Berlin’s Hamburger Bahnhof, which includes works from the other shortlisted artists Florian Hecker, Anne Imhof and Slavs and Tatars. (The prize winner will be determined by international jury on September 18th.)

When I watched the video “Rea McNamara”, then, I saw myself — the supposedly passive art viewer — as the protagonist of this work of art. I’m alone, in a curtained-off white room, watching at a desk with headphones a video on a iPad. Prior to entering, I was in a cordoned off waiting room; at the request of a docent in German, I turned off my iPhone. A distracted attention span would not be tolerated.

So when I saw Falsnaes’s pale face in the iPad — his chipped tooth glinting against the glare of the screen—  it felt like a Skyped-in interrogation, even though it appeared as if he was filmed in the same room, sitting just opposite me. When he asks me to speak whatever’s on my mind, I respond, “it’s kind of intense how you’re looking at me. I feel like slightly interrogated, but also, I guess, alone?”

He tells me to stand up, and hold the iPad above my head, but not break eye contact. Move around the room, he says. His image in the screen mirrors my own actions: there’s a lack of distance which soon enough fosters a surprising intimacy. A level of trust emerges; walking around loosens me up, and shifts the exchange from being word-centred to body-based. Stop, he says. Lower the iPad, hold it directly in front you. Now, we’re going to dance with each other.

We sway in a sort of waltz box step: he remains serious, but I eventually can’t help but crack a smile. After all, I’m dancing by myself. But then again, I’m not. The image in the screen is doing the same: aren’t we’re just alone, but together? The waltz finishes, and he asks that I move the iPad closer to my face: it’s a physical lean into sharing confidences. What’s on my mind? How do I feel right now in this moment? “I feel close to you.” I told him, speaking literally of our proximity.

Afterwards, a pop-up informed me I had been filmed: did I want to be emailed the link, or have the video purged from existence? If I chose the former, I would consent to becoming a public art work by Falsnaes. For a moment, I felt exploited, and considered purging the video. I didn’t tell him he could film me, and now he’s asking for a favor?

As a performance artist who coerces unsuspecting audiences to enact rituals prevalent in the interplay between art and its publics, Falsnaes relies on viewers to play. “Whoever participates in a performance by Christian Falsnaes,” says his website, “should be prepared to become intimately involved in the artistic event.” And he’s there, passing the ball: cheering on viewers to paint blank canvases later exhibited (“One”), or scripting audio instructionals for wireless headphones, talking participants through choreographed movements for a staged performance (“Justified Beliefs”). Whether or not you choose to catch the pass is up to you, but the play’s the thing.  

Ultimately, I chose to see the project through. More out of curiosity than vanity, I typed in my email: I wanted to see how my bodily experience translated into a video image. While the exchange may have seemed unique and one-on-one, Falsnaes was ultimately a video image screened repeatedly for each viewer entering the room.

My video now exists alongside other performances in a YouTube channel, and the performances vary only slightly in response to the same script: most of the protagonists smile (or even laugh) when Falsnaes asks to dance. Many of the videos are in German, but there are some in English. In “Laurie Rojas”, Rojas probably smiled more widely throughout her slow dance with Falsnaes, and confided to the camera how she found the experience “awkward, but interesting.”

But as the protagonist in “Marcel Alcaca”, Alcaca was cooly clinical when Falsnaes first asked him how he felt: he told Falsnaes he liked his chipped tooth, and noted how the iPad only had 22% battery left. When he danced, his eyes were cast down, and he seemed to keep Falsnaes at a distance. It’s unclear whether or not he ever let his guard down. Sitting back at the desk, he brings the iPad so close: all you see are his eyes and forehead. He rapidly blinks, looks away. “You’re cute,” he says in a rush of words, “but you don’t know what to do.”

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