On the day I went to see the artist Ed Atkins perform as part of Performance Capture, his current exhibition at The Kitchen in New York, he stepped onto a low, wooden stage in the exhibition space and began reading aloud from his book A Seer Reader, which was published by Koenig Books in 2015. He did not stop—not to recalibrate his pace, gather his thoughts, nor to take a sip of water from the unopened bottle in front of him, nor even to stumble over a word—until he finished the book almost an hour and a half later.
Next to the stage was a large screen, on which his video Performance Capture was screened. It features a computer-generated image of a bald man, who has become an avatar of sorts in Atkins’s work. In previous works, such as Happy Birthday! (2014), which was screened at the most recent New Museum Triennial, the man dissolves and re-morphs constantly, appearing every time with a different date plastered on his forehead. In Ribbons (2014), he smokes, drinks, sings the standard “I Think It’s Gonna Rain Today,” sits at a bar, and discusses life, digital life, and other less discernible topics. In Performance Capture, the action is all gone, and he has been stripped down to a close-up of unattached head and limbs. While Atkins reads, subtitles capture his lecture. The language is frantic, thick, exhausting. And the dispersed attention of the viewer—reading onscreen, listening in space, watching the bald man—only adds to the feverish tone.
Performance Capture was originally produced in 2015 for the Manchester International Festival. That iteration involved the audience in all aspects of production: viewers wore full-body motion-capture suits as they modeled and performed. Their activities and voices were recorded and rendered digitally. The end result is the single figure in the video, who is actually a composite of over 100 participants. (This mirrors another piece shown at The Kitchen recently in Anicka Yi’s exhibition You Can Call Me F, which included a scent fused from the biodata of 100 women in the art world.)
Before he began reading his book, Atkins said it was a series of aphoristic bits of prophecy. Although it feels as though it was written for the stage, it wasn’t. The text was originally published on the occasion of Atkins’s solo show at the Serpentine in 2014. Every Wednesday and Friday until the current show ends, Atkins will hold a “lunchtime performance” and read a different text each time. On select dates, he is joined by other performers, including Ben Vida, Marcia Bassett and Graham Lambkin.
Lambkin’s voice was integrated into the video on the Friday I was at The Kitchen, which followed his 23 April performance. “The so-called digital life,” the subtitle says at a certain moment, inducing the viewer to wonder whether this amorphous, anthropomorphic Pygmalion-type figure is real, or if it is an empty vessel waiting to be filled. The text changes from version to version, and when the video is muted, during Atkins’s reading, at some points the artist’s voice synchronizes with the figure’s lips quite seamlessly. It’s a confusing process: Performance Capture began with 100 people reading a text and modeling motions for the camera; in its current iteration, during performances, viewers are watching two versions of the work, which will then meld into one, which will then be replaced by another reading, and so on, although not ad infinitum (the exhibition ends on 14 May and Atkins might upload the numerous versions of the video online when the show is done.)
The narrator who recounts different texts each day is accompanied by a timestamp on the top right corner of the video. The piece measures one hour and twenty minutes; the timestamp, however, runs linearly, then stops, then starts again at a different number. Constantly. It makes it to 00:58:00 then starts again at 00:02:27. It changes again at minute 13. What seems to denote measurable standards becomes part of the work’s seamless transition between different fictions.
How do you know when Performance Capture ends? How do you know when it begins? Looking at this work is an exercise in distributed awareness. Its different elements—performance, video, sound and silence, subtitles, a lack of linearity and, of course, the exhibition space—continuously challenge viewing experience. The work is fragmented and difficult, but also engrossing and rewarding.
The timestamp is reminiscent of another technology that Performance Capture flirts with: VHS. Rewriting video is associated with tapes and old, clunky players. It’s home-user technology. Here is another layer: rather than looking at Performance Capture as a work of endless revisions and instability, it can be seen as an echo of that home-use intimacy.
• Orit Gat is a writer based in New York and London. She is the features editor of Rhizome and managing editor of WdW Review.
• Performance Capture, The Kitchen, New York, until 14 May. Performances will be held on closing day by C. Spencer Yeh (at 2PM) and Ed Atkins (6PM)