Anne Nigten on M.A.S.S. (and The Art of Uselessness)
As a respondent of the MASS project, I’ll share my thoughts, associations and the highlights of conversations I had with Julio Soto (ES) and Scott Petill (US), the makers of the MASS project.
I visited the MASS website prior to talking to its makers. Here I found their description of the work, a first reference point that set the tone for my investigation. My very first glimpse of the MASS project documentation reminded me of a zoo. Why? First of all, the previous MASS set up – the audience gathered in front of a large screen – is remarkably suggestive of a zoo, where visitors assemble in front of a cage to get a reaction from or even to interact with caged animals. Avatars, the fictional characters that populate the virtual environment, in this case replace the animals. One becomes immediately aware that the artists chose to allow the avatars semi-autonomous behaviour. This observation is reflected mainly in the audience’s behaviour.
The installation doesn’t come with an input device, so the visitor has to figure out other ways to ‘get in touch’ with the avatars. In order to do so, visitors are encouraged to revisit ancient, real-life interaction scenarios, such as the one remembered from childhood visits to the zoo. Secondly, this reminded me of the ‘who is looking at whom’ scenario, the twist and constant interplay between antagonist and protagonist. Bert Haanstra’s (NL) movie Ape and Super-Ape (1972) is a striking reference to this game of mirrors. For this movie, Haanstra worked with a behavioural scientist to visualize in a sometimes, hilarious way, the deeply philosophical issue of behavioural similarities and differences between humans and (wild) animals. As a concluding thought on this zoo association, I would like to mention the useless aspect of this installation: for, while we can draw lessons from it with regard to our own behaviour, the most interesting aspect of this work is its uselessness – in the sense of a non-functional activity such as going to the zoo – and its playfulness. This is an interesting response to the current trend towards applied or ‘useful’ art, especially now, in a period of economic recession, when usefulness seems to prevail as the key to evaluation.