“Capital has conquered the future. Capital has no fear of utopias, since it even tends to produce them.” ——Jacques Camatte, Against Domestication
In the near future, a technology referred to simply as “Patch” is widely adopted. A soft, white substance worn on the maxilla, which taps into the human nervous system, enables the sharing of physiological sensations and emotional experiences through physical manipulation of the wearer’s brain waves. With the help of Patch, pregnant women can intimate the feelings of a child in the womb; lovers can share their adoration for each other and co-experience the exhilarations of sex; and employers who ask their employees to wear Patch during work hours can monitor their performance and send requests or adjust goals in real time. This technology revolutionizes human communication, removing any misunderstandings that arise from language-based exchanges. On the one hand, Patch blurs the boundaries between self and others and between individual and collective; on the other hand, the urge to command others continue to gain strength. Ten years after the large-scale adoption of Patch in both the workplace and private lives, a sudden collapse of the network that manages the technology sends people who have grown dependent on it for their emotional interactions into widespread disorientation and panic…
Artist and writer Melanie Gilligan paints the fictional group portrait of a near-future society in which emotions and private sensibilities have been rendered public in her latest video, The Common Sense. As new technologies allow us to publish and share our emotions in real time, the concept of the transindividual, first proposed by French philosopher Gilbert Simondon, inspires the mind-reading powers of Gilligan’s Patch. The story critiques our commonly accepted social order through science fiction, borrowing from two of America’s best-known female sci-fi writers, Octavia E. Butler and Ursula K. Le Guin. The Common Sense, made up of 15 seven-minute stories, is Gilligan’s largest video project to date, shown at three institutions in the Netherlands from November, 2014 to March, 2015. Utrecht’s Casco is showing the first five segments, Phase 1, which make up the introduction, while De Hallen, in Haarlem, and De Appel Arts Center, in Amsterdam, are showing two different versions of the second chapter, Phase 2A and Phase 2B. Following the conclusion of the exhibitions, the video’s website will make the project available online, the very channel of distribution that circles back to the premise of the story. The physical incongruity of the exhibitions leads the viewer on a nomadic hunt, as sequential and overlapping schedules across three cities build a connection and a conversation through different points in the space-time continuum.
When the Patch system is restarted and service resumes, the story breaks into two parallel plotlines. In Phase 2A, the temporary service outage prompts the public to reflect on their overreliance on technology, and media figures lead the organization of a conference attended by people from all walks of life; educators attempt to rebuild trust in society through a series of games requiring collaboration, while Patch salespeople turn into researchers who study people who have either successfully overcome their dependence on Patch or are in the process of doing so. Meanwhile, Patch offers new group decision-making and action capabilities, and resistance continues to spread, leading to worldwide protest movements. The artist plants the seed for human emotion, increasingly marginalized by society’s dependence on technology and capital, to evolve in the future of this unfinished story.
In Phase 2B, at De Appel, society normalizes with the reboot of the Patch system. Technology enabling emotional manipulation assists regimes and markets in implementing new logics and means of exploitation. Businessmen attempt a strategic coalition with scientists with the slogan “desire is society’s new driving force.” Social networks and mobile devices imperceptibly direct society towards a new labor norm; easy access to information and communication blurs the line between work and personal life, shattering the traditional nine-to-five model, and always-on becomes the expectation rather than the exception. Gilligan instills her own interpretation of the fundamentals of the capitalist economy into the story; new technology replaces money as a unit of trade that drives further commoditization. The dire need to diversify the economy through technology becomes the driving force behind labor relations in modern businesses, and The Common Sense turns this observation into a social diorama to bring attention to the fact that technology has successfully tamed individual initiative. As with Phase 2A, Gilligan leaves Phase 2B with an open ending.
The video installation at the exhibition site, with widescreen displays mounted at a variety of directions and locations, work with the space’s steel scaffolding to create a cold and futuristic feel. The viewer must wear Bluetooth headsets and stand within their range to view the video shorts. Each display may connect to multiple headsets, mimicking the sharing and spreading of information and sensations through the Patch system in the films. Viewers, each immersed in his or her own viewing experience, are in fact receiving the same package of information.
Melanie Gilligan was born in 1979 in Toronto. She currently lives and works in New York and Europe. Following graduation from Central Saint Martins in 2002, Gilligan put her artistic exploration on hold and became an editor, copywriter, and researcher, engaging in literary and theoretical work while trying her hand at scriptwriting. This experience set the groundwork for her unique visual language, helping her create virtual worlds against realistic backdrops. Gilligan met a group of Marxist theorists and economists who predicted the 2008 global financial crisis in 2005, which turned her attention to the calamities brewing within the financial industry. Her piece Crisis in Credit System was completed a mere two weeks after the Lehman Brothers’ bankruptcy; she borrowed heavily from her interviews of bankers, financial journalists, and economists during the London financial crisis in writing the script. In Self Capital (2009) and Popular Unrest (2010), Gilligan turns her camera to the influences and changes in health care, education, and social welfare after the crisis. In The Common Sense, Gilligan leverages the familiar format of the television movie, expounding on subjects such as economic crises and global capitalism through a miniseries that spans several episodes, delineating complex relationships by tracing threads of technology, labor, and emotions. Her exploration of near-future human relationships is reminiscent of the recent film Her and the TV series Black Mirror. We cannot judge the quality of video art through the lens of commercial filmmaking, but we should note the artist’s clever mimicry of an existing and popular system to overcome the inherent shortcomings of video’s presentation and dissemination systems, extending its exhibition from physical art spaces to the internet and creating a viewing experience of consumption. As the viewer consumes the video shorts, she is asked to ponder the game of capital in which she has unwittingly become an active participant.
Text by Dai Xiyun
Translated by Frank Qian