Shoes off, gestures the man in underpants
Review by Hagar Schuringa (NRC)
IMPAKT Festival. What is the relationship between technology and intimacy? To engage with that question, Dries Verhoeven’s installation makes the viewer an uncomfortable participant.
The video installation Guilty Landscapes / episode IV by Dries Verhoeven was on display at IMPAKT
The video shows a man seated, smoking. When I step into the space, he shakes his head from side-to-side and crosses his arms. He points to the telephone clasped in my hand. Baffled, I allow the hand holding the phone to lower. Again, the man shakes his head. He gestures that I should have put the device in my bag. ‘Good coding’, I think to myself.
This year’s edition of IMPAKT Festival focused on Modern Love, exploring how technology and media have changed our perception and experience of love, sexuality and intimacy. The standout piece was the one by Dries Verhoeven on display at Centraal Museum. Verhoeven uses Guilty Landscapes / episode IV to focus his gaze on Sri Lanka, the Philippines and Thailand, where increasing numbers of sex workers in tourist areas have switched to webcam sex to satisfy the Western demand for intimacy. The artist examines the relationship between an Asian online sex worker and the viewer, using his video installation to question whether it is possible – in a time when we are now outsourcing even our need for gratification to the Global South – to have an equal relationship with each other.
The man on the wall dances for me, dressed only in underpants and white sport socks. He is standing in a rundown indoor space, a fan rotating on the ceiling. The large reception desk in the background suggests this place once thronged with visitors. Here and there lie mattresses on the floor. Sometimes he looks at me. ‘Is this live?” I wonder. The man removes his underpants and continues to dance to the music blaring from his ghetto blaster. He gestures to me that I should remove my shoes. I take one shoe off but hesitate when it comes to the second shoe. What am I doing? I shake my head. The man shrugs and waits for me to move so he can mirror me. Am I watching him, or is he watching me? It’s only when the man has gone that I discover a small hole at the centre of the wall containing a camera. I was being filmed after all.
The 35-year-old artist Dries Verhoeven operates at the interface of performance and installation. His pieces are active, and typically invite the viewer to guide their own experience – as in the case of Guilty Landscapes / episode IV. The effect of this video installation is confusing, even destabilising. As a viewer you do not immediately understand whether you are watching a video that’s been programmed to respond to your movements or whether there is a live online connection.
Empathy and privacy
In just a few minutes, Verhoeven ingeniously manages to unsettle the viewer while also encapsulating some essential issues raised by our digital age. The question arises, for example, of whether we can be empathetic when there is a digital distance between the two people involved. And what is the place of privacy in this intimacy-based relationship?
The video installation is accompanied by two extracts from Susan Sontag’s 2002 essay Regarding the Pain of Others, in which the author resists the notion that the overabundance of unpleasant imagery and injustices in our technological era makes us more unfeeling. ‘The states described as apathy, moral or emotional anaesthesia, are full of feelings,’ writes Sontag, ‘The feelings are rage and frustration.’ Verhoeven notes that the viewer should regard these extracts as a body of ideas rather than an explanation of the work. This unconstrained attitude is also present in the work itself. First and foremost Guilty Landscapes / episode IV invites the viewer to reflect, and does not adopt a clear standpoint.
One strength of the work is that on entering the space the viewer is assigned the role of voyeur, only for the roles to be quickly reversed. The man responds to the behaviour of the viewer, making it seemingly impossible to just watch. Verhoeven’s video installation functions as a mirror. As a viewer you have little option but to examine your own behaviour.