19 April 2016

In our interview British new-media and performance artist Ed Fornieles talks about why he is interested in the control mania advocated by self-management cultures and how his upcoming "Bio Hacking Nail Art" performance at SCHIRN relates to this.

By Anna-Lena Werner

Known for his wide range of artistic approaches, and they include digital, sculptural and performance-based media, British artist Ed Fornieles uses his work to play an active part in debates on current social issues. A pioneer of the so-called Post-Internet movement, he has already exhibited in renowned institutions, such as the Palais De Tokyo in Paris, the New Museum in New York, and the Serpentine Gallery in London. Often concerned with socially embedded constructs such as authenticity or identity, Fornieles, who was born in 1983, challenges these notions by staging online and offline events, or performative sitcoms that function as platforms for manipulated encounters between real people. His avatar, a friendly cartoon fox, is part and parcel of these fictional narratives and blurs the borders between reality and the digital world. On the occasion of his "Bio Hacking Nail Art" performance, which Fornieles will stage at the SCHIRN on April 23, we talked to him about hypnotic visualizations, diet culture and the will to lose control.

Anna-Lena Werner: Ed, your practice encompasses social online projects and staged live events, not to mention sculptures and installations made of the remains of the performances. In this regard, your work creates a cycle revolving around itself. Once transformed from one media to the other, do you sense a shift in the value or hierarchy of the installations and objects? 

Ed Fornieles: Instead of a hierarchy, I prefer to look at them in terms of a network, in which each work is simply a node within a system. Each node points towards another node, so that a sculpture will point towards a performance and helps in communicating the latter’s intentions, and vice versa. Each component of that matrix can somehow be representative. 

ALW: On April 23 you will perform a "Bio Hacking Nail Art" project at SCHIRN. Can you tell me what the performance will be about? 

EF: You'll walk into the space and there will be a small installation set up, where people are having their nails painted. So you'll lie back in comfortable chairs, getting your nails painted, and you'll wear something blocking your eyes, and you'll have headphones on. The headphones will be playing a hypnotic visualization track. Within that time you will construct a beach in your mind, and then the audio will talk you through constructing a mind palace. The mind palace will be a palace for you to experiment with your imagination, to deposit memories. This is the first hypnotic track in a series that will take you on a journey where you will experiment with your own capacity to visualize and remember.

ALW: So it's actually like meditation? 

EF: Yes, a visualization exercise that uses meditation practices. The whole thing comes from looking at "self-management culture", at "biohacking" and "diet culture", which is also what my show in Berlin at Arratia Beer will be about. Diet culture tries to view the individual as something that can be observed, manipulated and controlled. I think this is a problem in a way of thinking; what’s very apparent here is how the individual is fractured and identity likewise fractured. 

ALW: What exactly is the idea of "biohacking"? 

EF: "Biohacking" is the hacking of ideas. It means that if you understand the system then you can control it. There’s a lot of tension within that proposition, and it's slightly insane, because you will never fully understand your body. But the people who advocate it feel that you can. For instance with the diets, you control what you eat to achieve certain results, like a heightened state of awareness, free will, or increased willpower. Or, more traditionally, you manipulate your body for certain social returns. But in the end you realize how little control you actually have. 

ALW: While diet culture wants you to gain control over your body, you once said that in terms of your artistic practice you want to lose control over your own works. Why is that? 

EF: I set up performances or other works on social platforms such as Facebook – they function as models, and I put a lot of effort into constructing their boundaries. Then I allow whatever takes place to take place. It's not under my control anymore. That's kind of exciting, because whatever I can think of in my head is probably not as interesting as what a group of people may come up with. The same thing is true of hypnotic visualization: A framework is given, a proposition made, but what plays out is internal and specific to you. Your beach only looks like your beach.

Copyright Ed Fornieles, 2016

ALW: For the performance “New York New York Happy Happy” you staged a fictional charity gala at the New Museum in New York in 2013 and transferred encounters of fake people into the real museum space. How does an event like this this affect your role as an artist? 

EF: My role is to program the event. When it's there I have almost no control and I am just on the same level with everybody else. All you need to do beforehand is to create a bunch of rules. Guests could be themselves, albeit the augmented version of themselves. We tried to push people into an extroverted mode, the sort of thing you would find at these kinds of events anyway. It's an act of self-promotion, of domination. Startlingly real things happen at these events: We've had relationships begin or end, and many strange things occurred. 

ALW: Like creating a live sitcom... 

EF: Yes, but it's also in line with the Happening movement of the 1960s, where you created a bunch of rules that existed within a room, and differed from normal situations. And then things happen that would normally never happen. It's powerful. 

ALW: Much of your work comments on how social behavior is affected by the Internet. “Nail Art”, for example, is a trending subject online. Do these digital narratives actually mirror our societies, or do they represent a parallel world?

EF: The "trending" or "going viral" is an interesting metaphor for a seed getting sown and, for whatever reasons, it becomes super popular and therefore, within that popularity, it asserts its power. Trending, its constant flow of images and its visual threads, are symptoms of bigger structures. They become markers for certain online tribes or groups. “Nail Art” is just one example of that. 

ALW: What kinds of other trending subjects have you been following recently? 

EF: I’ve been exploring American cottage culture. It changes its form very quickly – in terms of what people are wearing, what they are listening to, and how they communicate with each other. The inner structure, however, remains almost static. 

ALW: Were these static inner structures also an issue in your solo show “Modern Family” – an exhibition about the roles and constellations of the family that you held at the Chisenhale Gallery in London two years ago? 

EF: Yes! What's interesting is the form that is constantly shifting, while its core remains static. The reason why I called the show “Modern Family” was a TV program on FOX: “Modern Family” is the first TV program that has a gay family as central characters, but it simulates the gay family in the mold of a conservative, nuclear family that has its roots in the 1950s and earlier. Within the family, we know our roles. The narrative is so incredibly strong, based on cultural and biological factors; it’s amazing how uniform it is. 

ALW: “Modern Family” brings the notion of the online world into the traditional family picture. Thus, the work is also about where and how you feel home. Can you feel at home in a digital space and can we have digital families online?

Copyright Ed Fornieles, 2016

EF: I think that the digital functions exactly the same way image cultures always function. The family may be considered a portal from image world into lived or performance world. What online essentially does is that it accelerates or strengthens a bond between image and performance, through a frequency of images or narratives. There is simply more. 

ALW: Does that also count for digital self-presentations? 

EF: Yes, I think so. We were talking about fractured identities before, and I think online accelerates that process of detachment. You can exist in many different language forums all at the same time, based on which website you happen to be on, or which context you happen to be in. This has always existed. You have a certain set of languages for a professional context and another set with your friends, and you know perfectly well how to do that switch. What online does is to make that process more apparent and more plastic. I can become a cartoon fox and people can understand what that is, and they can communicate with it. 

ALW: The cartoon fox is your avatar... 

EF: I actually consider it an evolution of my form that allows me to function more effectively, truthfully, and more honestly online. It also displaces what I look like. I personally find the selfie-mode quite awkward. The fox liberates me from that tension. 

ALW: Do you draw it yourself? 

EF: I sketched it, very badly, and then I have somebody in India who draws it for me.

Copyright Ed Fornieles, 2016

ALW: So, you basically outsource your look. 

EF: Artists have really engineered themselves into middle management, whereby they run small businesses. I have two editors in the Ukraine, one in South Africa and one in Spain. I have the cartoonist in India. I spend my day communicating with people all over the place. Hence I am interested in mimicking bigger structures and maybe corporate structures; one thing I wanted to do this year was to move some production to China, fragmenting the artist’s studio practice. 

ALW: The "Modern Family" incorporated a sign bearing the slogan “Be Yourself". Do you think that there is something like a "self" online? 

EF: Rob Horning, a great writer, talks about the "digital self". You might have this idea of who you are, which you somehow perceive as being internal, but actually there is this other ‘you’ – you can view yourself as all of these small micro-decisions that you have made and communicated online. That's a "self", and it is one also being interpreted by large, financial corporate bodies. Facebook's value is literally created by harvesting all these data cells. And then you become blurred between all the millions of other people. I am most interested in trying to present this tension between you sensing yourself as unique and at the same time being part of a group. I think that's a trick through which we manage to reconcile ourselves. We have to be both, because we are social beings. If we weren't like that, things would stop making sense.

Copyright Ed Fornieles, 2016