Exploring a core level of curiosity in the human experience, FACT’s new — and now viral — exhibition Follow will make you question what contemporary reality actually means, finds Laura Robertson…
What’s real? Is this real? What does ‘real’ mean anyway? By definition, something that is real exists as a thing, or occurs in fact, as opposed to something that is imagined. But if an identity is imagined and presented, does that make it real?
You may question what is real at FACT, Liverpool, this weekend, at a new exhibition called Follow. In some parallel universe, one which I’ve stumbled into, Hollywood megastar Shia LaBeouf works in an existential call centre, taking telephone calls from members of the public. “Would you like to touch my soul?”, he asks, in a familiar American drawl (last heard, horribly, as a confused Australian in Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac).
Splendiferous in white sports socks and grey leggings, sat at a Mac wearing a headset, LaBeouf occasionally jumps up from his office chair, proclaiming to the anonymous caller: “I totally disagree!”; or crumples in fits of laughter, responding to, we presume, a joke or filthy comment made by the person at the other end of the line.
This is not a film; it’s happening right here, right now in FACT’s gallery space. But is it real? LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner have been a collective for two years; their first project saw LaBeouf wear a paper bag on his head and quote Eric Cantona at the Berlin Film Festival.
Here, in a Liverpool art gallery, they have created a theatre set, a play; the audience keeps a respectful distance of about one metre away. Try to talk to the artists – or god forbid, touch them – and the spell will be broken. There are security guards. It’s actually very quiet considering the mad gaggle of LaBeouf fans trying to get a glimpse of their idol outside. He is visible, presented, a thing to to looked and marvelled at.
LaBeouf has exchanged one identity – famous actor — for another: human being trying to find answers? Legitimacy? Penance? Pure creativity? Who’s to say which identity is more real than the other? Perhaps it is as theorist Victor Turner says, as quoted by Amy Jones in her recent essay on authenticity: ‘[Theatre] presents the false face in order to portray the possibility of a true face.’ LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner have flipped the use of the star’s celebrity in order to talk about the soul; but in doing so risk making the soul another commodity.
If #TOUCHMYSOUL’s intention is pure creativity, it is certainly moulded by marketing; every aspect of this performance has been carefully crafted, from what LaBeouf should say to the press in response – “Why do I do performance art? Why does a goat jump?” – to what time he should tweet out the #TOUCHMYSOUL hashtag.
Appearing, as he does, in the ‘flesh’, perversely doesn’t actually make him seem more real. This is performance. You can also watch the trio live at touchmysoul.net, which feels like watching a fictional film about a call centre. Whatever it is, it’s certainly mesmerising.
I speak to co-exhibitor Cecile B. Evans about ‘realness’ online and off; about being curious about other humans (especially famous ones), and about speaking directly to that audience. She prefers to do the latter; her work isn’t about judging or holding a mirror up, she insists.
The work does, however hold a big mirror up to how advertisers try to be more ‘human’… and in doing so, manage to appear less human. Evans’ three ‘commercials’ are shown in a hot, dark room next to #TOUCHMYSOUL. They are funny, watchable, dazzling. In one, a CGI jar of mayonnaise flies over magnificent snow-covered mountain tops, asking us: “Can mayonnaise have a SOUL?” Here, products are elevated, as they oft are in real commercials, to something desirable; there is a whispered promise to fill a need. Humble mayonnaise is positioned as a sentient being.
There is nothing ‘fake’ or virtual about Evans’ work, despite the medium; it is stone cold satire delivered with a wink, directly to an audience who are marketing-savvy — and perhaps more so than the global corporations that Evans mimics.
Right outside, Liverpool-based artist Joe Orr has painted a big blue sign on the staircase, proclaiming: “MARKETING, A LIFESTYLE”. It frames the exhibition, and the growing hoards of young visitors queuing to take a selfie with LaBeouf in the background. Orr’s sign also points to a production suite upstairs, complete with green screen, where any budding Internet star can make a professional YouTube video with expert guidance.
Usually only accessible in Youtube’s London office to vloggers with 5000 or more subscribers – this is serious business that has made individuals very rich, from creating tutorials in make-up to Minecraft — FACT’s free service democratises the entire process. The videos shown here are also, in a strange way, as mesmerising as the artwork downstairs in Gallery One; I feel myself hypnotised watching a man carefully apply different shades of foundation to his face. This must be psychological; we are living vicariously through other people now. He may as well be applying the brush to my own face — it almost gives me the same feeling.
Which brings us back to that question: What is real? Perhaps the really important question is: Does it matter whether it is real or not? Follow’s examples of conceptual artwork all seem to point to the use of freely available technology that is just another — very interesting — tool that allows us to explore a core level of curiosity in the human experience. We can laugh at this curiosity, be moved by it, and possibly, just possibly, feel a ‘real’ human connection. You’ll have to follow in order to find out.
You can call #TOUCHMYSOUL, by LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner, on +44 (0)151 808 0771 from 11am-6pm GMT until Sunday 13 December 2015
The project will also be broadcast live for the duration at touchmysoul.net
See the #TOUCHMYSOUL project live at FACT Liverpool until Sunday 13 December 2015; visit the Follow exhibition from Friday 11 December 2015 to Sunday 21 February 2016 – FREE
Read Follow curator Amy Jones’ thoughts on the themes of the show: All The World’s A Stage: Social Media, Performance And ‘Authenticity’