Reading a group text message or chatroom thread is always disorienting. If you are the parent of one of the participants, and if your child is prepubescent or thereabouts, the shock can be profound. Who are these people? Who is impersonating my child? Who isn’t impersonating someone? Get me the hell out of here!
The most recent work in a small but riveting show by Ann Hirsch at MIT’s List Visual Arts Center re-creates a chatroom conversation the artist herself had in the 1990s, when she was an adolescent. Filled with the hiccuping, half-dismantled, mostly motiveless language of live online communications, it reads as your typical, boring live group chat:
JoshyWoshy: heat where r u
JoshyWoshy: why don’t you talk
HEAThery: hate all these newbs
And so on. But then it turns disturbing. Via this chatroom, the adolescent Hirsch developed an online relationship, replete with explicit sexual interactions, with a man more than twice her age. Twenty years later, we are invited to follow the conversation.
Hirsch re-creates the look of the AOL chatroom in her iPad app, which was released to the iTunes store but subsequently banned. When you click on it, you have to wait a few seconds for a dial tone to link you in. The wait triggers impatience in viewers accustomed to touch screens, but it serves an artistic purpose. Mundane but sinister, it builds tension.
Hirsch is a fascinating new breed of artist. That her work can seem, as art, half-baked and almost desultory feels like a form of camouflage, helping it blend in with the white noise, the moronic mayhem, the incessant back-of-the-brain buzzing that is digital culture today.
Hirsch wants to blend in. She needs to. She is tackling subjects right at the heart of now: the blurring of distinctions between reality and artifice; the yearning for fame and its consequences, and the pressure, particularly on girls and women, to seek security and validation in behavior that both demeans them and makes them more vulnerable.
She is doing all this with a hair-raising sense of adventure and unnerving commitment. She is not a pundit or satirist, operating at a safe remove from her subjects, the better to poke fun or pass judgment. She is inside these issues — reporting, as it were, from the frontline, teasing out contradictions, admitting complexities, faithfully reflecting not so much answers as a broader and deeper dismay.
Precursors to Hirsch’s work include, of course, Andy Warhol, who threw up so many matchless insights into burgeoning media culture and its effect on identity, and Cindy Sherman, who incarnated female stereotypes in alternately hot and cool photographs, to mesmerizing effect. More recently, of-the-moment artists such as Ryan Trecartin and Laurel Nakadate address themselves to similar themes.
The List show features clips from Hirsch’s “Scandalishious Project,” which saw her adopt the persona of “Caroline,” a first-year college student running a YouTube channel to which she posted more than 100 videos. The videos show Hirsch dancing lubriciously and talking straight to the camera in an ingenuous, vapid patter.
She runs a kind of interference in these performances by wearing awkward outfits (vintage leotards, big reading glasses) and “dancing” in ways that . . . well, don’t quite match expectations.
There is tremendous pathos behind the manic hilarity of it all. But most arresting of all are the comment threads these videos attract, which scroll down an adjacent screen. They are casually vile, glibly supportive, or ecstatically cruel.
All this is weirdly compelling. But the most intriguing work here is “Here for You (Or My Brief Love Affair With Frank Maresca.”
Emerging from Hirsch’s fascination with the phenomenon of the “Famewhore,” it’s a video projection that splices together footage from a reality TV show called “Frank the Entertainer . . . In a Basement Affair,” on which Hirsch herself appeared as a contestant.
The show was a VH1 version of “The Bachelor,” with 15 young women competing for the love of TV star Frank Maresca. They all live together with Frank and his parents. One is eliminated at the end of each episode.
Hirsch cunningly got herself selected as a contestant, intending, she explains on her website, “to do a wacky performance piece” that would “play up the ridiculousness that is reality television and the characters it produces, a satire on a genre that is already a satire of itself.”
But things quickly became complicated. To play her role effectively, Hirsch knew she would need to get over her self-consciousness about her “awkward body, eccentric demeanor, large nose, shyness around new people and just say ‘Hey, this is me. I’m super. Love me and/or hate me please. All I ask for is your attention.’ ”
After an initial period where she claims the pressure of the situation induced a “nervous breakdown” and her original plan “fell apart,” she decided to play the game sincerely. She proved very effective.
Hirsch wasn’t voted off until the seventh episode. Cast in the role of the “nice girl” — the “real” one, as opposed to those other fiendish manipulators — Hirsch endeared herself both to Frank and his parents.
She in turn genuinely fell for him, in a way none of the other contestants cared to, because — quite rationally, given the situation — they were more interested in succeeding as TV stars.
In the end, Hirsch was too real, too nice. “In my attempt to unleash my inner Famewhore,” she wrote, “I was unable to cultivate the most important feature: sex appeal.” Her lack of agenda had neutered her.
Meanwhile, she began to perceive the show’s underlying dynamics. She noticed how the production team deliberately shamed the other contestants — ridiculing their artifice, their “feminine wiles” — in order to boost the reality effect of the show.
Wanting to disrupt this reality effect, Hirsch realized she needed to break out of the asexual, nice-girl role she had been cast in. At a “crooning challenge,” she veered off script, launching into an obscenely sexual (and quite hilarious) rap in front of Frank, his parents, and the presumably astonished production team.
It was enough to get her eliminated.
As an artist, Hirsch is most compelling when touching on the social dynamic that encourages the performance of female sexuality then shames those who perform it.
Back in the role of Caroline on one of her “Scandalishious” videos, she reads to camera an anonymous comment telling her she is “retarded and should die.” “Thank you for expressing your hate,” she says. “It makes me feel like I am really doing something right.”
You get attention, in other words, by being transgressive. You get shamed or trolled for attracting this attention, but when you are so shamed, you can tell yourself you must be doing something right.
It’s amazing how this dynamic — a staple of reality TV and online culture — applies also to the art world. In fact, perhaps it began in the art world?
In any case, I am pretty sure Hirsch intends to keep on not only delving into it, but milking it for all it is worth.
At MIT List Visual Arts Center, through Feb. 21. 617-253-4680, listart.mit.edu
Sebastian Smee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.