Technological Identities

FACT Liverpool’s new programme features two artists who both use technology and classic tropes of fairy tale storytelling to create artworks that are alluring and repelling, sensual and troubling. Lesley Taker, Exhibitions Manager, discusses the show.

A:Ericka Beckman and Marianna Simnett look at fairy tales in contemporary society. Why do you think this theme is particularly relevant in today’s world?
This show opens FACT’s year-long discussion around issues of feminism and representation. This not only ties into a longstanding thread of FACT’s research into voice, agency and visibility but also reflects current dialogue about how those who identify as women are seen (and heard) in the public sphere. This dual exhibition showcases two artists whose practices look at some of the ways in which developments in technology, as well as contemporary conversations about gender, have changed our relationships to one another, our bodies, and our identities. Their work also highlights how rigidly we often think about things like gender, or the roles we ascribe to ourselves and others.

Ericka Beckman. © Rob Battersby.

What does the show communicate in terms of deconstructing traditional roles or stereotypes and reclaiming the self?
Ericka Beckman and Marianna Simnett’s work deconstructs and subverts grisly, aggressive fairy tales as well as reclaiming traditionally male dominated spaces. The show captures the spirit of their form of subversive undermining, and ultimately stands as a refusal to yield to systems which exist to conform, control and conquer. Ericka’s pieces are all about female characters being trapped in the roles set out for them, and finally see them perform acts of rebellion against a system which is set up to see them fail. Marianna’s works dwell in a state of in-betweenness, valuing spaces of uncertainty and greyness. Her videos highlight the importance of transformation, transition and fluidity as a way to survive, and resist the formulaic urges of the world around us. 

The artists use technology as a mechanism for the storytelling, whilst exploring the female body. Could you describe some of the pieces and how they connect?
Ericka Beckman’s pop-culture filled, neon-tinted films often use the imagery, style and language of early computer games. She also references the rigid structures and rules of those games in order to examine the perceived need for women to adhere to societal expectations. In these worlds, her female characters find themselves trapped in frustratingly endless cycles of inaction or failure, or subjected to the desires of others. Beckman’s women never fully succeed in satisfying the requirements of the “game” that they’re in, and it is often unclear what “winning” would actually look like: they often only find out how to even play the game when they have lost many times over. 

Marianna Simnett’s densely-layered, visceral language combines mythology and medical technologies to create tales of morality. Themes of corruption and innocence alongside depictions of illness and disease cast comment on divides in our cultures. Simnett’s focus on the control exerted over the body creates uncomfortably fluid spaces of secrecy and revelation. The artist also uses biomedical technologies and procedures to offer uncompromising and unfamiliar views of the body, including close-ups of blood, surgery, and other clinical procedures. Often, these are portrayed as necessary evils or rites of passage designed to ‘fix’ or augment young women – occasionally they are also used as acts of control over the protagonist’s figure (which often is that of the artist). For Simnett, these medical technologies are modern tools of societal control; just as much as in Beckman’s works about (then) emerging technologies – such as the internet and VR (Virtual Reality). 

The pieces span from 1980s to the present day – what does this sweeping timeline tell us about our changing world and the modes of representation that artists are working in?
LT: The fantasy worlds which both of these artists create use radically different approaches, philosophies and aesthetics to tackle similar themes, highlighting the damaging potential of fixed assumptions and enforced gender roles. 

One of the things which has been most striking whilst organising this exhibition – and from our initial visitor feedback – is how similar Beckman’s major concerns are to current discussions in politics and culture. The way the women are treated in her films feels all too familiar and even the issues she is concerned with around new technologies are shockingly prescient. Beckman’s Hiatus originated from research in the early 1990s into Virtual Reality (VR) at NASA, and Beckman’s involvement in early online debates on the purpose of the internet, VR and their applications. Hiatusembodies the optimism, hybrid identities and niche communities of the early internet, but also points to the darker side of this now all-pervasive technology: not only it’s military and corporate uses, but also the gender politics which are highlighted by the simplified immediacy of online life.

For Simnett, the importance of fluidity and complexity feels very contemporary. Her stories are deep with embedded meaning and references which only start to unfold once engaged with, and which benefit from repeat experience. Her films and installations provoke a physical reaction, tapping into the recesses of our bodies and minds, daring to confront the parts of ourselves that would usually remain concealed. This exhibition presents a worldview that is at once tender and strange, claustrophobic and liberating, embracing wild fantasy to engineer a different world to the one in which we are currently living.

Marianna Simnett. © Rob Battersby.

What are some of the standout pieces? 
One of the most unusual works is Marianna’s light and sound installation Faint with Light. It records Simnett inducing her own body to repeatedly faint, by closing her airway and hyperventilating. The desperate sounds of her rasping for air are played in sync to a rising and falling wall of ultra-bright lights. The intensity of Simnett’s fluctuating breath triggers us to mirror her actions in a perverse act of empathy, foregrounding the fragile border which separates life from death. This piece is an incredibly physical example of that: whilst deliberately not containing any images of the body, this installation creates an incredibly intense, bodily experience for the visitor. 

How does this exhibition fit into the wider programming of FACT for 2019?
LT: Resonating with the wider world’s focus on women’s voices and stories, FACT’s 2019 artistic programme invites audiences to participate in a year-long discussion and exploration of gender, feminist practice, and the empowering role of technology within. The programme consists of three interrelated seasons: three major shows, at least three new commissions, and an integrated learning and public programme focusing on identity, representation and feminism from a range of perspectives. 

The year kicks off with our Spring season, focusing on female identity, and how it is constructed both socially and culturally. The season offers a chance for audiences of all ages to delve into how we create stereotypes around the “female archetype” and the ways in which these are continually reinforced: from the way we navigate the internet, to the games that we play and the stories we continue to tell our children. 

Summer explores our precarious contemporary workplaces, delving into the notion of invisible and unrecognised labour. Finally, Autumn/Winter supports our commitment to diversity and inclusion, looking more closely at gender politics and their intersection with issues of race, class and sexuality. 

Ericka Beckman & Marianna Simnett runs at FACT until 16 June. For more information, click here.

1. Marianna Simnett, 
Faint with Light, 2016, installation view, Zabludowicz Collection, 2018. Photo: Tim Bowditch. Courtesy of the artist and Zabludowicz Collection.