Text by Margot Norton
Computer Generated Imagery (CGI) begins with a pixel—a bead of illuminated color specifically chosen and combined with others to create a texture, an image. Primarily used in commercial production, CGI is associated with images of enhanced productivity, fantastical landscapes, and idealized humanoid bodies that perform superhuman feats. Whether dynamic or static, two- or three-dimensional, simulated object or virtual world, each rendering of an alternate, optical universe on screen represents creative choices that are intentional, political, explicit. The images stretch from the fingertips of their creators as extensions of ourselves, our biases, and our desires. This cloud of digital, visual information can be seen as a kind of second skin, a layer of seemingly banal yet pervasive matter that might have the power to shift attitudes almost invisibly. The images slowly and subtly creep in, infiltrating culture as a virus on an unsuspecting host.
Artist Kate Cooper creates works that seek to penetrate the surface of this digital membrane, exposing how these new visual languages might complicate divisions between our physical and virtual selves. Her CG protagonists bleed, bruise, tire, and get sick, displaying a fragility that defies their presumed immortality and ceaseless output. Using an uncanny mix of photographic and pixel-built images, Cooper operates in the increasingly intertwined space between technology and the self. Her works go deeper, cutting into this digital landscape to reveal the unseen labor within. She manipulates her hyperreal, simulated bodies as a sculptor might manipulate clay, transforming their immaterial corporeal forms so that they might appear uncomfortable, vulnerable, even human.
For the two-channel video installation Rigged (2014), Cooper’s first work in CGI, she purchased a computer-generated, animated character from TurboSquid, a 3D modeling site that, like others of this type, is typically used for advertising purposes. Cooper’s character is simultaneously an image and a readymade object. She is a woman—young, white, lithe, able-bodied—a figure so inscribed into the language of CGI that her encoded physical attributes might make her go unnoticed. A computerized voice in Rigged addresses the figure: “Hey babygirl, disappear completely,” a phrase which is repeated throughout the piece. We see the character, outfitted in athleisure yet wearing ample mascara, on a slow jog. She later presses her body against what appears to be a tinted pane of glass (or is it the screen itself?). She moves as though she is depleted of energy, her weight compressed against the clouded surface. The computerized voice continues with the phrase: “The soft pressures of freedom,” and we see the character echoing this—comfortable in her digital container, yet seemingly trapped. Near the end of the work, while lying on the surface and struggling to move her body, another voice, presumably that of the character herself, declares, “Invisibility is survival. Preplanning their emotional response, my programmed voice. I want to do something as loaded as a heart.” Perhaps the “heart” mentioned could allude to a desire to feel, to be a carnal body, an expression of a burning wish to jump out of the digital skin.
In the second video in Rigged (2014), Cooper’s CG protagonist is outfitted with an orthodontic mouth retractor and braces, complete with tiny digital wires, brackets and multicolored elastic ligature. She slowly opens and closes her mouth, moves her jaw, lips, and tongue as if to explore their many micro-movements. Of course, the idea to outfit a CG mouth with braces seems completely unnecessary as the character’s digital smile would be perfect to begin with. Her eyes similarly open and close and move through a range of emotions. A tiny circle of light reflects within them reminiscent of the silhouette of a surgical light above an operating table, perhaps indicating the character’s position as a subject or specimen. With Rigged, Cooper subverts her CG model’s presumed invisibility, bringing the structures embedded within her form to the surface. In doing so, she exposes the labor that might ordinarily be obscured by the blur of capitalist society’s hyper-paced consumption and productivity, and brings to the surface the long-muted issues that we might feel.
The text accompanying Rigged was co-written by Cooper, Marianne Forrest, and Marleen Boschen, who were all then members of the collaborative artist-run organization Auto Italia South East in London.(1) Cooper co-founded the collective in 2007 with Amanda Dennis and Rachel Pimm to investigate and partake in alternate forms of labor-structures within art practices. Prior to creating Rigged, Cooper and Richard John Jones, who were then directors of Auto Italia, collaborated with the London-based feminist film and video collective Cinenova on a series of screenings and workshops entitled Bodies Assembling (2011), featuring moving image work from their archive alongside contemporary works. (2) Cooper has said that her motivation to create works in CGI stemmed from questions that arose from the Bodies Assembling program, namely how representation and distribution of images, as well as the position of the woman-identifying artist, might be renegotiated today when considering the impact of digital technologies. As Cooper articulated, “I wanted to understand these images and their position as material that is as much code as it is skin and pores. There is an explicit violence and desire within the images; I wanted to learn how to exploit and hack these images and understand the line in between—understand not only our relationship to them but also what they might be used for, and how they perform in themselves.”(3)
Cooper’s sentiments resonate with those expressed by feminist artists before her, particularly those artists who were addressing a growing concern with representation and media saturation in the 1980s (including Dara Birnbaum, Sarah Charlesworth, Barbara Kruger, Louise Lawler, and Cindy Sherman). I think of the incisive rigor and image play of Sarah Charlesworth’s work in particular, which sought to deconstruct a language of images and their profound imprint on everyday life. In Charlesworth’s Objects of Desire series (1983-88), for example, she isolated cut-outs from glossy fashion magazines and art history textbooks against bright monochromatic backgrounds, to explore the way that desire is made and elicited in popular culture. As Charlesworth told artist David Clarkson in an interview in 1987, “In one sense, we live in a regular three-dimensional physical world, and in another sense, we inhabit an entirely different image-world. I think that all my work situates itself within a landscape of images. I see photography as the dominant language of contemporary culture… This is a situation without historical precedent, and that’s the reason why, as a contemporary artist, I feel it’s a primary issue.”(4) Cooper, like Charlesworth, seeks to understand how novel visual languages become encoded in our consciousness, predetermining and influencing individual attitudes. She likewise works within her images, rather than by referencing them at a distance. She cuts through their forms, poking, prodding, and chipping away at their surfaces, their weak spots. She isolates and manipulates them to see how far they can be subverted and sabotaged, or their possibilities extended.
Traditional points of feminist critique fall short, however, when discussing Cooper’s works, as the virtual body she works with increasingly enters our space. Her protagonists hover on the edge of becoming physical bodies themselves—constantly shifting, performing, and implicating the viewer’s body in proximity. Also, Cooper’s work embodies the impact of newer technologies, which enable images to become disseminated more widely and at an increasingly rapid pace, to such a degree that they likewise become more disposable, invisible, and autonomous. Filmmaker and writer Hito Steyerl described this invisibility in her presentation-cum-essay The Spam of the Earth: Withdrawal from Representation, in which she explores the idea of spam, advertising, and the complications of visual representation in digital mediums. According to Steyerl, “Image spam circulates endlessly without ever being seen by a human eye. It is made by machines, sent by bots, and caught by spam filters, which are slowly becoming as potent as anti-immigration walls, barriers, and fences. The plastic people shown in it thus remain, to a large extent, unseen.”(5) Cooper cites this text by Steyerl as being influential for her during the time when she created Rigged, as well as Paul B. Preciado’s book Testo Junkie: Sex, Drugs, and Biopolitics in the Pharmacopornographic Era, which chronicles the author’s use of a topical testosterone (Testogel) as a way of undoing or “hacking” gender and sexual identity prescribed on the body in a hyper-capitalist society. (6) The concepts of refusal or withdrawal from syntaxes of representation described in these texts, among others, are central to Cooper’s works as she seeks to transcend the constraints or even violence of these seemingly banal images that have been perpetrated on our most intimate selves.
Several of Cooper’s videos following Rigged portray a similar CG woman being haunted by a zombielike figure. We Need Sanctuary (2016), which draws its title from “sanctuary sites”—vulnerable areas in the body, such as the central nervous system, where anti-viral drugs cannot easily penetrate—shows the character looking particularly distressed and coughing up globs of digital blood. In another scene, her silky-smooth hands caress what appears to be a digital rendering of the head of Medusa—the famed Greek mythological figure who had venomous snakes for hair and would turn those who gazed at her into stone. The video then cuts to the bruised and bleeding hands of the zombielike persona, wiping clean a screen-like surface, behind which the Medusa head and distressed woman appear. Squeaking sounds of scrubbing and wiping contrast with bodily utterances—heavy breathing, and coughing—perhaps indicating a simultaneous inside and outside. Towards the end of the video, the contrasting hands of the CG woman and those of the reanimated corpse appear simultaneously, caressing, or perhaps controlling one another in an intimate dance. The piece ends as it begins with the body of the protagonist apparently asleep under a crisp white sheet, prompting us to wonder as to which aspects of the work exist in a dream. Where does the simulated world end and the physical world begin? Are the images in our heads? In our bodies? On our screens? Or simultaneously infiltrating them all? Are they alive or stagnant? Are they stone? Or are they turning us into stone as we gaze upon them?
Symptom Machine (2017) takes this relationship between the woman and the zombielike creature further as their roles become increasingly defined. In this work, Cooper’s protagonist struggles to pull herself along an endless bright blue conveyor belt—a color reminiscent of a gymnasium mat or perhaps a corporate logo. The “zombie” appears at the end of the conveyor belt pushing her further back as she approaches. The zombie’s hands appear to be keeping her in a perpetual state of effort and also preventing her from falling off the device, perhaps representing those mortal appendages manipulating her body from keyboards afar. The CG woman is caught in a perpetual nightmare—just when she appears to give up, resting her head on her forearm in utter exhaustion, we see her continue, battling against herself as she resists her own immortality. Sweat beads and blood appear awkwardly splattered against her digital skin.
The fatigue, injury, and sickness Cooper imposes on her characters’ idealized simulated physiques become an act of refusal toward completing the labor they were designed to perform. In this sense, her works resonate with what writer and performer Johanna Hedva described in her influential 2016 essay Sick Woman Theory, which derived from a lecture she gave the previous year entitled “My Body is a Prison of Pain so I Want to Leave It Like a Mystic But I Also Love It & Want It to Matter Politically.” (7) In her lecture and text, Hedva recounts her own experiences of chronic illness and how care for the chronically ill or disabled is not considered in a capitalist society. Hedva also affirms the role of collective trauma in producing illness, as she describes, “Sick Woman Theory maintains that the body and mind are sensitive and reactive to regimes of oppression.” She goes on to conclude that “The most anti-capitalist protest is to care for another and to care for oneself.” (8) In a similar sense to Hedva’s text, Cooper’s works invite us to investigate the areas where prescribed systems fall short. Her CG women move in unexpected ways that challenge the reasons for which they were designed—to be perpetually “well” and infallible. Cooper invites us to consider whether digital technologies might have their own “sanctuary sites” that would resist capitalist logic, and if within them, we might find the tools available to transcend spaces of oppression.
Symptom Machine was also the first work for which Cooper collaborated with electronic music composer Soraya Lutangu (aka Bonaventure), and the duo have worked together on several works since. Lutangu’s own practice as a musician includes thorough researching and sampling of found material in a similar sense to Cooper’s use and appropriation of imagery. Together, they develop soundtracks to the videos via a back and forth conversation between each other, with Cooper sending bits of video and samples of bodily sound affects to Lutangu, who mixes and composes them, and the video builds between the two simultaneously. Lutangu’s sound is central to the direction and outcome of Cooper’s videos, especially as the effect on viewers’ bodies becomes increasingly pronounced. Lutangu’s heart-pumping soundtracks manipulate the senses, reminding viewers of their own bodies as they watch Cooper’s protagonists perform—hearts beat quickly, breaths become deeper, pupils and pores contract and expand. The large-scale projection of Cooper’s videos and surround quality of Lutangu’s sound give the impression of digital figures performing in the room alongside the viewers, bodies reacting to the soundtracks on- and off-screen simultaneously.
Following We Need Sanctuary and Symptom Machine, Cooper further explores the body under attack in Infection Drivers (2019). In this video, we find Cooper’s CG figure trapped in a translucent bodysuit, as she struggles to move and breathe. The suit inflates and deflates around her body, taking it through transmutations of stereotypically masculine and feminine physiques. Her face, the only area not covered by the translucent material, is bruised and scarred. There is a question as to whether the suit is protecting her or harming her—preventing her from hurting her body or limiting her range of motion. She presses her hands up against an invisible pane of glass. In one moment, we see a fire emanating from within her (similar to the one in Rigged), which might suggest a desire to feel, to transcend the invisible barrier of her own form, which might give her the illusion of safety, yet trap her. In another scene, she pinches her suit and takes the material away from her body, making it appear thin and fragile—perhaps she is able to rip it apart and break her own chains? Her own gendered container? Infection Drivers investigates how images might come to act autonomously to transcend the exploitative systems that created them, and might give rise to new possibilities that go beyond their intended use.
In her most recent work, Sensory Primer (2020), Cooper goes deeper within the CG body, peeling away it’s immaterial layers to get to the structures inside. The work was made specifically for A Tale of a Tub in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, a two-story space with a balcony that overlooks a lower level. Cooper’s piece moved across three screens on both levels, while Lutangu’s soundtrack resonated on both floors. The central video on the lower-level was displayed on vertically-stacked screens in the center of the room at nine feet high, with the skeletal structure on-screen echoing the architectural bones of the otherwise empty spaces. This vertical video depicts a CG x-ray that moves up and down the length of a body and in and out of its organs and bones in a pendular motion, as if the camera were moving with the ebbs and flows the body’s breath. The video’s hypnotic movements reverberate with the syncopated clicks and rattlesnake-like hiss of the video’s soundtrack. These images and sounds create somatic sensations akin to the tingles of ASMR (autonomous sensory median response), an uncontrollable physical response that can be pleasurable and self-soothing.
Upstairs are two additional vertical screens—one depicting similar x-ray images, while the other presents the scarred and bruised skin of a GC figure from the outside who is at times surrounded by a thick black smoke. The dichotomies of interior and exterior, architecture and infrastructure, opacity and transparency, self and other, known and unknown, seem to blur and dissolve in abstraction. Ultimately, they are all but images with the fluid potential of becoming one and the same, comprised of the same digital material that invisibly surrounds and penetrates our experiences, our understandings, ourselves. In a time of increased public surveillance through facial-recognition software, biometric data mining, and deepfakes, Cooper’s high-definition world invites us to pierce and transcend our omnipresent digital skin, and perhaps find freedom in the technologies often used to constrain us.
1. Cooper in e-mail to the author, on July 18th, 2020.
2. For more information on Cinenova and Auto Italia’s Bodies Assembling, please see: http://www.cinenova.org/projects/bodies-assembling/.
3. “Interview: Kate Cooper with Marina Chao” in Charlotte Cotton (ed.), Public, Private, Secret: On Photography & the Configuration of Self (New York: Aperture/International Center for Photography, 2018), p. 199.
4. David Clarkson, “Sarah Charlesworth: An Interview,” Parachute 53 (winter 1988), pp. 12-15, reprinted in Margot Norton and Massimiliano Gioni (eds.), Sarah Charlesworth: Doubleworld (New York: New Museum, 2015), p. 107.
5. Hito Steyerl, “The Spam of the Earth: Withdrawal from Representation,” e-flux journal 32 (February 2012).
6. Paul B. Preciado, Testo Junkie: Sex, Drugs, and Biopolitics in the Pharmacopornographic Era (New York: The Feminist Press at CUNY; English-Language edition, 2013).
7. Johanna Hedva, “Sick Woman Theory,” Mask Magazine, 2016. Accessed here: http://johannahedva.com/SickWomanTheory_Hedva_2020.pdf. This text was adapted from the lecture, “My Body is a Prison of Pain so I Want to Leave It Like a Mystic But I Also Love It & Want It to Matter Politically,” delivered at Human Resources, sponsored by the Women’s Center for Creative Work, in Los Angeles, on October 7, 2015. The video to the original lecture can be accessed here: https://vimeo.com/144782433.
KATE COOPER (b. 1984, Liverpool, UK) lives and works in London, UK, and Amsterdam, Netherlands. Her work has been shown at: The New Museum, New York; Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam; The Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston; Public Art Fund, New York; KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin; Palais de Tokyo, Paris; Serralves Museum, Porto; and the Museum of Modern Art, Warsaw.
MARGOT NORTON is Curator at the New Museum, New York where she recently curated exhibitions with Sarah Lucas, Mika Rottenberg, Diedrick Brackens, and Carmen Argote. In 2021 she will curate a solo exhibition with Lynn Hershman Leeson and co-curate the 2021 New Museum Triennial, with Jamillah James. She curated the Georgian Pavilion with artist Anna K.E. at the 2019 Venice Biennale.
All images Courtesy: the artist