Christen Shea, Poetic Simulations

Poupeh Missaghi

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Christen Shea pairs staged physical environments with digital simulations, thereby challenging distinctions between real and virtual, material and immaterial.

I first met the artist when we were both residents at the Vermont Studio Center. I was immediately drawn to her series Allergic Fruit Kefir Fountains, animations inspired by her dietary limitations. I was fascinated by how her presentation of the physicality of food evoked the primal, animalistic energies of our bodies. I was also moved by the artist’s process-oriented series Poetic Simulations in which objects and language diagrams enact rituals of translation.

In this interview, conducted over email, we continued our conversation about the relationship between virtual reality and subjective experience.

Your practice revolves around digital representation of the personal and physical experience. What do you see as some of the key features of this interrelation between the virtual and the material? How do you see your digital simulations complicating our relationship with reality?

My work attempts to crystallize subjective experiences such as dreams and feelings into virtual and material objects. The presence of both digital and physical representations of the subjective encourages the viewer to recognize the performative nature of this kind of mediation, while questioning the boundaries that define what is “real.” The digital simulation frames the physical objects as actors in a performance, activating them through animation and implicating the viewer in the movement of the camera. Positioning these simulations in relation to real, material objects highlights the simulation that is also implied in the synthesis of subjective experience into static, material forms. At a time where production and consumption occur in virtual space as much as, or more than, in physical space, this positioning of the virtual challenges the distinction between real versus virtual.

One of the themes you engage with is that of fragmented selves and transitions. How does the 3-D interface help you address this?

The use of digital simulation responds directly to the challenges of time and space inherent in creative production. As physical space becomes increasingly scarce and unaffordable, and virtual space is continuously dominated by production and consumption, time and space are monopolized by rationalist measures of productivity, blurring the boundaries between labor and subjective experience. As an artist engaging in freelance labor alongside artistic practice with limited access to space in a constant state of flux, I experience this blurring of boundaries as a kind of dissociative state and fragmentation of subjectivity and identity.

The 3-D interface allows me to literally make space for the subjective, providing a platform for reenacting subjective experience through a kind of virtually embodied performance in three-dimensional space. The resulting assemblages of staged objects in both dormant and dynamic states allude to this performance, implying action at some point in time. The 3-D interface simultaneously enables a performance to exist in the absence of a body or an active performer, reflecting the dissociation and fragmentation of identity in transitional states.

Many of your digital simulations are accompanied by installations or sculptures. Why is it important for you to have the two complement one another?

There is a tension between dissociative and embodied subjectivity in my work that is also reflected in the relationship of digital to material. As I work through the embodied performance of the subjective in virtual space, this idea of embodiment extends into physical space by objects becoming literally embodied in material form. These manifestations also perform in different ways. Virtually, the performance is enacted through animation, while physically, the performance is implied as a past event with objects presented as artifacts of this performance. Ultimately, the relationship of digital and material assemblages attempts to challenge the distinction between the virtual and the real, highlighting the shared act of synthesis that occurs in both material and digital processes.

In the series Poetic Simulations, you work with language diagrams. Why the diagrams? Why not, for example, just simply leave the sentences there as normal text? In other words, what is the function of having us be part of the diagramming process? And can you talk a bit about going from text to visual representation?

Poetic Simulations explores language as a virtual form through diagrammed poetry and performative 3-D assemblages. I learned about diagramming sentences in elementary school as part of a somewhat idiosyncratic curriculum for the time and place. It is predominantly used in ESL (English as a Second Language) education for adults. Using this technique, I wanted to investigate how these assemblages could be verbally translated and arranged in semiotic, material structures in the same way as their physical counterparts. At the same time, the sentence diagrams point to the absurdity of applying rationalized, objective models to subjective experience such as feelings and identity. Here the subjective is exemplified in poetry and, maybe, you get the sense of something “lost in translation.” The assemblages undergo semiotic transformations, moving laterally between visual representation and text in an attempt to extract some incommunicable subjective reality.

Your work in progress Red Flag can be viewed as engaging with two levels of translation. As you note, the work is based on a dream you had which came true the next day. The dream translates into reality, as in a kind of prophecy. Then you go ahead and translate that dream, or rather your memories of the dream, into the virtual reality video. Can you speak a bit about this project? Also, you note that this work is “similar in nature to Poetic Simulations.” How do you see the two being in conversation with one another?

I dreamt I was in class, in a computer lab with bright green walls. There was some kind of emergency that required our immediate evacuation of the building, leaving our things behind. Somewhere in the chaos, my laptop went missing. I awoke from the dream in a state of panic and confusion, waking my partner in the process and inquiring with earnest distress as to the whereabouts of my laptop. It was next to the bed where I had left it. I went back to sleep, only to wake the next day to go to class and find the location had been changed to the exact same room, with bright green walls, from my dream. I had never been there before, and I found the synchronicity jarring enough to compel me to mention the dream to my instructor. When I revealed the disturbing outcome of the dream, i.e., the stolen laptop, she responded with concern, “Wow I hope that doesn’t happen!”

That night I slept restlessly, in and out of wakefulness. I dreamt I saw a figure in the doorway of my bedroom, and I woke with a jolt and a feeling of dread. I woke my partner and this time demanded, with urgency, “Go get my laptop.” When we failed to produce the laptop and discovered a number of other things missing, it became clear the dream had breached the boundary of reality.

Red Flag thinks about dreams as virtual events, so the reenactment of the dream takes place in the virtual realm through digital simulation. Dreams can be thought of as simulations that we engage with on a nightly basis, preparing us for potential situations we may encounter in reality. Red Flag questions the distinction between dreams and reality—and thus the distinction between tangible/intangible, virtual/material—by investigating the moment when the dream surpasses the act of mere simulation and breaches the boundary of the real. In the same way, the reenactment and interpretation of the dream bleeds into the physical realm through this sculptural installation of material objects. The physical installation becomes an extension of the ritual of translation in the virtual form, pointing to the reenactment of the dream as a performance.

In the same way that Red Flag functions as kind of a performative ritual of dream translation and interpretation, Poetic Simulations also presents translation as a ritual, but looks instead at language itself. Using a similar format of objects staged both physically and virtually to imply performance, Poetic Simulations works through the subjectivity of personal experience and poetry. The works consider both dreams and language in terms of their virtual form while questioning virtuality, materiality, and embracing fluidity in form.