EL Putnam – Works in the Void of the Net

by Fergus Byrne

El Putnam has been very active online in the past year. This article will trace the development of her work in this format since the onset of Covid and lockdown culture. Putnam’s work prior to lockdown used technology but in the context of live performance. In her work online the use of the media is a very relevant layer in her exploration of the relation between humans and technology. She was quick to explore its potential and a solid body of work has emerged.

In Spring 2020 her Facebook posts announced live-feed testers but still images and the time of the posts, suggested that I had missed the moment. I was confounded by announcements in the present tense and the inevitable ephemerality of what was announced. Was my connection at fault or had the ‘tester’ failed? In a Wildean sense though, the only thing worse than a failed test would be no test at all. I kept my eye on her posts.

Some time later there was a live performance which I accessed a couple of days late as it remained available on her timeline. The work, Context Collapse, featured Putnam applying paint to her face as she faced the screen. A projected video of her daughter, Sonja, appeared on her face. Her face had become a green screen and her head seemed to hollow out as she applied the paint. Sonja was walking on grass in the space of her head. This work continued a line of work by Putnam exploring the connection between mother and daughter, some of which I had seen in live performance.

Subsequent to this were several short videos of shadow and light flickering against walls and domestic surfaces evocative of the existence many of us led while confined to our homes during the mercifully fine weather of Lockdown I. More recently short digital animations were posted online. These shared an affinity with the shadow and light works in that both presented a simple animated surface: one by sunlight, the other digital. Abstract patterns of line and shape formed in colours green, pink, purple, blue. A lack of texture in digital art has often limited my interest but gradually these began to acquire more density and weight.[1] Their insistent presence demanded my attention. One in particular caught my eye: squares in an accumulating sequence as if forming tunnels on a blank white space, bending and folding back upon themselves till the white ground was entirely removed. This sequence, quite like a screensaver, could run infinitely.

Now, having seen the collaborative work, An Invitation, with writer Mike McCormack, I realise that Putnam was using Facebook as a sketchbook, particularly with these animations. In the film of twenty minutes, similar animations have a more contexualised state.[2] An Invitation was a collaboration commissioned by the late Maria MacPartlan as part of NUIG’s Arts in Action Programme for 2021. Initial conversations between Putnam and McCormack, who lecture in separate disciplines in NUIG, occurred in February 2020 just prior to lockdown. Subsequent communications were conducted remotely which adds a pertinent irony to the resultant work, the focus of which was the desire for connection within states of grief.

In October of 2019 Putnam’s father had died suddenly and as the two artists discussed their mutual interests of technology and robotics the theme of grief ‘asserted itself ‘ and led to much of McCormack’s writing, in which he ‘handed back her feeling to her [Putnam] in words’.[3] This text was then narrated by Putnam and McCormack.  It seems there was a very generous exchange of thought and feeling.

The film is a meditation on grief and the subjective voice is that of a droid who, in announcing itself establishes the interior disjuncture wrought by grief despite external appearances. The narration takes us through the coping methods adopted, with occasional touches of self-deprecation and dry humour – ‘I became a good runner with better times and healthy elevated heartbeat’. Formally it is comprised of voiceover, soundtrack, digital animations and video footage of Putnam performing to the camera.[4]

The digital animations are superimposed on the silvery greys of the video which brings depth to a relatively flat shot. They appear and disappear intermittently and complement the verbal commentary in an abstract sense– the mosaic frieze of a DNA strand, circling scribbles that cloud upon her head, ascending bubbles quivering blue, purple and red. None of these are strictly illustrative but successfully coexist with the video and words. Interestingly in a Q & A after the premiere we learnt that that the visuals had already been completed when the text by McCormack was sent. There seems to have been a serendipitous complimentarity between words and visuals. Putnam explained that the words fit very well to the edit and in cases where she had not consolidated certain sections, the addition of the words was sufficient.

Desire for connection through the screen is expressed in both word and image as face and hand approach the screen evoking remote connections. There is a sense of attempting to gain access via the camera lens. Putnam’s face is frequently present but through a softening of focus her presence recedes at times. A striking sequence of a liquid being poured on the screen culminates in the formation of a perfect circle. It was like a petri dish and was then probed by fingers that smeared the harmonious shape. Her face later emerges within the holes of this viscous interface; suggestive of a final clarity. The transition surprised me and I was keen to play it back. A superimposed layer of animated drawing gradually diminished to allow this optical effect. From the deceptive hollows of the green screen face in Context Collapse (see above) to this moment there is a consistency of illusion but the latter shows great technical subtlety.

Despite the somewhat biographical nature of the work the theme of grief is universalised through certain choices – the voiceovers are processed, so slightly removed from the timbre of their owners. The narrative is also shared by both artists. McCormack’s voice comments upon grief as a social rite. As they discussed in the Q&A ‘grief is not something to be carried individually’. Putnam described it as a ‘feeling that cannot be contained […] a Dionysian feeling’.[5] The title itself comes to the fore with the invitation to grieve. After a year in which many have faced huge restrictions to the expression of grief the film resonates with the awareness of these lost moments of expression.

Interlooping

Interlooping was an online performance by Putnam presented by Livestock in May 2021, the third of three performances that formed their Bealtaine programme, ‘Livestock: Viral’.[6] While watching I took notes. What follows is drawn largely from the notes and attempts to maintain the feeling of being with the performance rather than writing of it in hindsight. To my surprise Interlooping is still available online but I have chosen to work only from my ‘live’ experience of it.

This wool, a costume in a sense, gathers to herself as a cloud of sheep’s wool; remnants, white, yellow and pink. Hands appear at times through the bundle, knuckle bones amidst the wool, strands pulled apart like an inflation, a tearing of tissues. A length of dyed yellow wool like a feather boa but rougher. The resonance of the ‘boa’ as constrictor is suddenly very strong in this unexpected association of the wool. The hand creeps through what momentarily appears as an ear orifice. The pink dye reminds me of pink milk in a milking parlour tank, a yield contaminated by blood. I digress. That is my memory.

This work is well tailored to the screen: I see little of the surrounding space, the activity is close to the camera (also a characteristic of An Invitation). Putnam’s pink hair is a close match to the wool. I learn later that the dyes are not those a farmer uses to identify his flock but her own use of turmeric and beetroot. The colours echo those of her hair and the tights she wears. A soundtrack of inhalations, exhalations, distortions, technical reverberation and the sound of knocking wood behind the wool. She is upon a wooden surface. A table or a floor?

Hands hold the wool close, kneading the mass in slow pulsations toward the camera. The sculptural quality is consistent. I am presented a sensuous organism and hold no anticipation, no anxious desire to know where this might go. The heart of the matter has been here from the start and Putnam is immersed in its exploration, texture, feeling, holding, embracing and tearing apart. The ‘looping’ of the title could describe her repeated processes with the bundle of wool.

Her arms are now more visible, limbs in the wool. Sinuous tendons traverse the back of her hand, emphasising her grip. The wood of a tabletop becomes clearer. The soles of her shoes cause that knocking on the wood.

Due to Covid there was wool overstock and low prices. It is this excess that Putnam got hold of via a Facebook group. Initial plans to spin it as yarn floundered but the wool acts as an insulator in this performance. The etymology of ‘yarn’ is revealing. It comes from the Old English ‘gearn’, meaning ‘spun fibre’ but can be traced further back to Proto Indo European roots – ‘ghere’ – meaning intestines. This sequence returns us to the mass of raw wool which envelops Putnam in Interlooping, the viscerality of which undercuts the IT derived title. At a certain point in the work the pink wool reminded me of milk I had seen in a milking parlour tank many years ago, contaminated by blood from a cow in the stalls.

The performance lasts about twenty minutes. Her face is appearing more now. What expression can serve this intimate relation with the material? Her eyes remain open but are not looking at the camera. Rather we are allowed to see her face, her private self in this activity. There is a resolve in her choice to allow her face to be seen emerge from the cocoon like environment of the wool, to be exposed. She falls slowly forward closer, toward the camera. I like how she yields to her momentum.

Soon after the images fades out, Putnam still within the mass of wool.

A further curiosity of the word ‘yarn’ is that it is an IT term to describe a package manager for computer code and allows the sharing of code with other developers. Putnam cited her interest in ‘packages of data’ as a metaphor for the experience of grief as ‘packets of grief’ containing the otherwise Dionysian feeling of excess she had experienced.[7]

To complete this consideration of the titles and terms being used by Putnam I return to the first work discussed, Context Collapse, which draws its title from sociological theory on media.[8] Within the realm of social media, it is ‘the flattening of multiple audiences into a single context’ as occurs with the sharing of information across multiple demographics

Putnam’s presentation much of her work online in this past year has often been without a framing narrative (particularly those sketchbook works), a characteristic of the context collapse. The phenomenon undermines whatever framing might exist. The diversity of the audience proliferates new interpretations. The works themselves are encountered on infinitely variable timelines. The result has been an unusually open view of her creative processes. But this harnessing of online platforms well suits work that aims to question the interaction of humans and technology. The titles themselves indicate an awareness of the arena in which she presents. By staying active, posting work and staying public her study of the human position within the field of technology has developed significantly.

Notes

[1] For further information on these digital animations see http://www.elputnam.com/emergent
Why mention this bias and my change of heart toward the work? Firstly, I am trying to track my ongoing relation to the work El Putnam was presenting. But more importantly, and I realise this in hindsight, the competition for an artist to be viewed online is intense. There are so many short bursts of animation or film available that it is easy to move on after thirty seconds of anything. Even when I like something I might move on, scroll down or close the tab because I have had a sufficient taste of it. Of course even in a real gallery setting (which we may now access) there is competition from the lure of the virtual in our pocket but that is another discussion.

[2] El Putnam has told me that by posting these short animations the people’s responses gave her a sense of ‘what engaged people’.

[3] After the premiere of An Invitation An online Q & A, conducted by Marianne Kennedy (NUIG, Discipline of Drama and Theatre Studies) with Putnam and McCormack, gave great insight into the development and processes behind the work.

[4] The soundtrack is by David Stalling.

[5] Q&A with Marianne Kennedy.

[6] Livestock – Performance Art Platform. Their Bealtaine programme also featured online performances by Day Magee and Olivia Hassett.

[7] Q&A with Marianne Kennedy.

[8] The term grew out of the work of Erving Goffman and Joshua Meyrowitz. In his book No Sense of Place (1985), Meyrowitz first applied the concept to media like television and the radio. He claimed that this new kind of technology broke barriers between different kinds of audiences as the content being produced was broadcast widely. (Wikipedia)

Fergus Byrne is a multidisciplinary artist working in performance, sculpture, drawing and event curation. Underlying much of the performance work is the practice of life modelling of which he has extensive experience. In performance he tests the materiality of his body, sometimes combining such action with spoken word. Through rigorous physical discipline he creates mesmerising performances.

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