Artist Lenore Malen: Virtual contact represents a loss

Artist Lenore Malen: Virtual contact represents a loss

In Where from Here artists Samir Bhowmik and Lenore Malen, embark on a remote correspondence between Helsinki, Finland and Hudson, New York. Taking the form of video performances and readings, the work explores freedom in the time of quarantined bodies and virtual connections.

Your work questions freedom permeated by digital and virtual culture at a time when we do not have the freedom to leave our own homes. What do you think freedom means for people today? 

SB: For me, freedom is the ability to slow down and reflect on life. It means stepping off the accelerating train of computation and virtuality. It means respecting the lives of others and retreating to oneself. Although it might sound contradictory, freedom is not at all about being physically free, but simply awareness, and the ability to subject oneself to self-examination. In these times of emergency, freedom is about helping others and yourself towards such understandings.

LM: I have been living 100 miles north of New York in Hudson, NY for three months. Freedom today means something very specific and political. I am witnessing the most serious threat to American democracy in a century, or longer. The terrible turn of events and the political divisions in the US that are being further advanced by the President are also enabled or coaxed by Facebook and other online media platforms through their manipulation of content and through the endless sense of distraction they cause in the viewer. Online social media platforms are designed to be highly manipulative, to produce an emotional response to a post, while shutting off reason. Freedom is the right to speak, to act without fear, to not be imprisoned for my thoughts, my gender, my political affiliation and my religion. I once took this for granted, but not anymore.

How did you decide for your project to take the form of remote video correspondence? 

SB: The problem of dissonance was foremost in my mind during the lockdown when all sorts of virtual communication methods were being promoted by people and institutions. The social networks were flooded with virtual this and virtual that. I personally felt mentally exhausted by this turn of events. There was a sense of being trapped. It arose in my mind, how to communicate these feelings to another, somewhere distant, in another context. I also wondered, what method would be best to enquire with the contradictions of virtuality and freedom. The video, although a virtual medium, provided the means of expression of voice, image, performance and place.

LM: It was an idea that occurred spontaneously. We were introduced by a mutual friend over the internet. The idea of a virtual collaborative fascinated me, that we would substitute short video clips for letters, sending them across the ocean to be commented on and back and forth. It challenged the way I view space, time and cinema. It seemed entirely contemporary. 

What role do the physical surroundings play in this work? You are going to be filming in two different locations, on different sides of the world, Lenore in Hudson and Samir in Helsinki.

SB: The filming locations are all landfills in Helsinki. They are artificial grounds created from waste. They represent a parallel to the virtual or the mediation of reality by a screen. In both cases, a feeling of the unreal is present. Digital media is perceived as ethereal, and yet is deeply physical, considering all the materials and resources that go into it. The landfill is in a different way, an artificially constructed physical space but not inherently connected to the natural environment. There is a dichotomy and multiple dilemmas, which my films play with. Ironically, in the video correspondences, the character escapes from the confines of the home, from the clutches of virtual isolation, to find freedom in nature, but seems to be drawn to these unreal territories. 

LM: The clips are rooted in the space and time of Hudson NY, a region that was home to the Lenape Indians and “purchased” by Henry Hudson in 1662. Each scene takes place in a different location in Hudson. The first in an old garden set in a grassland where you can easily find Indian arrowheads. The second location is the train station and a riverbank park and the third is a burial ground for victims of smallpox, circa 1830s-40s, an allusion — or reference — to the pandemic we are experiencing now.

After this pandemic, when going outside and physical contact is allowed, do you think that people are going to perceive freedom differently?

SB: I believe people will cherish freedom, in the sense of being able to freely move around and interact with others. But, will they be really free? I think there will be a backlash against technology, or a sense of critical understanding of the computer-based virtual life, learning and entertainment will come about. Computation is made of discrete bits of information, which in the end are simply electrical voltages on silicon chips. It is not biological, it does not yet support the comprehensive perception that human senses allow. We as humans need face-to-face contact, bodily context and environments to survive and co-exist. Technology cannot simulate nor bestow freedom, at least not in its current form.

LM: Freedom will mean different things to people. We will be much more grateful, having missed each other’s presence so much, Being in physical contact is essential for human beings – virtual contact represents a loss and we know that now. American optimism doesn’t always pertain. What we need now is hope and the beginning of a new political awakening.


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Text: Veera Mietola, Image: Lenore Malen

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