Not on display
My Best Thing is an animated film projection by the American artist Frances Stark. Its narrative is based on a series of online communications between the artist and two Italian male strangers which took place during the run-up to her inclusion in the Venice Biennale in the summer of 2011. Stark met the Italians through internet chat sites, and they communicated with instant messaging and webcams. Stark used the free software Xtranormal to make the animation in which her character and that of the male strangers are presented as crude Playmobil-like ‘Adam’ and ‘Eve’ figures wearing fig-leaf underwear. The figures appear against a bright green monochrome ground and speak with electronic voices. Stark’s words are voiced in a soft American accent, and the two Italians’ in a crude and amusing computerised ‘Italian’ accent. The film was produced in an edition of five plus two artist’s proofs.
In the first sequences of the animation, Stark’s character and the first Italian stranger, called Marcello, engage in ‘cam-sex’ but remain distanced from one another on either side of the screen. There are no animated representations of sex-acts, nor of sex-organs, simply graphic dialogue about these acts and body-parts. These virtual sexual encounters are the basis for a relationship and a discussion of several interrelated subjects, most notably Stark’s taste in dancehall music; the meaning and authenticity of virtual relationships initiated through web-sex; the nature of artistic anxiety, creativity and pedagogy; and the increasingly tense political situation in Italy. The animations are punctuated by a pop video by the reggae-dancehall artist Beenie Man (born 1973), an excerpt from Federico Fellini’s (1920–1993) film 8 1/2 of 1963 and by short video documentation of a riot in Greece during the economic crises of early 2011. These clips are sent as attachments and links between Stark and Marcello during the course of their online conversations. The pair begins to discuss collaborating on a film but the plan is interrupted after Marcello is injured by police in a political riot. Stark loses contact with him and begins communicating with a second Italian, the son of an avantgarde filmmaker.
The cam-sex between Stark and the second stranger is followed by discussions about the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900) and Jacques Rancière (born 1940); reflections on Stark’s communications with Marcello; conversations about the novels and suicide of David Foster Wallace (1962–2008) and Thomas Bernhard (1931–1989); and discussions about Stark’s preparations for the Venice Biennale. Stark decided to use the encounters with Marcello and the second man as the basis for her video, but one of her main concerns was how to make a work based on this narrative that would be able to hold viewers’ attention, with so much other work available to see at the Biennale. Stark’s solution to this problem was to split the animation into eleven episodes: each episode begins with a summary of the previous instalment.
My Best Thing, which takes its name from Marcello’s nickname for his penis, continues Stark’s practice of making work about artistic creativity: for instance, her earlier Powerpoint performance works about the pressures on artists to produce work, and her collages and paintings about the life of the studio. In My Best Thing Stark not only takes the anxieties of inclusion in the Venice Biennale as her subject, but muses on her connection with the character of the director in the Fellini film who finds it impossible to describe his own film, and discusses the problem of durational videos and their audience in busy art settings.
Stark has also long been interested in the idea of art as a kind of wastage of time: in My Best Thing her character discusses the connection between art and web-sex, wondering if ‘art is maybe the opposite of working in the sense that it is a form of resistance to productivity, as is masturbation, wasted seed.’ Stark uses humour throughout My Best Thing, representing sex through toy figures and registering the absurdity of a sexual encounter that is interrupted by malfunctioning webcams. The video also garners its humour from the approach to language, the misunderstandings between an American and an Italian, and the vocalisation of text phrases such as ‘LOL’ (‘laugh out loud’). Nevertheless, Stark raises serious concerns in the work: My Best Thing poses profound questions about sociability, politics, language and philosophy in a digitally mediated world. Produced at a moment when artists are increasingly sceptical about the way social life is commodified through social network sites such as Facebook, My Best Thing posits a more optimistic outlook with the idea that random sex-based encounters can sow the seeds of meaningful discussion and social connection.
Frances Stark, Collected Writing: 1993–2003, London 2003.
Frances Stark, Frances Stark: Collected Works, Cologne 2007.
Frances Stark: This could become a gimick [sic] or an honest articulation of the workings of the mind, exhibition catalogue, MIT List Visual Arts Center, Cambridge, Massachusetts 2010.
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