Talking Head: Ed Atkins Uses Others to Archive Himself


As you walk up to the
second-floor gallery of the Kitchen
, muttering voices and crashing drums echo down the narrow staircase; it’s an unsettling prelude to “Performance Capture,” an engrossing new exhibit featuring the work of poet and video artist Ed
Atkins. Once inside, you’re greeted by a massive, computer-generated head projected onto a freestanding wall. On the floor, a platform of the same size sits at an oblique angle, illuminated by yellow spotlights. The rest of the room is bare: It’s just these two canvases in odd conversation with each other, a lonely and disorienting installation.

The animation depicts a white man
in his thirties, a loose portrait of Atkins. The artist is known for such large-scale projections, in which he recites his poetry through CGI faces. These hyperreal representations explore the strangeness of our mediated era, in which we try to communicate pain and memory through avatars and online personas. Atkins usually records himself alone in his apartment, but here, he’s ceded the speaking role to one hundred or so participants who took turns reading his script while wearing a motion-capture suit. (Sometimes the head is accompanied by disembodied arms.) The exhibit’s title references this hybrid process, which took place at the Manchester International Festival in 2015.

Accompanied by cello, drums, and electronic noise, the head recites a string of half-formed phrases that blend the vernacular and the lofty, the humorous and the grim: “Hegemony looked like this, Sally./Like me./…O! and also,/My proper name is,/Um, death.” Like the talking heads of evening news, the readers use
familiar cadences that sound meaningful, but the script is often incomprehensible: “Big gray skull-flat and I were, like,/A milk canine tooth hot in pink/Gray gum.” It’s like scrolling through a feed from Atkins’s subconscious.

The video is full of visual fracture, too. Sometimes there are two heads; sometimes the animation will disappear altogether. Wrinkles in the capture technology — lips sneer at impossible angles, fingers snap backwards — highlight the uncanniness of CGI. But the performers’ unique tics are also visible: Some read with their head down, eyes squinting to focus on the script. Others use grand hand gestures or flex their fingers for emphasis. Just as we begin to get comfortable with one, the performer changes.

Over the course of the video, the music intensifies. Meanwhile, the face’s rosy skin slowly degrades, growing bruises and facial hair. By the end, the eyes are rimmed in purple and liver spots begin to appear; it’s as though the recitation is killing this avatar. The chanting voices are reminiscent of a posthumous tribute — a reading of a poet’s work to celebrate his life — even as they are subsumed into a bigger project: Atkins’s words, body, and technological imagination creating an eerie archive of himself.

Ed Atkins: ‘Performance Capture’
The Kitchen
512 West 19th Street
Through May 14