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In a storefront on Adams Boulevard a city slept. With the flick of a light switch, Parallel City, an exhibition organized by Nick Kramer and Erik Frydenborg, lumbered to life. The sparsely hung, one-room gallery held a smattering of bodies, ghosts, and grids. All these things collectively could be a city; after all what is a city if not a collection (dense or otherwise) of bodies and specters milling about the grid? But Parallel City offered more than the architectural echoes of urbanity—it proposed a body double to the one humming and rumbling outside of the gallery doors.
On a monitor beside the reception desk, an ambiguous form (a torso?) spun ad nauseum. The work, Unrested Image (2013), by Shannon Ebner, has undeniable allure; the process of deciphering the work produced a kind of highway hypnosis. It induced a neurasthenic reaction: an unshakeable anxious, depressive lethargy symptomatic of a 19th-century medical theory of a nervous exhaustion exclusive to city dwellers. (The foremost physician on the subject, S. Weir Mitchell famously asked: “Have we lived too fast?”) The theory of neurasthenia was broadly based on the premise that the human body was an electrical machine and the condition’s onset was due to a depletion of its nervous energy—an idea which even centuries later still seemed to hold metaphorical water in Parallel City. The pin-wheeling image of Ebner’s work offered us a body literally produced, bound, and charged by electricity.
In the corner to the right of the monitor, were two tiny bodies, pointing accusingly outward. Joey Frank’s Bulletin Laughing Man series (2017) depicts two generic visages, their limbs and torso congealed into single rectangular blocks. The words “Cell! Cell! Cell!” across one of the works elicited cells that we experience on a daily basis: computer screen, cubicle, car. Its gilded companion featured an image of a GPS Navigation screen at its base. Where are you going? Are you going the right way? Are you driving too fast? “Have we lived too fast?” Frank’s figures have become one with technology; their connections extend outside of their bodies from human to machine and machine to human. Here the “internal compass” as a moral and directional concept took on a clever and pointed renewal.
Arguably the most seductive work in the exhibition was Amy Brener’s Flexi-Shield (Spring) (2016). Its gel-y pink, membranous body, impregnated with flora, hung from the ceiling. It is unabashedly decorative: snippets of ferns and flowers are suspended in the silicone like Victorian pressed papers of yore. Mylar crumples and subtle patterns imprinted at the edges visually buzz. Suspended, it stopped and conflated time and space in a way that was utterly arresting. Jay Heikes’ Gluttony (2015) manipulated time too; the “fossilized” shells became historiographic—a metonym for a fictional prehistory of Parallel City. Sonja Gerdes’ 2017 work Pie of Trouble. Let’s Hang. You look at it but it doesn’t exist. Rising. too disposed of the traditional human body and instead was a composite of the industrial and the natural: a fleshy torso replaced by a pillow bearing an outward looking eye, fused to an engine and a daffodil. These bodies have morphed into something hybrid and almost unrecognizable. They, undeterred by industrialization, are subsumed by it. Bodies of human history fell away between Brener, Heikes, and Gerdes—they get lost, they become hybrids, all caught between tech-future-flesh and preserved muck.
Heather Cook’s Fluorescent and Blue Shadow Weave Draft Graph (2015) brought corporeal meditations to a halt. Instead of complicated flesh we were confronted with what looked like data. Atop Cooks’ neatly woven grid were meticulously applied numbers cascading beside a fractal-like pattern in shocking blue and orange. Cook’s work was an oddity here—it was the only work that refused a completely coalesced body. It only offered us the molecular. Draft Graph became a quiet protest against the fully-formed; in lieu of the mystical gestalt (of a city, a body, or full hybrid), we were offered only the most elemental of these things: systems, patterns, and numbers.
These elements also constitute the complicated algorithms that coordinate our streetlights, render our cities, and trace the paths of our firing synapses. Cook’s Draft Graph greeted us as forcible rest—the cure for the neurasthenia induced by the flurry of encountering electrically-charged and industrially-fused existences. Her work in Parallel City was a reminder that our bodies, our cities, and everything in between, are not at odds, but at their most basic, are quite the same: completely abstract.
Originally published in Carla Issue 8