The work of the young London and L.A.-based artist Ed Fornieles explores the interpenetration of URL and IRL in a socially networked world. His performances, staged events and ‘Facebook sitcoms’ enthusiastically embrace the dissembling aspects of online identity-management – selfies, avatars, twitterbots, Gchat melodrama – and walk a fine line between art-world satire and blatant self-promotion. In New York New York Happy Happy (NY NY HP HP) (2013), staged at the New Museum in New York, he orchestrated a semi-fictional charity gala in aid of the online journal Rhizome, which operated as a psychological version of fancy dress: rather than wear costumes, guests were invited to adopt new egos. The ambiguous extroversion of such performances, where fake people are encouraged to have authentic encounters, is thematic to Fornieles’s work as a whole.
In ‘Modern Family’ at Chisenhale Gallery, the artist attempted to map and measure the ways in which the internet has infiltrated the family, both as a unit of bourgeois societal stability and as a pop-cultural trope. Rather than present his subject in its traditional and more complex guise, as the Freudian location of sexual trauma, Fornieles was interested in the flat-pack family peddled by mainstream American TV: affluent yet anodyne, ‘wholesome’ and white – a blatant ideological vehicle and an easy target for satire.
The installation was arranged like a suburban L.A. garden. A few scattered sheets of AstroTurf hinted at a lawn, while an ash-filled barbecue and a long picnic table, littered with bread rolls and hay, implied a recent cookout. The artist’s use of breakfast cereal made a familiar comparison between mass culture and junk food, while over-earnest mottoes (‘WE ARE ONE’; ‘BE YOURSELF’) suggests that the old paradox of growing up – craving individuality while aching for acceptance – persists in the second families we find online. Crammed with large sculptural works – from a dancing Lego-like man, an oversize pair of brown trousers and a Pop art apple – the room felt closer to a motley assemblage of isolated works than a convincing installation.
A series of flatscreen monitors mounted on the gallery walls displayed shifting collages of jpegs and gifs, extracted in real-time from the ‘back end’ of various websites. Sushi, stock photography and hardcore pornography were recurring motifs – the data trails and search criteria left behind by Fornieles’s ‘family members’. Rather than re-frame or actively criticize, these hypnotically vapid works reiterated online culture as it already exists – an endless procession of ephemeral readymades – without attempting new forms of reception and exchange that might interrogate that image economy.
Theatrical lighting, DIY surfaces and a booming soundtrack provided ‘Modern Family’ with an array of sensory textures, but it was strangely bereft of affect. Fornieles is avowedly more inspired by sitcoms than art history, yet his installation suffered from comparison to earlier family-focused works. Paul McCarthy’s videos Family Tyranny and Cultural Soup (both 1987), for example, marshal extraordinary levels of symbolic violence (like forcing mayonnaise down the ‘mouth’ of a polystyrene ball) to dramatize the malignant psychosexual forces that families can incubate. ‘[America is] where everything emanates from,’ Fornieles remarked about ‘Modern Family’ in a recent interview. ‘Everything’ might have included the work of the country’s iconoclastic artists, many of whom addressed the same subject decades ago.
But ‘Modern Family’ was more concerned with striking poses than exploring deeper histories. A performer was present at the exhibition, ‘activating’ its various zones with somnambulistic understatement. As Marshal McLuhan observed in his prescient book Understanding Media (1964), narcissism has a numbing effect, and can turn us into the ‘servomechanism of [our] own extended or repeated image’. Placing both hands on the barbecue, the performer stared into its ashy depths, like Narcissus into his lake, as if drugged by the surfeit of information surrounding her.
Social networks comprise their users, yet the profit-focused corporations that facilitate those interactions tend to operate with a shadowy disregard for the ethical boundaries of privacy. Over the course of 2012, Facebook manipulated users’ news feeds (without their consent) to track the changes in their emotional state; in August the following year, in the wake of Edward Snowden’s leaks, researchers at the University of Michigan found that ‘Facebook use predicts declines in subjective well-being in young adults’. ‘Modern Family’ captured a sense of the numbing effects of online life, but it failed (or refused) to mount a convincing critique of that increasingly sinister status quo, in which users of social media unwittingly become workers on the factory floor of the information economy.