Bridging the Gap: Gretchen Skogerson's Strange Play

Ever since I published The Intimacy Gap a few months back, I've been on the lookout for books, movies, articles, stories, blog entries, or art exhibits that capture, in creative form, the unique kind of distance enabled by the way we use technology in modern American society. Finally, I think I've found one: Gretchen Skogerson's upcoming video installation, Strange Play: Where Do You Go?

Too often, the sentiments expressed within these pieces fall into one of two camps:

a) Those that praise the possibilities of our communication-technological landscape without critically examining the ways in which people actually immerse themselves in it; or

b) Those that caution against such a landscape entirely, without taking a very real look at the very real generative, relationship-building possibilities inherent in it.

This trend saddens me. While the rise of our contemporary media culture has been put under as much scrutiny as any other major social trend, its ultimate meaning, it seems, is a tough nut to crack.

I have my suppositions as to why this is, of course.

As I've mentioned in this space before, I coach the University of Washington Mock Trial team, which means I spend a lot of time teaching people how to speak in public. It's a weird subject to teach, because in order to internalize the principles of quality public speaking, my students must first ignore what they can do and instead focus on how they simply are. This is insanely difficult. It requires radical self-knowledge and self-perception and self-scrutiny and involves simultaneously acting and reacting to the feedback your audience provides. Essentially, you have to be a vehicle for something while at the same time perceiving yourself to be a vehicle for something.

This is way harder than what we're normally used to, because there's no separation of 1) content and 2) the means of expressing that content. Furthermore, there's no separation between 1) ourselves as author/creator/performer and 2) ourselves as object-under-scrutiny. It therefore makes sense that you have to work very diligently to become good at it.

To me, that's what's happening with social media. We're all so inherently embedded in the process of participating in it that it's very difficult to take a step back and simply understand what's going on.

What's so refreshing about Strange Play is that Skogerson seems to be up to the task of both perceiving and participating -- at least so far. The project is a long way from complete, and all I've seen so far is the trailer. But a friend of mine tipped me off to Strange Play's Kickstarter campaign, and I was impressed enough to write this article.

The idea is simple enough: it's a series of interconnected vignettes that explore how -- as individuals in society -- we are simultaneously isolated and drawn together by our dependence on communication technology. A mob of high-school kids huddling over pictures of their cats. Frustrated tourists stuttering slipshod pleasantries between glances at their electronic dictionaries. Strangers playing cell-phone games on a park bench. All of these are scenarios we've seen or experienced before, presented with a nuanced understanding of the uniquely-21st-century circumstances that bring them about.

Skogerson, a 2008 Whitney Biennial artist and MacDowell Colony veteran who currently teaches at MassArt, has a history of capturing the kind of intense isolation Strange Play promises to understand (former subject matter include immense industrial wastelands and the commercial aftermath of Hurricane Ivan). Relievingly, she 'gets' what renders her current subject matter so compelling:"I am fascinated," she says, "by how our wired culture is simultaneously a remedy for and a source of low-level anxiety." Moreover, she's self-perceptive of the irony involved in making an experimental narrative video project centered on communication via machines that in real life is employing those same machines (in the form of social media) to help realize the project

Self-perceptive, in other words, of the Intimacy Gap -- and the possibility of bridging it.