"Take several breaths, very slowly. In, and out. If you're laying down, get in touch with the surface you're laying on. Feel the support of your body. It's completely supported. It's not going to fall."
So begins a random YouTube video entitled "10 Minute Guided Meditation to ease Anxiety, Worry, and Urgency | Soothing | instant Calm | POWERFUL" uploaded by Positive Magazine Meditation Relaxation Inspiration. I found it as a result of a Google Video search using the key word "meditation."
Just envision the screen-saver-like stream of placid images flowing across your computer -- blue skies, opened hands, buddha statues and beach sunsets. Imagine the soothing female voice pronouncing these words ever so gently. The vague yet recognizable speaker, the voice of disembodied wellness, stands out like an invisible authority guiding us 21st century plebeians into a state of higher consciousness, inner peace, savasana, balance, mindfulness -- you get the drift.
But who is this almighty sovereign of mind and body wholeness? And why do we trust her so?
The Institute for New Feeling, IfNf, comprised of artists Scott Andrew, Agnes Bolt, and Nina Sarnelle, uses meditation videos like this as a jumping off point for their own work. Together, they present a playful alternative to the mainstream (often capitalist-driven) paths to wellness, manifested in audiovisual meditations, treatments, therapies, retreats and trendy products that at once challenge and embrace the wellness model.
"At the Institute for New Feeling we advocate for the agency of regular people in conversation with the authoritative voices of' 'wellness,'" the artists of IfNf explained to The Huffington Post in an email. The three requested to respond collectively. "The Institute is the inventor of its own authority, borrowing from the language of corporate branding and new age healing, as well as that of mainstream medicine, therapy, health and beauty. If we can invent our own treatments, maybe you can too."
The IfNf offers a wide array of opportunities for enrichment, including edible ear plugs made from Japanese mochi, mouth-to-mouth resuscitation services via cell phone, and optimized meditations like this, erm, calming remix of the "You May Like" feature online (which, admittedly, appears on this site).
If you can't already tell, the remedies and treatments of IfNf are often absurd and purposefully non-functional. Despite the light-heartedness, though, they aim to achieve the overarching mission of the institute at large: "the development of new ways of feeling, and ways of feeling new."
Andrew, Bolt and Sarnelle met in graduate school at Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh, Pa. After graduation, they created the Institute in 2009 as an umbrella for their various artistic interests and pursuits. "We'd been making time-based experiences that were often very intimate, physical, or even metaphysical in nature," the artists explained. "With the formation of the Institute, we started framing these as treatments and therapies. In this way, IfNf began to question cultural conventions of what is believed to be 'good for us' (physically, socially, psychologically, spiritually…) at a given place and time. I mean, in medieval Europe, nine out of 10 doctors prescribed bloodletting. Do you remember when we all ate margarine?"
The three artists, who have rarely lived in the same city since graduate school, collaborate on everything. Google hangout comes in handy, sometimes for up to 10 hours a day. "Sometimes we’re actively discussing something, other times we’re just working 'beside' each other, sometimes we’re making lunch or using the bathroom. This virtualization has started to seep into our work in significant ways," they explained. "It’s a slow way of working but we think it’s vital to our relationship and ultimately makes the work better -- more intentional, critical -- it makes us aware of our self-aware of ourself aware of our..." We couldn't possibly estimate how many "posts" would precede the "modernity" of the Institute's mentality.
The founding members of the institute brought to the project a sweeping variety of prior experiences under the auspices of "wellness," experiences radically different and yet, maybe not. One booked motivational speakers for company conventions in places like Cancun and Las Vegas, while another conducted historical research of fringe spiritualities and cults. One participated in medical research studies while another worked with more new-age alternatives, including sweat lodge ceremonies, sound baths, sensory deprivation tanks, reflexology, tarot, zen meditation and yoga.
"We are as interested in the power of placebo as we are in any of these things," they added. "For IfNf, the question is not what we believe in, but what are we capable of believing; not simply which treatments 'work,' but how they work, and why. We are skeptics, believers, amateurs, charlatans -- whatever you prefer."
The Institute offers all sorts of Institute-y options, whether you're looking for supernatural guidance or a neck pillow. Some of the virtual options are available fo your viewing pleasure on the website, assembled like an ambiguously therapeutic platform that almost reads like beautiful spam. As of now, the meat of the Institute exists as a traveling performance series, though there's a longterm plan of opening a permanent spa.
This summer, IfNf offered a participatory experience called "seek," a 15-minute private session in which the Internet plays the role of telepathic oracle, and Google tells your future. The participant is led through a calculated misuse of various Google search tools, during which a questioner asks questions like, "Do you have any nicknames?" or "Do you readily help people while asking for nothing in return?" The answers, which, to the unassuming search engine read like nonsense, are fed through Google search and Google Translate, many times. The questioner also runs scanned photos of the participant's face and butt through Google Image search. The results are all combined into a video template to create a virtual prophecy, what AnimalNY's Liam Matthews likened to an "extra-surreal Mad Lib."
The project explored technology's ability, in the artists' words, "to create a scientific path to things that feel supernaturally unattainable right now. As Shazam taught us in 2009, 'any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic' [as Arthur C. Clark said.]"
While "seek" feels like a techno-psychic experience you'd find at an experimental art fair or new age market -- somewhere between James Turrell's "Perceptual Cell" and Christina Lonsdale's aura photography -- the Institute's line of wellness products seem more like the kind of extraneous goods you'd peruse for laughs in SkyMall or Brookstone, only five times more absurd.
One such object is an air-freshener that releases Oxytocin, a hormone related to human bonding and well-being. Another, a neck pillow made from cement, is at once heavy, smooth and cool to the touch.
IfNf has four new product prototypes underway, which have been exhibited at various art venues, but the artists are still figuring out how to sell them. "We’re interested in the problem of categorizing and pricing -- whether to frame them as products or as sculptural art objects. The product line may sell for different prices in different contexts, whether you purchase online, in a boutique, or in a gallery. We’d like to engage this discussion of value in relation to context, especially as it involves peripheral concerns like the artists’ reputation, collectability, editions, archival stability, etc."
IfNf has a chameleon-like ability to become art, or not, depending on its surrounding habitat. Gazing upon their mochi-made earplugs gives you that same lightheaded uncertainty as encountering a crumpled Doritos bag on the floor of Art Basel. Is it art? Who decides?
For the artists behind IfNf, the goal is to operate both inside the art world and beyond it, with both opportunities enabling distinct yet constructive results. "We are interested in occupying a space inside both the 'art' world and the 'regular' world. By identifying ourselves as artists, viewers are able to approach our projects conceptually, recognizing how they reflect upon, criticize or playfully re-imagine existing realities. By identifying ourselves as a wellness institution, participants are able to approach our projects with a complexity of feeling that is not inhibited by the skepticism of the contemporary art context."
Engaging with the Institute in an art context enables participants to seriously evaluate the langue employed in spheres of wellness, as well as what's at stake. But the flip side is, just as wellness participants can perhaps be too accepting and impressionable, art audiences can be completely closed off.
"Art audiences in this stage of post-post-modernity are extremely cynical; it is increasingly difficult for artwork to generate any kind of emotional, spiritual or personal response," the artists said. "The Institute for New Feeling uses humor and/or criticality as a gateway to bring people into an experience, and then works to transform their expectations through time, physicality or intimacy. For instance, people may attend our team-building retreat session expecting a parody of similar programs, but after 90-minutes of eye contact exercises, empathy work and laying on the floor together, most emerge with a real sensation of openness and connectivity."
In this way, IfNf exists in a complex in between, subverting the language of corporate culture's wellness initiatives to both question the dominant structure and, more radically, feel something real. Specifically, the artists hope to evoke a "new feeling" in their viewers, a feeling the artists describe as "this contemporary state of integrating multiple feelings -- our growing tolerance, as a culture, for the unresolved, inexplicable or contradictory."
There's a difference between ironic appreciation and what IfNf is after, though. In interviews, they've compared their work to New Sincerity. "We’d like to propose an approach that’s neither a critique nor earnest acceptance of the corporate/institutional values being sold to us: insofar as we are giving over to the these powers, we are also molding a new value system alongside them."
Up to this point, IfNf has primarily exhibited in art world settings, although they try to utilize public space outside or on the cusp of an artistic context whenever possible. Eventually, the artists hope to open up a storefront spa in Los Angeles, distancing themselves significantly from a strictly artistic frame of reference.
The artists have been discussing the logistics behind such a vision for around five years, hammering out exactly how to run a successful, sustainable, artist-run space. "This shit is difficult, financially risky, hard to sustain, and has the potential to usurp all of our time into managing -- rather than making -- art." However, the obstacles reveal new tactics, such as partnering with an existing spa and offering alternative treatments during off-hours, or setting up a space in an airport kiosk or shopping mall.
The various limitations involved in actualizing a physical space sparked the artists' interest in establishing virtual presence. "We started thinking about developing the Institute’s virtual space alongside its physical manifestation. Maybe we should create a video tour of our spa before the spa even exists? Maybe we should answer phone calls as if we’re sitting behind a desk in uniform? Or perhaps the space already exists and you simply can’t get there? During this time, we became much more interested in the slippery state of the 'institution' -- as a physical space, but also as a brand, a collective, a community, a rumor."
The artists initiated a more manageable prototype of this model with the Felt Book, a yearlong research project resulting in a collection of home remedies, treatments and Fluxus-like instructionals from over 70 invited artists.
One such piece was Luke Loeffler’s “Treatment for Hyperactive Electronic Response Syndrome,” a message-based response system designed to help viewers resist the urge to constantly check and recheck your cell phone. You text a number (505-672-5561), turn your phone to vibrate, and your phone will start receiving false vibration notifications via the therapy, thus strengthening your resistance in looking. This July, the Felt Book toured to 12 cities across the country; along with the exhibition and a video screening, viewers received printed text pieces to take home with them.
Until the Institute takes a more permanent, physical shape, acquaint yourself with their simulated presence, which, given their work's technological bent, works quite fittingly. Peruse the online Institute and melt into their pastel-tinted videos -- part meditation guides, part infomercials, calming yet invigorating, like a corporate sponsored, lavender-scented bubble bath, with musical accompaniment by Enya.
Take several breaths, very slowly. In, and out. Ease into the feeling of newness, a complex embodiment of seriousness and play, art and capital, technology and nature, critique and embrace. Can you feel the paradox? The harmony? Breathe in, breathe out. The Institute for New Feeling is here.
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