The room is dense. It is a contemplative, palpable stillness. A white rectangle is pasted into the centre of the wooden floor. It is furnished with a mattress, a pillow, a bowl of water, a small table, and a mug, all also white. A neatly dressed woman sits in the midst of this makeshift room, her eyes do not waver from introspection nor seek to project as people enter and exit the viewing space. I sit quietly and try to make sense of the words up on the screen…
“As you tap your message from the other side, I think this is the closest we will ever be, between us a wall a trillion skins thick.”
RIMA is a 23-hour durational performance developed by SQUIDSILO – the creative minds of Ashley Scott and Julie Vulcan. Presented at the Arts House over the weekend of July 30th and 31st, the work has gained much attention for the resilience required of the performer, but also for its consideration of the practice of solitary confinement through a process that can perhaps be understood as performance coupled with digitalized consciousness. The piece is accompanied by feeds of thought and information that are projected onto a screen. A Twitterfeed of these words is aired simultaneously in real-time, creating a parallel literary work of micro-fiction.
The experience of RIMA, and I do note that this work is about experiencing, not watching, is difficult to comprehend, let alone translate. Vulcan’s shifts through the space, though seemingly arbitrary, trigger an eerie sense of what it is to be watched when you can see no eyes; what it is to be captive when your surrounds belie their true intent. She is calm and contemplative, whilst a subtle but interminable vexation echoes through the composure of her hands and gaze. The passage of time imbued by her gesture and energy are surreally punctuated by the lines upon the screen behind her, and we limbo between coherent thought, profound insight and potential delusion. Amidst this there is a second voice, one that feels like it is from a different future reality, urgently communicating information regarding the apparent calculated destruction of a society. In this way, the implications of this work as a live metaphor are manifold.
It is this type of experience, the conduct of simultaneous spaces, that are the focus of Scott and Vulcan’s work, whereby the physical and the virtual are incorporated tangibly. Both interdisciplinary artists, Vulcan’s work concerns performance, installation, media, text, site-responsive and durational work, whilst Scott is a musician, media artist and computer programmer. Touring nationally and internationally, these two performers are intriguing not in the least for their vast intellectual aptitude to engage deeply with the subject matter across the spaces of political, corporeal and virtual consciousness.
Solitary confinement is a practice increasingly used in imprisonment, torture and detention. In Australia, those identified as disproportionately targeted for solitary confinement are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, women, transgender people, victims/survivors of sexual and physical violence, people with severe mental illness and other cognitive impairments, young people, imprisoned people’s advocates or those who have become predatory in prison.
Whilst solitary confinement, by description, seems to be a more innocuous form of punishment than others, it’s impacts on the brain and long-term effects on the psyche/personality are devastating and often irreparable. For example, healthy subjected spending just 48 hours in sensory deprivation can experience severe anxiety, extreme emotion, paranoia and hallucinations. In addition, within this same timeframe, the side effects on brain function impair the capacity to remember and associate by up to 35%.
In RIMA, the limited parameters of the subject’s existence translate to immense gestural significance, small movements seemingly critical insight into her experience. The virtual feed is linked to her gestures by the environment, “a concise data structure in computer memory where representations of physical phenomena are recorded”. In this way, the passage of one’s mind in solitary confinement is made visible, the potential for augmented reality or impaired sanity becomes a clear causational response to the viewer. It reminded me of my recent experience in a sensory deprivation tank, now increasingly popular for therapeutic benefits. I recall thinking that with no sound, no light, no feeling of my body, how would I know what I was? Who could tell me if I were dead or alive?
RIMA, with gentle and eerie grace, emerges from an inquiry from several years of dedicated practice, research and experimentation. Its fruits are rich in complexity, intellect and insight and the minds and bodies of Vulcan and Scott, having relentlessly pursued this dark and uncertain space of the human psyche, hold up a rare mirror into a realm of our suffering and a humanity that we have somehow passively accepted.
This work will leave you unsettled in the best way possible.
Words: Nithya Iyer