We’ve seen the profusion of articles—tech-blog think pieces, peer-reviewed psychological studies, sociological inquests, and armchair Facebook treatises—all grappling with the same question: What are smartphones and social media doing to us psychologically as individuals and, more broadly, as a society?
LA-based artists Bailey Hikawa and Scotty Wagner recently debuted their new multimedia project 100 Year Plan at MOCA Tucson, engaging this and other questions about personal branding, tech-addiction, and capitalist materialism in the frantically paced and ever-evolving landscape of digital culture. Over the course of the nearly hour-long performance, the duo (going by the collective name of “Emotional.Store”) wryly explores the blending of online and IRL identities, social media-fueled self-obsession, and the meaning of artistic practice in this brave new world of technology where digital life is real life, and free WiFi is a human right.
The structure of Hikawa and Wagner’s hybrid performance/video piece can itself be read as a metaphor for the screen—the “black mirror”—of the smartphone. An elaborate stage filled with props, lighting, sound equipment, and computers is completely obscured behind a large projection screen placed between the audience and the set.
Although most of the action occurs on this live set, the audience never sees the players directly without the intermediary of a highly processed and stylized video feed.
This ostensibly “live” performance is therefore entirely filtered and digitally modulated before ever reaching human eyes. It is often unclear whether something is occurring live, or if a video clip has been pre-recorded and edited. This deliberate contrivance points to the strategic disconnect between the spontaneous human messiness of real life, and the self-consciously curated polish of the feeds we deploy as proxy cyber-identities.
As the piece opens, we see two characters peering out at the audience through the screen, casting the audience in the role of the smartphone, or—perhaps more ominously—as a group of people “trapped” inside the device.
We observe voyeuristically as the pair navigates a superimposed on-screen website, speaking in hushed, almost flirtatious tones, employing the mannerisms and emotional dynamics of a private domestic conversation. The moment seems authentically intimate—Hikawa and Wagner are, in fact, a couple IRL—but the utter banality of the content they are engrossed in casts a delightfully absurd humor to the scene.
A web page asks, “Is your phone your best friend? 1. YES 2. NO.” The couple responds with an emphatic verbal “no” and attempts to click the “NO” button several times (unsuccessfully, for the link is non-functional) before conceding defeat and clicking “YES.”
This comically pathetic attempt resonates with a decidedly sinister overtone.
The couple, although seemingly eager to, is unable to escape the lurid distractions and intrusions of the screen. On the surface, this moment may seem insignificant, but it echoes the real-life tension that exists between the vague feeling that we spend too much time looking at our phones, and our instinctive and impulsive grasp for them in moments of boredom and discomfort, or for seemingly no reason at all.
Is it futile to resist the relentless infusion of our smartphones into every aspect of life? Like best friends, they’re always there. Why fight it?
100 Year Plan progresses as a series of vignettes between the couple, variously meditating on advertising (invoking the mantra-like chant, “COMMERCIALS ARE THE BEST SHOW”), hawking self-branded t-shirts through the eponymous and quasi-fictional website Emotional.Store, lounging narcissistically with digital devices and hand mirrors, marveling à la QVC at the miraculous problem-solving potential of consumer goods, singing a song about free WiFi as a human right (“YOU WOULD DIE WITHOUT FREE WIFI”), and reviewing the entire video capture of the performance in fast-forward while offering complementary but superficially bland self-critique.
In a particularly poignant scene near the end, one of the characters confides his declining mental state to his partner via video chat. His “human engagement” is low, he doesn’t feel himself, something is definitely off. His partner sympathizes, insisting she has a solution.
In this moment, it felt like they were poised on the verge of catharsis, about to break free from the vapidity of self-promotion, the banality of materialistic obsession, and the self-imposed isolation of the screen.
“Shopping! Everyone knows that shopping is one of the best ways to interact with people.” They proceed to “go shopping” together, on their phones of course, because, as Hikawa’s character states, “The closest store is always your phone.”
Retail therapy, indeed.
As art often does, 100 Year Plan occupies itself more with posing questions than answering them. Is it an indictment of digital culture? Not exactly. After all, Hikawa and Wagner’s chosen media of production in this piece are digital video, interactive web design, and custom-branded “merch.” As much as 100 Year Plan is a tongue-in-cheek work that satirizes the tangled digital briarpatch we currently reside in, there is also a palpable thread of optimism for the neutral potential of technology as an extension of human potential itself.
Smartphones, social media, online shopping—it could be argued that none of these things are inherently harmful. It’s what we do with technology and how we see ourselves in relation to it that becomes positive or negative.
Ultimately what the performance does is hold up a mirror to the ways we engage with each other and the world in our current era, thereby inviting us to explore the effects of an increasingly tech-soaked landscape. If we contextualize our experience of the world in relation to our digital devices, our social feeds, our brand alignments—what does that framing leave out of the picture plane?
Are our phones truly our best friends, and to what extent do we have a choice in that?
Will our electronic gadgets usher in a transhumanist utopia, or an oppressive technocratic nightmare?
There might be a clue to Hikawa and Wagner’s perspective in their choice to close the performance with a hip-hop homage to avant-garde Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama, a notorious recluse whose œuvre includes obsessive replications of her own hallucinations as a kind of self-therapy, and mirrored rooms which function as infinitely variable visual echo-chambers.
Although Kusama is extremely private and introspective in her practice, her work is often quite loud and splashy—eminently Instagrammable—and her highly publicized exhibitions draw enormous crowds of selfie-snapping museum-goers. That an artist who is so inwardly focused can create such outwardly sensational public spectacles and irresistible psychedelic backdrops for digital narcissism is perhaps evidence of our inescapable human vanity.
100 Year Plan seems to be telling us it’s not so much that technology and art made us the way we are in this present moment, but more that we make technology and art more or less in our own image, to suit our own—very human—needs and desires.
We have always existed in a nebula somewhere between our deepest fears and highest aspirations. Human nature is slippery and imperfect, rife with contradictions, and the objects, ideas, and experiences we create are an inevitable reflection of that cosmic limbo in all its paradoxical complexity.
As Hikawa and Wagner put it in a recent interview with Creative Tucson’s resident blogger Jack McClellan, “Our electronic gadgets generate experiences that are both utopian and oppressive . . . the two will always coexist as one.”
Our problems with technology are not new. At their core, they are some of the oldest problems humans have dealt with since the dawn of civilization—power, prosperity, identity, community, and happiness. Aren’t these the things we have always felt the need to define, and therefore protect, as long as we have been conscious?
The non-biological children of humanity (technology, art, and cultural production) are not exempt from the flaws of their parents, nor should they be defined by them. Maybe our phones don’t need to be our best friends, but that doesn’t necessarily make them our worst enemies either.