It’s a game show but unlike any you’ve ever seen. Three contestants file wordlessly onto the small stage— animal, human and machine. Familiar and strange, they face the audience. The animal wears a mask, detailed enough to identify it but vague enough to remain unspecific. Tassels cover her face and small ears protrude over the top of her head. The human, in the middle, is identifiable only by an oversized, exaggerated brain, her face all but obscured, engulfed by the twisting red grey matter. The machine, for its part, is metallic and shining. Alone, she is un-masked.
Behind them, on a large screen, their recorded doubles enter another stage, and the focus shifts. The show begins in earnest. An unseen presenter begins to conduct the game. Much is left undefined; no one knows what they’re playing for.
The stakes, however, couldn’t be higher. Throughout the performance and through the format of the game show, the characters explore the relationships between themselves and the world. Emphasis is placed explicitly on communication – a theme that’s clearly a priority for Beth Kettel. Based between London and Nottingham, Kettel’s practice centres on language, exploring its limits and potential, and this performance accompanies forms an integral part of her exhibition at Zabludowicz Collection.
Here, she is asking if the digital has changed our inner voices and wondering about the experience of animals. Boundaries are explored, where the physical and mental meet and where skill gives way to chance. It’s done with humour – at one point, the natural tweeting of birds shifts into the stylised tweeting of an iPhone chirp – but Kettel is exploring our modern world with careful consideration.
Lurking in the wings, there is the strange, shape-shifting fourth character: the monster. Wearing a headlamp, it shines a light into all the dark, over-looked corners. You can never look it in the eye. At any moment, our protagonists could fall into its trap. After all, the monstrous is in all of us, defining so many modern relationships. We use technological advancements to manipulate and exploit, ravaging environments and torturing animals. We take people, animals, nature and we make them into monsters too.
These unrelenting shifts from humour and joy to fear and cruelty define the performance. It is, of course, one of the dominant traits of our contemporary experience. With a click of the mouse or with the sudden pop up of a news alert, we bounce ceaselessly between the good and the bad, the joyous and the horrific.
These are important ideas and Kettel approaches them with seriousness, thankfully avoiding much of the panicked handwringing that plagues much so called ‘post-internet art.’ I only wish that she had done it without so much gimmick. By the end, many of the elements, rather furthering her points, just seemed irritating and distracting. Did the characters really have to spend the whole performance with vapes in their hands, alternating between smoking and pretending to play the flute? Still, Kettel’s take on these issues is timely, and distractions aside, this is a performance that makes a mark.