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May we suggest

Reviews / May 22, 2013

Jeremy Bailey Aims at Change with Important Portraits

Pari Nadimi Gallery, Toronto April 4 to May 4, 2013

Kenneth Parcell meets Steve Jobs. David Rokeby meets Martin Short. Marina Abramovic meets Super Mario Brothers.

So might one describe the performance persona of on-the-rise Toronto artist Jeremy Bailey—actually, his persona prefers the moniker “Famous New Media Artist Jeremy Bailey.”

Over the past few years, I’ve enjoyed watching Bailey’s augmented-reality YouTube videos as an escape from the über-seriousness of the art world.

In the absurd digital scenarios Bailey creates for his naive and narcissistic persona—changing the settings on a stock portfolio by dancing to a pop song; creating a new land mass by nodding his head; turning his face into an interactive TV set—the downcap-a artist demonstrates a simultaneous mastery and contempt of technology and its touted ability to solve our problems.

The tensions in Bailey’s videos—between expertise and amateurishness, man and machine, self-aggrandizement and self-deprecation—often collapse into satire (Bailey’s) and laughter (the viewer’s).

(Disclosure: Many moons ago, when we were both students, Bailey curated one of my works into an open-call program I submitted to via post, but I feel my enjoyment of his work has more to do with his work than that instance of generosity.)

And so, it was with great expectations that I headed to Bailey’s recent exhibition at Toronto’s Pari Nadimi Gallery—and encouraged others to as well.

But when I viewed the show, I felt disappointed. And then I felt bad for feeling disappointed.

In that exhibition, Bailey did a worthy artistic thing: he took a risk. In his case, the risk involved heading into a more collaborative, social and object-oriented zone than the silly solo-performance-for-laptop videos I’ve loved to watch.

Unfortunately, as with any kind of change, it’s possible that Bailey’s new strategy hasn’t yet caught up with the proficiencies of his past work.

***

The exhibition “Important Portraits” included one of Bailey’s hallmarks: a video originally posted online in which he, clad in a white turtleneck, speaks with enthusiasm about his latest project.

As is common in Bailey’s videos, shapes and images float across the screen in an augmented-reality manner controlled by Bailey’s body movements.

In this video posted to Kickstarter—done, unlike the great majority of Kickstarter videos, at the invitation of the site’s art-program director Stephanie Pereira—Bailey talks about a “problem”: the fact that people who support artists on crowdfunding sites are represented with generic icons or tiny JPEGs.

This 21st-century patron-imaging convention, Bailey explains, is an affront to art-world tradition. (Though Bailey doesn’t mention it in the video, Kickstarter distributed more funding last year than the National Endowment for the Arts.)

“I’ve been around long enough to know that art is always about who pays for it!” Bailey enthuses in the video. That’s why, he says, there is a long history of artists producing “grand portraits of great men with great power…who have destroyed entire civilizations. And women, too!”

To correct this “problem,” Bailey proposes a “solution”: he will produce glorious augmented-reality portraits of his own Kickstarter donors.

The text on his Kickstarter page (also written exuberantly) describes the levels of glory donors receive—ranging from a revamped student ID card for the $49 student-patronage rate to a “42×58 limited edition archival print” and “personal one on one 30 minute augmented reality skype chat” for a rate of $1,999 or more.

The rest of the exhibition consisted of 13 C-print portraits that resulted from the Kickstarter foray, a pile of green-and-pink pins that proclaimed the wearer to be a “FAMOUS NEW MEDIA ARTIST!” and a wall text that listed the 100-plus people who funded the project on Kickstarter.

***

In many ways, “Important Portraits” differed from what Bailey has done before.

The works at Pari Nadimi Gallery were mostly still images, not moving ones; they mostly depicted other people, not the artist; they referenced art of the 15th, 16th, 17th, 18th and 19th centuries rather than the art of just of the 20th and 21st; they involved collaborations with others, rather than solo practice; and they showed objects resulting from a performance, rather than the performance itself.

To explain further, each patron portrait in the show was based on a historical portrait—mostly ones from the 1500s and 1600s. According to the amount each Kickstarter donor paid into the project, they received a certain degree of time or attention from Bailey in selecting the historical piece that would be referred to in their augmented-reality portrait. Then, the subjects were photographed in that historical pose or (if they paid less) sent Bailey a photograph of themselves in that pose. Finally, Bailey added various digital flourishes to each still image, turning paintbrushes into MS Paint swooshes and frilled collars into fractal arrays.

In the show, for instance, we saw Bailey himself striking the same pose that Dürer did in his famed Self-Portrait at Twenty-Eight Years Old—but with floating pink cones, green spheres and blue polygons taking the place of the original’s lush fur collar. There was MOCCA director David Liss done up as one half of Holbein’s The Ambassadors, the skull in the foreground no longer anamorphized, but rendered in a pale pink. And there was art-tech critic Michelle Kasprzak reframed as per Jacob Adriaensz Backer’s Portrait of a Lady as the Muse Euterpe, a digitized feather pen, rather than an iPhone, in her hand.

There were also portraits of people quite close to Bailey—his wife, who did a lot of work on the project and brought in many of the historical references, depicted as Rosetti’s Lady Lilith; his sister and her wife, imaged in the vein of Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait; and his mother and father portrayed in a manner based on John Singleton Copley’s portrait of Mr. and Mrs. Isaac Winslow. Though Bailey has mentioned some of these people in his videos before, they have never been pictured in his work, as far as I can tell, until now.

***

While I was touched by the portrayal of community and connectedness in “Important Portraits,” my disappointment was linked to a few factors.

For one thing, I wanted to see all 100-plus of Bailey’s Kickstarter-donor portraits, not just 13. That won’t be possible until July, because the commissions are currently in progress.

I also felt the absence of the Kickstarter page in the exhibition—the writing of that text is the product of a performance too, and it would have added helpful context for drop-by viewers.

Visually, it felt anachronistic to me that, with all the powers of today’s Photoshop at his disposal, Bailey would create augmented-reality still-image graphics that look like they are from the 80s and 90s.

And while I love the humour Bailey usually integrates into his work, I found myself chuckling a lot less at “Important Portraits.” What amusement I did find was tied to recognizing some of the people in the portraits—like Liss, Kasprzak or Bailey himself.

Finally—and here is a truly impossible request—it would have been great to have Bailey there during gallery hours talking about the work, how he sees it, and whether the people in the portraits see it the same way he does.

***

Jeremy Bailey is a smart guy. If Canada is to have a standard-bearer for the future of web-based art, we’d be lucky if he accepted.

Bailey has been passionate about computers, and programming them, since the age of six when he received his first Mac. At 10, his parents remortgaged their home so he could upgrade.

“I remember having a computer that was buggy and I would hug it to get it to turn back on,” Bailey once told me of his childhood. “So I actually thought of my machines as sort of emotional human ways—which I think, hopefully, is apparent in my artwork too.”

Bailey is adept at negotiating theories behind his work. For instance, he cites Rosalind Krauss’s essay “The Aesthetics of Narcissism” as an influence. Where Krauss wrote about implications of performing for a video camera in the 1970s, Bailey elucidates implications of performing for others through devices in the 2010s.

“More and more, the way we perform for other human beings or the way we interact with them is time-delayed on a device, and more often than not it’s actually just for ourselves,” Bailey says. “So we’re communicating with other people by communicating with our reflection, which I find an interesting state of being.”

Bailey also has tech bona fides—by day, he is a creative director at Freshbooks, a Toronto software company, and he considers YouTube his context. The culture around demonstrating new technologies is also a major influence.

“Demo culture was a big inspiration to me—that idea that it’s about the demonstration [of the technology], not about anything else. But in my case, I thought, ‘What if it wasn’t about the demo? What if it was all about the person giving the demo and the demo part was actually really bad?’ That ended up becoming my performance strategy.”

In terms of the 80s/90s style in the “Important Portraits,” Bailey explains that the graphics in his videos are always rendered in real time, which limits their sophistication given the processing power of his laptop. He designed the “Important Portraits” graphics so they wouldn’t be “orphaned” from his video style, and he also noted a nostalgia for the era in which he was most creatively invested in computing—the 1980s and 1990s.

Yet Bailey’s work raises questions that reach even further back, like, How different is a performance artist from their persona?

One thing Bailey notes is that his performative working process is based on a Stanford design-thinking model that he uses regularly at Freshbooks.

“The things I do sincerely during the day, I try and satirize at night,” he says. “That has become the balance for me.”

***

This issue of satire, so crucial to Bailey’s practice, also led to some confusion for me regarding “Important Portraits.”

I was uncertain of how satirical the portraits were—and whether the people portrayed in them (besides Bailey) understood them to be satirical or not. A satirical quality has been clear in Bailey’s past video work, and it was certainly present in the Kickstarter video and text, but in the “Important Portraits” stills, it was less clear.

Talking with one of the portrait subjects, I discovered he found the satire a slippery matter as well.

“I began the process thinking, I want to be part of a deconstruction of the art world,” says UK curator Omar Kholeif.

Kholeif knows well the critical aspect of Bailey’s practices; he has curated Bailey in multiple projects and he recommended Bailey to Kickstarter’s art-program director.

While Kholeif went into the Kickstarter project well aware of the satire at hand, he says, “when you become the object [of the project] you become engrossed in the power dynamic. When you are being directed and asking for direction and deciding how you want to upgrade your photo, you forget the satire, you really do.”

Though Kholeif says the finished work generated some “shock” for him and his partner (it was a double portrait, and he says, “we wanted to know why he was covering up so much of our faces… and why he had us so intertwined”), he remains supportive of Bailey’s work.

“Supporting Jeremy to do this project means it might encourage others to take themselves slightly less seriously,” he says. “If that happens, I will be really happy, because so many of the experiences I go through in the art world lend themselves to humour.”

***

During his Toronto exhibition, Bailey’s activities elsewhere continued apace.

On April 14, he did a performance at Smart Project Space in Amsterdam via Skype. On April 17, the New Museum launched a Bailey project as part of its First Look program, a monthly series of innovative online works. On April 20, Bailey participated in Rhizome’s Seven on Seven conference, which pairs “seven leading artists with seven influential technologists” to develop something new.

All of these were deemed successful by various outlets, and as a Bailey fan, I’m happy that’s the case.

Still, I remain intrigued by the issue of changes in life and art, and Bailey’s attempt to negotiate it via “Important Portraits.”

Last month, Bailey mentioned to me that he was trying to do things “in real life” as much as possible these days as opposed to online.

This seemed quite a statement for a web-based artist, so I followed up via email to ask him why. Here is part of what he wrote back:

“In general, people really value real-world experiences. I don’t think that means we have to pretend we don’t spend 12 hours a day looking at screens (that’s popular culture now), but I’m definitely looking for ways that allow me to exist in both places at once.”

Reconsidering these comments, I recognize one reason it took me so long to write this review—namely, I see Bailey’s desire to achieve balance between the “digital” and “real” worlds to be a wish myself and many others share.

In this light, to express disappointment about Bailey’s efforts in “Important Portraits” might feel like a betrayal of a healthy wish for balance.

But expressing disappointment might also indicate just how difficult is for any of us to excel at “existing in both places at once”—as “Important Portraits” suggested, at least for me, it even remains a challenge for one of the brightest and most promising artists in Canada.

Leah Sandals

Leah Sandals is news and special sections editor at Canadian Art. She has also written for the Toronto Star, National Post and Globe and Mail, among other publications. She welcomes tips, corrections and comments anytime at leah@canadianart.ca.