THIS IS UNCOMFORTABLE
Arpi Kovacs and Gabrielle Moser
The piece ‘What Do You Think Of Me?’ was originally created during a 2009 residency in Turku, Finland where the artist asked gallery goers to film her with a video camera and to narrate their impressions of her in Finnish.
Their responses range from sincere and cheesy complements to racially charged exoticism. Since the language barrier prevented Nicolela from immediately understanding their comments, she stands before each spectator completely unaware of their perceptions and only able to respond to their smiles, laughter and other outwardly physical gestures. When she returned home, the artist had the comments translated into English and included as subtitles to the footage, which is presented sequentially and seemingly unedited in its final form.
The pauses that punctuate the comments remind viewers of the absurd circumstances that structures the encounter. Yet, despite the superficiality of the interactions, certain comments remain thoughtful and point to the function of language as a primary means of interaction. The voice of a young boy who seems to struggle with operating the camera, for instance, is remarkably earnest in his response: “Brazil is... I don’t have much information about Brazil. And I don’t know much about their culture because we haven’t had it in history class yet.” In contrast, the more mature voices are indirect and disconcerting in their tone. One woman seems preoccupied with ascertaining Nicolela’s “true nature” through her physical appearance, wondering aloud if “maybe we met in another life.” A male voice, on the other hand, seems disinterested in anything but the artist’s physical appearance, describing her as dark and warm, “like Brazilian coffee.” The documentation cleverly reveals the relationship between language and power, as well as the direct role that language played – and continues to play – in inscribing colonial notions of sexuality and national character.
The relational structure of ‘What Do You Think Of Me?’ is derived not only from the interactions between artist and gallery goer, but also through the recording and replaying of these encounters for the viewer of the final work, which reanimates Nicolela’s original gesture of vulnerability. Although it is Nicolela who occupies the screen, her voice is rarely heard. Instead, it is those who wield the camera who contribute to the video’s defining narrative, and yet we cannot see her subjects as they speak. Nicolela does not employ familiar video tropes such as distortion, repetition, or delays to make the voices more enigmatic, but instead allows the limits of the medium to create an awkward imbalance between those who can speak and those who can only be seen.
Though we might wish the speakers could be as visually exposed and vulnerable as the artist, Nicolela’s video denies this kind of transparency and is instead open to the sometimes conflicting and uncomfortable social encounters between the artist and her subjects that often go unresolved.
catalogue of exhibition ‘This is Uncomfortable: ’ TPW Gallery, Toronto, Canada, 2010