Kristin McWharter uses performance and play to interrogate the relationship between competition and intimacy. Her work conjoins viewers within immersive sculptural installations and viewer- inclusive performances that critically fuse folk games with virtual and augmented worlds. Synthesizing experimental techniques and theoretical frameworks in interactive performance, her work speculates and imagines new and alternative forms of social behavior. Inspired by 20th century sports narrative, collective decision making, and technology as a contemporary spiritual authority, her work blurs the boundaries of intimacy and hype culture to challenge viewer's relationships to affection and competitive drive within the larger social context. Her work has been exhibited at The Hammer Museum, Walt Disney Concert Hall, Bangkok Arts and Cultural Center, Ars Electronica, Museo Altillo Beni, and FILE Festival. McWharter received her MFA from UCLA in Design Media Arts and is currently an Assistant Professor in Art & Technology Studies at SAIC where she teaches courses in experimental media, art & technology practices, and virtual reality.
Breath Bank. Competitive Performance. 2018
Tell us a little about your background and your trajectory as an artist/ scholar?
When I was young I studied sculpture and very quickly became interested in the boundaries between performance and object making. Artists like Lygia Clarke and Vito Acconci were really inspiring to me in the way they used objects as both sculptural work and props that mediated a kind of performance/relationship among multiple people. This made me think about the kinds of objects we use that mediate our relationships: footballs, carnival rides, party favors etc. as well as the manner in which games and play operate as a form of simulation in culture- allowing us to play out a variety of conflicts in real time and experiment with different strategies of action or catharsis.
As I started becoming more interested in working with emerging media and VR in particular, I was struck by how entertaining the spectacle of watching people play can be and yet how isolating it can feel to experience an immersive environment first hand. I began to see this trend of a single individual experiencing a VR work in a gallery with a crowd of people watching them- as if watching an athlete or performer. It occured to me that the headset itself, apart from displaying a visually immersive experience, was also mediating the social relationships in the room and creating both “players” and “watchers” in which body language was emerging as a primary mode of communication between the two groups. So, a lot of these works came out of a curiosity in how the body language that arises when using these immersive technologies can be used to explore social dynamics present in the audience. I still draw on a lot of performance references such as partner dancing, competitive sports, and improvisational movement practice when crafting the work. I later became deeply interested in artworks that address the socio-political position of sports entertainment such as Jon Bois’s 17776 and Douglas Gordan’s and Philippe Parreno’s Zidane and wanted to better understand how sports and games can be framed within an art context to explore how power dynamics, narrative arc, and gender can be understood through the lens of competition and intimacy.
Tug. Competative Performace. 2018
What are some of your main influences?
Growing up in the United States, I think there are cultural themes of competitive spirit that have had a big influence on my work and thought process. I spend a lot of time thinking about the rise of sports entertainment throughout the 20th century and the massive emergence of fan culture via media enterprises like ESPN. I have been working through how the particular form of storytelling that stems from sports narrative, one that relies on the unknowns of improvisation, chance, and athletic limitations, have informed generations’ understanding of community, citizenship, and relational body language. The lens of sports rhetoric has particular rhythms and tones of competitive narrative that swing viewer emotions from extreme enthrallment to utter dismay in a single play. A fan is both a spectator and an active agent with their allegiances, superstitions, hopes, and values all participating in how we culturally interpret the consequences of winning and losing. Within my work I try to think about how improvisation and emergent behavior in the audience can be informed by similar responses to competitive or playful circumstances. In my artwork and in my life I see the human experiences of competition and intimacy entangled in our culture everywhere. It’s a complicated emotional relationship, manifesting in as varied of circumstances as sports using consensual violence to connect players face to face and family units pooling their labor as a means to more efficiently compete for resources or political influence.
Using digital technologies such as virtual reality headsets in conjunction with physical props and familiar forms of physical play, the work both unites and restricts viewer movement and interaction, revealing a complex emotive experience that prods at the mannerisms we embody within social contacts. What does it mean to be a good sport? How do we motivate and support each other to keep playing a game that is practically absurd? In what ways do our strategies in play reflect or divert from our strategies in acting out citizenship?
Huddle. Virtual Reality Installation. 2017
New Media is .......
For me, my basic definition of New Media is artwork that critically considers the digital tools and environments that it is created with. I think an inherent and important aspect of new media artwork is its ephemerality. While traditional mediums such as paintings or drawings can build a legacy and popularity that can pass on from one generation into the next, a digital artwork is dependent upon the technologies that are accessible at any given time. How many people have access to artworks that were developed on laser disks, CD roms, or Flash? New media has a fascinating ability to reflect the time and space that it was created for an audience that is specific to the time and place it was created. I think whether we are in a digital environment or a physical environment, we turn to art seeking a similar kind of experience: to be moved or to feel some kind of heightened state of being. Distribution of digital content has the power to reach such a massive audience and wide range of people with different cultural backgrounds and experiences and can elicit a reaction shaped by a sense of awe in how intimately we can feel connected to an online community of millions of people. Likewise, new media work that experiments with physical computation, custom software, etc still depend upon the availability of contemporary technologies- requiring a massive international network of individuals along a supply chain in order for even a small studio experiment to manifest.
If we only judge the value of an artwork by the scale of its audience, we forget to account for the value that is generated by experimentation and risk taking by artists working in collaboration and independently with a wide network of producers (whether credited or not). In this sense, I think we have to consider that the power of new media artworks to create moving and meaningful experiences is created when an artwork understands the unique advantages of the medium- its inherently collaborative production, ability to reach a wide ranging audience, and its ability to reflect with amazing specificity the time in which it was created.
Scope. Virtual Reality Installation. 2017
What is your typical day like?
As I am writing this in early June of 2020 the world is experiencing the impact of a global pandemic and a global uprising demanding justice and structural anti-racist reform across our governments, institutions, and individual belief systems. If I am honest, I no longer know what a typical day is or if what felt like a typical day in the past has any use for our changing future. I’m sitting with a lot of discomfort and trying to channel ways to keep flexibility and nimbleness at the forefront and to dissolve the boundaries between our work as artists and our work as citizens and neighbors who collectively share this world. Maybe by the time this is published I will have a clearer idea of what routines have manifested but at the moment I am just patiently observing an internal germination.
Party Rituals. Virtual Reality Performance. 2017
Tiger by The Tail (Capture). Multiplayer Game. 2020
What are you working on now?
Throughout the month of November, I am working with the gallery Langer Over Dickie to host a series of digital web performances as part of a show called RARA. The work builds upon a lot of my current research into the aesthetics of sports and competition post the covid 19 outbreak. For more information on the exhibition, please visit rara.technology.
Like a lot of artists right now, I am watching my practice change with the tides. My world is becoming increasingly digital with most of my work and social interaction mediated by online spaces. As a result, I feel my artwork also weaning itself away from the physical albeit with a great deal of frustration and growing pains. I am in the early (and scary to talk about) stages of a new project that takes place in a simulation game world in which American football has been reimagined from a feminist perspective. The simulation references popular sports video games such as Madden as well as game mods where users change, alter, or manipulate how a game looks or behaves. I am excited to explore alternative strategies of play in the game of Football that in turn comment on the real life socio-political histories which are currently consumed and upheld within the sport.
Do you have a collaborative idea that you want to get off the ground?
Yes! See above- Anyone interested in contributing in considering, digesting, experimenting, and developing what a feminist football mod might look like is welcome to get involved. As this project progresses I hope that it serves as a vessel through which football is reimagined collectively. The work is still young and it’s hard to pin down precisely how it will take shape at this point, but I am very enthusiastic about how a collective imagination will help it manifest. Please get in touch!
What is the most recent thing you’ve learned?
I am very much in the throes of a lot of learning at the moment. Primarily I think I am learning how to organize and balance the long term work of life-long practices. Whether that’s my art practice, anti-racism, or teaching/mentorship/learning, cultivating time and space to keep the work going without burning out feels like the most important skill I'm developing at the moment.