Infantalised by social media: Rachel Maclean’s dystopian vision

rachel mclean
Copyright Rachel Maclean, We want Data!, 2017. Courtesy of the artist

In Rachel Maclean’s recent film, we enter a frenetic and eye-scorching visual world, a 30 minute riotous mash-up of Disney and Hammer horror, that neatly distils the child-like anxiety and exuberance exhibited in much social media activity. It’s What’s Inside That Counts, 2016, first exhibited in London as part of Tate Britain’s Art Now programme in the Spring, is a tour de force from an artist with a disturbing and singular vision. As a performance artist/computer animator she is keen to explore the “dark and depressing” aspects of social media and her unashamed gross-out style conveys the sometimes grotesque distortions inherent in living an online life. She describes her work as “digital collage” inspired by trawling through T.V. and web sourced material. Scavenging visual images and found audio clips she creates a script and a cast of self performed characters realised with sophisticated prosthetics and costumes. Green screen editing and CGI allow her to produce a digital backdrop  for multiples of her own performances. Hidden behind such heavy disguise she is unrecognisable and in a strange way by dressing up and lip synching she is simply exaggerating the standard strategies used to project a social media identity. Despite casting herself in every role, narcissism is entirely absent as her own physiognomy is submerged beneath the transformations she so carefully crafts.

Social media values and internet marketing tropes are clinically and cheerfully parodied. We follow the rise and fall of a social media celebrity named “Data” (see above) whose absent nose I took to be a cutting comment on surgical enhancement. As her adoring onesie-suited followers chant “We want data” we reflect that the torrent of information we demand from the internet is exactly mirrored by the flow in the opposite direction from us to the corporate internet giants. With their sleep shades emblazoned with dilated pupils her crowd of internet data addicts are portrayed as deluded clones in thrall to the dominant messages that fill their social media feeds.

Maclean splices in a found audio file of the irritating childish refrain “Again and again and again” sung by a chorus of rat/human hybrids in nursery rhyme dresses. The contradictory pressures of online existence are neatly exposed. On the one hand it points to the self-improvement mantra “If you fail to be liked, try again and you are sure to achieve success ”  but also  “If you want to stay happy and avoid upsetting yourself, here is more of what you liked before”. Ironically Maclean’s career is in danger of being caught in this trap. Her work is so successful and distinctive she must be tempted to mine this rich seam with her self-made purpose designed tools for the foreseeable future. Having said that, Hogarth had the same acerbic vision and artistic elan as Maclean and he did not do too badly. In the US Paul McCarthy has similarly built his reputation through testing our squeamishness to the Stygian underbelly of consumer culture.

In some of McCarthy’s filmed performances he becomes too self indulgent and the length detracts from their impact. Maclean is usually admirably concise as many of her short films testify but with this one there is a digression into caffeine addiction which features a contrasting gloomy palette. This was amusing but could have been cut to give the film a more watchable length. MI artists need to attract an audience beyond their devotees so unless there is a compelling narrative 15-20 minutes is probably the optimum.

As with any artist appropriating consumerist iconography Maclean is in danger of fetishising rather than critiquing the visual tropes and their attendant values.  I think it might be interesting if she moved away from found audio and used her own text to narrate her films.  Her future trajectory will be intriguing to track.




Ferocity tempered by ice-cold analysis at Goldsmiths MFA

Goldsmiths’ art students are ferociously angry, rightly so given the state of the world. But they use this furnace to temper their material into stark blocks of steel  that coolly reflect the idiocies surrounding them. Among the targets skewered by the moving image artists this year are crass gender stereotypes, corporate gobbledygook, medical arrogance and psychological vacuity.

Puck Verkade, Breeder

Puck Verkade

For her inventive marshalling of diverse sources and ideas into a cohesive whole, Verkade for me was the standout MI artist of the show. The three video episodes totalling 20 minutes are a playful but hard-hitting exploration of the politics of female reproduction with digressions into related issues. It integrates her own animations, archive clips (including Shirley Bassey, Boy George and moon shoots)  and features a stunning sequence as a baby chameleon emerges from its leathery egg. Directing three teenage girls to demonstrate the relevance of chickens and Cleopatra to gender and racial politics was handled with a confident sensitivity. At one point in a nod to post-modernism, Verkade steps out of the director’s omnipotent role during shooting to query with a black teenager whether a shot of her eating fried chicken would be seen as offensive stereotyping. She is acutely aware of language betraying cultural assumptions and her bold use of (covert?) sound recordings of women undergoing encounters with medical professionals is particularly startling for their honesty.  One of the video episodes is viewable at

Ian Gouldstone, Wanton Boys

Ian gouldstone

The title of this work is an attempt to invest it with profundity. I thought the dancing crosses  projected onto simple blocks evoking animal gravestones were quite amusing. So perhaps I am a “wanton boy” heartlessly looking down on the misfortunes of others. The idea of using software to generate random interaction between geometric figures is fun but also gives a new perspective on the meaningless absurdity of life.

Laura Yuile, Contactless Family #4

Laura Yuile

I was taken by Yuile’s background commentary, sourced I assume from found audio featuring  smooth corporate sales pitches that ratchet up the paranoia of environmental contamination and disruption of the home environment: “Do not allow two mirrors to reflect each other,” the feng shui advisor smugly urges. This is extended to an exploration of the idea that the smarthome has a consciousness and its ill health will act on the family that resides there. Her digital processing, scrambling and fuzzing the images, arrestingly conveys that the boundary between the environment and the self is becoming blurred, a disconcerting but prescient idea. More info at

Tom Varley, The Personality Test

Tom Varley

This was absolutely thrilling and very funny. Initially I read it as a parody of a dire counselling session with the counsellor mirroring verbatim the depressed self-statements of the client according to Rogerian non-judgemental orthodoxy which only leads to him sinking more deeply into his depression. But it becomes apparent that the entire script is taken from the statements that feature in the woeful personality tests that we are all subjected to in the cause of refining the recruitment filter for whatever organisation we are seeking to join. As scenes progress the mood fluctuates wildly from delight to anger to sarcasm as the actors do a sterling job giving alternative interpretations of the banal profiling statements such as “I enjoy meeting other people.” Introducing melodramatic classical themes like Mahler’s 5th Symphony at dramatic points provides a humorous counterpoint to the turbulent emotions. This film is a devastating practical debunking of scientific psychology’s futile attempt to grasp the complexity of the human  condition. Brilliant.

Michal Plata, Bodies and Dark-metal

michal plataAs an ex-BMW designer, Plata has an interesting background for an artist. His two videos take muscular strength as a signifier of masculinity as their starting point. Interview clips reveal competitors for the “World’s Strongest Man” are also filled with self doubt. This is contrasted with a young boy testing his mental strength by confronting pedestrians with his attempts to walk between couples holding hands. That this is set in the least macho London suburb of Hampstead I took to be significant! His website is

Tomasz Kobialka, Pearl Diving for Wyrms


Kobialka’s installation of this digital video in a carpeted room only four-foot high and his narrator’s sub basso profundo growl add to the undertow of menace.  The alpha male elements of video game culture are presented as an inescapable rule. But this contrasts with the benign innovation – a virtual worm (or wyrm) with a simple genotype which is seen as the holy grail in that it mimics a living organism contrasting with the typical mythical scaly monster that otherwise prowls around this video. Is he suggesting that we will soon be satiated by online fantasy and seek instead to fashion a virtual reality indistinguishable from the “real” world?

Robbie Howells, ACG in practice


A perfect example of channeling controlled anger is seen in Robbie Howells’ hilarious parody of a corporate animation promo which supposedly launches a collaborative venture between artists and business while giving a chilling commentary on freemasonry, viewable at  Along with the accompanying video by his artist alter ego “Katie South” on the “architecture of ritual spaces,” his satire encompasses the troubling, darker question of the rigged world we are all in thrall to. His experience at Millwall F.C. recorded succinctly in a text piece is a crushing indictment of the exploitation of young artists by business.

So, overall an abundance of  MI treats. You have until 7.00 pm Monday 17th July to experience them.




Humanity branded at 2017 RA Schools Show?

Sam Austen
Still from 16mm film True Mirror, 2017. Courtesy of the artist, Sam Austen

“Ensure your brand represents humanity”.  This slogan for wannabe artists appeared in Richie Moments’ coruscating video in his degree show at the RA Schools exhibition last week. It neatly summarises the dilemma: to get noticed by the artworld you need a USP but if you aspire to art’s more noble aspirations you need to reflect something profound about the human condition. I speculated whether this year’s crop of graduates had succeeded in meeting both of these demands. Compared to 2016, noticeably more moving image works featured in this year’s exhibition, often deployed by the artist to enhance their work in other media.

Sam Austen’s visceral three channel installation, True Mirror (2017), accompanied by an original musique concrete  soundtrack  with factory and railroad clatterings in lockstep with the visual edit was the standout work. Not many young artists have the patience to work within the constraints of celluloid but it confers a  ghost-like immediacy and glamour to the images that digital cannot achieve. Through painstaking editing and superimposition Austen has made a chilling work that transfixes the viewer with an eerie sense of mortality. The key motif is a series of disembodied plaster heads that evoke the Mexican Day of the Dead or classical death masks whirling through space like frenetic commuters or riders on a manic fairground roundabout. There are frequent changes in tempo and when they come to rest their staring eyes invite us to posit an interior life. Often paired, the heads have reflections that are chasing or shadowing the original. In the final sequence two heads circle each other like wary combatants. Exhilarating and unsettling representation of the human condition: tick. A USP melding of “old school” media (casting and celluloid) with contemporary technology (sound track): tick. With these criteria met, this is the definition of a totally successful moving image artwork.

Dmitri Galitzine and Thomas Bolwell. Still from dual screen HD video, Cowboys, 2015-2017. Courtesy of the artists.

Over two years of filming, Dmitri Galitzine and Thomas Bolwell immersed themselves in the fantasy world of a Wild West cowboy re-enactment community. Their construction of a complete frontier settlement in Kent is the ideal narrative for exploring the contradictions of myth and reality: hi-vis jackets among the stetsons, mechanical diggers among the horses. The dual-screen presentation juxtaposes Hollywood Western scenes with very similar ones from thier own footage. The contrast of the English mud with the Arizonan sand highlights the perceptual skew required to preserve a mythical world. They also slyly hint at the more worrying side of historical warfare obsessions by inserting a clip of a Third Reich memorabilia stand. We are reminded that America’s adulation of its gun slinging heritage underlies the appeal of Trump’s shoot-from-the-hip mind-set.  But this is not a hatchet job on the role players. Their attachment to the cultural heritage is represented by a grizzled re-enactment member singing a heartfelt rendition of a cowboy folk song accompanied by the mellow strumming of an autoharp.

Jesse Jetpack and Richie Moment have chosen monikers that declare their brand as a cutting edge artists. Both foreground themselves, Jetpacks as an angsty singer song-writer/ performance artist/computer animator and Moment playing the motley fool as a wild-eyed satirist of the art world.

In Jetpack’s Day of the Challenger I was beginning to weary of an extended sequence of her dancing over a clunky digital riverside landscape with portentous lyrics of survival amongst “the crashing of waves of blood” when a stunningly original visual metaphor unfolded. The next sequence dramatised the choreography of bilateral relationships  by starting with two digitally animated pendulums whose weights are the heads of the artist and her significant other. As they swing they leave a trace of intersections. It gets more complicated as the pendulums are transformed into jointed armatures sketching a delicate enmeshed Spirograph type pattern. Twenty four minutes was on the long side but you had to admire both her emotional honesty and her versatility. The shorter videos on her website show a keen sense of humour.

As noted in an earlier blogpost on last year’s Bloomberg New Contemporaries, Moment’s manic portrayal of an artist’s attempts to become a bankable art world prospect is spot on. In Level Headed, Next level Video 001 (Gallery Version), 2017 he appears to be showcasing a minimalist work of a telephone mounted in the centre of a white gallery wall. After several minutes  it rings to be answered by Moment who responds ecstatically to the news that he has now moved to the “next level” which leads into a rush of slogans on art career strategy. This is mischievous and brutally perceptive fun that stands comparison to Hennessy Youngman’s and Louis Judkins’ cutting satirical videos.

Political commentary takes a back seat to aesthetic considerations in much of the RA School graduates work but this is certainly not the case at Goldsmiths MFA Show which I am off to see this evening to unearth some more talented video artists.