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.