In thinking about avoidance I came across a service, a non-consumer revenue producing start-up it seems, it’s called Focusmate(.com). It is the contemporary version of that chatroom I showed you, except it is dogwhistling the entrepreneur and not the depressed, and weaponises visibility not anonymity – a descriptor of a general trend in internet culture since I started using that chatroom which still runs on drupal6.
On Focusmate you schedule in advance a 50 minute working session with a stranger. At the start of the session you say hi and describe what you want to do with your time, and then you work with your webcams (and often mics) turned on– the other becomes company or boss as is internally necessary. You yourself are turned into friend or scold by your ‘mate’. At the end you describe how the 50 minutes went and say goodbye. This is chat roulettes productive cousin, or perhaps child (generational cycles of inhibition and conservativeness?). These are people from all over the world, though there is no friend or add function.
Focusmate is actually the perfect tool for me, which I understand because I am already afraid both that it will go bust and also that it will become really popular and I will start to see my students on it. Here’s an image of me and a woman in Chicago working together.
[image of screenshot showing the top of a white woman’s head, her eyes are closed and on the right there is a smaller image of me with headphones, eyes also closed. To the left a chat window in which I have detailed tasks such as ‘email about rescheduling marking done’ and ‘screens ordered’]
Part of what I want to make for Flatness is a video produced between me and my friend A, the one I went to see in California with the fee from Flatness. She is an old internet friend of mine, maybe it’s been 13 or 14 years that I have known her. She has always joked that we looked alike but this visit people kept mistaking us for family, twins even at one point. I can see it now. We have long faces, lots of cheeks, big foreheads and the same hair now too. We would make a split screen video of companionship, not unlike the Focusmate image above. We met as lonely young people, and now we are less lonely not-young people. Hers is my least avoidant friendship, which comes quite clearly out of meeting as pseudonymous avatars in different time zones.
What this video is I don’t know, but I am thinking about it.
Goodbye To All That
I write this paragraph with the focusmate.com company of a friendly woman in Beverly with blue framed glasses. At one point she rolled her eyes towards me as a workmate loudly moved chairs beside her which was so pleasantly conspiratorial. Tonight I’ll meet you and give you a present, an artwork, which I made for the you I know.
I didn’t make the video with A*, it felt if not quite exploitative, private, something between us alone, with the category of art providing a novel distancing device between us, as the screen had once been. Instead with an eye to something more necessarily public I put a call out for new people to keep company with in what became the online flatness sessions. And yet…. they were private too. The thing that screens once offered me/my work (a laughable narcissistic overlap) was a small often pathologized yet unbodied commonality. This was expressed (explored surely!) in the videos with sexts and skin forums and orgasm comparison sites and… but the truth is I don’t find those relations in those spaces anymore and I am not sure I can articulate why, or maybe it’s so obvious that I don’t need to?
Leah Clements** made a work in 2015 as part of the Chisenhale’s 21st Century program which I have thought about regularly in the years since. On stage in a small room three people sat: a retired Dr who had worked worked with hearts, the artist, and a younger quantum physicist. Both the Dr and the physicist were skilled and charming teachers, obviously used to giving lectures and the spotlight. Both were introduced for the first time by the artist who described she would like them to have a conversation about two areas of their knowledge- the idea of two particles separated by millions of miles which manage to effect each other and the mechanics that explain why a person might die very soon after the death of a loved one. The two took on this prompt with humour and seriousness, they pass knowledge back and forth tentatively and skilfully, keeping an eye on the audience, an image of collaboration and gameness which felt rare and special. It felt like a Tinder date, this much older woman and this young man flirting in trying to make these ideas meet. I bring it up here because so much of its joy was the understanding of how easily it might not have worked, how rare this chemistry is. Yet what a possibility?!?! Yet not one I want to be part of setting up.
I wonder if this is on your mind too, if this is at the heart of the project of Flatness? A question about the place of the encounter that is named ‘art’ and the potential upending of those hierarchies not just of squarefootage but of relation, where day and night don’t matter and insomnia or Hypersomnia meet. Then further, not just a happy decentring, but a retiring from the visible, the charming, retiring from the coherent towards…
So I made you this thing, this object for the one-on-one.
See you later
*Did I say she is a therapist who sometimes works over Skype?
**Leah Clements, whose sick/crip/disabled practice is also very worth seeking out.
***At the end of this I wondered if I should have just paid to republish Coming to Have a Public Life is it Worth it? By Karolin Meunier and Emma Hedditch and we could have a side bar debate about it.
Lucy Clout’s videos use technology and pop culture to examine loneliness, intimacy and kinship. The works produce and reproduce minor (disposable or insignificant) speech to examine embodiment, longing and historically gendered performance. In 2015 she was awarded the Jerwood/Film and Video Umbrella award. Recent exhibitions include Jerwood Space, London, CCA, Glasgow (2015) and Limoncello, London (2016). Recent screenings include Raven Row, Tate Britain and Anthology Film Archives, New York (all 2017). A solo show opens at Cubitt, London, in March 2019.