Elle Bulger: “Sanctuary”

Online via Convenience Gallery/ Itch.io, Part one of growth;infinity

My search for physical experience continues to be a recurring theme of 2020. You should see the amount of tinsel and tacky, shiny garlands I’ve bought for Christmas decorations this year – by my usual standards, I’m going wild this year. Shiny things can’t replace the physical companionship we usually get at this time of year – but they are real. Shininess comes from actual tactile things and is a ‘real-world’ source of pleasure.

A computer graphic shape which looks like a twisted pool noodle in salmon pink tied into 3 loops like a pretzel.

As the year’s gone on I’ve become more resentful. I’m tired of having no choice but to spend all my time within the same four walls. I’m especially tired of sitting down at the computer and feeling a guilt that I should be being productive, even on the days it’s a struggle and the monotony has got me to the point where I don’t feel like there’s a creative atom left in my body. I can’t engage with the computer as a device which enriches or improves my experience. I thought I could fix this by leaving social media for a while, but in some ways this has made the problem even more acute. Its cast seeking out a break from the mechanistic functions I use the computer for a problem, forced me further into the stricture of a routine which isn’t actually working that well right now.

I guess this is something which intrigued me about the premise of Elle Bulger’s Sanctuary, an interactive exhibition I found via Convenience’s Instagram. Could I break from the confines of routine by indulging for a while in a different kind of tactility? In fact, maybe I was too keen for a new experience. I made some basic errors with this which made the experience harder than it has to be.

In my head, the descriptions mention the world immersive and tactile on multiple occasions. Reading back the descriptions and artist statement on this exhibition, they’re not written once. There’s a few elements I think aided this false memory creation. There’s the poem which appears on the opening screen describing the sensation of sinking down into something – I’ll come back to this later – but it’s certainly tactile. Then there’s the colour scheme of a nude pink which I can only describe as fleshly.

What I missed in this mindset was heeding the objective of exploring loneliness. I read it – I knew it was a theme – but I stayed in my projection. When the statement says that Sanctuary “explores the things we do to try to combat feelings of loneliness”, I thought it might provide a comfort; a time to reset, or at least re-evaluate, how I feel about my relationship with my computer and online existence.

A selection of pink shapes as various points of suspension in the air

This didn’t happen. In fact I found it a claustrophobic and lonely place. We’re all more lonely than we were at the start of 2020, right? Most of the time I’m OK; I’m happy in my own company at normal times anyway. But every so often I just get overwhelmed by really wanting to be somewhere, sharing something with other people. Sanctuary sets such feelings off in me, profoundly. I feel more lonely, more trapped here, than I have done all week (which in the current world is like an age).

What is it about this environment which sets that off in such a strong way? It’s not the soundscape, created by Will Robinson, which is actually quite calming and soft. Maybe, though, it’s how the softness of the colour and sounds lures me into the idea that this is meant to be a place of fun. And of course I can playing with blocks. This could be properly fun: let your inner child loose on the soft play! Create new landscapes! But it’s impossible to achieve that. I can pick up pieces, but they seem to literally repeal each other into the air when I try to stack them. Nor can I place them side-by-side the way I want to – so often they just roll away of crash clumsily into the other pieces. I assume this is intentional, because it keeps leaving me wishing for another pair of hands to put things into place and create something with a bit of fun to it. As it is the throwing around of pieces feels futile.

A salmon pink computer generated room with very high windows and a selection of shapes on the floor.

There’s frustration in the setting, too. Ostensibly it’s some kind of castle, a fantasy domain of power and luxury. But you’re confined to such a small area of it. I can’t go on the stage, or up the stairs. I’m just stuck on this floor, the only available activity to play with the shapes. And the more I do that, the emptier it feels as an action. Its pointlessness as a solo pleasure reminds me of a children’s fable in which the protagonist gets the thing they want most all to themselves, only to discover that it loses its lustre when not shared.

Re-reading the accompanying poem after spending time in this space rams this feeling home even further. Going into this experience my desire for the tactile made the idea that “you’re enveloped/ the sensation wraps around you/ holds you” was an attractive one. Afterwards I see it with different eyes and realise it’s about being smothered. I wanted to find in it a comforting place of being alone. In fact, I’m usually very comfortable with the independence of being alone. But Sanctuary skips any sense of benefit of the state and jumps straight to the sadder state of loneliness. And this is harder to bear.

Sanctuary is only the first in Bulger’s growth;infinity series of six such environments which will be appearing on the Convenience website over the next few months. Will I be visiting the rest? If I don’t, it’s nothing to do with the quality of the experience. The fact that I’m so uncomfortable being there is a sign of its success, really. It’s more that I’ll have to see where my head’s at: am I in a place to confront more loneliness so head-on again? If the world does begin returning to a more normal state soon (here’s hoping!), will I be able to see these instead as a chance to take the temperature of my wellbeing? To reflect on how my experience of loneliness has changed in the preceding months? Who knows. Right now Sanctuary feels too close to the bone to be comfortable.

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