you feel me_, FACT, until 23rd February 2020, free
you feel me_ gets off to a good start before you even go in with its handout, featuring graphics by artist Salma Noor. Mad that you don’t see more of this, that to have an artist involved in setting the tone from the outset seems like a radical thing to do? It’s such a set thing that galleries use their own branding and I get they have their reasons, but this shows what they’re missing out on. FACT have always done the same in the past, and until recently it’s been a science-y branding that takes itself very seriously. Not that this exhibition doesn’t take itself seriously – but that the old branding would really be the wrong tone.
Because you feel me_ is all about empathy, and I didn’t need to read the handout to know that – the vibe is strong here. Even in the work which isn’t so good, you can tell what it’s trying to do. I’m afraid I’m not convinced by the opening trio of works by Phoebe Collings-James, which feels too like lip service to the concept of ‘ritual’ than a genuine evocation.
Personally, this sense was heightened by all of the artists being female or non-binary, and so creating work from these perspectives. You might think this doesn’t matter, but when they’re all together in two rooms like this you realise that it really does. It goes beyond the theoretical knowledge of ‘oh yes this is reflecting empathy’ into a feeling I can recognise. Like a couple of exhibitions back FACT showed Ericka Beckman, which I really enjoyed and was rooted in female experience, but it was an intellectual rather than empathetic connection. Here it’s both. Even when it’s something I don’t particularly like as a whole, like in the installation by Brandon Covington Sam-Sumana, in which there are elements I can strongly empathise with. Or Anna Bunting-Branch’s first film The Linguists, where you don’t need to subscribe to radical feminism to know that feeling of cross- or insufficient- communication.
The example of Megan Broadmeadow’s “Why Can’t We Do This IRL?” is probably the best example of the difference this perspective makes. It’s story about video game violence and it’s relationship with the real world – another topic that’s been covered in FACT exhibitions fairly recently, so one which could easily feel samey. The difference lies in it being about violence done to a woman, specifically a suffragette – a woman believing in women’s independence. By looking very specifically at misogynistic aggression – including the way it’s so often brushed off as something casual and led to believe it’s us with the problem for calling it out – this piece is working much harder than other works I’ve seen. They tend to confront violence in much vaguer ways, also very often by replicating without comment and expecting us to be of the ‘right’ mind in the first place. It’s nice to feel like someone gets it and what it is that hurts us so much, rather than that they know is a concern but that they don’t really experience. I even like the kids’ vice-overs – funny, but also thoughtfully applied
Broadmeadow’s work is one of two VR pieces in you feel me_. After my VR experience in Leviathan a few months back I was left unconvinced, and there are still issues to be overcome – if that’s possible. The elements I take issues with are primarily the single-user nature of the technology which means queues, and I hate the concept of having to queue for one artwork. If you’re going to experience it properly it shouldn’t be with the artificial sense of anticipation that a queue creates and which sets up an audience to either be determined to love it or feel it an inevitable letdown. Furthermore watching it by yourself…I don’t know. I often go and see art by myself anyway, and don’t rely on other people’s reactions, but there feels something particularly distant about this. And that’s when the headsets weren’t overheating – an issue I really hope they fix, because it meant it took forever to get into the world created by Anna Bunting-Branch, with music by Aliyah Hussein, and it might well be the best thing here.
“Warm Worlds and Otherwise” takes you off the planet to a restaurant in space, where you become one character in an otherworldly milieu. I use in purposefully: this feels like the culmination of getting the viewer as immersed in the art as possible. It’s a step forward from the glimpses of a world we had downstairs in Rebecca Allen’s The Observer. This isn’t meant as a slight on Allen: I get what her unnaturally natural world is doing. I’m commenting more on the limits of the film format; I can imagine what this world could offer if you were able to walk around and discover it for yourself.
And unlike my “Leviathan” experience, it doesn’t feel more like a video game, or a gimmick, than an artwork. You barely act – rather you observe the world, taking in its strangeness. Broadmeadow has been smart to go slow with the action, which means you get time to linger over scenes, which could be a smart direction for the genre to go in. I’ve been cynical about VR art to date but if there’s more artists with these ambitions, I’m excited to see where it could go.
Having worked so intensely on academic artistic analysis of late, I went to you feel me_ really hoping it would be a way of getting reacquainted with putting emotion first. I went in rather cynical of making any real connection, and took a little time to warm to it. But by the end I was pleased by how well this had worked, how much I was identifying with the messages. Critique and social justice become not just spoken about, but felt.