Friday, March 6, 2015

'LikeMe Labs / Alisa Leimane' at Arebyte Gallery, 5th March 2015

The text in the picture above, found tucked away on a bookshelf in the corner of LikeMe Labs neatly summarises my feelings. This show is a peculiar experience, acting largely as a springboard for the audience's personal thoughts and neuroses. Even defining those present as an 'audience' feels limiting, Alisa Leimane smudging the boundaries between the art/observer, personal/public and reality/fiction.

So what is it? Well, this normally austere gallery has become a lot more homely. Carpet covers the floor and there's domestic touches like a stocked  fruitbowl, coat hooks, a clothes rail and a sofa. A half-used tube of lip gloss casually lies next to the information sheets. Further on there's a large white cube, the outside of which is peppered with framed screengrabs. Shots of Tinder matches jostle for space with chatlogs and hand-written notes. The interior of the cube contains an office, within which the artist appears to have temporarily set up shop.

Alisa explained that what we're seeing are the results of a several distinct online personalities she's constructed. This collection of parapersonalities exist across social media and dating websites, the world at large revealing their own desires as they interact with them. So, for example, one glamorous personality might have an upmarket house, a nice dog and spend her free time in swish Indonesian hotels. Meanwhile a more grounded version of Alisa has to contend with mould growing on the walls of her London flat. Through carefully selected Instagram photos, using wigs, outfits and locations to tell a subtle narrative, these Alisas live out wildly different online lives. This is explained as a social experiment: to see which personality/haircut/class gets the most 'likes' - to blossom into a true social media butterfly.

Not knowing what's real plays on the nerves. Even when sat across from Alisa I wasn't sure if I was chatting to 'her' or some lightly fictionalised character she was playing for my benefit (the presence of books 'on acting' don't help. This mild paranoia  grew when I glanced to my left to see a printed copy of my recent Facebook status updates. A Truman Show shiver of worry came over me, as I walked around the gallery I began to second-guess each person there. Surely that 1950s looking blonde with the selfie stick must be part of the exhibition? Am I talking to strangers or disguised friends?  After all there is a large selection of wigs and costumes at the back... Am I being played for a mug? Should I play along with the fiction? 

This whirlwind of worrying thoughts, only slightly smoothed over by a couple of glasses of wine, gets to the heart of LikeMe Labs. Consciously or unconsciously we all create these online persona; presenting an idealised, edited and censored simulacra of reality for public consumption. That we only show the positive stuff on Facebook is pretty far down the dishonesty scale, but the porkies really ramp up once we get into the realm of online dating.

If our Facebook persona are heightened versions of ourselves, our online data profiles present the person we'd desperately love to be: cultured, beautiful, interesting and personable. Working as our own. dedicated, PR team we cast this perfect 'us' into the online-dating pond like a worm on a hook, hoping against hope that not only will someone bite, but that person will forgive our various lies and accept us for who we 'really' are.

LikeMe Labs shaves back the self-deception and exposes the bones of this process, the walls festooned with confused men never quite sure whether they're talking to a real person or not. Gradually you pick up on the narratives - in particular the relationship between Robert and Alisa. This comes to a confusing head when Robert turns up and (apparently unexpectedly) launches into an improvised beatboxing session for Alisa's benefit. Later there's a pretty funny gynaecological monologue (not by Robert), but I couldn't quite work out where that fit into the night. Again, the lines between what we play out on the comfort of our phones and laptops is wrenched into the real world.

LikeMe Labs turned out to be an unexpectedly dislocating and slightly scary experience. The night is full of meaty questions, the true implications of which only dawn on you during sleepless late nights. Has the age of social media transformed us all into enormous narcissists? What is a person's 'true' personality? If everyone we meet is 'in character' then who the hell are we even talking to

This all adds up to a work that's less installation and more psychological study, the internal monologue of each individual that attends as important as whatever's nailed to the walls. I do wonder how effective it'd be without a bunch of people milling around to exchange ideas with, but any exhibition that leaves me with a knotted head full of conflicting ideas is definitely doing something right.

LikeMe Labs is at Arebyte Gallery until 20th March 2015.

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