Waking the Giant Within

Submission, endurance, and mysticism; a proposed recipe for encounters with the profound. A rhetorical tool to entice the curiosity of an audience confounded by melasie. These are journeys, transformations, epiphanies that are shared in social space. Like interacting with con-artists, there is a slight sense of pleasure in the witnessing of our own manipulation.

Waking the Giant Within is an investigation into the rhetorical frameworks of authority and motivation when encountering submissive yet participatory audiences. The work is Inspired by reality television, self help, and stage hypnotism, where participating subjects act in equal parts as performers and spectators. Viewers are immersed in a scene of romantic irony, a battle between their desire for entertainment and their personal relationship to authority and submission. The installation consists of a padded leather chair akin to a spa or dentist chair; two free standing examination lights; A VR headset; a mixed reality monitor; a reception station and performer known as ‘the technician’, and an accumulating line of participants

Participants are asked to remove their shoes prior to being invited to sit. Barefoot in the gallery, social codes are immediately subverted, albeit comfortably. The technician is warm in nature, caring, but also direct and focused on the task at hand. The request for the participant to remove their shoes quickly establishes a power dynamic between the participant and the technician. The authority that the participant sees in the technician allows them to feel comfortable breaking the norms of expected dress code and a willingness to submit to a slightly vulnerable state within public space. This is not a transgressive dynamic, it is one of care and mutual respect, however it does lay the groundwork for the participant’s sense of agency as the work progresses.

The chair is exceedingly comfortable, deeply cushioned and gently reclined. Once seated, participants are offered a hygienic mask which the technician places upon their face, wrapping its elastic bands behind their ears. Then the technician instructs the participant to lift their head to assist as the VR headset is carefully placed over their eyes and adjusted. As the virtual ‘treatment’ begins, the technician places a weighted spa robe over the lap of the participant. This robe is made of plush terry cloth and weighing 35 lbs is first draped over the legs and torso before the technician gently lifts each of the participants arms and inserts them within the sleeves. The feeling of weight upon the body is comforting and sedative and encourages further relaxation within the experience. A person who had arrived to the gallery tired or under rested could easily fall asleep in this position. And yet, although all these gestures are designed for the participant’s comfort, the technician has slowly reasserted their authority over the participant’s agency. They have touched their face, covered their eyes, dressed them, weighed them down, and bound their arms. Each of these gestures could be disrupted or changed at any moment by the participant at any time, however through slow implementation and assertion by the technician, the participant has allowed them each to take place. As the technician leaves the participant they give one last instruction, that the participant must let the technician know when they are ready for the experience to end. A single assertion of the boundaries of the participant’s control in an otherwise completely submissive state. The participant is not passively witnessing the work begin and conclude as would be the case with other durational forms of spectatorship such as attending a film or piece of theater, but rather is actively assessing their own level of engagement. The piece ends when they say it ends.

I think it’s important to note here that this is not a work that necessarily wants to discuss the facility of control or manipulating people, but rather that the core experience of the work is a psychological one. The primary experience here does not exist within the formal aspects of the installation, but rather within a kind of magical realism that is constructed between a scripted narrative and an individual’s personal relationship to authority and persuasion which can vary greatly. The work creates a space where an individual is able to see themselves in the work, to see their own subjectivity, and to see their relationship to rhetoric as a kind of material or commodity.

As the ‘treatment’ proceeds, two events occur. One is the virtual reality experience that the participant sees within the headset. The second is a mixed reality surveillance of the participant that is displayed on a monitor adjacent to the installation. In this display the public audience sees a video feed of the participant reclining in the chair, dressed in a plush robe and VR headset, and a bright examination light illuminating them. Small particles of dust are floating through the air, not visible in the physical installation. These particles conjure a subtle mysticism referencing traditions of orbs in spirit photography or beliefs in technology’s ability to reveal “visible proofs of invisible realms”. Overtime more apparition like forms begin to appear over the body of the participant and subtitles scroll across the bottom of the frame narrating the image. The participant is described in reverence as they seemingly endure an increasingly fantastic and intense experience. This composited image is clearly computer generated, although much like the appeal of spirit photography or a dime theater wonders, there is a hype that is generated as the audience plays along eventually giving way to a true belief that the participant (the subject within this image) genuinely must be experiencing something transformative.

The virtual reality that participants experience is waiting in a waiting room. Upon placing the VR headset over their eyes, they see a generic lobby with signs posted reading “Please Wait. Your room will be ready shortly”. There is a subtle soundtrack of easy listening smooth jazz playing and a water cooler that every so often will release a set of bubbles. The room is sparse though it does contain a shelf of rolled towels, a ficus plant, and a clock on the wall that counts the number of seconds the participant has spent in the space so far. The experience immediately brings disappointment to the participant; a romantic irony where they have waited in line to wait in a waiting room, where they are waiting for something (anything) to happen. Additionally, as the participant continues to wait, a voice over narration begins to coach them through the experience, “you got this… don’t quit… you’re almost there!” The sense of urgency and aggression in the voice slowly escalates over time, at first reminiscent of polite small talk or a cordial receptionist and eventually climaxing to a character more akin to a sports coach or personal trainer. As time continues to progress, virtual condensation begins to build on the lens of the VR headset, eventually clouding the view to the point where the virtual space disappears and the participant is left watching moisture drip through the fog and the narrator becomes the primary focus of the experience. The persuasive rhetoric used by the narrator is informed by trends in keynote speaking, self help, and sports commentary using audio recordings of Tony Robbins, Werner Erhardt , and American Ninja Warrior Commentary as inspiration. Responses to this type of rhetoric vary greatly from one participant to the next depending upon their positive or negative associations to these kinds of orators. Participants may choose to remain in the installation subjected to this voice for a wide variety of reasons; however regardless of this subjectivity an overall awareness of their submissive role to this figure is present. In addition, the moment at which each participant chooses to end the experience requires that they reclaim their agency, not only defying the authority of the virtual narrator but also the authority of the technician. An important revelation occurs in this moment; despite having been psychologically immersed in an alternate reality, participants are suddenly reminded how they are still bound to the social contracts of the physical space.