by Alison Hugill // June 29, 2021
There are many conceptual routes that can be taken through the recently opened ‘Modern Love’ exhibition at Tallinn Art Hall, a group show of 16 artists curated by Katerina Gregos and tackling the multi-layered theme of intimacy in the digital age. ‘Modern Love’ explores an impressive breadth of angles on the topic, anchored in philosophical perspectives on love as well as on-the-ground personal experiences filtered through dating apps and smart tech. Drawing on the concept of “cold intimacy”—those relationships forged or sustained on social media, through the internet, or via late capitalist consumerism—the exhibition’s accompanying text suggests a latent technophobia, which is, however, not as obviously present in the pieces themselves. Instead, a more nuanced picture emerges, eventually reassuring us that relationships mediated through technology or capital are not entirely devoid of warmth. In fact, some people rely on them for emotional survival.
Entering the exhibition through the lens of the nuclear family—arguably one of the most corporatist relationship constructions in recent history—Maria Mavropoulou’s photographic series ‘Family Portraits’ (2017–ongoing) presents images of brightly-lit digital devices (phones, tablets, laptops), placed in dark rooms, on couches and beds, that act as stand-ins for the family members who might be using them. The series parodies a contemporary view of the family and our insidious dependencies on screen-based interactions, hammering home the ways in which we have disconnected from those around us. Across from this work, Laura Cemin’s video installation ‘4-minute warm up’ (2020) engages with a variety of personal warming aids—thermal blankets, body heating creams, sweat belts—meant to simulate a physical warmth that is conspicuously absent. The “how-to” video, performed by the artist herself, exudes a clinical atmosphere that hints at the absurdity of technological prostheses as a replacement for human touch. In both these works, we are introduced directly to the concept of “cold intimacy” that will be a guiding thread in the show, whether in the coldness of disconnected digital experience, or the impersonal aspects of pre-packaged warmth.
In another room, a spatial installation by Marge Monko, entitled ‘I Don’t Know You, So I Can’t Love You’ (2018), deals with the topic through automated forms of care. The sound-based work is a romantic conversation between two smart assistant devices (think: Siri or Alexa), and considers the disembodied nature of online intimacy, and its hyper-reliance on textual and aural communication. The heightened role of fantasy in the absence of sustained physical proximity leads us to wonder how our experience of warmth, as a prerequisite for love, has changed or will change in the face of pervasive digital communication and artificial intelligence? Is this “cold intimacy” necessarily antithetical to human warmth, as the name suggests?
Sometimes, it’s a means of survival. This contemporary form of relation is practiced regularly in certain queer communities, for whom love and intimacy have often been accessed only in secret or in isolation, outside of or adjacent to their everyday lives. Mahmoud Khaled’s piece in the exhibition, ‘Do You Have Work Tomorrow?’ (2013), is a precise translation of this experience. In a series of 32 screenshots of a staged iPhone conversation, two men in Cairo are chatting over Grindr about the logistics of their impending meet up. They finally agree to meet at one of the men’s cars, if he can come up with a sufficient excuse for sneaking away from his family and out to the street. The analog representation of this conversation—the screenshots photocopied, printed and framed in small wooden frames—lends it a legibility that it wouldn’t likely have if it was simply presented on a screen. Though the conversation is acutely contemporary, it feels like a relic of a bygone time. This method of presentation forces us to step outside ourselves historically and ask what impact these technologies will have, looking back? And what emerges throughout the show is a deep ambivalence: technology both aids and hinders our experience of intimacy.
Next to Khaled’s piece, Juliet Jacques’ film ‘You Will Be Free’ (2017) renders a beautiful text about queerness in video form, reflecting on its relationship to the body and death, especially in light of the AIDS epidemic. In it, the concept of freedom is located in these intimate relationships formed through a shared experience of marginalization and a quest for a more full and joyful life, outside of normative possibilities. The film meditates on human essence outside the body, in contrast and conversation with the pieces in the show that privilege a certain physicality. Today, many of the crucial non-normative possibilities for queer love are forged online, but does that make them any less valuable?
Moreover, what about the forms of intimacy and care that are paid or transactional, and fall into the category of “work”? Are they less important than traditional modes of in-person romance? Throughout the last year, the significance of the touch of a care worker in an elderly home, the consistency of early childhood educators, or the comforting embrace of sex workers have all been inscribed with new value, their absence or restriction making their status as “essential work” all the more obvious. Melanie Bonajo’s ‘Night Soil: Economy of Love’ (2015), screened in the exhibition with a playful, 70s-style faux-fur bed and pillows for leisurely viewing, considers the pitfalls of expecting too much from one caring or romantic relationship. Through her close study of a Brooklyn-based movement of sex workers, who perceive themselves as “healers,” Bonajo offers a view of gendered expectations when it comes to sexual satisfaction and an emancipatory take on physical intimacy. But while this intimacy is not “cold” in the technological sense, its remuneration places it decidedly outside the “acceptable” forms of normative relationships.
In this sense, the exhibition’s treatment of love and care is far-reaching, encompassing not just digital or automated forms of intimacy but also those that grant freedom from oppressive structures in other ways. Real love—as Alain Badiou puts it in his compact book ‘In Praise of Love’—is what “triumphs lastingly, sometimes painfully, over the hurdles erected by time, space and the world.” While the digital tools we have at our disposal may not always enhance our experience of intimacy, they do not foreclose it and are, in some cases, its safest point of access.
This article is part of our feature topic of ‘Intimacy.’ To read more from this topic, click here.