Enigmatic and in constant flux, human emotions are not easily grasped, let alone quantified. Yet, the French new-media artist Maurice Benayoun endeavors to do precisely that for the sake of opening new ways of thinking about the world. He tracks worldwide emotional trends and catapults them into the spotlight, juxtaposing real human feelings with the monster known as the global financial system. It results in two related artworks, Occupy Wall Screens and Emotion Forecast, presented by Streaming Museum at Big Screen Plaza, a public space located at 851 Avenue of the Americas in Manhattan (on view at Big Screen Plaza through February 29th and permanently at StreamingMuseum.org).
Think of these artworks as the visual embodiment of everything the recent global economic crisis has taught us: unfettered pursuit of financial gain by elite members of society often comes at the expense of human suffering borne disproportionately by the majority with little responsibility for creating the mess. Now we can actually see the emotions this phenomenon is stirring, expressed by Mr. Benayoun as colorful world maps and tickers flashing across a giant LED screen.
“It is my way of offering another perspective, to help people understand what is going on,” explains Mr. Benayoun.
If this sounds familiar in light of the Occupy Movement, you are following Mr. Benayoun’s line of thinking. Inspired by the movement, his Occupy Wall Screens displays in real time the stock valuation readouts of major financial institutions next to emotional currents emanating from Occupy sites around the world. Playing on familiar visual symbols from the financial world such as stock tickers and Bloomberg-style news programs, Occupy Wall Screens portrays the quotidian in a new light.
“For me,” explains Mr. Benayoun, “this is the beginning of something that can extend the actual Occupy Movement to other realms. I encourage people to think more about how to occupy not only this wall screen, but the global media because that is how we can really start to change the world.”
In the same vein, the related artwork Emotion Forecasts relies on a free software program to accumulate data from the web using algorithm searches for sixty-four emotions from 3,213 cities. In other words, it counts how many times people in a certain geographic area use words like “happy” or “fear” on Facebook etc. At the same time every day, the software analyzes a snapshot of the collected data and calculates predictions about how the world will feel over the next two days. Reminiscent of weather forecasts, the data is presented visually by superimposing the emotions, written out in words, and their corresponding figures, over a world map.
While Mr. Benayoun makes no pretense about his works being scientifically accurate, he believes that “the internet is the world’s nervous system and we are the nerve endings.” As such, these exhibitions constitute “symbolic attempts to take the human factor into account.”
These exhibitions present the latest incarnations of the Mechanics of Emotion, Mr. Benayoun’s ongoing series comprising over twenty multimedia artworks that render statistics on human emotions into visual art.
Underlying Mechanics of Emotion is Mr. Benayoun’s notion of critical fusion: blurring the boundaries between fiction and reality in order to “see the world in a more creative way, but also in a more critical way.” In Occupy Wall Screens and Emotions Forecast it is achieved by “juxtaposing quantified emotions with stock values, placing them face to face in one work, which for me is the key to the whole series Mechanics of Emotion. He believes that inserting doses of fiction into reality has the potential to make society more understandable.
Technology is a crucial component of critical fusion, but to Mr. Benayoun it is merely a means to reach a higher plane of understanding rather than an end in itself. He explains, “I rely on technology as a tool that shares images and sounds, putting people in touch. It helps me connect with others and to understand and deal with the world.”
Mr. Benayoun likes to say that if he had the power to dictate changes to the financial system, he would impose a twenty-four hour delay on all trades to allow time for passions to cool enough to let reason dictate the appropriate move. “What is the harm of waiting a little bit to give people time to consider the consequences?” he asks rhetorically. Alas, his influence is unlikely to extend over Wall Street so directly. Nevertheless, his critical fusion – inserting a dose of fiction into a very real social movement stirring new debates on income inequality – has activist undertones.
Does Mr. Benayoun consider himself an activist? “I am an artist using art to act on the world, maybe to help changing it, at least a little bit,” he says, hesitating to use the term “activist” because it can mean just about anything these days. Still, he clearly believes art plays a role in shaping society: “If it is also unconventional, not only in the shape it takes but also in its intention, then art can come close to achieving what the historical activism set out to do.”
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