Emerson Contemporary hosts artist El Putnam’s exploration of social interaction


El Putnam


By Jackson Bailey, Staff Writer, Living Arts

Students are now able to visit the latest exhibition at Emerson Contemporary, “PseudoRandom,” an exploration of how our spheres of digital communication have begun to overlap and intersect

From Jan. 25 to March 26, the college will display the work of Ireland-based digital artist El Putnam. Her work is media-driven, performance based, and touches on recurring conversations within the digital landscape. 

Leonie Bradbury, foster chair of contemporary art and curator in residence at Emerson College, said she first learned about Putnam’s work during the pandemic. Bradbury, who curates a few exhibitions in the Media Art Gallery every year, said she was excited to display the Irish artist’s work.

“Obviously, during the pandemic, performance artists couldn’t create as much, and yet I still found her finding these ways to be present and transforming her practice to exist and exist in these new modalities,” Bradbury said. “She was really creative in the way that she was translating her practice for the new reality.” 

Putnam’s art emphasizes the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on our social lives. In a virtual interview with the Beacon, Putnam joked about the all-familiar learning curve that came with attending Zoom classes and Zoom performances from her Ireland home.

“It was just this strange period where I [channeled] all that travel and emotional chaos, and it shifted,” Putnam said. “We also just got this beautiful stretch of weather in Ireland.” 

We both have complaints about wi-fi failures during important calls, and stories of technological adjustments. She part laughs, part winces in pain as she describes the lack of internet access in her rural household during those opening months of the pandemic.

For the past few years, Putnam has had a busy life teaching classes in Galway, raising her two daughters, and continuing her work as an artist. Before the pandemic brought virtual performance front and center, Putnam was already committed to its possibilities and limitations

“I was writing a book at the time on digital performance, [about] the maternal and the aesthetics of interruption,” she said. “I was getting kind of psyched. In many ways people would treat digital and live streaming as something inferior; I felt like I was always working on the fringes, and suddenly it became the mainstream. So I was getting excited about the possibilities there.” 

The first few months of the pandemic were particularly influential for Putnam’s piece “Context Collapse,” a performance-based filmed work where Putnam paints her face. As Putnam adds the paint, videos of her own child are imposed upon her face, converting her face into a type of green screen. 

Putnam said her inspiration for “Context Collapse” is rooted in the work of noted technology scholar and Microsoft researcher Danah Boyd. The phrase, coined around 2010, refers to the notion that “when we go online, our spheres of interaction collapse.”

“If you were to go on vacation you would tell your friends the stories one way, your parents another way, you’d tell your boss something different,” she said. “But when you post something online, all of those audiences are together. You lose that particularity of context. And I felt that was what we were experiencing with COVID. The context of work, child care, and family time all collapsed.” 

In “Interlooping,” another piece within “PseudoRandom,” Putnam emphasizes a commitment to showcasing the physical effects of the pandemic with an emphasis on physical sensation. 

Taking advantage of Ireland’s surplus of wool caused by the pandemic, she sought to explore the limits of sensory perception in a digital world where the genuine sense of touch was impossible.

“At this stage, live streaming and Zoom and ‘being in the boxes’ had become pretty standard,” she said. “I really wanted to showcase touch through the screen.”

“Interlooping” showcases the signature discomfort that lives in many of Putnam’s pieces. In it, we are given a close up shot of heaps of dyed wool, from which Putnam herself begins to emerge and writhe about in almost hypnotic fashion. 

“A lot of why I do performance art is because of the haptic, because of the proprioceptive, of being in space,” Putnam said. “All of these things that are beyond the image. I really wanted to work with the wool for that.”

Even with the limitations imposed by digital communications, Putnam said her work explores how society can return to genuine social interaction.

“Interlooping is this phrase that comes from knitting, but also looping with networks and virtual networks,” she said.Though social networking is prevalent within “PseudoRandom,” the human aspect of our online spheres is not neglected. In Putnam’s work, the idea of normalcy within performance is eroded, but there’s an intimacy that creeps its way through the screen. Her work remains deeply social and incredibly human.

Bradbury agrees, “One thing that I really love about this exhibition is that it’s hopeful. She was able to make something beautiful out of a challenging situation. She shows something about resilience and creating in spite of difficult situations.”