In a time of rapid technological innovation, the work of London-based artist Rosie Gibbens reminds us of the pleasures of dysfunction. In her product-demo performances and videos, Gibbens deploys an elaborate range of feature-laden gadgets and soft-sculptural props to coat the absurdities of gender, consumerism and embodiment in a visceral — often grotesque, always hilarious — sheen. This is a comedy in which the boundaries between our domestic, commercial and sexual selves are left uncertain. Premiered by Daata at EXPO Chicago, Gibbens’ latest project The New Me continues this playful and productive confusion by presenting work in both the physical and digital realms, taking the form of a multimedia corporate demonstration spread across video, NFTs, AR and a range of merchandise. In the wake of the presentation, Gibbens spoke to the project’s curator Anna Mustonen about building a fictional brand, the language of consumerism and whether technological change changes human desire.
Anna Mustonen: The New Me consists of three quite absurd products produced and then advertised by the fictive Ilium Corporation. Could you say a little bit more about these products and even maybe give us a bit of a pitch for each of them?
Rosie Gibbens: Ilium manufactures three different products at this moment. One is for cleaning, one is for teeth brushing and the other one is for relaxation. The tooth-brushing machine works by strapping a mask-shaped electronic device to your face using big leather straps. When you switch it on the toothbrush rotates. You can use it to brush the teeth of a friend or partner so that they can be shiny, white and clean, but it can also increase the intimacy of the relationship between you. It’s a way to multitask your emotional life and your hygiene. You can also attach a lipstick to the other side of the mouthpiece for a makeup routine. The second one is the cleaning outfit which resembles a bodybuilder suit, but each of the muscles on the abs, pecs and arms is made of J cloth material. You can clean your house using your whole body, getting to difficult-to-reach surfaces using your stomach or waving your arms against the walls. There’s also a spray bottle that attaches to the waist. The third product is a relaxation device, but also an exercise machine. As you pedal your feet, you activate a mechanism which allows two long plaits of hair to gently stroke your face. This product also features a vibration machine which you can turn with your hand to produce a purring sensation on your stomach. The idea is that you can feel as relaxed as a cat being scratched on the face, like in all the videos we love on the internet.
AM: I’m sold! I’m curious where the name Ilium comes from? Searching the word and trying to parse its meaning, I found a pelvic bone, a Kurt Vonnegut novel and an Australian metal band.
RG: It mostly has to do with Kurt Vonnegut. In his book Player Piano , he describes a dystopian future where huge corporations manufacture items for bored consumers who live in identikit homes. The consumer’s jobs have been taken over by machines, so their primary function is just to desire and buy the items the machines are producing. The book is about the love-hate relationship humans have with the tools that are supposed to improve our lives. It was written in the 1950s, when there was a technological revolution in domestic consumer goods. Washing machines and dishwashers suddenly appeared to make our domestic lives easier, but these inventions were also connected to gender imbalances in domestic labour. I was thinking about that time in relation to the present moment, where we have this technological revolution — especially with the rise of Web3 and cryptocurrencies — that we’re both attracted to and repelled by. I feel like I often do with these kinds of changes: it could go either way. As with everything, it’s a question of who controls these products or technological inventions and what their intentions are. Another inspirational book was Naomi Klein’s No Logo , which talks about how companies increasingly sell their brands rather than the products they create . Ilium provides a framework for the project — it’s a way for me to make decisions and build a retrofuturist aesthetic world — but it’s also a way of commenting on how we increasingly buy into ideas behind products rather than items themselves.
AM: What do you find alluring or useful about the language of consumerism?
RG: Like everyone, I’ve been conditioned since my childhood to be drawn to bright images of shiny happy people or strange 3D renders of beautiful objects. But with this project in particular, I really jumped onto this “cute” aesthetic. A lot of brands make use of it, and it has multiple purposes. The cute commodity or the cute logo encourages the consumer to protect or mother the product. But simultaneously, there’s an element of repulsion and a desire to have power over it. Like with bubble wrap, you just want to squish it.
AM: Many of the technologies and gadgets you use in your work don’t quite function as advertised. In relation to what you were just saying about cuteness, do you think there is something we find endearing about this kind of dysfunction?
RG: I’m interested in pointlessness in relation to the absurd. Take the myth of Sisyphus: he rolls the boulder up the hill, it rolls back down again, he rolls it back up the hill. The cycle is repeated forever. There’s a similar quality to a lot of everyday routines: you wash up the dishes and they get dirty, you wash your teeth and they get dirty. It’s the repetitive, absurd maintenance of our lives. My practice is about undermining utility and going against the efficiency and optimisation that is encouraged in our late-capitalist society. There’s something joyful about inserting agency and playfulness into the items that surround us, disrupting their stated purpose or remixing them for a different use. It gives hope for the individual and creativity within a quite rigid world.
AM: There are also elements of bondage and sex toys and so on in your work. The products seem designed with the female body in mind, often with the intent of producing pleasure.
RG: I’m interested in clashing together the different realms of our lives. The sexual is often seen as something private, but it spills over into our professional and domestic lives, and our lives as consumers. I like to mix up those aesthetics and break down the divides between them. Particularly as a woman — having grown up seeing images advertised through a landscape of young female bodies — I’m interested in how bodily desire, desire for products and identity creation overlap with each other. Each of the products speak to ideas which are often advertised to women as a way to make them better people. There’s one about increasing intimacy with your partner — which is a very Cosmopolitan listicle kind of idea — and then there’s the wellness machine. Wellness culture is very interesting to me, how taking time out in your busy life has almost become a chore in itself. You need to be relaxing in the right way with the right products, the right candle, and taking that time is a public achievement rather than something that’s private. My work is trying to untangle that personally for myself. It can feel uncomfortable to realise that you’ve been conditioned by these ideals. To find an authentic self outside of that is the impossible task of everybody.
AM: You’re often using your own body in your pieces. It’s performative, but you also position yourself as an object of the gaze. How does that tension between agency and objectification fit into the critique of feminised advertising?
RG: There’s something that feels right to me about being both subject and object in my work. I’m very engaged with what I’m conveying and very clear with why I’m doing it. I would hope that people see the things I do and understand that I’m inserting something else into those images, whether that’s humour, discomfort, a weird voyeurism, or maybe I’m just upside down. Something is always skewed to make it a bit unsettling. It is a critique, but it’s also more personal than that. I never want to speak about other people’s experiences of their own bodies. I guess it’s me reckoning with how I inhabit my own self and how it feels to be looked at. Looking at and being looked at is of course a dynamic that I’m quite interested in as a performance artist, and sometimes it feels great, sometimes it feels terrible.
AM: Something new for you in this installation is the use of augmented reality and NFTs. As you’ve been describing, much of your work is very grounded in materiality – with an attention to soft sculpture and the body. These digital products feel tangible — they’re present and you can interact with them — but always slightly out of reach. How did you find that shift?
RG: It felt quite natural, because I’ve done so much performance that engages with the screen as a way of thinking about how bodies are consumed. You’re literally commodified when you inhabit the online space. Posting pictures of yourself online, you become fodder for the adverts the corporations are giving you. Something I found enjoyable with this project was the idea that you can buy so many things and can experience the Ilium Corporation in so many different ways, but you can’t have the actual feeling of the “products”. You can’t feel the hair on your face, or brush on your teeth if you’re purchasing a digital version of the product. It’s an interesting extension of the absurdity where marketing becomes the product rather than the thing itself. Your metaverse avatar probably doesn’t need to shower and your metaverse home probably doesn’t get dirty, but the digital products are still desirable for what they represent. Even if they have no practical purpose, my items could function as a playful or joyful form of expression in this virtual space. The NFTs became a way to think about how much (or little) technological change changes human behaviour and desire for objects.
Kurt Vonnegut, Player Piano, The Dial Press, 1999.
Naomi Klein, No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies, Picador, 1999.
Sianne Ngai, Our Aesthetic Categories Zany, Cute, Interesting, Harvard University Press, 2015.
Sisyphus is a figure in Greek mythology condemned to forever repeat the task of rolling a boulder up a hill. In The Myth of Sisyphus (1965), French philosopher Albert Camus cited the legend as emblematic of life’s inherent absurdity.