An artist in the chat room

In 2002, Susana Mendes Silva (1972) put up, for Free Manifesta, the Artphone project, a cell phone mediated performance in which everyone could contact the artist, through her personal cell phone number, and discuss contemporary art related subjects. The slogan she used when advertising the project was revealing of what her purpose was: "Don't be afraid to ask everything you always wanted to know about contemporary art". Everything one has always wanted to know about contemporary art was available, only one phone call away. The artist exposed herself. Not only was she completely available for anyone who called but also assumed she could answer any question addressed to her.

In 2005, three years later, the cell phone was replaced. Instead of just being available, of waiting a phone call, the artist became more dynamic, active. She replaced the cell phone by an online video chat room and created Art_room, an online performance where anyone could meet the artist and, once again, ask her everything they wanted to now about contemporary art. Besides the notorious change of environment and, consequently, the kind of relationships established, the artist also worked the engagement of those assisting or participating in the performance. It was mandatory to have an internet connection, to know the implicit rules of online chatting and to download different plug-ins that allowed the access and interaction in such an environment.

The performance was announced by email and happened in predefined schedules during the month of June. The goal was to put together, in the same place, the typical users of such chat rooms and people more familiarised with the contemporary art discourse. The development of the action taking place was let to chance and it would be completely dependent on the public and the artist's interactions. Only one person other than the usual chatters of the chosen room showed up. The performance started and the artist introduced herself and told people to ask her questions about art. People in the chat room didn't quite understand the objective of her behaviour and started to act aggressively towards her. As she repeatedly stated she was doing a performance and she wanted people to ask her questions about art, aggressiveness escalated and she was invited to leave the chat room, since her presence wasn't welcome there.

The following day the artist repeated the performance in the same chat room. Everyone in the room were regular users and they were mostly present at the previous day actions. The artist continued her activity, seen as unwelcome and undesirable by some of the members of the room. Later on, the room monitor shut down her webcam and finally banned her from the monitored area, known as friends and family.

The Art_room project thus exceeded the artist's initial expectations. Even though largely depending on the establishment of social relations, and on the contingencies that rule them, such reactions were never planned or accounted as a possibility. Yet, a closer look at the processes explored and undermined by the artist let us see how predictable the reactions obtained during the two days of performance are.

Silva, with this project, is working in two different areas, both able to induce attitudes and behaviours similar to those witnessed. The notion of community is central to Art_room. There is a group of individuals sharing the same interests and gathered in a specific online space, considered by themselves their reunion space. It's by sharing that space with each other that they feel as part of that community. The artist, by introducing herself in that chat room has crossed the community's border separating the outside world from that group of people. Not only has she crossed the border, thus invading that space and assuming herself as an outsider, she also acted in a way that made that difference even more visible, by showing the impossibility of conversion, of becoming part of the community and sharing a common discourse. She acted in a disruptive manner, disturbing the regular functioning of the social structure crystallized in that video chat room.

But besides assuming her otherness, and thus being irreducible to the group, Silva was questioning the group's beliefs about what art is. Assuming her behaviour as an artistic project not only is she clashing against a traditional, objectual, almost commodified vision of the artistic object, she is also affirming that a disturbing, parasitic, undesirable activity, may be considered art. She confronts them with something they don't see as such, and never will. The debate wasn't centred in what were the artist's initial plans, but in justifying and legitimizing her behaviour, inappropriate to the community as a valid artistic practice. The artist will never become a member of this community so as its elements will never share with her the same vision of the artistic phenomenon.

We have here two events, that can be thought as the ever present dichotomy between the self and the other and that, in this particular case, will inexorably result in a difference without any possibility of being resolved. There is only one possible way . The community regains the state of equilibrium, by eliminating the destabilizing element, the artist and her behaviour.

A technologically mediated performance working as a human relations laboratory. An extremely interesting exercise that happened live, in front of our eyes. What is the difference between online and offline? Is the online world a public space open to dialogue and to equal participation for all? Where is the emancipating utopia of cyberspace? The artist knows how to answer to those questions.

Luis Silva