Proof of Life

Linda Franke at The BOX Gallery

July 3, 2024
By Andrew McNeely


Linda Franke’s Proof of Life, a performance held in conjunction with her solo show, Utility Fatigue, called to mind the perennial figure of the automaton in art, specifically in relation to society’s rapid descent into burnout culture – a landscape where chronic stress and attention bifurcation has normalized mass exhaustion and radically attenuated our capacity for introspection.1The argument that society is moving into a widespread condition of exhaustion and the impoverishment of introspection has been advanced persuasively by Byung-Chul Han, see The Burnout Society, trans. Erik Butler (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2015) and Byung-Chul Han, Vita Contemplativa: In Praise of Inactivity, trans. Daniel Steuer (Cambridge: Polity Books, 2024). For twenty-five minutes, three performers moaned, snored, and uttered all manner of bodily noises while a voiceover satirically recited banal advertisements marketing everything from cash offers for plasma to dental implants. Stage right, a man repeatedly squatted and stood up, following the movement of the window shades he manipulated via remote control. Stage left, a woman repositioned herself in increasingly strained poses on an automated recliner. Center stage, a lifeless figure lay supine, tied to what looked like an Eva-Hesse-inspired silicon mobile dangling from a ceiling fan. Projected in the background were hypnotic 3D animations of various everyday mechanical objects, cyclically exploded into diagrammatic views.

Performer: Linda Franke, Sophia Cleary, Matt Savitsky

To decode the scene above, whose complexity defies straightforward interpretation, would be about as sensible as listening for the subtext in Dadaist poetry. Experienced together, Franke’s slow choreography, hypnotic visuals, and mantra-like voiceover went to work on its viewer’s capacity to take possession of their own thoughts by forgetting everything else. This is not to simply say that the performance was captivating. On the contrary, Franke’s absurdist tableaux vivant felt designed to hold the viewer captive, as it refused to satisfy one’s desire to pin down its meaning. It is as if the performance wished to suspend its audience in that familiar yet disconcerting feeling of automaticity, where the mind is adrift, and time passes without register. Zoning in an out during the performance, I could not help but recall the similar feeling of highway hypnosis, namely that experience of arriving home after a long drive without any recollection of the commute it took to get there – an association underscored by the work’s barrage of aspirational advertisements that I regularly hear on the radio while sitting in traffic.

Performer: Linda Franke/ Videographer Matt Savitsky

In contrast to burnout culture – where people cannot stop checking their notifications or enjoy leisure time without being struck by guilt afterwards – Franke’s performance demanded that the audience check out. Uncoincidentally, “proof of life” is a phrase that hostage negotiators use to refer to evidence that a kidnap victim is still alive. It could be said that Franke’s performance made such a demand. After all, we are all held hostage by capitalism’s false promise of greater freedom through efficiency. The allusion to the automatization of life in Franke’s performance – for instance, in the metronymic animations that evoke Picabia’s mechanical drawings, or the performers’ autonomic movements – is also why Dadaism initially came to my mind. It is therefore fitting that each performer was dressed in a cross between a straitjacket and a chef’s double-breasted coat (i.e., a restraint and a work uniform).

Performer: Linda Franke, Ryat Yezbick / Videographer Yatin Parkhani

The exhibition essay, also titled “Utility Fatigue,” explains that Franke’s work grapples with the “implicit instructions” inherent to objects and their functions. A chair, for example, has a prescribed use, and thus invites a particular behavior from the user. In contrast, Franke “questions why we do the things the way we do and wonders what it would look like if we don’t.”2Linda Franke and Caroline Ellen Liou, “Utility Fatigue,” The Box LA, accessed June 2, 2024, She therefore stages “altered or invented routines to exhibit the close relationship between futility and freedom, agency and chance.”3Franke and Liou, “Utility Fatigue.” Unlike the Dadaists before her, who aimed to spur their audiences to action, Franke’s parodic performance implores spectators to reclaim their inactivity. By highlighting the mass fatigue that typifies daily life, Franke reminds us that disassociation can also be a form of productive refusal.

Performer: Linda Franke, Sophia Cleary, Matt Savitsky/ Videographer Cedric Tai

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