What’s most surprising about the soft, red vinyl suit stretched tight across the lithe body of Los Angeles-based media artist Tiffany Trenda is just how warm it is. Touching her arm, cautiously at first -- there are more than 100 other people either watching your every move from a safe distance in the gallery or wishing they could be doing exactly what you’re doing and anxiously awaiting their turns -- you want to slide your hand in a curious caress up to her very warm shoulder.
But now she’s reaching for you, drawing you to her, and you see up close at one of the suit’s 43 embedded cell phone screens. They flash a series of prosaic phrases: "It’s OK. Go ahead. Don’t worry about it."
So you go ahead. You touch one of the screens and it turns into a camera, and now you’re seeing the flesh beneath the suit and recognizing instantly where you’ve touched this warm, red body. At a certain point you’re wishing you could take a selfie -- this would look awesome on Instagram -- and the moment is over. She has turned around in some seriously high platforms and is stretching to embrace someone else.
This intimate and yet entirely public experience, which seems to unfold in silent slow motion, is part of a performance piece called "Proximity Cinema," and is one of a series of media artworks staged at venues around the world by Trenda. They are designed specifically to question our increasingly complex relationship to media and technology. Who are we in relation to our screens? What are memory, identity, intimacy and the body now, as each is filtered through the internet and media? Should we be worried about the mediation of, well, everything?
Trenda began her career studying dance, painting, photography and installation as she earned a BFA in fine art from Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. At a certain point, she realized that she wanted to integrate all of these art forms, which she did with her first performance at Art Center before she graduated. She then turned her focus to media art by earning her MFA through UCLA’s Design Media Arts program and she now creates her internationally acclaimed media art projects from a studio based in Marina del Rey. Trenda is currently one of a handful of artists investigating the relationship between the body and technology specifically through wearable media.
“'Proximity Cinema' was based on Valie Export’s "Tapp und Tastkino (TOUCH and TAP Cinema)" from 1968,” Trenda explains, recalling Export’s notorious street performance in which the Austrian artist unabashedly invited passersby to reach inside a box covering her torso to feel her breasts. The project grappled -- quite literally -- with the relationship between cinema’s visual pleasure viewed onscreen at a distance, and the reality of women’s lived bodies, up close and fleshy.
For Trenda, the focus now must shift from the cinema screen of the last century to the mobile screen as our diminutive devices serve as the site for so many interactions, both public and private, formal and informal. “We’re constantly on our cell phones and we’re having private talks and sharing private messages in public -- you can sit next to someone at the gym who is having a conversation with their therapist. So we experience these domains crossing over more and more.”
According to Trenda, the snippets of text visible on the screens in "Proximity Cinema" represent the three most frequent things said between men and women in a relationship. The piece also takes several of our most common activities -- looking, touching -- and transforms them.
“I’m exploring how different acts are changing,” she explains. “So, for example, 25 years ago, ‘scan’ referred to a human-to-human interaction. Now it’s a human-to-machine interaction. It’s similar with touch; we don’t think of touch as a physical touch anymore; instead, it’s something we do with our iPads. During the performance, when I interact with people, I try to be very sensual; I hug them, I caress them, and I touch them physically. But they’re only able to touch me through the screens, and that’s similar to what we’re doing today. We’re trying to have these interactions, but they’re mediated by screens. We feel more comfortable touching a screen than a body.”
In imagining and then creating the wired suit for "Proximity Cinema," Trenda wanted to be sure the body-hugging second skin would be tactile with a lot of texture. “I tried to make it physically very sensual and sensory,” she says, noting that she worked with designer Bao Tranchi, perhaps best known for designing the notorious sheer black dress for Jennifer Lopez to wear on her 46th birthday last summer.
“Construction-wise, it’s a very complex piece,” continues Trenda. “We had to solder together and then hide dozens of wires while still keeping it very sleek. I had been invited to be part of the performance program at the ‘Metamorphoses of the Virtual -- 100 Years of Art and Freedom’ show during the 55th Venice Biennale, so we had only three months to build the whole suit. It was a very intense design process.”
A year before "Proximity Cinema," a piece called "Body Code" had inaugurated Trenda’s full-body suit construction, which has since become her signature design element. "Body Code’s" mask was 3-D printed; the white suit is made of latex and emblazoned with QR codes, once again inviting people to integrate the acts of looking, scanning and searching across the surface of the female body within a 21st century mediated context. Each code links to an online listing of Google searches related to a particular body part and a particular theme. For one performance, the theme was "manmade chemicals," and the effects of those chemicals on that body part.
“Each year, I do new searches,” Trenda explains. “We did ‘surveillance’ once, and ‘gun control’ another time. The piece overall is about information and going back to the question of quantity versus quality. We’re trying to find interesting information about man-made chemicals and the brain, and the effects of these things, but then there are these ads on the page encouraging us to take a pill.”
Trenda critiques the search process. “We’re just sifting through this information; it’s all about the act of gaining information rather than understanding the information, and that creates a fetish. How does this affect us psychologically?”
Trenda is also fascinated by the fact that despite her very real, very striking presence, people rarely just look at her. “Everyone is more interested in their phones. They are not looking at me, an actual live person. They’re scanning; they’re taking video; they’re taking pictures; and so part of the piece when I started doing it centered on how we’re creating memories now, through screens. How does that affect us? How do we remember? We don’t remember things live any more. Now we see things in the past through a veil. And that’s how we’re seeing and experiencing the world -- it’s all through screens.”
Trenda’s newest piece is "Ubiquitous States," created in collaboration with 3D Systems and creative director Janne Kyttanen, a Dutch designer. The project began as a series of studies Trenda conducted exploring her own heartbeat using EKG sensors. She visited several particularly poignant sites -- the Muir Woods near San Francisco, Grand Central station in New York City, the Texas School Book Depository associated with the assassination of John F. Kennedy in Dallas, as well as the 9/11 Memorial -- and captured her heartbeat through the sensors in each place.
“I wanted to see how much sound, the environment and other people can affect your heartbeat,” Trenda says. “That eventually reminded me of birds and the relationship between their wings and their heartbeats. I thought that extension was interesting as a design element -- the heartbeat has these extensions that are really beautiful.”
These ideas formed the foundation for a new kind of suit in Trenda’s body of work, in this instance integrating 3-D printing extensively. The piece forms a wing-like carapace around Trenda’s body, with an embedded surface that can sense not only Trenda’s own heartbeat, but that of someone who wants to interact with her. The participant can hear the two heartbeats and see evidence of both on a screen on Trenda’s chest, and track the changes as he or she touches the artist.
“We connect to different sounds in different ways,” Trenda says. “Music has one effect. But can we connect through the virtual? Can we have pure connections through the virtual?”
"Ubiquitous States" premiered last year at Context Art Miami; Trenda also performed in the suit in April at The Broad museum for MW2016: Museums and the Web, and in May as part of Wearable Art Awards Holland, a spin-off of the New Zealand event known as the World of Wearable Art.
Trenda is currently collaborating with Anouk Wipprecht on a new piece. “She is known for designing the Intel robotic Spider Dress, and she is curating a show of wearable and interactive media art that will take place in San Francisco,” says Trenda.
“The new piece involves live 3-D scanning of people,” continues Trenda. “Conceptually it’s inspired by Yves Klein. I love his work; he’s always been an inspiration for me. I’ve been thinking about his concept of the void. What, today, is the void? For me, it’s the computer, the computer glitch, the computer’s pure imagination.” For the new piece, Trenda is also interested in re-imagining Klein’s use of the female body and making impressions with paint by using 3-D scanners.
For each of her projects, Trenda works steadily and carefully, and often in collaboration in a practice that integrates physical computing, garment design, performance, photography, sound, video and animation. With each new project, she asks some of the core questions about how we are changing within an increasingly mediated culture.
While Trenda is clearly deeply immersed in the international art and technology world, she is also interested in a revival of L.A.’s notorious performance scene from the 1980s and ’90s, when artists staged radical events that cut to the core of identity, desire, sexuality and the body, just as computers began to intersect with culture. Now, two decades later, with computation integrated into the world around us, what does it mean to be human, she asks? What are the acts of touching, connecting, remembering as they transpire through an interface? Trenda hopes to help revisit these questions, both locally within L.A.’s media art and performance scene, as well as within the expanding realm of wearable design.
Top image: "Ubiquitous States" at the Salton Sea, 2015. | Photo: Glenn Campbell, © Tiffany Trenda.