Of poem · Of screen writing · Of writing in exile

My best thing (2011)

Two avatars converse amidst a green screen haze. Their bodies are truncated, like two stout soda cans. No necks here, just spherical heads (she brunette, he blond) that swivel on boxy chests. Their so-called ‘private parts’ are covered in leaves, as if they are low-budget 3d renderings of the first man and first woman (except here the protective leaves are in the shape of swimwear). These are the some of the optional bodies offered by Xtranormal, a readymade animation provider through which millions of amateur movies have been made, and through which the artist Frances Stark gave form to a months-long virtual relationship she struck up with a previously unknown man. Unfolding through episodes that feel alternately like installments of a television drama or a recurring dream, the conversations jump between politics, personal biography, and music, escalate quickly from arousal to the (alleged) reaching of sexual climax, and are strewn with awkward silences. All are enunciated by a monotone computerized voice that doesn’t inflect or mute any aspect of speech. Here, the mumblings and mutterings–“umm” “oof”–that interrupt speech and manifest inhibitions are as flat and as loud as any other statement, like “you have an impressive analysis capability.” “Eh.”

That the green screen remains empty throughout the piece is significant: a key tool of Hollywood magic, the green screen is what engenders fantasies (like human flight) or patches people into far-flung locales or unlikely situations. Void of animation, it heightens the tension between the two characters, amplifying the projection of fantasy happening between them. At one point, Stark tells him that she is currently obsessed with dancehall music, and shares a sample. His response is disparaging:

HIM: “You must grow up, eh.”
HER: “I’m a professor. That’s very grown up, isn’t it?”
HIM: “Oof. I didn’t have a professor like you.”
HER: “Maybe you did but you didn’t notice. I’m sure the boys in my class don’t notice me like that.”

In a video interview about the work, Stark references the writer David Foster Wallace in regard to one of his most consistent themes: attention (how much people need it and how unnerving and disorienting it can be to receive it). “Whatever you get paid attention for is never what you think is most important about yourself,” he writes. The tentative, curious conversations of the two avatars in My Best Thing reflect this desire to have repressed parts of oneself attended to and seen. Within game worlds, social media, or chat rooms, avatars become the psychological escape hatch from regular bodies, behaviors and perceptions from self and society. In the exchange above, the female character (Stark) suggests the way that she is seen in the classroom overlooks the ways that she really is. What becomes more intimate than the virtual orgasms they have together is their constant emotional prying; their attempts to find ‘unnoticed parts.’ “Show me.” “Show me your face.” “Want to see my best thing?”

My Best Thing captures something very specific about romance and desire at a particular time, both technical (Xtranormal as an available, quotidian consumer animation software) and social (a certain extant freedom of behavior online within social networks). But, by way of the unmarked location and bland characters (undistinguished except for being white in skin tone, or more precisely creme), the work also taps into deeper, more universal dimensions of human connection, desire and fantasy. Its ability to telescope in between two individuals, with their particular quirks, fetishes and needs, and the broader urge to be seen for who you want to be (not who you are) lends it an enduring power. The viewer is left to wonder whether the characters are actually freed by their ephemerality or if theirs is a fleeting release, if the lack of an accountable, physical, evolving human body is ultimately stagnating. Can anonymous, disembodied communication keep you the same way a person can?

In the short story “Everything is Green,” Foster Wallace depicts a man trying to wrench himself from a romantic relationship–perhaps to be more true to his ‘best thing’–but he gets forced back by the presence of his lover: “She is looking outside, from where she is sitting, and I look at her, and there is something in me that can not close up, in that looking. Mayfly has a body. And she is my morning. Say her name.”

My Best Thing from Dwayne Moser on Vimeo.

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