Emile Zile is an artist, performer and filmmaker crafting poetic turns about the relationship between digital media and social conditions. His work provides a penetrating critique of how the manufactured outputs of the mass media and technology industries interact with our bodies, behaviours and feelings. It offers, in the artist’s words, ‘damaged optimism’ for humans to connect meaningfully with others, themselves and the divine via digital means.1 Zile’s oeuvre addresses key themes in discussion about how digital media intersects with identity and interpersonal relationships; such as the ‘reality’ of individual expression online, disruptions of space and time that occur when technology allows people to instantly communicate (visually, aurally, linguistically) around the world, and how digital technologies offer the promises of both solitude and infinite connectivity.2 By consistently returning to the body and, in doing so, positioning it as a primary site of sacred communion, Zile holds ground for the possibility of absurd intimacy, vulnerability and grace in digital contact.
Holy Cow is a 2006 video that illustrates common themes across Zile’s practice. It comedically deconstructs media content and production (in this case, about terrorism) and is attuned to relations between the human body and media representations. The work is structured in three parts. The first features a film of the artist’s cursor clicking on amateur footage of 9/11 posted online; the second presents slowed and flickering home videos of people being hit by kites and model aircraft; and the third shows the artist posing for photographs with passers-by in front of an Australian Government poster requesting information about suspected terrorism. In the first two sequences Zile translates content from one media platform to another (he videos an online clip and television footage) and, in doing so, makes apparent the ways that information is constructed and distributed, and the dissociative quality of content that is consumed at the end of this process. He threads the first two parts of the video together with sound by Carl Anderson (an ongoing collaborator) that creates an atmosphere of tension and violence. The soundtrack coupled with the slowed television footage from Australia’s Funniest Home Videos of people being hit by pointed flying objects produces a more empathic understanding of the reality of acute impacts on soft torsos and heads. The third section of the video has original vision and sound from footage shot in an underground railway station passage. In this final chapter, Zile’s easy comedy reveals the absurd reductionism of government messaging about terrorism and preferences individual identity and expression. The body provides a link between constructed and appropriated media material in this work, resemblant in absent suggestion, as an accidental target, as well as a point of friendly and funny contact.
Zile’s works hustle to the body’s irrepressible desire to move. Hands feature candidly in many of his works. They are an obvious intermediary between digital devices, language and consumption as we use them to type and swipe, but the artist elaborates on their potential. In Five Production Company Logos in 3D (2010), he stands in front of a camera positioned at waist height in a studio delivering sequences of hand movements that animate film company logos. The language of corporate branding is immediately familiar as his hands zoom in towards the frame, cutting up space and time, accompanied by Adam Milburn’s cartoon-like score of hyped beats. Zile’s hands bring a subversive intimacy to his appraisal of branding as assertion; their nimble fluency is more animated and appealing than any swooshing corporate logo could ever be. He mocks the manipulative choreography of digital advertising and in a few surprising movements, returns communication to the more immediate form of dance. ‘Tutting’ — a form of American street dance that uses complex, angular hand movements and has featured popularly on internet video platforms — is channelled in this folly. A colloquial language from a niche dance form is mashed with advertising blast, producing a new dialect of manual communication that is offered back to internet audiences on the artist’s Vimeo site.3 A creative loop is released.
Hands are used again in James Cameron’s Avatar (2014–15) as a means to return screen culture to the body. The work is a performance installation originally conceived and performed on a residency at Ruang MES 56, Yogyakarta, Indonesia, where Zile was influenced by Javanese Wayang shadow puppetry and the complex cultural history of post-colonial Indonesia.4 In a performance of the work at Grey Gardens Projects, as part of Melbourne’s Channels Festival (of video art) in 2015, the artist lay on the floor propped up by cushions so that his hands could reach up in front of a projector positioned behind his head. James Cameron’s 2009 block-buster, Avatar, was projected onto the gallery wall in front of him with the volume turned up loud through domestic speakers. Around him on the floor were plastic wrappers, burning two-dollar-store scented candles and other detritus. It felt like Zile had set up his living room in the gallery and invited everyone over to watch a movie. Over the entire length of the two hour, forty minute film, he reached up with his hands to frame and mask scenes, using cellophane and other simple props to create ‘special effects’ in a physically straining performance. The work has a number of readings informed by its insistence on the sacredness of the body — its Indonesian conception and broader philosophical enquiry related to entertainment, politics and cultural production.
Indonesia, and particularly the island of Java, has a complex cultural history marked by the presence of European colonial forces from the sixteenth century onwards, and periods of political violence. 2015 marked the 50th anniversary of the 1965–68 massacre of approximately half a million accused Communists in Indonesia, a catastrophe which continues to be covered over and justified by Indonesian authorities (the US and Australian governments of the time also ignored and allowed for the killings).5 Writing on his website, Zile states:
I find Indonesia’s complex post-colonial history an appropriate context to invite the audience to reflect on the narrative of Avatar, which has been criticised as an all too easy allegory of a Western saviour in faraway lands.6
The simple presence of the artist’s live hands makes Cameron’s highly rendered figures seem insipid and bogus. James Cameron’s Avatar is a reminder of how easy it is to mask and manipulate through entertaining narratives, and complicates understandings of the artist as mediator of essential truths. The invocation of Plato’s ‘Cave’ — where prisoners mistake shadows on a wall for real forms — supports the work’s contemplation of essential philosophy on the bearings between language, mind and reality.
Western Digital (2013) rows similarly on this tide. Informed by the artist’s interest in Buddhist thought, the work is a meditation on divinity and digital image-making. Western Digital documents the Buddhist ceremony of tak bat in Luan Prabang, a UNESCO World Heritage listed city in northern Laos. The ceremony takes part in the streets of Luan Prabang, where Thervadan Buddhist monks silently process past kneeling citizens who offer them alms in the form of sticky rice. Tak bat is a spiritual practice for the monks and lay people who participate and supports Laotian systems associated with labour, religious discipline, family and community. It is also a popular tourist attraction. In his filmic documentation of its daily recurrence, Zile acknowledges that the tourists taking photographs are also participating in a ritual act of image-making; a process that he describes as an ‘equally sacred’ fulfillment of longing to anoint moments of time into permanence.7 This is a divergence from the Buddhist concept of impermanence, an idea that permeates Western Digital. Impermanence is central to Buddhist teaching and describes a lack of fixed reality, the inevitability of decay and the constant rising and falling away of energy. It is present within the subtle details of Western Digital; an edited cut contrasting elderly women with the vulnerable-looking faces of novice boy monks suggests cycles of birth and death, motherhood and growing up; Carl Anderson’s mesmeric score maintains a tense, momentous rhythm that builds and falls away; an empty mat left on the street after the procession has ended suggests loss. Western Digital (a pun embedded in its title referring to a popular brand of media player) holds balance between criticism of consumer behavior and the acceptance that people of all cultures seek spiritual nourishment and cultural contentment, albeit through different means.
‘I am a monk. I am a tourist’, writes Zile about this work, reflecting Buddhist teaching about a lack of fixed self.8 The figure of an individual is both present and absent in Western Digital. Present in the tourists taking images, in footage of a watchful cat, in the monks participating in ritual spectacle. Absent in the dispassionate documentary style and vision of congregations of people where no one body is central. The embodiment of holy teaching in the work allows for the confluence of divinity with digital image taking and art-making, though Zile asserts that technological engagement has metaphysical limits, stating that ‘Experience is within the body; anything outside the body can’t provide spiritual satisfaction.’9
Concerns for the intersection between sacred experience and digital material are continued in a more recent work, which similarly relates everyday technology to deep human yearning. Here, made in 2015 in Mildura, embraces romance to fold stories of connection and love around citizens who have migrated to, or sought asylum in Australia. The work was produced for inclusion in the 10th Mildura Palimpsest Biennale, the theme of which was Everywhere All at Once … Here. In Mildura, Zile spent time at the Sunraysia Mallee Ethnic Communities Council, a self-described ‘service provider’, helping migrants and refugees to settle into the community. He invited couples at the Council to select two pieces of music that had significance in their relationship and filmed each couple listening to their music together, with one ear-bud each through an iPod. The piece was filmed simply (without the artist present) in a darkened room with clear, theatrical lighting that heightens the visual subtleties of each couple’s dress and expressions. Each pair responds to the scenario and their chosen music differently, but all appear to be genuinely moved (or happy to play along) and react with affection and emotion. A poignant still from the piece shows a husband and wife sitting together, he with one hand outstretched and eyes closed, singing joyfully along, while his wife leans her head in, looking at him sideways. One of her henna decorated hands gently holds the iPod, while the other is entwined closely with her husband’s. In the video, this couple are expressive and affectionate, gently bumping heads and teasing each other.
Mildura, like many Victorian cities and towns, has a diverse population that includes recently arrived refugees and migrants. People in the community (both new and established) must negotiate boundaries and forces in order to be understood and connect with one another. In the situation that Zile nurtured, music is affirmed as a great leveller and conductor of joy and feeling. Removing the constrictions of narrative, or political commentary, he creates a portrait of how people interact with one another through music and technology. When interviewed by the ABC about this piece, the artist commented on his interest in expanding commentary about individual and collective media consumption, stating:
I think there’s already so much of a focus on individual media consumption … people are already very comfortable with a little screen on public transport, or listening to music by themselves, I kind of wanted to link couples together in this way.10
The iPod, held loosely in the hands of lovers, is the silent interlocutor of this conversation.
Like Here, the performance of intimacy is the subject of Zile’s live art installation, OMG_sisyphus (2011–14), which portrays the loneliness of an individual reaching out to audiences through YouTube. In video documentation of the performance in Melbourne (2011) and London (2013), the artist enters each venue carrying a large rock that looks like it’s been pulled from an urban construction site. The rock is placed on a table and becomes Zile’s video camera, audience and imaginary friend as he addresses it with a soliloquy intended for social media, encouraging people to come and see his show. The first delivery of this speech is funny and upbeat with patois; subsequent attempts descend into melancholy as he stumbles over his words, flinches and berates himself. An accompanying video playing massage-salon music heightens the pain of Zile’s attempt at projecting an attractive image of himself. His self-doubt is familiar to the audience — they’ve been there before. Their collective witnessing and empathy absolves the artist of his trial. Further redeeming increasingly frustrated attempts to break through his creative malaise, he stands with his rock and moves around the room taking ‘selfie’ portraits with his rock and audience members, making everyone laugh again. In this final act, Zile breaks through the wall of time and space that separates a YouTube-posting-internet-user from their gross audience, marking the contradictions of engagement with technology platforms that isolate an individual whilst projecting their inner-most desires to the masses.
There are many notions that define an experience of self, such as narratives (applied by others or created on our own), awareness of the body, belonging, sociability and longing for meaning. Zile tests these components of identity against the realities and outcomes of the most efficient methods of mass communication available to the artist, and others, today. They converge with overbearing entertainment, unfixed place, the separation of bodies in social contact, heightened demands for personal expression and enraptured capitalism. In Zile’s practice, corporeal realities, philosophical consideration and intimate expressions of love and loss flick at the force of digital mass. The artist undermines fantasies of fulfilment through boundless media and technological output, consumption and connectivity, conceding meaning to the bent tread and vulnerable closeness of the hungry human body.