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Issue 142

Pilvi Takala: Admirer
by Jesse Cumming

You don’t like drama but it is not really drama because it is virtual.”

– Anonymous, Admirer



In 2015, Finnish artist Pilvi Takala initiated the project Invisible Friend, in which she and a host of writers served as digital interlocutors to anyone who texted a specific number during specific hours over a set period. “Send an SMS to 04573963166. Invisible Friend will text you right back,” read the poster, which was distributed around Helsinki. The service emphasized confidentiality and anonymity, on the part of both participants and responders. Rupturing this system, one participant discovered who was behind the project and bombarded Takala with increasingly aggressive online messages sent via Facebook Messenger and email, using 20 different accounts.

Takala eventually proposed the development of a contract between herself and the individual, the purpose of which—according to the document itself—was “to establish guidelines regarding collaboration in the process of Pilvi Takala’s Work (to be titled later by the Artist),” after which all further communication would be terminated. This five-page document and its attendant email negotiations form the basis of Admirer (2018), a multimedia installation that examines power and gender in digital spaces, with the legally binding contract as a means to tether the exchanges to the lived world.

The correspondence included in the show is almost exclusively contained to the period between the first and final draft of the contract, without any messages sent before the duo’s tentative agreement (to create an agreement). At Stigter van Doesburg, Takala displayed it on eight different flat-screen monitors in an unconventional arrangement, including some screens hung high on the gallery walls and others propped up on the ground. While on any given screen the exchanges were consolidated and linear in their relay, a scan around the room offered fragments of conversations related to different minutiae and concerns from throughout the period, with the steady stream of text amplified by the added audio of keyboard clatter.

Formally, Takala chose to colour-code the exchanges, with Anonymous’ emails on a blue-green background and her own responses on a dark cream. While presumably employed as a means of clarity, it also offers an efficient visual metaphor for the nature of the exchanges, with the room more often than not dominated by Anonymous’ unreserved commentary, which regularly spills out across several consecutive messages, only occasionally punctuated by Takala’s generally clear and unadorned responses.

Amidst notes related to the contract under negotiation and their demands for an eventual exhibition, Anonymous’ emails are regularly littered with insults, threats and appeals for sex, as often as they include claims of love and admiration for Takala, at one point professing viewing her as “a kind of godly figure.”

“I do not want sex,” responds Takala in one of her typically direct and unambiguous responses that adheres to the well-established online axiom of not feeding the trolls. “The contract makes it perfectly clear why these messages are exchanged.”

Admirer was first exhibited in the Finnish National Gallery’s Kiasma museum, as part of a larger show entitled Second Shift dedicated to Takala’s video work. The latter title’s reference to Arlie Russell Hochschild and Anne Machung’s book on the double burden placed on working mothers extends to the concepts of emotional labour that exist at the core of Admirer, with a particular emphasis on the gendered nature of online abuse.

In a number of past performance and video works, Takala has infiltrated and upset coded spaces like offices, shopping malls and public transit with her unconventional actions, serving to place the often invisible standards of such quotidian locations into stark relief. With Admirer she does the same in a digital space, proving that for women and other marginalized people, the long-trumpeted claims of the internet being democratized, utopian and emancipatory are unfounded.

Scholar Emma A. Jane has proposed “e-bile” and “cyber VAWG (Violence Against Women and Girls)” as useful terms that encompass several forms of online abuse, including trolling, cyberbullying and cyberstalking. In her research, she has analyzed and established a taxonomy of responses from women faced with e-bile of varying degrees, including distancing, rationalizing, technological hygiene and “digilante” activism, which can include exposing the identity of the abuser.

The premise of the latter and the broader tension between anonymity and exposure emerges as the crux of Admirer, something Takala makes explicit in one of her responses, writing: “I am interested in our positions which are different, you being anonymous and me being an artist, the maker of this piece, and not a private person. Both positions have their pros and cons, both hold a certain power over the other.”

One imagines that the use of the name Anonymous for Takala’s admirer exists as an explicit invocation of the nebulous digital activist group of the same name, suggesting the various ways in which anonymity can be wielded for particular means, whether political or personal. While potentially a means for political disruption, the position of anonymity also enables abuse with impunity. Additionally, anonymity forestalls any real connections and hinders potentials for meaningful, mutual trust, something Takala repeatedly reminds her communicant-cum-collaborator.

“I want the exhibition visitors to sign a contract before seeing the exhibition which says that they won’t try to find out the anonymous identity,” writes Anonymous, early in their exchanges. This request is (partly) heeded in the contract and in subsequent installations through the inclusion of an additional monitor at the exhibition entrance that serves to implicate any visitor into the duo’s arrangement, declaring: “ATTENTION! By entering this room, you agree to make no attempts to identify Anonymous. Please, DO NOT ENTER if you cannot agree to the condition.”

The uncertainty around this condition is discussed in the duo’s exchanges, and written into the contract, which also requires that Takala provide an opportunity for visitors to contact Anonymous if they’d like. “I dont want to be anonymus. Of course i want real friends” [sic], they write at one point. Throughout the piece, Anonymous seems to be openly weighing the value of revelation, whether as a means for connection or as an exertion of power. Such a point is made explicit in a de facto coda to the piece, a series of (unanswered) emails from Anonymous sent around the date of the exhibition’s opening—long after the conclusion of their negotiations—in which they threaten to expose Takala’s “sociopathy” to the museum. “I will do it with my real name and if they don’t believe the email i will go there in person so they will definitely believe,” they write, before eventually backtracking in the final written exchange, in an act of sophistry and unsettling pseudo-“incel” ideology that serves as the end of the piece while hinting at its continuation in countless online exchanges. “Actually nevermind, not sending the message, I’m such a reasonable person. Even if I’m being treated badly I don’t do that to others.”

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