Bobby Anspach Memorial Exhibition
Place for Continuous Eye Contact
Bobby Anspach’s Studio (62-18th Street), September 22- November 19, 2023
By Joanna Seifter
Bobby Anspach’s Place for Continuous Eye Contact machine-sculpture hybrids consist of air mattresses, hospital beds and easy chairs topped with funky fleece blankets, surrounded by radiating halos of multicolored neon pom-poms and blown-glass orbs affixed to suspended frames. These interactive apparatuses seem precarious, almost unsafe, with dubious-looking wires and LED strips unceremoniously protruding from cardboard boxes and fabric tents, resembling frat house decor reimagined by Yayoi Kusama.
Despite their haphazard appearance, Anspach’s installations are incredibly precise, emulating the disorienting yet contemplative effects of psychedelic drugs in three-minute sessions. Four iterations of Place for Continuous Eye Contact are the subject of Anspach’s breathtaking retrospective Memorial Exhibition. The show, which celebrates Anspach’s life and legacy in light of his recent passing at age 34, is located in his studio and facilitated by his friends and collaborators. While Anspach’s works are rooted in an ambitious (and at first glance, unlikely) premise, they successfully transmute the mesmeric, immersive elements of augmented reality, a contemporary museum phenomenon, to concretize the thoroughly abstract.
In preparation for Place for Continuous Eye Contact, the participant must align their right eye with a small elevated oval mirror peeking from the pom-pom and orb landscape. Once they cover their left eye with a complimentary eye patch, the machine’s ultraviolet lighting shifts tonality and electronic composer Eluvium’s harmonious synth score commences the viewer’s Continuous Eye Contact. For the first time in awhile, possibly ever, the viewer is forced to interact with themselves and only themselves, with no distractions and limited by a minuscule reference point.
As the overhanging environment gradually becomes ingrained in the viewer’s retinas, the pom-poms begin to wiggle and pulsate, merging into a kaleidoscopic, celestial mobile. The viewer further examines and desperately consumes their splintered visage, the sole reminder of their physical presence amidst an oppressive audiovisual smog, as the score swells, the hues saturate, and exhilaration starts to take hold. All traces of materiality, including the mattress, melt into the ether. It is dizzying, at once exciting and terrifying. The mirror mutates into a menacing Kubrickian Eye, attaching its form to the hundreds of diffusing pom-poms, transforming into a peacock, or perhaps Ophanim. Eluvium’s score slowly fades and the lights neutralize, heralding the viewer’s return to Earth and leaving them neurologically unscathed but emotionally overwhelmed, in frightened awe of the dazzling, otherworldly sensory-scapes lurking within their psyche.
Bobby Anspach, Place for Continuous Eye Contact, 2019, installed at “Portal: Governors Island Art Fair.” Courtesy the artist’s estate.
Bobby Anspach, Place for Continuous Eye Contact, 2022, installed at the artist’s studio in Newburgh, NY. Courtesy Ethan Bond-Watts.
The conceit of Place for Continuous Eye Contact evokes Salvador Dali’s paranoiac-critical approach to art-making, outlined in Dali’s 1935 manifesto Conquest of the Irrational. Paranoiac-critical obsession involves the artist staring at any given image intensely and repetitively enough to induce hallucinations, not unlike how Anspach’s viewers make extended eye contact with themselves (or, in one installation, with another person). These visions manipulate fragments into complete shapes, change states of matter, and add subtext to disconnected images, transporting the artist, and in turn, the viewer, light years of forms and ideologies away from the original image. Anspach’s conceptualization of paranoiac-critical thinking–steeped in self-reflection and replete with gallery assistants gently encouraging participants to discuss and analyze their encounters with each sculpture–is suffused with his characteristic patience and empathy, elevating psychedelic mimesis to artistic echelons.
Anspach’s use of enveloping overhead viewfinders recalls augmented reality, which museums are increasingly incorporating in their programming to sate their visitors’ collective appetite for more colorful, interactive and multi-sensory exhibitions. In most instances, museums’ use of augmented reality is either educational, supplements collections that have damaged or missing works, or serves as “experiences” (resplendent technological exhibitions catered to younger, often social media-driven museumgoers). While some recent examples of augmented reality and “experiences” in museums demonstrate audiences’ interest in using this technology to explore more figurative or meditative concepts, like Tin Drum’s hypnotic Medusa mixed reality experience at Pioneer Works or the American Museum of Natural History’s captivating Invisible Worlds exhibit, most remain fairly literal.
Though Anspach first developed his Place for Continuous Eye Contact installations as an MFA student in the mid-2010s, his works take on newfound significance as cerebral and abstracted responses to museum augmented reality. Referring back to paranoiac-critical obsession, Rem Koolhaas’ own manifesto, Delirious New York (1978), frames Dali’s methodology as the product of rapid urbanization and industrialization demystifying the unknown, resulting in a “reality shortage.” Koolhaas proposes a secondary component of Dali’s technique– subjectively interpreting the metaphysical world to highlight, and combat, its irrationalities. In other words, to borrow novelist David Mitchell’s argument that science fiction “is not predictive; it is descriptive,” paranoiac-critical thinking is not progenitive; it is introspective. Mirroring Dali’s account of paranoiac-critical thinking, Anspach’s works position the catch-all museum “experience'' as a subjective, sensational phenomenon. And, reminiscent of Koolhaas’ interpretation, Anspach’s sculptures present paranoiac-critical creativity as a collaboration between the visitor and their surroundings–while all viewers experience the same machines, each experience is entirely distinct.
There is an air of uncertainty to Memorial Exhibition, or more specifically, how Anspach’s estate will, or can, continue to display and archive his art without his input. How can one digitize something so thoroughly analog, something imbued and enhanced by sensational and immaterial qualities? While Place for Continuous Eye Contact sculptures should, at least in theory, be one of the most ubiquitous museum “experiences” on the market, how can one popularize and standardize Anspach’s works without negating their inherent intimacy and subjectivity? Anspach’s life was cut tragically short, ahead of the acclaim his work will continue to accumulate with time, leaving no obvious answers. Hopefully, Anspach’s apparatuses will be celebrated as innovative immersive art exhibition programming, reinforcing the fantastic capabilities of augmented reality while recognizing its most exciting, Surrealist potential–to visualize and plumb realms unique to the individual.
Image Left: Bobby Anspach, Place for Continuous Eye Contact, 2021, installed at the artist’s studio in Newburgh, NY. Courtesy Ethan Bond-Watts. Image Right: Interior of Place for Continuous Eye Contact, undated. Courtesy the artist’s estate.