When I visited dépendance’s show of Ed Atkins’s CGI-animated film Hisser (2015), it was just following the terrorist attacks in Paris, and a few hours before Belgian authorities intended to close the city centre. Coincidentally, the first work visible upon walking into the gallery was a poster of a wolf, which bore a caption by the blind and deaf American writer Helen Keller, alerting us in bold capitals: ‘No Fear. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure… Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.’ While the poster serendipitously resonated with the city’s current atmosphere, Atkins’s high-definition video work primarily concerns itself with endemic anxieties of the digital age, focusing on how technology produces and controls physical bodies. Combining sophisticated software with poetic and literary tropes, Atkins creates nightmarish virtual environments populated by avatars of white men plagued by sorrow and desire.
Despite its apparent inertness, the empty room emanates a charged, foreboding atmosphere. The vertical hold on the screen begins to move upward; the frames accelerate into a vertiginous loop, before steadily slowing down again. From then on, all solid ground disappears; the room starts to shake and finally collapses, engulfing its occupant. The disappearance of the avatar in the sinkhole is Atkins’s visceral allegory of the paradox of the HD image: however sharp, lucid and convincing the image appears, it has no material basis; it can be quickly wiped out without a trace. So what is it we empathize with when the image starts to rupture, and the avatar forever vanishes into nothingness? Is it only when digital technology breaks down or disappears that its apparatus becomes visible – that we become aware of its failings, and its artifice? Interested in what technology is not or cannot do, Atkins’s work urges us to consider the deceptive nature of the virtual in favour of real-life investigations into our own embodied emotional depth.