See Me, Feel Me, Touch Me: Reflections on CamLab

Gentle Extended Performance, 2008 and ongoing,
photo by Neal Bashor

CamLab is a collaborative effort founded in 2005 by the artists Anna Mayer and Jemima Wyman, who were both graduate students at Cal Arts at the time. I have been a huge fan of their fun, visually stimulating, and formally provocative work since coming across them at an open studios event. Looking back now over the work they’ve produced in the last five years, I continue to be struck by its richness and capacity to engage the viewer.

In 2006, CamLab participated in a small show I organized around the theme of optical art. Their contributions included a video piece entitled Cameltooth Curtain (2005), in which a female figure wearing polyester houndstooth pants was filmed from the waist down, opening and closing her legs. When her legs were open, you could see a shot of the same crotch from the ground up. All the while, endlessly repeating houndstooth patterns reverberated behind her. This video was paired with a drawing called Houndstooth Cameltoe (2005), which rendered a woman’s torso and genital area in houndstooth fabric. All curvy and graphic, the drawing had a computer-generated precision, as though it had been created in AutoCAD. Together, these two cheeky works (which were their first project as a duo) formed a multi-layered cultural pun—sly and humorous, subtly critiquing gender perceptions and dynamics in our culture. At the same time, they also celebrated the act of seeing, offering genuinely interesting formal studies.

Houndstooth Cameltoe, 2005, ink on paper, 18” x 24”, image courtesy of CamLab

Cameltooth Curtain, 2005, DVD, 5:30 minutes looped, image courtesy of CamLab

At the opening reception for the same show, CamLab performed NeoDuo (2006) a movement piece that revolved around a costume they designed and created themselves. This costume could be assembled into individual outfits for each artist, which could then be zippered together to create a cocoon-like habitat for both of them. In the performance, each artist first walked around the courtyard and struck several poses on her own, leaning against walls or sitting on the floor. Then, coming together and merging into a single-suited entity, they stretched, twisted, coiled, spread, and condensed themselves into a variety of formations, resembling a fabulous, two-headed, Op-Art larva. The performance ended when they unzipped themselves and individuated again, lifting their newly freed skirts to walk offstage.

NeoDuo, 2006, live performance at California State University, Long Beach, 15 minutes

NeoDuo, 2006, live performance at California State University, Long Beach, 15 minutes

The suit itself was a thing to behold in terms of design innovation and exquisite craftsmanship. Modularly constructed out of red, black, and white gingham fabric, it seemed to be endlessly fluid and adaptable, and yet, it cut strong lines and precisely held whatever shape it took. Discursively, it also provided an interesting metaphor for the process of artistic collaboration. How does zipping together change the shape of the individuals involved? Are the apparent constraints worth the unique shapes that result? How does each individual contribute to the unfolding of a collaborative entity? How do they separate gracefully?

NeoDuo, 2006, live performance at California State University, Long Beach, 15 minutes

CamLab’s principal concerns seem to have remained consistent since its founding. They might be summarized as an ongoing investigation of the body’s place in space, human relationships, intimacy, communication, and shared authorship through their embodiment and subsequent transformation in material shapes, colors, textures, and movement. Costumes and suits often play a major role in their works, facilitating idiosyncratic exchanges between each other as well as with additional participants.

I missed a lot of the performances they did between 2006 and 2009, but they are handily summarized on CamLab’s website. In particular, I love the participatory works utilizing clothing, such as Congloberation (2009), in which another two-part suit created by the artists while they were living apart is sewn together, then continually passed on to other performers; and Pillow Talk Foreplay with Blue Skies and Scissors (2007), in which CamLab lay on a bed with participants and modified their clothing using fabric cut from the bed’s cover. These are works in which the two artists’ relationship to one another is opened up to other people, creating a profound sense of connection, communal intimacy, and shared experience.

Pillow Talk Foreplay with Blue Skies and Scissors, 2007, image courtesy of CamLab

NEXT: a consideration of CamLab’s most recent show.

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