Regina Frank: Nurturing a Sculptural Encounter

Whether bathed in blue light in a darkened room or enclosed in a glass-fronted display, German installation and performance artist Regina Frank seeks ways to humanize our digital universe. Her meditative, often interactive performances sculpt space, sometimes creating physical objects that document the temporal relationship between virtual and real experience. “I’ve developed strategies of deceleration and reduction to give the participant/ perceiver a taste of silence within a tumultuous world of acceleration and economic performance,” says Frank.

Hermes’ Mistress, 1994–99.View of the performance/installation in which Frank embroidered favorite texts, found on the World Wide Web, in Atlas silk. Performances began in New York and ended in Tokyo.

In Inner Networks, at the 1999 Digital Arts and Culture conference at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, she involved viewers in a 45-minute performance. “My goal was to be interwoven, entangled with the stage. When I invited the audience to participate, I wanted to connect them with the stage, too,” says Frank. For that direct interaction, the artist was seated with a computer on a round dais shrouded in white tulle, a wall-sized screen behind her. In the darkened room, she communicated with the audience through voice and keyboard. Her words, repeated by the computer and projected on the screen as a running text, contemplated the notion of “being.” As Frank reframed the question, “Who am I?” seven spectator/ performers began to spin a web of colored threads around her seated figure. The threads wound out into the audience, where members tightened the filaments until the artist became trapped. In the end, as she released herself, her voice cut through a deep silence, urging listeners to: “restart… rethink…reinitialize.”

Hermes’ Mistress, 1994–99.View of the performance/installation in which Frank embroidered favorite texts, found on the World Wide Web, in Atlas silk. Performances began in New York and ended in Tokyo.

At the Venice Biennale’s Italian Pavilion in the Spazio Oreste, on October 23, 1999, the same performance elicited a different response. In Atlanta, her motions were freer, allowing Frank to mediate between technology and the audience. In Italy, viewers who understood less of her English-language dialogue responded directly to her mood and movement. They became more emotional, spinning her closer and tighter.

The computer served as a sculptural element as well as an actor or agent in the performance. Along with a digital speech program, Inner Networks used software that Frank had developed to produce Monk@Sea—Encoding the Present, a 1998 interactive digital performance. She collaborated on that CD-ROM project with Keith Roberson of Florida State University. Finding its inspiration in a 19th-century seascape painted by Caspar David Friedrich, Monk@Sea proposes a less personal opportunity for the viewer to direct Frank’s movements.

The Glass Bead Game, 1996. Performance/installation in which Frank created fabric from her favorite books; during the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, people’s on-line poetry was digitally converted to beads.

On a wall-sized projection, she stands at the edge of the ocean. Her voice repeatedly implores the viewer to write to her on a keyboard nearby. As prompted by keyed words and symbols, she is gradually wrapped in a slender fibrous band of Morse code until her torso and legs are completely bound. Continued communications succeed in untangling her figure. At once audience and director of her synthetic performance, the viewer reclaims the artist’s narrative as an individual creation.

Frank staged a more immediate interactive work four years ago in Atlanta, where she inhabited her Glass Bead Game for seven hours a day over two months. Behind a clear glass wall, she used a small computer to receive messages from visitors as well as Internet contacts from Australia, England, France, Germany, Greece, India, Japan, and Russia. A special computer program transformed the written notes into virtual beads and sent them to her. For each bead she received, Frank stitched real beads onto a paper kimono that hung in the space. In The Glass Bead Game, she became both the medium and the message in a symbolic visual conversation.

Recycling and Gown Balls, 1999. View of installation, consisting of old dresses and ballgowns, in Frankfurt, Germany.

Catching and releasing the pressure that is building in our present-day techno-culture, Frank manipulates the digital in a way that reminds her audience of their humanity and their temporality. To achieve this, Frank exploits dramatic time by repeating real-life tasks with an inward focus. At the same time, she reflects on our increasing tendency to forge virtual relationships, and she shows how to create a context that may authenticate and give meaning to new forms of interaction.

Frank has engaged in a spectrum of conversations with her audience over the past 10 years. In a number of projects, sewing was her metaphor for digital networking; constructed dress objects stood for Frank herself. Always made of flowing silk, the dress-as-façade retained its classical dialectic function—leading the eye toward an object (woman), while marking the artist’s physical and spiritual boundary.

Recycling and Gown Balls, 1999. View of installation, consisting of old dresses and ballgowns, in Frankfurt, Germany.

Her practice of a once-common domestic art combined with the manipulation of technology and the dress form has countered many universal preconceptions about women and women’s work, but Frank’s work is not without its own internal contradictions. While she has embraced technology, she compares its mediated encroachment on culture to “moths eating up our clothing.” As a cure for malaise in an increasingly indifferent world, she constantly interjects her physical presence.

In certain earlier works, Frank focused less on interaction than on theatricality to illustrate the permeable membrane between art and technology. She became Hermes’ Mistress at Exit Art/The First World in 1994. For 35 days she wore and slept under a red silk dress with an enormous circular skirt.

L’Adieu—Pearls Before Gods, 1993. Performance/installation in the window of the New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York; Frank sewed pearls onto a white silk gown, receiving 28 different wages paid to seamstresses around the world.

Hermes’ Mistress was a seductive performance; Frank’s scarlet frock, red-lacquered nails, and ruby lips conspired to discount the monotony of the data she was processing. The artist sat with her laptop downloading text transmissions from the Internet and “rewrote” them, letter by letter, stitching words to her skirt in a spiral of alphabet beads. She personalized the impersonal by deliberately selecting and saving messages that were important to her. Calmly considering the ceaseless flood of knowledge that came to her through cyberspace, Frank took time to think.

Spending hours and days in public to actualize a concept is not new. In some ways, Frank’s stagings have echoed German artist Joseph Beuys’s live-in performance pieces of the 1960s. Both Beuys and Frank work with tactile personal metaphors. Like his Coyote project, her tests of endurance have spanned weeks.

Performance & Performance, 2000. Performance work at the International Women’s University Expo 2000 Hannover, Germany.

Although her repetitive visualizations may be considered a nostalgic requiem to real intimacy, their techno-twist permits Frank to demonstrate the possibility that we might integrate the self into an increasingly mediated reality. Inside her performances, her body becomes a lyrical sculpture that relies on the audience to be fully realized. Even in her more remote computer-based works, she means to dissolve viewer/performer boundaries. Outside the glass box, the wrapping and weaving motions that she elicited from the audience in Inner Networks, for example, literally connected them with her and her ideas.

In 1999, Frank created The Mushroom Dress, her most organic work to date, for Kunsttage-Dreieich, in Frankfurt, Germany. On a bed of straw covered by a large full-skirted ball gown made of jute and tulle, the artist poured a mushroom substrate. She watered the dress and clipped holes in it to release the sprouting fungi. As she tended the mushrooms over two weeks, they grew into cabbage-like blooms. “For the first time in my life, I made something that I couldn’t control. I had to pray for weather, to water and take care of the dress, so the mushrooms would grow. The dress played the game and it was wonderful.” At the Kunsttage opening, and for weeks after, Frank harvested the mushrooms and cooked them outdoors for passersby. Symbolically, the act of imbibing the mushrooms implied that the viewer/participant internalized Frank’s aesthetic. The artist transmuted the notion of nature versus culture by nurturing a sculptural encounter. Frank insinuated nature into her concept of self (the dress), then shared that fragile revelation with her spectators.

Mushroom Dress, 1999. Performance/installation in Frankfurt, in which Frank grew mushrooms and ate them with visitors.

Another environment-based performance, Formen des Seins, or Forms of Being, took place in summer 2000 at the Akademie Tutzing in Germany. Frank staged the two-phase Formen inside a round performance space and outdoors at the edge of Starnberger See. Indoors, she slowly shifted from a lotus position into fluid movements that grew from her visual communion with a wall-sized video projection and tonal music. The video replicated the lake environment and echoed the artist’s breathing in its measured rise and fall. Her simultaneously spoken words meditated on the life of water and air.

In Formen, remembers Frank, “Da wo es herkommt geht es auch wieder hin.” (Everything returns from whence it came.) As the wall image followed a cloud moving from one side of the room to the other, the artist led viewers outside, where she repeated the performance with real water from the lake, then walked into the water and swam away.

L’Adieu—Pearls Before Gods, 1993. Performance/installation in the window of the New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York; Frank sewed pearls onto a white silk gown, receiving 28 different wages paid to seamstresses around the world

Proyecto Piazolla—Do it in the light might be considered Frank’s most intimate public spectacle. In the spring of 2001, she will collaborate with curator Arturo Carjaval at the Galeria de Arte Suipacha, Buenos Aires, Argentina, in a thoughtfully choreographed tribute to the late Argentinean composer, Astor Piazolla. Her suite of dramatic nuevo tango performances will trace an ephemeral dialogue between memory, dance, music, and light.

Last year, at the International Expo 2000 in Hannover, Germany, Frank reinterpreted her 1993 dress project, L’Adieu: Pearls Before Gods. Making a feminist statement, she had lived in a windowfront of the New Museum of Contemporary Art for 28 days, sewing pearls by hand onto a white silk gown. A digital monitor above her projected the dollar amount of wages she might have earned per day for the same work in different countries around the world. As Richard Vine says, “One could not help but feel a certain queasy complicity, an illicit enjoyment (inseparable from a simultaneous moral revulsion)…Thus does the reality of economic exploitation, with its subliminal erotic charge, become a consciously lived, and deeply felt, experience. We can no longer, as First World consumers, deny that we are the beneficiaries of a masochistic process which is usually hidden—in other nations, behind factory walls—but which Frank’s performance makes compellingly present.”*

Sein, 2000. View of the performance and video about the different forms of water; “Stand.”

A vitrine in the Pavilion of the International Women’s University was the venue for Performance & Performance. Frank’s expo project employed CQG software by Trading House Net— a brokerage firm for day traders. Involving the stock market meant an irregular, sometimes staccato, tempo for her two performances at the event (one eight-hour and another 10-hour performance). In a graph projected on a scrim behind her, the figures of rising and falling stocks became the curves of stitched lines in red and green. If the stock was rising, the artist stitched her dress to the screen with green thread. If a price fell, she took up a red thread to attach herself to the matrix. Explains Frank, “The performance was about the connection between our life and the virtual life of the stock market, and how we become economically tangled in the process.”

An upcoming project reveals Frank’s ongoing attraction to contemporary issues. She is organizing “Digital Senses,” an exhibition to debut at the Spoleto Festival in Charleston, South Carolina, in June 2001. Presented by the Charleston Center for Contemporary Art, the exhibition will later travel to Hamburg and Venice in autumn 2001 and spring 2002. Frank has sought out a group of international artists to examine the present technological limits and extensions of photography, painting, and drawing. She intends for their work to illustrate how computer-generated chance and calculations have come to affect the creation of art.

As both artist and curator, Frank relates language, the body, and technology in a way that binds analog to digital and past to present tense. Interestingly, some of her most recent work—The Mushroom Dress, Formen, and the tango performance—bend away from techno-science, revealing the artist’s growing desire to connect her art with a less complicated environmental theater. While the world’s fast-lane viewers might become impatient with the laborious intensity her long performances and slow- growing sculptures, some may well be soothed by the studied repetition and the determined balance of motion and stillness. Played out in the ironic context of a world constrained by infinitely “liberating” cyberwebs, there is sensitive wisdom in the tightening and releasing of tension implicit in the work of Regina Frank.

Cathy Byrd is a writer and curator living in Atlanta.

*See Vine’s essay “Mystic Threads” in Regina Frank: The Artist is Present (Performances 1992–1999) (Berlin: Druck Vogt GmbH, 1999), p. 8