REFLECTION: On Amy Lam’s Make-Believe Bathroom by Xinyue Liu

XINYUE LIU | NOVEMBER 24, 2020

The institution’s hallway is clean, calm, and collected. No human activities are within sight. For a moment, we, the roamers of this virtual universe, are utterly alone. Before us, the warm fluorescent light casts a gentle, seemingly inviting, creamsicle glow on the floor near the foot of an entryway. And so, with a click on the hovering arrow, we walk into the digital rendering of a space that rings with familiarity from our knowledge of institutional spaces, and pass into Amy Lam’s virtual bathroom.

Upon teleporting through the entryway, we bathroom-goers are met with a photorealistic rendering of four bathroom stalls. Simultaneously, a soft, ambient soundscape begins to play. With the trickling sound of running tap water, the gentle whirring of a hand dryer, and unintelligible chatter intermingled with a few quick whistles in the background, we find ourselves situated in an environment that strikes many resemblances to real life. But there are subtle differences. By design, Lam’s space guides its audience to fluently absorb symbols and references that draw from real life — such as the quote from the film character Sméagol graffitied on the wall, or the poster for SFU’s Knitting Club — yet the virtual bathroom gestures simultaneously toward an alternative spacetime, where issues of accessibility and communicability are whimsically addressed. 

Amy Lam, Make-Believe Bathroom. Platform documentation, 2020. Courtesy the artist

Drawing from the thinking of the Russian formalists, Vancouver artist Steven Cottingham’s essay What Is Real about Photorealism? grapples with the concept of photorealism in contemporary art, stating that in representations of reality, corroboration and antagonism interact and intervene with one another in determining what one might perceive as the real.[1] Whilst corroboration brings to mind issues of the believability and the plausibility of an environment through naturalistic portrayal and rendering, antagonism tends to enhance the ontological coding of reality (rather than conventional understandings of it). In the case of corroboration, an artwork might foster conversations about the nature of reality by enhancing and exaggerating ostentatious, sometimes counter-productive, details. In order to better comprehend Lam’s bathroom, not only do we need to focus on the parts that portray reality in a naturalistic light, but look for differences and faithful betrayals that work against the reality that we think we know.

First and foremost, Make-Believe Bathroom has built within it different avenues of access. It is noteworthy that on the website’s front page, three audio tracks describe respective visits to the bathroom, authored with the aim to be meaningful to people who are blind or live with vision loss. Further, the descriptions are not simply written as alt tags hidden somewhere on the website, but narrated aloud by Aliya Pabani. Studies on museum practices show that while accessibility tools adopted by galleries and artists primarily benefit individuals with diverse  abilities, they are also fruitful for those who do not consider themselves disabled.[2] In this case, the audio tracks not only serve those who might have trouble interacting with the webpage content using a screen reader, but also function to expand and challenge understandings of the work for those who are able to navigate through using visual cues.

Amy Lam, Make-Believe Bathroom. Platform documentation, 2020. Courtesy the artist

Modelled after the actual bathroom on Simon Fraser University’s Burnaby Campus, which is located down the hall from SFU Gallery in the Academic Quadrangle, Lam’s Make-Believe Bathroom removes certain connotations of gender, class, and race, indicating itself as gender neutral and accessible to all. With that information in mind, one may enter the space with the freedom to be oneself regardless of age, occupation, social status, or gender. In a sense, the digital body in the bathroom — a realm fabricated from the ground up with computer codes and simulations — is unmarked, with few attachments to the world of flesh. With this unmarked body, one has the liberation to roam around in a space where day-to-day scenarios are reimagined. 

But the bathroom remains a vulnerable place, even in a digital form. Lam captures this sense of intimacy with various visual indicators. The main bathroom experience takes place within the enclosed space of a single stall, whose space is navigated through simple arrow prompts: up, down, left, and right. The perspective of the work is experienced in first-person and at eye level, creating an immersive verisimilitude. Bathroom-goers are limited to a visual range close to that of a naked eye, and mobility is restricted to limited directions. Such a constrained perspective serves as an antidote to prevailing themes of voyeurism in a digital spaces, where social media and online platforms prompt the modern citizen to be curious about other people’s lives with an exterior, third-person perspective and rarely with an empathetic gaze from within. In situating the viewer inside a bathroom stall, inside a fictitious body, the gaze is no longer outside-looking-in but inside-searching-for.

Amy Lam, Make-Believe Bathroom. Platform documentation, 2020. Courtesy the artist

This first-person perspective is further enhanced when the down arrow is clicked and the camera pans to the floor to reveal a pair of feet wearing moderately-distressed, black sneakers. For the first time in this make-believe journey, the imagined body is endowed with a physical shape, which brings into view the notion of digital identity. In focusing on this illustration, one realizes that perhaps they have a weight standing on this virtual ground, and the displacement between one’s physical body and the digital otherness is further highlighted. One can investigate further still: Whose body is this? Do I wear shoes this size or style? If not, am I simply a person who walks around the space with a ghostly, borrowed body? Where does that body go when I leave the bathroom? 

Lam’s bathroom also considers various modes of communication in an age of information accompanied by Covid-19 restrictions. While exploring the bathroom, visitors can interact with characters already embedded within the project and / or with other visitors via various interactive elements. These communication tools function on chance operations and contingencies. Take the doodle pad for an example: each day, the system pulls from that day's earlier doodles, to show them to the new-coming bathroom-goers. The chat box within the project functions differently: visitors are only able to interact with other users who are online simultaneously. And when there is no one around, there will be no responsive action. In these ways, Lam creates a network of information that operates at its own pace. In leaving a message in the chat box, one hopes for an answer. Drawing on a piece of paper, one hopes it will elicit an unexpected response from another person. This pace, slow and unsteady, speaks to our current situation, one in which most people stay anxiously at home, checking their various digital gadgets to sustain connections to the rest of the world. But Lam’s bathroom also brings back memories of sitting on the toilet all by oneself, when time slows down and we are just there minding our own businesses. In these times, we have the option to branch out or retreat. Through incidental calls and responses, Lam opens up a temporal reality, allowing its visitors to dwell on their own agencies to reach and to be reached. Will this message be read by somebody? Is there someone beside me, to whom I can talk? If not, are we just all sitting in one giant bathroom, isolated from the storm raging outside?

Amy Lam, Make-Believe Bathroom. Platform documentation of user experience, 2020.

In the midst of ongoing discombobulation of Covid-19, the public has borne witness to the disappearing and reappearing of public spaces, as well as the defining and redefining of what is understood as “essential.” The public is urged to consider who is given priority in any given situation, and whose rights might be deprived and taken advantage of. Some spaces, including the SFU campuses, shut their doors tightly, leaving behind a hollow that barely remembers the bodies it used to welcome or reject. The reality is that exclusivism and institutional hegemony still exist and, perhaps, are even further accentuated in such times. The freedom that was promised by the Internet proves itself unreliable when one takes into consideration the many restrictions and privileges at play when it comes to access to information (curtailed by censorship) and the accessibility of its designed infrastructures (curtailed by ability).

Is digital space permanent and open to all? Can a make-believe space be immortal so long as the domain is maintained and furnished? How can an online experience contradict and perhaps bring forth changes in non-digital realities? In making public a private zone and exposing its strangeness, Lam’s bathroom simultaneously addresses issues of accessibility in the outside world and in its own environs. The virtual experience is a form of attention. In a playful way, the bathroom asks how we might communicate better, opening up our spaces in moments of vulnerability. When the door to the physical world shuts, we build walls, not for defense, but for protection. And in these virtual places behind the walls, we understand ourselves to be speaking to one another in a different tongue. More reserved, perhaps, with less speed. But in doing so, we find ourselves being alone, together.

Before leaving the bathroom, we must remember what was made and what is to believe in moving forward. And, if we choose, we can flush.

 

Xinyue Lui (刘新悦) is a found-material artist who recycles and reuses objects as placeholders for unresolved memories. In weaving together fragmented narratives and moving images, Liu’s practice investigates issues of displacement, intimacy, migration, and diaspora. Born and raised in China, Liu is inseparable from her family and cultural heritage. In contemplating the meaning of being far away from one’s roots, she utilizes fiction as a method for reconciliation.

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[1] Steven Cottingham, "What Is Real about Photorealism?", Steven Cottinghamhttp://stevencottingham.com/cobweb/as/ (accessed 24 October 2020).
[2] Emily Watlington,“How the Met and MCA Chicago Describe Artworks Online for Blind People,”  Art in America, February 12, 2020, https://www.artnews.com/art-in-america/features/the-met-mca-chicago-blind-access-alt-text-park-mcarthur-shannon-finnegan-1202677577/ (accessed October 24, 2020).

 

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