Five Steps to Hell with Poverty at DFBRL8R featured the work of Thomas Friel and Dao Nguyen, both alumni of the 2013 ACRE Residency. ACRE is an organization that runs a yearly summer residency in Steuben, WI and a project space in Chicago, but also frequently works with other spaces to provide opportunities for its alumni, such as in this case with Defibrillator.


The show’s title is a fitting combination of the two artist’s aesthetics: “Five Steps to…” evokes Nguyen’s methodical but extremely cryptic approach, a fascination with open-ended sequences that must be carefully decoded. “…to Hell with Poverty”, taken from the title of Friel’s most recent iteration of his “Sentient Avatars of Astral Collapse” project, encapsulates his aggressive engagement with performative capitalism. The closing event on February 28 included a “performative artist talk” by Friel and a “performative lecture” by Nguyen. Perhaps more interesting than either on its own was the contrast between the two interpretations of the performative lecture as a form.


Tom Friel’s talk began as fairly standard artist talk fare, such as a discussion of his chosen media (“I refuse to choose one medium over another. I love painting, I love video, I love making sound and music, and I don’t want to just work within one”). He spoke before his area of the gallery, which was more like a set than an installation—a bit like if Pee-Wee’s Playhouse were sponsored by a questionable credit card company. This is in keeping with his assertion that, while many of them are made by hand and have aesthetic resonance as stand-alone objects, he thinks of his objects more as props than sculptural works. He moved through a slideshow featuring various elements of his work, describing his interest in avatars as a way of navigating a “border between the digital world and the real world”.


Tom Friel performing his talk.

Tom Friel’s artist lecture. Photo courtesy of ACRE.

We received an overview of the bizarre cast of characters inhabiting his work, including a “lovable terrorist”, “a spiritual hypeman”, and “a Veggie Tales zombie”. At one point a large, piñata-like dollar sign hanging from the ceiling caught the projector’s light to perfectly obscure a character’s face, in a serendipitous illustration of the way capitalism’s shadow seems perpetually present in his practice. At the end of the slideshow, the talk started to take a turn.


He alternated between a sort of sermon, spreading the good word of “Divine Market Capitalism” (Capitalism cannot be regulated because it is through capitalism that we exist!), and efforts to sell us various products: a carbonated milk drink, a publication, t-shirts, and best of all, for three dollars we can purchase a poisonous Pop-Tart that is our key to transcending life’s toils. Critiquing capitalism can be low-hanging fruit, especially if one is both overt in that critique and still trying to make a buck or two. But humor, charisma, clever writing, well-executed shifts from sermon to sales pitch, and a well-honed visual aesthetic all make Friel’s approach work, perhaps to greater success in this talk than in some of the pieces he discussed within it.


Friel did not include an opportunity for questions, and I personally did not have any. If I were to sit down and chat with him, I’m sure I’d have plenty to talk with him about (our mutual love for green screens that stay green, does he know Kjellgren Alkire, etc.), but my initial response to his talk was I get it, and I think I like it.


Unlike Friel’s trajectory from standard to surreal, Dao Nguyen’s talk was challenging from nearly the beginning. She opened with the vaguely scientific “I will be presenting research into some discoveries that I’ve made”, complete with a slideshow controlled via iPhone. She then proceeded to present “exhibits” 1 through 5, a sequence matching the series of prints hung on the west wall of the gallery. Each stage of the lecture featured the two texts included in the print (one taken from an actual book in the public library, one ostensibly decoded from a found letter), an additional text by Nguyen, and a task.


In contrast to the “buy this physical object!” solidity of the first lecture, here we were given very little concrete information to work with. The text read haltingly by Nguyen between the quotations and tasks did not illuminate the mystery of her project, but further shrouded it: “a letter / an insertion / instructions / a provocation / who is me and who is you / encoded markings”. We were forced to come to our own conclusions about the meaning of these assemblages of texts and their accompanying ritualistic actions.


Dao Nguyen

Dao Nguyen at DFBRL8R. Photo courtesy of ACRE.

When asked what books she had excerpted from, Nguyen gave a coy “I’m sure anyone with an internet connection can probably figure it out”. I, of course, was unable to resist. The most telling text choice and the most compelling task were both within exhibit 3. The central print includes text from the Jorge Luis Borges short story “The Library of Babel”:


            “To locate book A, consult first book B which indicates A’s position; to locate book B, consult first a book C, and so on to infinity… In adventures such as these, I have squandered and wasted my years. It does not seem unlikely to me that there is a total book on some shelf of the universe


She performed the task for this section with a library copy of Labyrinths —an English language collection of Borges works, including “The Library of Babel”—affixed to her back with bright pink tape. She brought out an assortment of objects: a penny on a string, attached to a notebook, attached to a roll of bright orange tape, which was attached to the floor. She then dragged the notebook across the floor by pressing her forehead against the penny on the floor and crawling backwards, revealing text on the tape as it unspooled. When she stood, the shape of the coin was boldly imprinted on her skin, like it was some occult Ash Wednesday.


Dao Nguyen. Photo courtesy of ACRE.


Nguyen closed her lecture with a five-minute Q&A, a timer ticking down on the projection screen, and what followed was even more stilted than the standard awkwardness. Her reticence, both in the construction of the performance and her answers to questions, made asking feel like some violation of terms. Most of the questions I had—did you write these letters? what do you feel this is an investigation of? what do you mean by decoding? what is this work about for you?—seemed too crass to be spoken.


Friel’s persona, Friel’s politics, are readily apparent. He is literally yelling them at you from the two-step distance of satire. Friel wants us to hear him loud and clear, or at least loud. Nguyen speaks as if she would rather not, as if she would rather slip us a note under the door, or perhaps hide it somewhere in our homes where we might never find it. The pairing of these two artists, presenting radically different iterations of the same form in a single evening, provided a thought-provoking illustration of the variety possible within the performative lecture.