Mayer sits on one of her Slumpies.
Mayer sits on one of her Slumpies.
Courtesy of Jillian Mayer

Miami Artist Jillian Mayer on Slumpies and Her Sundance Film Kaiju Bunraku

The "singularity" can't come soon enough for Miami artist Jillian Mayer. The ability to upload human consciousness to the cloud, giving that consciousness the power to create, experience, and process information at the rate of a computer, seems fit for the 30-year-old artist. Mayer's work blurs the lines between the online realm and the so-called real world; in fact, she has long cited Ray Kurzweil, the philosopher/computer scientist who hypothesized the idea, as an influence.

But until some Black Mirror-esque future arrives, Mayer will have to continue producing and touring with her film and art the old-fashioned, mortal way. Not that she hasn't had practice. It's been a busy past few months: She made her Art Basel Miami Beach debut with a screening of her 2011 short film, I Am Your Grandma. She showed videos from her series Day Off, which features people in virtual-reality headsets wandering around nature and desolate urban landscapes, on the ceiling of a temporary geodesic dome on the beach outside the Faena Hotel. This month, she and her creative film partner Lucas Leyva will return to the Sundance Film Festival with their latest project, Kaiju Bunraku. She also debuted her work at Pérez Art Museum Miami (PAMM) in November with an exhibition of her Slumpies, colorful fiberglass sculptures designed to prop people up while they stare into their cell phones.

"I love watching people dance over them," she says during an interview at PAMM while watching a man walk around the one Slumpie she says seems to have most confounded people. It's basically a stump facing the corner of two partial walls, which has a plastic plant "potted" in its corner. Eventually, the man sits on the stump, but she says that's not how she imagined its use.

"Part of the payoff for me is viewing the interaction," she admits. "There are no explicit directions for how to approach each piece, but visitors are permitted to engage with the works. A funny little dance occurs when a person is trying to figure how best to contort their body into a structure that allows interaction."

The forms people take can be counterintuitive. The pieces are made with a certain posture in mind, but not a pose one might make consciously. It's about cradling people who have lost awareness of their physical form as they drift off into cyber reality. Mayer compares it to the poses some models take in classical paintings: contrapposto. True to their name, Slumpies aren't made for sitting up straight; sometimes Mayer designs headrests that force the participant to slump into them.

"Who cares what your spine is doing?" she says. "It doesn't really matter. If you want to go into technological theories of singularity, your body is irrelevant. It's you uploaded, so who cares if we're all wheelchair-bound because we have atrophy... Not only are you dismissed from your physical interaction, but now you've created a beautiful counter with your body, and you've engaged with art, but you're free to go online and check your emails... I've created this abstract stage, and now you're engaging in art and now you're cultural." She pauses to laugh. "Your physical body is cultural, but your mental body is productive and working. You're online and engaging. You could be working. You could be getting farther in life."

Mayer has not kept track of how many Slumpies she has made; she estimates she's created anywhere from 15 to 30. She makes them by hand and in batches. Each takes about 60 hours to create. They premiered in April 2016 at the David Castillo Gallery in Miami Beach and have gone on exhibition in Atlanta, New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. The Girls' Club Foundation in Fort Lauderdale recently purchased a Slumpie to place by its pool, and the series will return to L.A. at the Pacific Standard Time show in April.

The Slumpies also come paired with a series of video commercials, viewable on YouTube, showing weary smartphone users relaxing on the sculptures in a serene nature setting. They're just the latest in a long line of Mayer's film projects addressing themes of technology in human experience. Her YouTube experiment I Am Your Grandma is a sort of message in a bottle to her "future unborn grandchild," as stated in digital yellow script against a bright-blue background that opens the video before featuring Mayer transmogrified in various costumes. In #Postmodem, a short codirected with Leyva that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2013, children at a playground make declarative statements about their inevitable doom using clichéd references such as "One day, I will shake off this mortal coil."

And next week, Sundance will host the world premiere of Mayer and Leyva's latest short, Kaiju Bunraku, a 13-minute film she describes as "a day in the life of a husband and a wife under siege by giant monsters." It melds bunraku, Japanese marionette theater, and kaiju, a Japanese film genre featuring towering monsters attacking cities. Beneath this surface is a story about an artist seeking a sort of ideal permanence for his relationship with his wife through art, specifically stone carving. But lasting marital bliss — or stone sculptures representing it — has little hope under the threat of city-destroying kaiju creatures.

Kaiju Bunraku is the 12th project associated with Borscht Corp., the local film production company that Mayer and Leyva help run, to be accepted by Sundance in the past seven years. The collective's record at Sundance is nothing she takes for granted. "The odds get harder and harder every year," she says. "The stats on submissions versus programmable spots increase every year."

Though sculpture and film seem disparate, Mayer notes that her work comes from an emotional place, true to the moment of creation. Her works are connected by that feeling.

"I only think that my pieces really make sense if you've seen other ones that kind of contradict them," she says. "Even though I deal with technology and the internet and how humans are affected by that as we go, I do think my work represents a very emotional side, a very human side of that reaction."

"Jillian Mayer: Slumpies"
Through January 22 at Pérez Art Museum Miami, 1103 Biscayne Blvd., Miami; 305-375-3000; pamm.org. Admission costs $16; $12 for seniors, students with ID, and children aged 7 to 13; members, active U.S. military with ID, and children under 6 get in free.

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