Jessica Frelinghuysen, Hello?! (detail), 2008–10, steel, nylon, speakers, video projection, color, sound, 36 x 60 x 84".

Jessica Frelinghuysen, Hello?! (detail), 2008–10, steel, nylon, speakers, video projection, color, sound, 36 x 60 x 84".

Jessica Frelinghuysen

Cave Gallery

Jessica Frelinghuysen, Hello?! (detail), 2008–10, steel, nylon, speakers, video projection, color, sound, 36 x 60 x 84".

Covering 138 square miles, Detroit is a spread-out, low-lying municipality. Motor City residents today thus face increasing isolation, as a shrinking population occupies an incommensurately massive, partially abandoned urban infrastructure in which the car is the primary mode of transportation. Not surprisingly, participatory art—often performance- or object-based work designed to produce active and cocreative audiences—has become the antidote of choice for young, local practitioners concerned about this city’s devolving social sphere. There is an artistic emphasis on community building in Detroit, an effort to plant and recycle, to educate others, to employ easily sourced manufactured materials, and to attempt to reimagine relations between the individual and the social body.

In this spirit, Cave Gallery—an artist-run space within a studio building in the northern part of the city—presented Detroit-based artist Jessica Frelinghuysen’s participatory experiments from the past half decade in the form of, for the most part, preparatory materials and mixed-media works. The show comprised forty-three drawings, three sculptures, and one single-channel video. Frelinghuysen is perhaps best known for her humorous bodily prosthetics: helmets, uniforms, and rolling personal-space dividers that illuminate social dynamics such as body language and etiquette. Following in the footsteps of artists, from Franz Erhard Walther to Nils Norman, who combine Conceptual and relational projects, Frelinghuysen focuses on moments of interpersonal tension, making art that engages others in communal actions and alternative forms of behavior, the results or remnants of which are shown, often in large installation formats.

About half the drawings at the Cave were mixed-media sketches for devices and community actions both realized and unrealized. The other half were gouache works depicting formal motifs central to the artist’s performances, shapes that recall Frelinghuysen’s printed paper multiples of the past decade. Among the forms explored in the latter drawings are interlinked semicircular clusters, rendered with obsessive lines and raindrop patterning. These slightly surreal cluster drawings evoke Frelinghuysen’s wearable paper “Helmets,” 2002–, which manifest the anxieties and contradictions that underlie our attempts to communicate with one another, as they can be folded into different apparatuses for hearing oneself speak or for privately admitting secrets.

If Frelinghuysen’s helmets, like uncanny versions of the social masks we wear everyday, engage nuances of interpersonal relations, her megaphone sculptures explore the relationship between the individual and technology. In some of the concept drawings that were on view, megaphones either appear in various shapes, morphing into periscopes, ear trumpets, cones, and even architectural structures, or are posed with similar forms as if interacting with them. In the video sculpture Hello?!, 2008–10, the megaphone becomes a device via which to explore the interface between human beings and the inorganic, mechanical channels through which we signal and connect. The work consists of a simply made metal frame in the shape of a cone, with white nylon stretched over it, and a video of a grid of mouths repeating “hello” in various combinations projected onto the wider end. From a distance, Hello?! looks a like an old-fashioned loudspeaker or film projector, since the looped video causes the nylon body to radiate light. Up close, the structure simulates a peep-show machine: We look into the narrow end in order to watch the moving lips and listen to the rising and falling chorus of voices. Through its evocation of the dropped phone call, which transforms the word hello into a signifier of the breakdown of communication, the sculpture raises important questions about the ways in which the various technologies that we use to interface can mold us, training us to respond with certain words, gestures, and even modes of attentiveness. This show’s many drawings and models revealed that Frelinghuysen’s more community-based work and her massive installations arise from her investigations of certain shapes and forms of human interaction, in a sustained reflection on the formal conduits of sociability.

Matthew Biro