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Jessica Wilson, Not Normally at Rest (Part 3, the Musical), 2020, video, color, sound, 3 minutes 48 seconds. From the four-part suite Not Normally at Rest.

Jessica Wilson, Not Normally at Rest (Part 3, the Musical), 2020, video, color, sound, 3 minutes 48 seconds. From the four-part suite Not Normally at Rest.

Jessica Wilson

An entire genre of quarantine art reflecting on the experience of isolation emerged this past summer. Jessica Wilson’s Not Normally at Rest, 2020—a suite of animated videos starring an anthropomorphized duplex wall outlet in a nondescript apartment—tapped into a shared sense of anxiety among those of us still trapped at home. The title alone could be imagined as a defensive response to the question How are you?—a charged greeting we’ve heard over and over again in the last several months via text messages and Zoom calls, mandatory check-ins, online classes, work meetings, pessimistic political discussions, and, of course, remote therapy sessions. (Health services being offered in this way have become part of the pandemic’s new normal. They are not, however, universally accessible, especially in the insurance-starved United States.)

In four short videos, each between two and four minutes long, Wilson reimagines the stacked electrical outlets as part of a dialectical pairing: The top one plays the role of analyst, while the one beneath is the analysand. With rudimentary CGI effects, an individual outlet’s trio of plug holes make for a convincing visage. The duo’s speech sounds like computerized noise and calls to mind a contemporary version of the unintelligible teachers’ voices from the animated Peanuts cartoons. In every episode, the unhappy patient, its face contorted in pain, describes a bad dream, to which the therapist always responds in relatively soothing tones. And after every chat, the patient’s expression settles back into the standard design of a power outlet that, in this state, looks like an unnervingly wide-eyed or even shell-shocked face—a projection of trauma neatly displaced from artist to object to viewer.

No one really wants to hear about other people’s dreams. Wilson knows this and opts for oblique verbal and pictorial absurdism over a laboriously plotted narrative. The approach gives the analysand’s sketchy, frenetic nightmares emotional power. In the first video (Part 1), a membranous, pale-pink childproofing plug clamps down over the bottom outlet’s face—as the analyst comforts its patient, we’re presented with a dark vision of tangled, writhing power cords. Part 3, subtitled the musical, adds to this dreamscape a spotlight, a crimson theater curtain, and a chorus line of dancing Ethernet cables. The final chapter of Wilson’s mini drama is the most elaborate and feels like a really bad acid trip, topped off by a soundtrack with wah-wah guitar. Against a backdrop of colorful patterns, the troubled outlet imagines itself and its doctor double becoming unfastened from the wall and multiplying by the hundreds as the clones cascade into a dejected heap.

While psychoanalysis has fallen out of mainstream favor, it is frequently used to dissect art and remains quite popular within cinematic discourse. Wilson’s surreal videos take pleasurable little detours through several filmic genres—one can see bits of the slasher style or moments that feel cribbed from a Busby Berkeley musical. These videos, however, aren’t cutesy meditations on loneliness. Nor are they blunt statements about the global mental health crisis, which has been exacerbated by the deaths and disappearing opportunities caused by Covid-19. Wilson uses her characters to underscore the tenuousness of our mediated connections, which can be exhausting to maintain, even though most of us are barely going anywhere.