At Mass MoCA, artist Taryn Simon asks viewers to take a plunge


NORTH ADAMS — In her new show at Mass MoCA, artist Taryn Simon offers ways in which the personal and the powerful interact on an intangible, emotional level, translating an individual's singular passionate reaction into tacit approval of something larger.

Alongside an expansive survey of her book-making work, Simon's show features two distinct parts that each stand on their own, but also work together to examine public rituals that connect to private concerns.

"A Cold Hole" looks at the act of cleansing through the performative rite of taking a plunge into icy cold water by offering a facsimile of a place where that could happen, while "Assembled Audience" examines the meaning of applause by deconstructing it and then reconstructing it in a new version over and over again.

"They're quite distinct, but there are these things that certainly overlap, even sonically and visually in terms of darkness and light," Simon said by phone, "and also in terms of silence and sound, and privacy and collective. There are these things that can weave between the two, but they are distinct works."

The two pieces were worked on concurrently, though "A Cold Hole" has the slight edge as a beginning point for Simon, who considered not only the symbolic purpose of icy plunges, but our own metaphysical expectations from them — and how that links with the overwhelming sensations in mind and body.

"The initial thing was this idea of a reset, a quick fix, but also this thing that makes thinking impossible," said Simon. "So this idea of the way in which that experience arrests something and makes it impossible to literally think. And how a non-thinking state could be interpreted as a fix."

It's this physical expression of an emotional state that begins to link the two pieces. Clapping is a multi-faceted activity that works as a way to physically express approval or support. It's also a sonic method to demonstrate unity with others and give power to the person being applauded. Applause has always been a form of political capital. As the president of the United States brags about crowd size and ratings to prove the support he has, applause is part of the public body of giving that approval. Applause is a singular expression that is swallowed up by a larger group.

"It's a very confusing thing because at a certain point your individual participation is irrelevant," Simon said. "In the beginning it's deeply important, almost as a conductor. It can create something. It's both extremely capable of initiating shifts and change and then very passive as well at a certain point."

"Assembled Audience" features applause recorded from various audiences in Columbus, Ohio. Simon chose that city because it functions as a test market for politics and products, though perhaps those are one in the same. Simon spent the past year recording applause from different events — everything from the Worship Awakening Conference to Black Women Empowerment Conference, as well as a Columbus Blue Jackets hockey game and several concerts, among many others the Trans-Siberian Orchestra and Katy Perry — and then isolated the applause of a specific audience member. These recordings will be joined together to create a unique virtual audience through an algorithm that creates no two collections of clapping that are the same.

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"What comes in ... is when it's all determined by that response. You also inevitably have to think about what's lost in these ways of gauging everything," said Simon. "We participate ... often without even knowing. Think of it in terms of tech and what you click on and what you support or how you act in your daily life; the way all of those actions can be a form of applause that creates a thunder that allows for something to happen."

The sound piece is accompanied by a text on the wall that lists the name of each individual applauding; the event and the date it was recorded. Simon will continue adding recordings to the algorithm and information to the list.

"The wall text illuminates all of the different forms of entertainment and communal activity and grouping of human beings in minds and time that occurs in one place, so it's also a reflection on things that bring people together," she said.

For "A Cold Hole," Simon replaces the gallery floor with solid ice, topped by a five-foot-by-five foot hole that beckons people to take their own plunge. It's meant to invite a ceremonial plunge as visitors view the activity of actors — and possibly other visitors — through an aperture.

"You're alone in the space where the plunge is, but there's this glass aperture. There's potentially a public behind there if anyone's in the space, but you can't see," Simon said. "The plunge piece is one of those things that you can't even really prepare. We've been working endlessly but you don't really know it until the ice is in the space, which is not something you can test."

"A Cold Hole" references cold-water immersion as a public act that is usually meant for some transformation, often religious. As with applause, it's a personal action that becomes a collective one, often employed to support a system of power. [The act] can often be about demanding a quick fix, but Simon cautions against isolating it as only a modern commentary.

"You're going to apply it to the times we're living in," she says, "but there's this pattern as well, of [the act] being used to turn boys into warriors, and as a cure. There are things that happen that are somewhat disorienting and move into a surreal space."

At the center of Simon's examinations are emotional properties assigned to activities that service the power toward which they are directed.

"There's an emotional power in all of these," she said. "There is something about immense applause and collective agreement about one thing that is deeply moving, and so the pieces look at what the construction of that is and how that's generated. It's using that emotional capability to generate power."


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