with Text by Aliya Pabani
by Lisa Smolkin
There’s a category of viral videos depicting elementary school teachers greeting their students with a consent exercise. From options posted on the wall—hug, handshake, high five, fist bump—kids can tap the way they want the teacher to greet them, demonstrating that they can navigate the ambiguous terrain of intimacy if it’s appropriately distilled. But the experiential learning-through-reflection-on-doing that’s seen as essential for nurturing comfort, confidence and creativity in children is rarely accommodated in adult life. With the conviction that adults need what children need, Lisa Smolkin posted greeting options inside a series of high-saturation graphic splotches outside her studio and welcomed audience members to select one before entering.
One of the most famous instances of the splotch is Nickelodeon’s logo, created in 1984, shortly after they acquired the Canadian sketch comedy show You Can’t Do That on Television. The cast was all kids, and one recurring gag came to define the show: when a kid said the words “I don’t know,” they would be drenched in green slime. Nickelodeon’s former creative director said that the sliming was meant to portray a child’s shame at failing to meet adult expectations. The popularity of this moment compelled the company to release Nickelodeon Compounds, the first toy series to focus solely on exploring slime’s tactile qualities. One example, Gak, was known for its sour, oyster-y smell, and the fact that it somehow felt wet and cold, despite being neither. Both repulsive and addictive, slime is a sort of transgressive substance. Flattened into an educational graphic, it becomes a splotch, and signals the presence of covert dynamics that lie just outside the immediate frame, like counternarratives or “fun facts.” It’s an interjection that troubles the space, but in a manageable way.
For this performance in Smolkin’s studio, a series of pseudo-museological exhibits were laid out that vaguely referenced stages of human development. She activated the installation in the role of a hapless guide, mining each one for insights on nature versus nurture in an attempt to figure out how much influence we have over the person we become. She approaches a lifelike toddler doll lying on a sheepskin with a Richard Scarry hardcover propped open beside it, and introduces the common developmental concept of mirroring, which involves imitating an infant’s expressions to help them develop self-awareness and empathy, and invites the audience to try it: “You are feeling content, aren’t you? You like your book. Good luck with your development, baby!”
Nearby, a rudimentary, stuffed, faceless human figure wearing a Star of David necklace sits with its arms crossed. There’s a decal of an anime face with a muted expression of sadness on the wall beside it. The audience is told that the person has suffered their first professional disappointment. The scene, which signals an incursion of autobiographical elements into the diagrammatic space, references Smolkin’s childhood experience of being rejected from the National Ballet Summer School and the imprint of generational trauma. She goes on to speak from the perspective of a snowboard, invoking Emily Vey Duke and Cooper Battersby’s work Bad Ideas for Paradise (2001) on the nonchalance of skaters: “Hey bro. What’s up buddy? I’m sports equipment. I’m a snowboard. I don’t waste time with concepts like anxiety, trauma, social insecurity or hierarchies. I have not been crushed by life. I am crushing life.” Accordingly, a wall chart behind it displays a brainstorm of one of Smolkin’s preoccupations: the difference between an “Alpha Life” and “Beta Life,” and in one of her videos, the splotch reappears on a “Life Success Formula,” with the words “Generational Wealth?” inside.
Smolkin bought an overpriced creamy matte pink travel bowl and water container set, that looked like it could have been featured on Goop, before going to Banff, hoping that the objects’ elegance would somehow enhance the experience. Apparently Gwyneth Paltrow called her company Goop because it meant nothing and could mean anything—an amorphous substance representing endless possibility. The containers sit on a plinth with a sign for Paltrow’s Netflix series, The Goop Lab, crassly stamped with the word “EXTREME,” which seems redundant because the show already involves trying out wellness trends like psychedelic treatments and cold-exposure therapy. But maybe Smolkin is proposing a kind of Goop accelerationism, where only the outer, outer limits of treatment can release a person from the compulsory stewardship of an addled, individualized self.
Though satirizing wellness culture has become cliché, Smolkin deploys self-parody to implicate herself as she considers how a desire for self-actualization butts up against the realities of social hierarchy, in the manner of a child giving a presentation. At turns sincere and absurd, it’s funny in part because we’re unable to locate Smolkin in the performance. But that ambiguity facilitates a more empathic spectatorship: whoever she is, we’re rooting for her.
She concludes by spilling a sinewy blue liquid onto the floor and scanning it with her phone: “Oh my god! My DNA is spilling out of my body. Another splotch! Let me analyze it … I’M OKAY!”