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Jacob Ciocci at Interstate Projects

By Nicholas O'Brien

Jacob Ciocci, Jacob's Year, 9/11, Unbox Perfect Sleep (2015)

Jacob Ciocci's new exhibition at Interstate Projects could easily be mistaken for a study of banality and irony. However, as one begins to take in the myriad of symbols, text, and sound throughout the exhibition, one will find Ciocci is more interested in exploring empathy and vulnerability. Though he has been a fixture in net art, experimental animation, and art rock scenes for many years, the exhibition cements Ciocci's work at the vanguard of dealing with the weight of user generated content within contemporary image-obsessed culture.

Where others attempt to merely glean rare moments of accidental poetry from anonymous YouTubers and Clip Art aficionados, Ciocci instead considers how these gestures should be seen as very human expressions of grief and anxiety. For Ciocci, a lucid tension exists between the immediacy of sharing content online and the empty feeling that can come from no one "liking" it. The cyclical and addictive nature of pushing personal content into a void of inattentive responses stands as a central motivation, and delicate articulation, for many works here. Often, this is accomplished by instilling such tension within the objects themselves. The sculptures and printed works on view seem simultaneously accessible and foreign, creating a self-contained atmosphere of contradictory behavior. Although the imagery found in the exhibition might be familiar, the way objects are repurposed within the show exposes a layer of metaphorical or symbolic meaning that might otherwise go unnoticed.

For instance, a series of kinetic sculptures titled Sign Spinners are made from modified mannequins with small motors mounted inside their abdomens. The motors activate a sign that sways in front of the mannequin and is made to simulate mechanical sign wavers that have recently become more popular in rural and suburban strip malls. Instead of directing shoppers toward a local pizza joint, the mannequins hold signs with one-dimensional, pithy existential questions or motivational phrases like "Think Outside the Box"scripted in papyrus, comic sans, or similar "default" fonts. Additionally, the mannequins are covered in neon camouflage blankets with hand-painted cartoonish faces meant to look like the Halloween ghost models you would find at a Wal-Mart in West Virginia.

After a brief chuckle at the instant absurdity of these objects, it becomes evident that the joke is meant to invite us to empathize with the mundanity and futility of the gestures these robots perform. These gestures, however, are two-fold: one occurs from physically repeating the motion of waving a sign for as long as the machine is plugged in. The other comes from recognizing the painfully trivial soul searching that is displayed on their signs. Clearly, the questions and reflections posited on these signs are not merely meant for the mannequins themselves. Instead these messages "direct" strangers towards a place where the seemingly simplistic nature of these questions has some ground for serious consideration. In other words, the signs are waving at us to pull over and ponder something that might otherwise easily be dismissed.

Jacob Ciocci, Trust No One #hope (2015; sign help by Sing Spinners)

In doing so, these mannequins ask us to consider the feebleness of asking "deep" questions at a moment when our preconceived notion of language falls apart. This inquiry is continued in a large-scale wall painting that reads Life… is fuckin’ Hard!... But I can’t disappoint them I needa keep going no matter the Cost. Please pray for me Someone, I am so fuckin’ lost So lost. Initially pulled from an Instagram photo taken by Ciocci of a note scribbled on a bathroom stall at CUNY Staten Island (where the artist formerly taught), Life… similarly exposes a moment of heartfelt desperation under the pressure of everyday tedium. Far from a more common and juvenile sort of "bathroom humor" that would typically be found in the stalls, the text reads as an eerily sincere cry for help. The relocation of the text onto a gallery wall complicates the desires of the initial author by obfuscating the original "point of contact." In doing so, however, the text takes on a newfound significance: what initially appears as a petty appeal becomes a lasting commemoration of a moment of deep loss.

Ciocci's method of re-presenting scenarios that walk the tightrope between sincerity and irony is most aesthetically articulated in a series of UV printed images on gesso covered wood The source material for these collages is pulled from a larger series of small studies that were rescanned and blown up to 4 x 5 foot panels in a gesture that Ciocci equates to "turning small moments into big moments" (which could similarly be applied to Life…). In this series which includes works titled refuse2lost #selftalk and #connect, #findingthe, #connection –therapy –Bank of America –toilet paper, snippets of jumbled lists and cryptic phrases float on a backdrop of abstract color fields. The text occasionally reads like a to-do list that combines hashtags and chores; as if the daily activities of an unknown person have been sorted into searchable terms that no one will google.

Similar to the aforementioned mannequins, the language in these images initially reads as disposable. However, subtle recurring themes and glimmers of somber memories pierce through the humor. As viewers approach one of the final panels titled Jacob’s Year, 9/11, Unbox Perfect Sleep the language stops being funny and starts to hurt in small psychological stings. In this moment, the mannequins no longer seem silly, but feel abject. Their cloaked faces stop being part of a costume; they are instead a protective barrier against the inevitable embarrassment that comes from attempting to be something you're not.

Perhaps the lasting visual metaphor within the show can be found in a short video loop called Why are so Many Americans so Powerless on the main floor of the gallery. Similar in style to last year's The Urgency, this video quickly cuts between a number of cell-phone videos and YouTube demos of campy green-screen techniques. One cell-phone video shows the slow collapse of a parade balloon depicting Barney the Dinosaur. As the purple mass shrinks from bulbous cartoon to writhing fabric caught in the wind, a deep sense of dread sets in. Watching this transformation feels like an apropos analogy for the long-standing struggle within Ciocci's work: what once was innocent suddenly becomes malicious — swallowing exuberant celebrants of household icons in a flurry of uncontrollable deflated plastic.

Jacob Ciocci, #connect, #findingthe, #connection -therapy -Bank of America -toliet paper (2015)

Amidst all this, Ciocci's work never appears to have lost hope. Though the time for reveling in naiveté has passed, the symbols and artifacts from that time still remain and resonate. The significance of using imagery found online and repurposed graphics from user-generated content has undoubtedly shape-shifted (not unlike the Barney float) since Ciocci's solo show at Foxy Production in 2006. That being said, this newfound meaning could do with exactly the kind of sensitive scrutiny that Ciocci puts forth in this exhibition. Instead of looking past the images and objects we've come to associate with 00s sarcasm, Ciocci looks into these moments, and continues to find shards of sincerity in them.

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