Photographs by Gesi Schilling | O, Miami

A ripple, a current… 

In the first eight lines of Current, artist Jillian Mayer outlines the beginning of a 16-minute underwater guided meditation: Close your eyes, getting started, sincerity first, get into the right frame of mind, planning your script, getting comfortable, start with a general relaxation, use the countdown technique, the journey, the return, consider using meditation music.

By using bullet points lifted from an instruction manual on how to lead a good guided meditation, Mayer soothes the audience into a trance. “Whether the participant realizes it or not, they are essentially seeing my sketch for the whole piece,” says Mayer.

The guided meditation continues with lines collaged from works by Fay Zwicky, A.R. Ammons, Margaret Atwood, Mary Oliver, Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell, some memes, an adult coloring book and guided meditations from the internet. The blend, backed by a track made by Mayer’s longtime musical collaborator Michael John Hancock of Miami’s Awesome New Republic, creates a virtual space that allows the mind to float.

“The place that I seem to wander the most is virtually or online and I was thinking about how we kind of have this reborn fascination with virtual reality. And it’s just another way for people to design an alternative reality for people’s existence.”

Using this concept of alternative realities, Current explores the intersections of technology, culture and belonging. The construct of the piece is devised so that participants don robes and wear a blacked out snorkel – emulating a VR headset – while floating aimlessly in the The Standard pool as the sound of Mayer’s voice travels through the underwater speakers.

In much of her work, Mayer often appears as a guide or a host, and while she finds the physiological effects of sound very important, doing a strictly audio piece was a challenge for her, “I do not enjoy listening to interviews of myself, I really can’t do it, so doing strictly an audio piece was a bit harder.” In Current, her voice follows the cadence of a practiced spiritual leader; the script is punctuated with jokes and thought-provoking moments that are laughable or even uncomfortable. It discusses behavior online and offline, data, attempts to control time, a seemingly post-apocalyptic era of humanity, and the idea of intention.

At one point, Mayer gives the instruction to touch thumb to index finger – a technique often used in dynamic meditation, where physical actions are involved. It’s a grounding moment during the meditation that connects the physical space with the virtual construct that Mayer has built. “You are having a physical experience, no matter what you want to believe,” she says. “We’re kind of in this middle time with technology. Despite what people think about VR, you can’t actually leave your body – there’s complications, there’s equipment, it is not a superfluid experience, it’s fake.”

Though Mayer acknowledges the fallacy of actually detaching from the body, she reinforces the notion in multiple ways through the use of a robe, mask and snorkel. The robes had a powerful effect, creating a cult-like feeling that provided a heightened sense of awareness of the group experience, “It was really for people to have a better sense of the group and be aware that they have entered into some type of social contract of conformity of experience.” As participants varied in age and gender, the robes also eliminated potential distractions that Mayer hoped would “release people from the trivials of their own body and let everyone’s minds kind of float, as disconnected from their bodies as possible.” 

By negating sight and using a snorkel to regulate one’s breathing, she places attention fully on the head, making a parallel to the focus of the head and mind in both virtual reality and meditation. “I knew my underlying thoughts about spirituality and virtuality and this idea of body transcendence through artificial experience, so the idea was coming from a place of a lot of crossover of virtual realities, hyper realities and meditative realities.”

Towards the end of the meditation, Mayer concludes the narrative with a look to the future, bringing the participant back to the reality of The Standard. “You did it,” she says, beginning to count backwards from three, two, one... Her final parting thought, “Forget the boundaries that have been placed on by others with physical bodies, they are not your master.”

Mayer currently has a solo show at David Castillo Gallery in Miami Beach titled Day Off that uses sculpture and video to shed light on the effects of the virtual space on the physical body.

For those who missed Current there are plans to replicate the experience in the future and Mayer is currently working on an audio/video compilation so people can take part in the experience by watching it on their own VR headset. Current was produced in collaboration with O, Miami and O’Miami Poetry Festival.

Jillian Mayer
David Castillo Gallery
420 Lincoln Road, Miami Beach