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Review by Jameson Johnson
Karyn Nakamura, "Break My Body, Liberate My Soul," installation view, Ray and Maria Stata Center, 2023. Photo by Jameson Johnson.
Inside the depths of the Frank Gehry-designed Stata Center on MIT’s campus, artist and architecture student Karyn Nakamura has MacGyvered an abandoned pub into an immersive space to host her performance Break My Body, Liberate My Soul. Composed of E-waste collected from around MIT’s dumpsters and forgotten storage closets, the installation is what the artist calls a “delicate system” of screens, cables, glass tanks, monitors, exposed wires, and, much to my horror, a lot of water. When activated, the system serves as a lens into the inner workings of Nakamura’s anthropomorphized machine.
Nakamura’s performance has no affiliation to any of MIT’s museums or art spaces (including the List Visual Arts Center where I happen to work), and instead follows a longstanding tradition of “hacking” across the campus. I came across an invitation to Nakamura’s performance through the artist’s Instagram (@frog_spit_simulation), where interested parties were instructed to claim their spot for one of the performances by simply placing an “X” in an open-access Google Sheet on the date of their choosing—an honor system, really. The performances can accommodate no more than a dozen people at a time, which is fitting for an event that turned out to be intimate and vulnerable, but intensely humorous. Inside the space, TVs were flickering, glass tanks gurgled while dangling from the ceiling, and a seemingly endless web of cables encircled old beer kegs. When it was time to begin, Nakamura quickly addressed the crowd and handed out bits of chopped wires before returning to the site of the former bar counter and using an old soda gun to fill up glasses of water. Moving around the space, the artist connected wires, turned dials, and pressed buttons that appeared to awaken the system. The machine—and the pub—were coming alive.
Nakamura’s performance was poetic and witty. In synchronized patterns, screens displayed videos of palm trees getting blown around in the wind with cuts to babbling streams set to a high-energy soundtrack. One frenetic section showed people eating, tinkering, and talking around MIT’s campus—footage presumably taken unbeknownst to the subjects. At one point, the woman seated beside me muttered “Oh god, that’s me” while the rest of the room giggled. In these cacophonic moments, it felt like the machine was searching for something, but I’m not sure it ever found its answer.
Karyn Nakamura, Break My Body, Liberate My Soul, performance detail, 2023. Photo by Jameson Johnson.
The entire show was filled with surprises—many that I don’t want to spoil. Some moments encouraged the audience to empathize with the machine: A screen flashed “I’M LEAKING” and “I’M LOSING MYSELF.” Others were perplexing: Nakamura climbed (fully clothed, shoes and all) into a tank of water filled with what I had assumed were active wires. Some moments implicated the viewer: A small CCTV displayed the audience in real time. And toward the end of the performance, an old video about how the immune system works made me acutely aware of how white blood cells are moving through my veins. All different signs of life, perhaps.
In this intensely choreographed display, Nakamura toys with the viewer’s perception of glitch and error. Yes, these objects destined for landfills and this underutilized space were certainly given a second chance at life, but I think the organism whose inner workings we really met was a kind of techno-archeologist or cyborg version of Nakamura herself.
Karyn Nakamura’s Break My Body, Liberate My Soul is on view by appointment only in Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Ray and Maria Stata Center inside the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. Performances are currently scheduled through April and reservations are available here.
Jameson Johnson is editor-in-chief at Boston Art Review.