Melanie Gilligan – The Common Sense [Osaka]

Melanie Gilligan’s video-works and online projects focus on the intersection between technology, labour and affect. Her fictional narrative dramas, often set in the near future, take the form of extended serializations, split into a series of episodes, telling stories that expose the new conditions of immaterial production, and how communicative capitalism has adapted to feed off human emotions and infiltrate our sense of self, subsuming our everyday relationships so as to work in its interests. The episodic structure of these mini-series takes its cue from television, and the medium’s ability to dispense storylines in ‘bite-size’ installments. Gilligan’s four-part drama, Crisis in the Credit System[1] (2008) deals with the financial crisis, and the spectre of contemporary global market catastrophe. A major investment bank runs a brainstorming and role-playing session for its employees, asking them to come up with strategies for coping with the dangerous financial climate. While pursuing this task, five participants inadvertently role-play their way into bizarre make-believe scenarios, forming disturbing conclusions about the deeper significance of the crash and its effects beyond the world of finance. In the five-part mini-series, Popular Unrest[2] (2010), all social interactions are overseen by a system called ‘The Spirit’ and individuals are reduced down to their functional utility. A rash of unexplained killings have broken out across the globe, often taking place in public but without an assailant ever being sighted. Just as mysteriously, groups of unrelated jobless people are suddenly coming together, drawn by a deep sense of connection to one another, seemingly in direct resistance to the Spirit. In her latest work, The Common Sense[3] (2014), presented as part of the Dojima River Biennale, Gilligan tells the story of a speculative future technology, called the Patch, a sort of prosthesis which makes it possible to directly experience the physical sensations and feelings of another person. This takes the form of a small device that fits in the roof of the mouth, which works as a technology of ‘empathic entrainment’. At the outset, the faces of students attending university periodically glaze over as they ‘log in’ internally to handle various tele-cognitive tasks. As with every technology in capitalism, however, “entrainment is first and foremost a means of increasing the productivity of labour, a managerial tool allowing control of employees at an almost ontological level.”[4] Later we encounter a corporate manager who uses the Patch as a means of communicating negative emotions to employees in order to increase their work rate. Over fifteen episodes, the film recounts the story of the Patch, and two critical turning points within its development. The first occurred when the ‘one-way’ Patch became ‘two-way’, transforming from a tool of voyeurism, surrogacy and surveillance into a fully immersive reconstitution of human subjectivity. The second happened when use of the Patch was found to produce a biological transformation of humans’ brains, with the emergence of a ‘new organ’. After a decade, the technology’s networks suddenly fail, causing massive disorientation. When the system is back up ‘online’ again, the narrative splits into two separate parallel storylines. After the rupture, in one of the storylines, society undergoes a normalization process and the Patch continues as a part of daily life. In the other storyline, however, groups come together to try to form social movements to resist the exploitative elements of this technology. A teacher and researcher, still aligned with the protest movement and engaging in experiments with young children, tries to explain their goals to another character: “Well, to change the world you need to start with subjectivity.” Lucas, a materialist, retorts, “But conditions in the world shape subjectivity not the other way around.” The teacher responds: “Yes, but who’s going to change the conditions, apart from people and their subjectivity?”[5]

[1] Crisis in the Credit System project website:

[2] Popular Unrest project website:

[3] The Common Sense project website:

[4] Capital and Community: On Melanie Gilligan’s Trilogy, Jasper Bernes, Mute, June 2015

[5] The Common Sense, Melanie Gilligan

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== Text by Tom Trevor for 4th Dojima River Bennale ==


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