Tiffany Trenda tests the boundaries of physical intimacy in a digital world

By Stephanie Case

The “Body Code” suit gives Tiffany Trenda a unique perspective on the consumption of art in the digital age Photo by Maria Martin

The “Body Code” suit gives Tiffany Trenda a unique perspective on the consumption of art in the digital age
Photo by Maria Martin

“Is she real?”

When Tiffany Trenda performs, on-lookers — heads cocked, mouths agape — often whisper the question.

At first glance, the Marina del Rey artist appears to be more machine than woman. Her face is always concealed. Her body is cloaked head-to-toe in digital technology. She’s worn futuristic jumpsuits adorned with smartphones, strapped speakers across her mouth and cameras to her hands, and donned helmets with television screens.

“I was interested in wearable technology before there was really that coined term: wearables,” Trenda explains. In the past few years, it’s gone from Silicon Valley buzzword to common vernacular; Apple Watches, Fitbits and VR goggles have become everyday accessories, an extension of our bodies.

“Technology is becoming part of our skin,” she says.

As a performance artist, Trenda runs wild with this idea, taking the fusion of body and gadgetry to avant-garde heights.

In one of her pieces, “Body Code,” she wears a sleek, latex catsuit and platform boots, giving her the look of a seductive android. The suit is decorated with dozens of QR codes, running down her legs, arms and torso.

“When I first started doing it [in 2012], no one knew how to use a QR code scanner,” says Trenda, who earned a BFA from Art Center College of Design and an MFA from UCLA’s Design and Media Arts program. “Even when I did it at an engineering convention, engineers were like, ‘How do I do this?’”

Four years later, it’s become second nature. When Trenda starts a performance, whether it’s at Italy’s Piazza San Marco or under the neon lights of Times Square, audiences quickly whip out their phones and start scanning.

The code leads to Trenda’s website, BodyCodeArt.com, which lists Googled information on hot topics, like man-made chemicals or gun violence. A single performance can draw a hoard of curious passersby, snapping pictures by the second.

From inside the suit, Trenda gets a rare vantage of how art is consumed in the digital age.

“People are actually experiencing [my performance] through their cell phone screen — not live, not through their own eyes,” she says. “And it’s interesting, because, do we even look at this footage later on? We rarely record things for meaning now. It’s all about quantifying moments and having as many pictures as possible to document our lives.”

And even then, how well can our phones capture the ephemeral beauty of a moment in time?

Trenda’s art deals directly with these 21st-century questions. Can technology capture reality? Do gadgets warp our personal interactions, or our bodies? Do they make us less human?

In many ways, “Devices are like a veil,” Trenda says. “They’re a separation between two people. Now, you don’t meet somebody: you Skype somebody. You text somebody. There’s no longer these intimate spaces for communication.

“I think some people are more fearful of touching a human body than they are interacting with technology,” she adds. “We’re okay touching a screen, but touching actual flesh is too intimate.”

If anyone can foster intimacy through the veil of technology, it’s Trenda.

In another piece, “Proximity Cinéma,” she uses gadgets to create genuine moments of human connection. Forty smartphone screens are attached to her red, synthetic suit. As each audience member steps towards her, warm words of encouragement pop onto the screens, beckoning them closer.

“Go ahead.” “Don’t worry about it.” “It’s OK.”

Once they’ve crossed the final threshold and are face-to-face with Trenda, she embraces them like an old friend: cupping their cheeks, stroking their hair. Some are shy to return the affection, but many are sucked into the tender moment like a magnet.

“For me, it’s really about the one-on-one, getting the audience to be close to me, bringing them into my space,” Trenda says.

The closest she brings them is in “Ubiquitous States,” her most recent — and most intimate —performance. In it, Trenda transforms into a vision of darkness. “I’m this intimidating creature,” she explains — “a walking sculpture that’s completely black.” A 3D-printed mask and dress cover her body like armor, shrouding the soul inside.

When an audience member grasps Trenda’s gloved hands, she senses their pulse. Suddenly, a television screen embedded in her dress turns on. Shards of color gently fall down the screen, in sync with both of their heartbeats. Through headphones, both can hear the rhythmic thump of their pulses —
humanity distilled to its very essence.

For a moment, the digital veil has been lifted, and questions of “Is she real?” are put to rest. Underneath the layers of hi-tech gadgetry, two hearts beat together.

Tiffany Trenda posts to Twitter and Instagram as @tiffanytrenda. Find performance updates at tiffanytrenda.com.

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