Jen Mann: Other Sister at Arsenal Contemporary

Have you ever wondered what post-internet zombie pop might sound like? I hadn’t either. I had no concept for that apparent musical genre. And yet, when I entered the exhibition space of Other Sister, I knew the description was spot on. Gremlin noises, synthesizers, and ambiguous verbal soundscapes are the bread and butter of Jen Mann’s musical group and pop culture persona Other Sister.

Of course, Other Sister isn’t a real band. Created by Toronto-based artist Jen Mann and curated by David Liss, the conceptual, multi-media exhibition at Arsenal Contemporary Toronto is the ambitious product of three years of work, and it shows. The band—consisting of Mann and two of her childhood friends (who are sisters)—could be mistaken as the focal point of this project, featured in a slew of posters, merchandise, music videos, and more. The volume and the scale of Other Sister alone are impressive. Thanks to this volume of works and a commitment to the details, Other Sister shines in its world-building. Viewers are easily absorbed into this world and thus made to participate in the message by buying into the persona of Other Sister, despite knowledge of its inauthenticity.

Entering the main space, I was quickly struck by two things. The first was the comedic element, the playfulness of it all. You can see it at all levels baked into the exuberant fashions, little jokes, and parodies of real-life media consumption and production. The second: I was successfully creeped out.

The seemingly never-ending row of dolls was delightfully disturbing. The zombie pop floating in from the corner only furthered this. The colossal magazine covers of the band were so large and vital that it felt like I had a million eyes on me at once. My unease, I think, was a sign that the concept worked. I felt like I was in the penthouse suite of a narcissistic celebrity, full of self-gratifying portraits and evidence of corporate manufacture. Even the classic stark-white gallery walls tied this together, simulating that luxury minimalist home décor devoid of personality.

Other Sister’s faux magazine covers are particularly well executed. From afar, these appear to be digital prints, however, close examination reveals the inherent falsity of the medium: oil on canvas. My favourite details in these magazine covers are the black and white barcodes, which serve as a reminder of the commodification of image while being squiggly and imperfect—a sure sign of the painter’s hand.

These magazine covers sit on the fence between being obviously constructed and dupes of digital work. The painted elements, especially the lettering, draw attention to the falseness of appearance while the style imitates magazine photography by simulating a shallow focus and airbrushed skin. The Rolling Stones cover is notably a fantastic imitation that sits on this fence. Nearly everything about it evokes a Rolling Stones magazine. The neon light backdrop, the posing of the band, the contrast lighting. And next to the softer, more-elegant, more-pastel (though not quite pastel) Vanity Fair, it’s such a perfect imitation that you want, you need to buy into its veracity.

In the middle of the space hangs a giant fake magazine spread containing a fake interview of the band, with a glittery-faced cover image on the front and a somewhat familiar advertisement concept on the back (think Chanel ad but with the AI android who is plotting your downfall). The tone of the interview itself is so spot on as well, using that sort of surface level inauthenticity we all are used to hearing celebrities regurgitate, with a few hilarious winks to the exhibition audience sprinkled in. The magazine effectively exemplifies the themes of Other Sister as it elicits notions of the self as brand, the commodification of identity, and the illusion of authenticity. This is markedly compelling to those of us viewers with pre-smartphone childhoods, who consumed much of pop culture through such magazines—as well as through music videos.

The video performance, which takes place in a dark room in the far corner of the exhibition, is comprised of three separate projections on three of the four walls. Standing in this room, surrounded by the videos is overwhelming and intoxicating. The bombardment of zombie pop and visual information is uncomfortably parallel to the media onslaught of daily contemporary life.

Is it supposed to be funny or serious? I think that it’s funniest if you take it a little seriously. And Mann’s masterful world building allows us to take it quite seriously. By injecting sources of verisimilitude throughout the exhibition—like the tone of the magazine interview or the actual merchandise—we’re better able to appreciate the joke. There’s a joke in there for everyone; some are hidden in the details of magazine cover text, others in the parody of masterpiece paintings. By its nature, Other Sister is also a comedy of existentialist dread, if that’s your thing.

Sometimes the joke is on us, the media literate audience, who despite being so, buy into the corporate gaze.  Mann writes as herself—her Other Sister self—in the fake magazine interview: “Everything is intentional, but it’s also meaningless, everything and nothing forever simultaneously.” It’s a line that sounds as if the corporate machine ate Alice in Wonderland and spat it back out. And it perfectly encapsulates the everyday performance of living in a post-internet, social media heavy world.

It’s important to remember that the project isn’t about Other Sister so much as Other Sister is the means by which we can understand marketing and consumerism. The corporate gaze is real and very present in the media we consume, the media we create, and even within our senses of self. Other Sister isn’t real… or is it? Maybe it’s both. Does it matter? Does anything matter anymore?

I could not find better words to sum up Other Sister than those in the fake interview: “a scream into the void with glitter and icing on top.”

Olivia Mariko Hsuen-Ferris

All images: Jen Mann, installation view of Other Sister, 2022. Courtesy of Arsenal Contemporary Art. Photo by Jack McCombe. 

*Exhibition information: Jen Mann, Other Sister, June 23 – September 3, 2022, Arsenal Contemporary Art, 45 Ernest Ave, Toronto. Gallery hours: Tue – Sat, 11am – 6pm.

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