Live Pelt (2003) is a multimedia installation based on the transformation of 64 previously owned Tickle Me Elmo dolls, the popular consumer toy, into a woman’s coat. Fashioned from the toy's pelts and electronics, the coat (entitled The Surrogate) provides full body vibration and is designed to be a substitute lover. Using Elmo as a vector to channel information about contemporary American culture, the installation encompasses moods both poignant and Frankenstein weird. The narrative investigates frontier economics, the human-machine relationship, and the technologist’s power to play with life. In all seriousness, Heaton’s sense of humor prevails.
The artist has developed eight characters to represent the various facets of Live Pelt. Desecration and fetishism are consistent throughout the narrative, which relies heavily on the historic precedent of the American fur trade. The Trapper collects Elmos through eBay; The Industrialist performs the skinning; and The Taxidermist stuffs and mounts their heads. The Alchemist solders the electronic viscera and seeks clues to the mystery of life. Other characters, The Sociopath, The Debutante, and The Fashionista, interact with the coat and its accessories at various stages in The Surrogate’s development. Betsy Ross alters the American flag to the tune of The-Star Spangled Banner, a painfully slow rendition of our national anthem performed by Pamela Z. Heaton plays some of these roles in a documentary video by Shambhavi Kaul.
Embracing and critiquing the information glut caused by computer-based media, Heaton’s narrative work also includes The Yearbook of Live Pelt, which chronicles information about the Elmos “trapped” online;The Sociopath’s Map, a geographic profile based on the hometowns of the acquired Elmos; drawings and sculpture that blend engineering with human physiology; and artifacts from the performance videos. Antique photographs provide a historical context. Conceptual constructions suggest an autobiographical involvement of the artist. The Sears Portrait Series, featuring 16 young girls posing in commercially available Elmo costumes, relates to the recurring themes of innocence and loss.
The implications of online auction as a new frontier for trade and its potential for exploitation are important components of Live Pelt. The Elmos were purchased through eBay. With circular symmetry, many of the transformed Elmo artworks will be “recycled” for sale on eBay as part of N-Trophy, extending the domain of online commerce to the gallery marketplace.
Live Pelt is the third and final installation of Bibiota, funded by Creative Capital, LEF Foundation and Duke University.