Knowledge Held in Suspense: A Conversation with Kerry Tribe

There Will Be _______
Kerry Tribe, There Will Be _______, 2012, Installation view, Courtesy the Power Plant / photo Toni Hafkenscheid

Toronto-based writer Rosemary Heather spoke to Los Angeles-based artist Kerry Tribe during her solo exhibition Speak, Memory at The Power Plant (24 March – 3 June 2012).

This excerpt is part of a longer conversation, most of which took place in a taxi on the way to the Toronto airport. Heather notes, “Setting out to do this interview, I devised a theory of how to understand Tribe’s work. As often happens, however, our conversation overtook any hope I had of getting Tribe to commit to a particular hypothesis about her art practice – it defies easy encapsulation. This made talking to Tribe about her work much like the experience of engaging with it: the process is an end in itself.”

ROSEMARY HEATHER: One way that I thought of talking about your work is through the lens of Here & Elsewhere (2002). You remade a piece by Jean-Luc Godard, in which he interviews children by asking them metaphysical questions. Can I locate that as a framework for your work as a whole?

KERRY TRIBE: The idea of remaking something?

RH: Yes.

KT: I don’t know if I would think of it as remaking so much as returning. At UCLA when I was a graduate student I organized a series of screenings — a 24-hour unofficial film festival — because I discovered a little pocket of money in the graduate program that allowed me to rent some titles.

I had never seen Godard’s television series France/Tour/Détour/Deux/Enfants (1977) and a friend recommended it, so I screened it. I just screened the first two episodes. I was really struck by what happened when this big father of avant-garde film and video (who was a Maoist and tough and rigorous and making images that were often difficult to look at) set out to interrogate this little girl and little boy about heavy political and philosophical issues. The little girl’s responses, which were down-to-earth and sometimes confused, were totally compelling to me. What was it about the presence of this little girl? There’s one point in the video where her face appears — her name is Camille Virolleaud — and over it is the word “Verité” in big letters. And I thought: There’s something accurate about that. We all want to identify with this simple, you might say, Cartesian subject position that says: Yes I know. I’m here. I only exist once. I walk through my life. I understand things or I don’t, even if we know better. I mean, even if feminism, psychoanalysis and critiques of capitalism tell us that this simple belief in one’s own self-identity, agency and autonomy is inadequate, it’s nevertheless compelling. I wasn’t so much interested in specifically remaking that Godard video, or in pointing directly back to it but rather in trying to see what would happen if some of those questions were asked again. At one point, Godard asked Camille about her room. It’s very bright and it’s clean, and who cleans her room? (I’m paraphrasing.) And she says something like either her mother or the housekeeper does it. And he asks, Well who pays your mother to do this? And she thinks probably nobody does. Do you think maybe The State should pay her? And, Is The State a man? Or a woman? And so on. It’s great stuff.

And these are questions that continue to be urgent. And yet in the end, it didn’t seem viable to do that in 2002. When I tried to work the explicitly political questions into the script it just fell flat. It was actually dreadful.

RH: Can you elaborate? What does your piece look like? Read the full interview here.

This interview was commissioned by the Power Plant, Toronto. A longer version will be forthcoming.

More info about Kerry Tribe can be found here.

Annie MacDonell: Sunset Cinema

Annie MacDonell, vaudeville models
Annie MacDonell, Shea's Hippodrome, (1914), cardboard diorama, 20 x 20 x 30 in., from the series 'Vaudeville Interiors'

Recent history tells us that the experience cinema offers is excessive. The belief that it is necessary to go to a theatre to see a film is already a thing of the past. Cinema was an industrial innovation. Based on an economy of scale, the commercial premise of the business is that each member of its audience possesses a quotient of popular taste that the industry can replicate and nurture in each new film it devises. The basic assumption of the format used to be that this mass psyche could be unlocked by a film’s presentation in a setting of anonymous camaraderie; in other words, the belief was that people would want to watch movies together in the dark. But these conditions now appear to be unnecessary, or so the popularity of sub-par viewing formats like YouTube and iPod movies would seem to suggest.

In her exhibition, The Castle and other works, Annie MacDonell looks at this history from the perspective of today, a moment when cinema is being eclipsed by newer formats of entertainment. Giving depth to this view, her show looks beyond film to its origins in Vaudeville. Consisting of remnants from this past, MacDonnell’s exhibition offers insights into the wider cultural demands embodied by these continuities, suggesting that the need for diversion, for a parallel realm of spectral distraction, exceeds any of the formats invented for its possibility. It is this need’s ability to conjure up the means of its realization, if not an explanation of its source that MacDonnell’s show evokes..

In The Castle (2006) a sculpture of a chandelier sits on the floor of the gallery as if it had recently crashed there, or, in more grandiose terms, had somehow fallen to earth. A non-functioning replica, the chandelier illuminates nothing except protocols of ornamentation to which we are no longer accustomed. Ornamentation was, however, once thought of as an important aspect of the movie experience; film theatres were after all referred to as “palaces.” This connects the chandelier to MacDonnell’s Untitled Vaudeville Models (2006), which MacDonnell built in collaboration with Rob Shostak. They consist of three scale models of Vaudeville theatres in Toronto, all of which date from the turn of the 20th century. That Vaudeville theatres tended to be turned into cinemas, which are themselves now on the wane, points to the larger theme of the show. The condition of spectatorship was once located in spaces built specifically for the purpose, but it is less and less dependent on physical circumstance.

In The Castle (2006) a portly man in a video projection is seen falling through space. He stumbles down the stairs and then the action is magically reversed. The cycle repeats. By looping the video, the artist arrives at a kind of perpetual slapstick. The artist abstracts the base humor of Vaudeville, its broad physical comedy, to evoke the idea of entertainment itself. The man’s appearance reinforces this impression. Middle-aged and out of shape, his mustachioed visage evokes an archetype: not a leading man or captain of industry but rather an avuncular figure of fun, like Stan Laurel or Fatty Arbuckle, familiar from the early days of the entertainment industry. A likely inhabitant of both smoking jacket and smoking lounges, he evokes the pathos of manhood past its prime, still the beneficiary of male privilege but some years beyond the ability to make meaningful use of its powers.

Art exhibitions tend to consist of discrete objects ¬– whether of the thing itself or of some form of its representation – presented in meaningful combination. The custom is for exhibitions to occur in a definite space, or make reference to that space, which is known as “the context.” The placement into this context of any artwork that takes the form of a real entity (as opposed to an abstraction of such) should be understood as having been removed from the circulation of utilitarian items for a reason. In the same way that the art gallery is more than just a space for the exhibition of objects, the artwork is both a thing in itself and what it represents. The artwork in itself refers to every possible realization of the idea of art, especially those that have already occurred; and the entity it represents refers to the wider world of meaning from which it derives.

Although susceptible to many definitions, the artwork’s ability to incorporate within itself multiple dimensions of significance means that it always in some sense functions as a synechdoche: the work of art or the art installation is always the part standing for the whole. Writing about literature, the critic Terry Eagleton discusses how the reader of a literary work “unconsciously supplies information which is needed to make sense of it.” “All literature is understated” Eagleton notes, “even at its most luridly melodramatic.” The same could be said for art. MacDonell’s show makes use of the synechdochic power of the artwork, and also makes an exhibition that is about this synechdochic power. The artist doubles the synechdochic resonances of her show in the sense that it is about just how little it is that we need from the real world in order for us to imaginatively exist in the spectral realm, and for that realm to fulfill the wish that we could exist there.

If early cinema took the basic elements of Vaudeville as its starting point, this is in part because film’s illusionistic qualities were so well suited to the art form’s vulgar comedy of physical mishap. The idea that someone can fall without getting hurt, the basic fact that the moving image finds its origins in release from the consequences of the physical, suggests a number of things: that entertainment is strangely predicated on the misfortune of others, and, more broadly, that the cinema fulfils a wish that the physical world could be more benign than it is. This connects MacDonell’s fallen chandelier and tumbling man to another work in the show, Sunset Signature Lounge (2006). Housed inside a small freestanding cabinet with room enough for only one viewer at a time, the work features a slide-projected image of a sunset as seen from the 96th floor of the Chicago’s John Hancock tower. One of the tallest buildings in the U.S., a centerpiece in a city famed for its architecture, the building’s Signature Lounge provides Chicago’s citizens with a cocktail hour ritual. The image was shot at twilight in the lounge, a bar that features floor-to-ceiling plate glass windows. Looking at the phosphorescent and warm transitional hues of the sun as it sinks below the horizon offers the best accentuation of this, as it fuses the experience of the sunset with its image. It is, as MacDonell comments, “an intensely American experience, ” the impact of which is such that the lounge patrons often break into applause upon viewing the sun’s final curtain, so to speak. It is as if each floor of the John Hancock tower was only the premise for the next one, and this continues upwards until the building was tall enough to create the perfect platform for the viewing of each day’s end., The floor-to-ceiling plate glass windows were installed to more perfectly frame the experience, transforming it all into a two-dimensional picture of itself. Finding that cinematic desire lurks even in aspects of the built environment, the artist points out just how eager we are as a culture to step off into the virtual.

MacDonell designed the installation so that the sound of applause, which is preceded by a soundtrack of ambient noise and soft chatter, subtly permeates the exhibition as a whole. If not actually creating an immersive experience for the viewer, the sound in the exhibition points to the aural aspect of spectacle; its aim is to be thoroughly persuasive. To undercut this, and to indicate that what she is offering is not spectacle per se but the means for a critical reflection on its powers, the artist positions the slide projector outside the cabinet, which itself is left unfinished, and leaves the work’s speakers, amplifiers, and their connecting cables and electrical wires exposed on its top.

The artist’s suggestion about how easily natural phenomena are incorporated into an overall cultural preference for spectacle connects to the show’s wider idea that our culture is constantly looking for the means to make our reality into something that is more free of consequences and more under our control than it is or ever could be. This idea applies especially to how we participate in spectacle today, which because of the Internet and portable digital devices extends far beyond the physical space of the movie theatre. This suggests that it’s not the cinema that is excessive but only the cultural desire for its pleasures. If this fact is more apparent than ever, being able to recognize it still tell us little about what it means. Full participants in this virtual onslaught, cinema and other forms of spectacle have only a weak ability to reflect on the phenomenon. Artworks, on the other hand, exist to be reflective, and in the process can reveal an entirely new dimension to, for instance, the fun Vaudeville finds in misfortune.

Rosemary Heather 10.15.06

This text was commissioned by Gallery TPW to accompany Annie MacDonell: The Castle and Other Works, October 26-November 26, 2006.

More information about Annie MacDonell can be found here, here and here.

Brenda Goldstein’s Hereafter

Brenda Goldstein, Hereafter, 2010, 35mm film installation
Brenda Goldstein, Hereafter, 2010, 35mm film installation, looping 35 mm film, sandblasted plexiglass, slide projector.

Thinking about Brenda Goldstein’s Hereafter begins with an absent body. The work consists of a 35-mm film loop portrait of a nameless woman preparing an unseen body for burial, presented alongside a slide projection composed of quotes from various people about the experience of death. Everything you see in the film is clinical, austere; the only element commanding a visceral response to the subject matter is a jar of red liquid, embalming fluid, visible on the right of the screen. The work constructs a composite representation of the idea of death, within which the only warm body present is that of the viewer.

Goldstein structures her installation so that one can view the film loop and the slide projection inde¬pendently. Complementing this schema is the work’s third element, its “soundtrack,” which is the ambi¬ent noise made by the slide and film projectors. Hereafter’s sombre topic might cause its audience to disregard this sound in the room; to hear but not hear it. Rather than using recorded audio to reinforce thoughts of death, nailing down that signifier, Goldstein instead allows the ambient sound to enhance one’s experience of the space. Like a mechanical version of sentient breathing, the sound made by the projectors is a reminder for the viewer, however subtle, of their own presence. In this context, the instal¬lation’s audibility also works as a reminder of one’s own mortality; one reason why viewers may be less inclined to “hear it.” As well, Goldstein’s use of sound points to other ideas, implicit to the installation and beyond its ostensible subject matter.

Hereafter has no single focal point because the artist’s intention is to create an immersive environ¬ment; one that, through use of shifting points of interest is, arguably, more actively constructed by the viewer than would be the case if it was presented as a film. Between the two types of presentation, seated film viewing or walk-in installation, there is only a fine distinction: it is debatable whether one or the other provides the more “immersive” experience. Differing means of creating that experience is more to the point.

One inescapable precedent for Hereafter is Stan Brakhage’s The Act of Seeing With One’s Own Eyes (1971). The film is shot in a morgue and documents a number of autopsies (the title is a literal transla¬tion of the Greek word, autopsia—to see for oneself). Brakhage’s immersion is more confrontational. By viewing the film, one is witness to an experience, that of seeing human bodies dissected, that few would actively seek out. Brakhage made the film as part of his larger project, the exploration of a number of themes that were central to avant-garde film at the time. Over his career, he made a slew of films in which various techniques of abstraction—such as variable focus, asynchronous sound, scratching and painting on the negative, and disjunctive editing—were used to create a poetics of perception. All of his works were predicated on the idea that the film material itself constituted a form of embodied perception and this is perhaps the reason Brakhage worked so hard to make its materiality evident. And if sight is an analogy for being, looking at the body as a starkly mortal entity gives this poetics its ultimate form of expression.

This digression into the world of 20th century avant-garde film is necessary because of what it tells us about the different set of assumptions guiding Goldstein’s work. For one, it gives us a clearer understand¬ing of the 21st century’s comparatively diminished faith in the visual. Hereafter’s visual component is diffused by the atmospherics of the text elements that accompany it. And it suggests that while intuitively a filmmaker like Brakhage understood the visual to be an aspect of embodied experience, Goldstein can make no such assumption. Her concern instead is to construct a different kind of body, one that is, among other things, a decidedly non-poetic being. In addition to the viewer in the room, the body Goldstein summons is the one that is typically elided by technologically mediated existence—especially because liberation from bodily constraints is the specific form of satisfaction mediation can offer. You could argue that locating the body is always the goal of the immersive artwork. It is why such works require an active viewer, one who can orchestrate an installation’s material synthesis simply by walking into it. (It is also the reason why the term “viewer” now reads as something of a misnomer; artworks today solicit a much more sophisticated kind of intelligence.) In the end, Hereafter is less about dead bodies than it is about living ones. The further we as a culture move into the everyday time and space travel of virtual technologies, the more we need to be reminded of who we are; sentient beings, limited and mortal after all.

—Rosemary Heather

This text was commissioned by Mercer Union Centre for Contemporary Art, Toronto in conjunction with the 23rd Images Festival, 1-10 April 2010.

More info about Brenda Goldstein can be found here.