Stimulus Response Mechanism: Lynne Marsh’s The Philharmonie Project (Nielsen: Symphony No. 5)

Photo: Trevor Good

Moving beyond the iconic architecture of Berlin’s Philharmonie building, Lynne Marsh makes an artwork about what happens behind the scenes. In the process she reveals something not previously thought worthy of our attention—a space and the people it animates when they work there. Marsh’s work about technicians filming the live video broadcast of the Berlin Philharmonie’s performance of Carl Nielsen’s Symphony No. 5, could even be said to create the space she reveals in the process; arguably, it didn’t exist before she filmed it. Disclosing the mechanisms at work behind the spectacle, Marsh creates by implication a portrait of the broader system within which we are all enmeshed.

To understand this proposition, first consider what Marsh doesn’t show us. Viewers of The Philharmonie Project (2011) never see an orchestra performing. Instead, we are presented with a tightly focused performance of four technicians in a recording booth. Each one has a specific role, calling out numbers corresponding to the bars of music and camera angles that film the musicians as they play. A companion piece shows these camera shots in a dry run—the camera choreography in rehearsal before the concert begins. We see empty chairs and sheet music stands on a stage devoid of performers. Shown in the gallery, Marsh positions the two videos at either end—or side, recto/verso—of an angled platform that bisects the room on the diagonal. Set on a scaffold, the structure is the design of the architect team June 14 (Johanna Meyer-Grohbrügge and Sam Chermayeff). Audiences sitting on the top of the platform gaze down onto Marsh’s video of the Philharmonie team working together as they film the 45 minute-long performance; on its underside, viewers see the artist’s video of the performance in dry run. The soundtrack unifies these elements, broadcasting Nielsen’s Symphony as it is punctuated by voices of the film technicians. The installation brings together the videos of two distinct moments in time that are musically synchronic. Together they describe an event that is never made visible to us. It is only discernable in terms of its absence; or rather, in terms of the space Marsh defines with her work.

Translating the musical score, the technicians’ work is a performance in itself. Like the camera shots they coordinate, they move together and overlap, performing almost as a singular entity—like the entity of the orchestra itself. The scene conveys all the drama of the music that accompanies it. This is also true of the companion film, which substitutes the intended subject—i.e. the orchestra playing—for the shot; as the framing choreographs incidental images of the empty stage, the camera becomes an extension of the music it articulates. The point of a symphonic work is to envelop the listener in within a totalizing system of harmonic logic and dissonance, and Marsh too envelops her audience within that system, while at the same time ensuring that its apparatus is, figuratively, laid bare. In Philharmonie, virtual space becomes intelligible via the very devices that disseminate its contents. This space exists not in what the camera films or its extension as broadcast. It exists rather in the elements the artist brings together, the filmed spaces, performers and installation. Together these elements create a kind of extra visible dimension, one that points to the infrastructure of which it is an expression.

In his text Notes on Gesture (2000)[1] Giorgio Agamben proposes “gesture rather than image is the cinematic element.” In Agamben’s terms, images are static whereas “the gesture always refers beyond itself towards a whole of which it is a part.” Marsh’s work provides us with a precise expression of this idea. Shot from just below eye level, her camera stays focused on the upper bodies and heads of the camera technicians working within the cramped space of the recording booth. Beyond the context she creates in the gallery, the artist offers no explanation about what they are doing. In the absence of knowing, we interpret their gestures. The musical score animates the performers, the camera frame emphasizing the intense focus of their concentration.

Agamben writes: “an idea is a constellation in which phenomena arrange themselves in a gesture.” The shifting plane of the cinematic image proposes an end point as its organizing principle; narrative films will always carry viewers to the end of the story they tell. By their nature, artworks engage viewers in a process that leads to a different kind of conclusion; the narrative resolution of any one work is an understanding of the mechanism by which you grasp its meaning.  Similarly, as a discursive medium, film has an innate potential to dramatize this process of meaning unfurling, a gradual coming into understanding. The process is, however, not necessarily linear. Rather, phenomena gather into meaningful configurations—in Agamben’s words, into constellations. The significance of this metaphor resides in the space coordinates it conjures up. Further, Agamben resolves his concept in the notion of a “gesture”; filmic space is embodied space. As with living beings, in every instance of its existence, a film intimates the moment of its demise. Marsh’s artwork engages with this concept of gesture by finding deep within the Philharmonie building a space and performers that we can understand as the end points of a broader constellation. Meaning inheres in the apparatus of spectacle implied. By framing a symphony performance at several levels of remove from the actual live performance, Marsh articulates a space that exists as a result of it.

In Philharmonie, the space Marsh illuminates takes on a high degree of specificity. The tight focus of her camera frame offers a glimpse into a vista that, prior to Philharmonie,was left largely unconsidered. By implication, the artist depicts the vast machinery of job segmentation, the performance of which, at each point in the system, the entire entity depends. Like every totalizing vision, this dystopia lacks air and sunshine; Marsh presents a vision of contemporary existence that, in place of the pleasures of everyday life, offers instead the (not inconsiderable) blandishments of job professionalism. If the universe we see, as expressed by Philharmonie, is airless and tense, that is because the artist pictures with great clarity our modern condition of mediation. In the end, Marsh’s vision is less dystopic than factual. She finds a way to express a truth about the world we all live in: Philharmonie is a lens through which we can view our own circumstances. It’s a portrait of the embodied world as it is simultaneously disembodied by the constellation within which it functions.

[1] Giorgio Agamben, Notes on Gesture, Means Without End: Notes on Politics (Theory Out Of Bounds), (Minneapolis: University Of Minnesota Press) 2000.


Text originally publised by http://www.programonline.de/philharmonie.html in 2011.

In Visible Colours – Rosemary Heather In Conversation With Zainub Verjee

A groundbreaking film and video festival made for and by women of colour in late 1980s Vancouver stands as an important precedent for the return of identity politics

Still from Tracey Moffatt’s Nice Coloured Girls (1987), which made its Canadian premiere at InVisible Colours. Courtesy Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney.

The personal trajectory of Zainub Verjee over the past four decades intersects with cultural moments that continue to resonate.

Born in Kenya and educated in the UK, Verjee arrived in Canada in the 1970s to study economics at Simon Fraser University. A close collaborator with Ken Lum in the early years of Vancouver’s photoconceptualism movement, and with Sara Diamond on a history of women’s labour in British Columbia, Verjee also helped build the international profile of the Western Front throughout the 1990s. Her policy work on the BC Arts Board in the early 1990s helped produce the province’s Arts Council Act, leading to the formation of the BC Arts Council, and she later worked on early digital initiatives at the Canada Council for the Arts and the Department of Canadian Heritage.

As a practicing artist in the 1980s and ’90s, Verjee was included in national and international group exhibitions, including “New Canadian Video” at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1994; “TransCulture,” a satellite exhibition at the Venice Biennale in 1995; “Traversing Territory, Part II: Road Movies in a Post-Colonial Landscape,” curated by Judith Mastai for the Portland Institute of Contemporary Art in 1997; and “Tracing Cultures III,” curated by Karen Henry and installed at the Ismaili Jamatkhana and Centre in Burnaby in 1997. (“A first when contemporary art was shown in a mosque in Canada,” says Verjee.)

One of the defining legacies in Verjee’s career is In Visible Colours (IVC), an international festival in Vancouver dedicated to film and video by women of colour that she co-founded, with Lorraine Chan, in 1989. A landmark event of its time, IVC assembled works by then-emerging artists such as Tracey Moffatt, Gurinder Chadha, Alanis Obomsawin, Merata Mita and Mona Hatoum. IVC and the issues it foregrounded is one reason why, from Verjee’s perspective, the identity politics of today is in large part a return to a conversation that started in the 1980s.

Rosemary Heather: It’s been almost 30 years since you staged In Visible Colours, with more than 100 films and videos by artists from 28 countries and 75 international delegates in attendance. The event focused on global issues around diversity and representation. What do you think has changed in the intervening time? Have we seen any progress?

Zainub Verjee: In Visible Colours emerged amid contestations on nation building and the making of a global neoliberal order, as much as the social and political upheavals of the late 1970s and ’80s that foregrounded race, gender and the politics of cultural difference.

IVC was primarily about the contested history of the modernist aesthetic and modernism in the visual arts and the making of the contemporary condition—as a historical marker—for the decolonized world. It asked: Who was defining this marker?

To reduce that conversation to diversity and representation can undermine the deeper issues of contested art histories and the politics of aesthetics. The reality today is that embedding oneself into such a discourse is still a massive challenge for people of colour, particularly women.

RH: So IVC was essentially informed by that era’s worldwide push for decolonialization, but with a stronger emphasis on discourse, correct?

ZV: IVC was made, not found; it was historically produced and was historically productive. Post-war decolonization led to a global societal upheaval.

There were transatlantic responses in the art world: In New York, for example, the Museum of Modern Art’s controversial “Primitivism in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern,” in 1984, can be read in context of the ascendancy of two generations of Black artists (this includes South Asians) in the UK in the early 1980s. Their contrasting relationship to modernism, and opposition to anticolonial and postcolonial politics, resulted in the making of the Black British Arts movement.

In Canada, the 1951 Massey Report frames this nation-building project, and despite its multiple flaws—primarily its Eurocentric orientation— remains well entrenched today. The failure of the 1970 Royal Commission on the Status of Women led to a flurry of counter-events with the emergence of second-wave feminism. Race also became a major element in this collective endeavour and shook the cultural institutional apparatus. IVC was a forerunner of these phenomena.

RH: You worked with cultural theorist Stuart Hall, who was a key inspiration for Black British Arts—the radical political art movement founded in the UK in 1982 and inspired by anti-racist discourse and feminist critique. How did Black British Arts influence IVC?

ZV: Black as a label in Britain encompassed a broad range of non-European ethnic minority populations. Since I was from London and hooked into that scene, I closely followed Lubaina Himid’s set of three exhibitions beginning in 1983 and culminating with “The Thin Black Line” at the Institute for Contemporary Arts in 1985. Another important one was the one-off Third Eye festival of Third World cinema held in London and Birmingham in 1983. Together they addressed Black invisibility in the art world and engaged with the sociopolitical and aesthetic issues of the time.

Over that decade, artists and thinkers such as Hall, Sonia Boyce, Hanif Kureishi, Kobena Mercer and Rasheed Araeen, and institutions like the Black Audio Film Collective, Sankofa and Third Text, were other major influences. They informed me about the agency I had as a person of colour and how I could use that position to intervene on the racialized gender issues of cultural production and institutional discourse that had been unleashed by globalization and a new neoliberal order.

RH: Was this conversation also happening in Vancouver at the time?

ZV: Indeed. For instance, from the 1970s onwards, Chilean women in the exile community established themselves in Vancouver. Their activism against the Pinochet dictatorship influenced multiple sites: Simon Fraser University, artist scenes and centres, literary circles and left movements. Pinochet was, after all, the poster boy of the neoliberal regime!

In 1987, I started working at Women in Focus Society (WIF), a feminist, arts and media centre devoted to women’s cultural production in film, video and the visual arts in Vancouver. I recall the WIF exhibition “Mujer, arte y periferia” [Women, art and periphery], in 1987, raising complex questions about the gestures of Chilean women under dictatorship as well as the “placement” of women’s art.

It was within these larger contexts that I noticed there were no works by women of colour in WIF’s distribution collection. This overwhelming absence of the voice of women of colour in the Canadian context led to the first conversations that ultimately took the form of IVC.

RH:
 This sense of tumult at the end of the 1980s produced other exhibitions that were equally influential to the direction of IVC. Can you talk about that?

ZV: The two-year period leading to IVC in 1989 became coterminous with other exhibitions of equal critical import.

In Paris, in response to the colonial ethnography of MoMA’s “Primitivism” exhibition, Jean-Hubert Martin curated “Magiciens de la Terre,” presenting works by more than 100 Western and non-Western artists from 50 countries. In London, Araeen’s “The Other Story” invoked multiple modernities. And in Ottawa, Gerald McMaster’s “In the Shadow of the Sun” framed Indigenous contemporary expression without any apology, offering a definitive moment in the contemporary art history of Canada.

This post is adapted from an article in the Fall 2017 issue of Canadian Art.

Interview: Allison Hrabluik on the Unscripted Magic of “The Splits”

SFU Gallery - Allison Hrabluik - "The Splits"
Allison Hrabluik, video still from “The Splits,” 2015. Image courtesy the artist.

Studying the human body in movement is a constant in Allison Hrabluik’s work. Starting first with hand-drawn animations, then making more abstract films derived from tracing figures on YouTube, the artist has most recently worked with real people to make her short film, The Splits (2015). The beguiling piece that results suggests another constant in the artist’s practice: an intuitive ability to use the things she works with — often random, dissimilar — to tell a story wrapped up in the artwork’s process.

With The Splits, Hrabluik constructs an unlikely portrait of everyday life in British Columbia by focusing on people performing a skill or hobby they are passionate about — from sausage-making to Afghan Hound-grooming. The desire to practice and get better at something, whatever it may be, connects the film’s subjects, and this includes Hrabluik and her facility for filmmaking. The artist told me she followed no strong rule about who would be included in the work. Instead, she found participants through an organic process, one that combined on-the-ground research with referrals from friends. She pulls it all together according to an intuitive logic both enigmatic and highly persuasive that makes clear the skill the artist brings to the project.

Hrabluik beguiles through the trickery of cinema. The work’s greater subject is the idiosyncratic space the film constructs and the role viewer perception plays in its making. A tightly focused camera frame makes us aware of the film’s synthetic space. Reinforcing this impression is the location where Hrabluik shot The Splits, a community center in Surrey, British Columbia. A typical setting for many of the activities the artist depicts — a tap dancing rehearsal, for instance — by using it to bring together a disparate range of such activities Hrabluik creates an enhanced but denaturalized context for her subjects. This approach is made clear from the film’s opening frames when the viewer receives partial pieces of information that become more intelligible as the film progresses. Sound from each scene carries over into the next, helping to establish the broader coherence of the work.

The Splits takes place within the white space of a rehearsal hall, and also in the world Hrabluik creates. This opens her work up onto a wider conversation about the use of art as a tool for scripting reality, a contemporary preoccupation that extends from the lowest forms of pop culture to the high art aspirations of literary autofiction. In her method of using real-world performance to capture unexpected, composite effects, Hrabluik’s film shares a lot in common with these tendencies. I spoke with the Vancouver-based Hrabluik this March about her artistic process, the logistics of filming The Splits, and where her practice might lead next. Following a presentation at Kassel Dokfest, in Kassel, Germany, the film is currently on view at SFU Art Gallery, Burnaby, BC, with an upcoming screening at Images Festival, Toronto.

You’ve described movement as being a unifying factor in your works, can you distill what’s of interest to you there?

Prior to making The Splits, I had been making narrative video works, and found that I didn’t know what kind of story to tell anymore. When it came time to write a new script, I could focus on almost anything, so how should I make a selection?

I was also reading a lot of fiction, and began to notice the similarities between many of the books on my shelf. They were wildly different in content, but similar in that they all describe how we manage, or don’t manage, the situations we find ourselves in. I wondered if this internal struggle could be distilled into something visually. Perhaps through the ways we physically move through the world. I began creating movement-based scripts as alternatives to narrative scripts, in an attempt to reveal a character instead of telling a story. To do this, I worked with a composer and a choreographer and began to trace films, looking for different ways to make things move.

You also made works by tracing videos found on YouTube — taking a video and choosing it for its movement. You mentioned this was the provenance for The Splits?

Yes. I was looking for videos to work with, and came across a group of young gymnasts online who record themselves performing in their living rooms and backyards, and post the videos to Youtube. The footage was strangely captivating but because they were teenagers I knew I couldn’t ethically use their images. So I started meeting with gymnasts and dancers here in Vancouver. I began videotaping them, planning to use the footage to trace their forms, but soon realized that altering the images wasn’t necessary. There was instead something in the connection between performers that I wanted to follow.

I contacted as many people as I could find who I thought moved in interesting ways. I started with gymnasts, a hula hooper, and weightlifters — athletic ways of moving. To round this out, I considered other ways of performing, like opera and burlesque, amateur music, and how we move everyday at work and with animals. I also incorporated elements of our lives that lean towards the grotesque — the salami makers and the hotdog eater. The absurd is linked to our everyday as much as the transcendent, which is often what we look for in physical excellence.

And you knew all the people?

I know a few of them. Barbe Atwell, the hula hooper is a friend, the tap dancers I saw tap dancing on Granville Island, and the dog trainers I found online through the Afghan Hound Society. Others, like the skippers, gymnasts, and weightlifters I contacted through their coaches, who put me in touch with people they thought might be interested. Often friends recommended people.

I began to notice that if there’s an action people do, there’s a team around it. For instance, I was thinking about skipping, fencing, competitive eating, dog training, birding, etc., and found communities for all of them, each with their own language, skill set, and measures of success. In this project, art and filmmaking became only one activity among many, and I enjoyed that opening up.

That brings me to another question. I noticed in the bibliography that accompanies your show that it includes the category Scripted. What’s the connection?

Melanie O’Brian, the director of SFU Galleries and the curator of the exhibition, asked me to compile a bibliography of books that formed my thinking around The Splits. She knew that literature is often a starting point for my work. Scripted is a section of the bibliography, and includes The Species of Spaces and Other Pieces (1974/1997) by Georges Perec, who works with writing constraints, and also the catalogue Yvonne Rainer: Space, Body, Language (2012). Rainer uses a lot of annotated scores to direct movement in her choreography.

Okay. Because that brings up a whole world of ideas that are relevant to the current moment. For instance, the idea of autofiction associated with the Norwegian writer, Karl Ove Knausgaard.

I’m not familiar with the term autofiction, but think I know what you mean. I read the first book of My Struggle (2012), and enjoyed it. Other books in the bibliography for the exhibition, like Marguerite Duras’s The Lover (1984/1985), bill bissett’s work, Elizabeth Smart’s By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept (1945), I believe fall into that category. I’m also interested in nonfiction that has literary qualities, which for me begins to read in similar ways. Like Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974), and Sharon Butala’s Perfection of the Morning (1994).

What some of these works share is a thinly-veiled allegory of self-love and self-destruction as two sides of the same coin. Sometimes describing this in a cool voice, other times with unapologetic effervescence. It’s the effervescence that spills into The Splits.

This makes me wonder about how scripted your works is?  Is it scripted?  

The selection of the cast was carefully arranged, as was the location of filming. We filmed at Sullivan Hall in Surrey, a very active community center. The events that happen at Sullivan Hall on a weekly basis are not far off from what happens in The Splits. The weeks before we filmed, the hall hosted a wedding, a bird sale, a rock and mineral show, an auto show, yoga lessons, and dog training evenings.

Creating the situation became the script. I trusted that once the cast and location were in place, something interesting would happen. During filming, I asked the performers to perform whatever they wanted. We filmed everything, and I made a lot of decisions during the editing process.

The framing is so important. When the film starts, it’s the tap dancers. Then it’s the hula hoop woman, but the way you frame it, there’s some degree of ambiguity. You are suggesting there is an equivalence between the frame and the stage, and that creates the space of the film. Were you always trying emphasize this tight framing when shooting?  

I was interested in the similarities between the different actions performed. The motion in the close-up scenes of the hula-hooper is echoed in the close ups of the gymnasts and weightlifter. By initially hiding the particular activity involved, I could focus on their shared qualities. In the end, it’s curious to know that it’s a hula hoop, a dumb bell, and balancing exercises that create such erotically-charged motion, but it’s not really about the hula hoop.

Right. I guess that’s what you give to the viewer is this puzzle to work out about what’s going on. Why are these things together and what connects them all? I think you can intuitively understand that it’s pretty open but I think you are also very aware of the frame.

I needed a frame, I did. I tried not to have one. I tried to film in everyone’s individual spaces and it didn’t work. So the hall and the stage and the close cropping become devices that connect what might otherwise be a random grouping of people, isolating and highlighting their actions. The neutrality of the hall is important. While it has the character of a space that is well used for performance and celebration, it also shares the neutral characteristics of an exhibition space, allowing us to focus on movement over setting.

Obviously you are able to work with these people because you have that sensitivity to what they need to feel comfortable, and to perform. It’s very naturalistic, that was another point I was going to make …

The process was comfortable, and this was important. I met with everyone individually before we filmed, to describe the project and answer questions. Once they arrived at the hall, we spent several hours filming each group. This gave them time to become comfortable in front of the camera. A feeling of naturalness also happens through editing. I searched through hours of footage to find moments where the performers were unguarded. Much of the scripting you asked about earlier happens there.

It’s not a documentary.

I think it intersects documentary and fiction. The performers are performing themselves, but the situation that brings them together is constructed. I’ll continue to explore this intersection with other subjects, leaving movement behind for a while.

Do you think about directing? Will you be making a more scripted film in the future?  

Yes, I’ll certainly experiment with a more scripted approach. That might involve writing scripts while leaving room for improvisation.

Rosemary Heather

This interview originally appeared in Momus, MARCH 29, 2016.

More information about Allison Hrabluik here.

 

Beyond Cinema: The Art of Projection 1963-2005

Douglas Gordon: 24 Hour Psycho, 1993. Photo: courtesy of the artist and Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington. Photographer: Christopher Smith. Film stills from Psycho, 1960. Director: Alfred Hitchcock.

Works from the Flick and Kramlich Collections and others

Curated by Stan Douglas, Christopher Eamon, Gabriele KnapsteinAnd Joachim Jäger

Hamburger Bahnhof, Berlin
29 September 2006 – 25 February 2007

By Rosemary Heather

It is hard to imagine that only 30 years ago John Szarkowski’s presentation of William Eggleston’s photographs at the Museum of Modern Art could be considered a breakthrough because they were in colour. By separating lens-based imagery from the 19th century notion of fine art to which the black and white photograph had been, up to that point, confined, MOMA – a key player in the creation of the very idea of modern art – expanded the definition of art to include contemporary production, opening the door to, among other things, works in new media. Arguably it is this event, rather than say work done in structural film, that augured the current dominance of video installation in contemporary art: It points to the growing importance of the institution itself. This is especially true of work on video. If Duchamp had critiqued the artwork’s institutional dependence a prescient 90 odd years before, the triumph of video installation as an art form represents its wholesale consolidation; the two cannot be separated.

Functioning as a companion piece to, and update of, the Whitney Museum’s 2002 exhibition about the projected image “Into the light: Image in American art 1964-1977”, Beyond Cinema presents 27 works designated as markers along the road to video’s present supremacy. The focus of both shows is the art form’s basic technical requirement of projection as a stepping off point for the creation of a spatial experience in the gallery, whether perceptual or psychological and usually a combination of the two. Video’s ability to be projected from the rear, as opposed to film’s frontal orientation, adds an extra dimension to this dynamic. The exhibition does an excellent job of showing the different ways that artists have devised to think through the permutations of this possibility.

Edge of a Wood (1999) a ravishing installation by Rodney Graham opens the show, and suggests its emphasis. While early video art was once valued for its anti-aesthetic austerity, Graham’s work has a shimmering painterly lushness. On a two-screen projection, helicopter-mounted searchlights illuminate trees at the edge of the forest to the deafening sound of the chopper’s blades. With this simple but gorgeous update on the genre of landscape painting, Graham implies that art may change in keeping with technological developments but its focus stays the same: the world and the complicated business of how we see it.

Graham’s work creates a threshold for the viewer’s entry into the exhibition – this is especially true due to the enveloping nature of its soundtrack ¬– suggesting that the prevalence of video projection in art is only a reflection of the immersion of our culture in a mediated world. Douglas Gordon’s 24-hour Psycho (1993), is well-served in this context. The artist’s slowing down of Hitchcock’s film to a molasses pace looks today less like a neat trick than a statement of millennial significance: The dream – and the nightmare – of our mediated lives has no beginning or end.

On a lower level of the venue,

Diana Thater: The best space is the deep space, 1998. Courtesy of the MAK Center for Art and Architecture, Los Angeles, California, USA. Photographer: Fredrik Nilsen.

encapsulates this idea in a dazzling four-part installation. An image of a white horse and her handlers standing in a ring is seen through the haze of dry ice and a changing array of colored spotlights. Variations of this scene are repeated in two large screen projections and on a monitor placed on the floor: viewers see what the cameras see and see the crew filming this in a shot from behind their backs. As the colored gels change from pink, to yellow to blue, the horse appears and disappears, and on another monitor, alphabet fridge magnets in primary colours spell out the production credits against a white background. The installation acts like an object lesson in the persuasive authority of the image. For all of Thater’s efforts’ to break down the illusion, its powers of mystification remain no less profound.

Another stunning work, Monica Bonvicini’s Destroy She Said (1998), uses repetition and dissonance to fracture the space of filmic artifice. On an angled two-screen projection with the wooden grid of its support sticking out on all sides, the artist presents clips of European film stars, such as Anna Karenna and Monica Vitti, in a variety of fraught cinematic moments. On the audio track we hear a women crying, a phone ringing, a plane traveling overhead, the sounds sometimes in sync with the image but mostly not. When in this montage of distress, a woman shoots a gun, the repertoire of dramatic effects is complete, the artist suggesting that, at least as far as cinema is concerned, the psychological space of femininity is dangerously overwrought.

Toronto artist John Massey’s seminal As the Hammer Strikes (A Partial Illustration) (1982) offers a kind of masculine counterpart to Bonvicini’s work. A three-channel installation in black and white and color, the artist drives a car on the highway in the desolate Canadian winter. As he converses with a hitchhiker he has picked-up, the screens alternate between images of the landscape, the driver and his passenger, and stock footage shots of the things they talk about. Because the hitchhiker speaks with a slight stutter, the conversation is somewhat stilted, and this impression is reinforced by the image montage. When the passenger talks about being at a strip bar and we simultaneously see the image of a stripper on an adjacent screen, it creates a strangely hollow feeling, as if the speaker had no interiority. A little seen example of video projection in its early form, as a critique of mediated subjectivity the work is devastatingly effective.

For Canadians, Beyond Cinema is a watershed for two reasons. Amongst a curatorial team of four, two are from Canada, the artist Stan Douglas and Christopher Eamon, curator of the San Francisco-based Kramlich collection, one of the largest and most important private collections of media art. The duo’s involvement and the strong presence of Canadian artists in the show attests to the leading role Canadians have played in the development of this art form (Douglas’ is represented in the show with his magnificent 1986 work Overture.) A crucial acknowledgement of this contribution, The Art of Projection may also represent a turning point in Canada’s ability – or willingness – to sponsor its artists internationally. Beginning April 1st, 2007, the Harper government has allotted a budget of exactly zero dollars to its missions abroad for the promotion of Canadian culture. This from a Federal government that the Oct 25th Globe and Mail reported was “awash in surplus cash.” Although in Quebec there has been considerable uproar about this disturbing shift in cultural policy, it appears to have gone relatively unnoticed in English Canada. Now is the time is for everyone involved in the arts in Canada to work to reverse this trend. There is more at stake here than the careers of Canadian cultural producers abroad. It is not much of an exaggeration to say that a government so unaccountably hostile to the arts portends a dark future for the country.

This text was originally published in Bordercrossings #101

 

Inside The Library Inside My Head: Soft Turn’s Enclosed by Rosemary Heather

Soft Turns, Enclosed, 2009, 2:28 loop, stop-motion animation

In the best part of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2, the last instalment of the eight part series, Harry speaks to Dumbledore in a vast white space. ‘Is this real?’ Harry asks, ‘Or is it inside my head?’ ‘Of course it’s inside your head,’ the wizard replies, ‘but why should it be any less real?’ From the mouth of a wizard in a children’s tale comes wisdom about the metaphysical problem of our age.

 

Like storybooks, image-based media tend to be thought of as ‘not real’.  When you watch a movie you are participating in an illusion; it’s made-up, in part ‘inside your head’. With the proliferation of electronic media, the boundaries of this ‘in your head’ dimension are expanding and consequently our understanding of the real is changing. Sarah Jane Gorlitz and Wojciech Olejnik, working together as Soft Turns, create artworks that examine a key part of this phenomenon: our credulity. Their video, Enclosed (2009), dramatises this shift in the form of a question: What is real? With Enclosed, the artists suggest that representational media, in the form of film or video, is one cause of the complexity of this question. Just how real is the world created by image technologies?

 

We are so easily fooled. It’s a narrative Soft Turns often play out in their work. In /mm (2007) and just add water (2007) stop-motion animations move through maquettes of subway stations the artists have constructed. In Enclosed, the camera pans amongst the shelves of a library. In this work, sleek spaces cast shadow and reflect light, and as we look at these volumes and surfaces our eyes draw their own conclusions. What we see is real enough, that is, we understand that we are looking at a subway or library; we refer to the idea of these things we already have in our mind and recognize contemporary, familiar enough places, which happen (not incidentally) to be devoid of people.

 

In the artists’ hands, verisimilitude is achieved by a meticulous attention to detail. Soft Turns describe their work as “meditative”—this applies equally to the time they spend making their works and to the pleasure viewers get from looking at them. Scaled to the size of a hardcover book, the library featured in Enclosed is made of salvaged material from discarded books the artists found in Berlin. Through a labour-intensive process, Soft Turns have transformed the substance of books into a library, a sly commentary on the idea that books contain multitudes. That the library is a universe in itself is one potential reading of the work’s title.

 

Soft Turns’ use of real world source materials (as opposed to computer-generated graphics) in combination with their concern for accuracy of architectural scale and their careful attention to detail has the effect of infusing the animation with a tangible presence and gives the represented space a feeling of substance. This is a figural space, a library we might visit in our dreams. It is important to note what we see is a composite structure, made up of 12 different maquettes, each a different library. The end result is a generalized space, a Platonic Form as it were. Enclosed, then, presents ‘library’ as an idea, accessible and yet just out of reach—a contemplative entity. We recognize what we see but we will never read these books.

 

The world of Enclosed is not real but does exist within the real world of film. By creating a space for the purpose of filming it, the artists concede to practicalities. However heroic the effort, making art is certainly less arduous than making architecture—and serves a different purpose. In the construction of each maquette, fidelity to detail translates into the indeterminate scale of filmic space. Miniature-ness does not necessarily matter when filmic illusion sets in; it simply becomes the volume that defines the space in the film. By shooting the maquettes and editing all views into one homogenous entity, the artists create an encompassing view. However, the continuous motion within the film, and of the film itself, prevents close looking. The illusion is protected from scrutiny and so further perpetuated. This is true even though Enclosed is presented as two films on a split screen, each providing slightly different views of the library construct.

 

In his book The world viewed: reflections on the ontology of film (1971), Stanley Cavell writes, “In viewing a movie my helplessness is mechanically assured. I am present not at something happening…but at something that has happened, which I absorb (like a memory).”[i] Elaborating on this passage by Cavell, Rosalind Krauss notes that the viewing of a film “suspends our presence to the world it shows us.”[ii] In Enclosed, however, the artists create the world they show us; they determine the materials used in making the film as well as how it plays out for the audience. This process is co-enacted by the viewer in every instance of watching. The camera pans through the halls of a ‘library’ and we see the books on its shelves. At a certain point, the camera zooms close enough so we can see that the books are something other: cut up pages folded into dummy books. This is the reveal: the moment when the mise en scène looks fake and the illusion is dispelled. The film plays on a loop such that the world of this particular library is created and destroyed over and over again.

 

As sophisticated viewers, we greet each stage of this cycle with equanimity. We credit the library as real in the moments that this is possible and we accept that it’s a maquette when the cracks in the illusion start to show. Initial perceptions are followed by a reassessment. And each time, arguably, we are willing to be duped. Perhaps this is the real meaning of the title Enclosed: we live inside the world inside us.


[i] Stanley Cavell, The world viewed: reflections on the ontology of film (New York: Harvard University Press, 1971) 27.

[ii] Rosalind E. Krauss, Perpetual Inventory (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2010) 63.

 

This text was written to accompany Soft Turns’ exhibition Enclosed at the Stride Gallery in Calgary.

Soft Turns is Sarah Jane Gorlitz and Wojciech Olejnik. You can find more info about them here.

Steve Mann

Professor Steve Mann photographed wearing the EyeTap digital eye glass in Toronto Monday Dec. 22, 2003. (Aaron Harris/Canadian Press)

Steve Mann – Prior Art: Art of Record for Personal Safety

Curated by Kathleen Pirrie-Adams
July 5-28, 2001,
Gallery TPW, Toronto

By Rosemary Heather

Wearable computing was in the past an ideal of the future we now live in. If we used to dream of building robots, a more likely scenario today is that we will become robots ourselves. A professor of Computer engineering at the University of Toronto, Steve Mann has been pursuing the dream of wearable computing for over twenty years. At the Gallery TPW in Toronto, Mann displayed the artifacts of the sci-fi reality that is his daily life.

Since 1980 he has on a full-time basis worn an evolving prototype that combines a computer screen attached to a pair of sunglasses with video, audio and data links to the Internet. The continuous data-stream that results, which was for two years, from 1994-1996, continuously available for anyone to view on the web, is one part of a complex project that underpins his development of prosthetic computing with socio-political critique.

Although Mann’s inventions may have the potential improve the life of the blind or people with Alzheimer’s, the show at TPW chose to focus on his work’s more theatrical edge. This includes a performative investigation into the surveillant nature of contemporary society.

Living your life as a full-time cyborg has certain repercussions. Unlike the institutional surveillance network, Mann has no interest in being covert. Although less so than it used to be, his gear is bulky, conspicuous, the better to drag into the light of public consciousness operations that would prefer to remain un-remarked  on. At issue here is our otherwise tacit acceptance of private interests right to document our daily behaviors. By practicing his own form of counter-surveillance, Mann gives content, albeit from reverse view, to what otherwise exists as a shadowy realm of potential data that we know exists but never see. In its most radical implication, the project posits technology as the vehicle of an augmented subjectivity, a not inconceivable reality where computers interact not only with the world at large but also our own consciousness. The ideal Mann is celebrating is really one of degree. We already interact with computers in such a way that they augment our experience of the world. Mann places himself on the far edge of techno-fetishism by welcoming a human fusion with computers that is truly invasive.

The same could be said of Mann‘s chosen approach to these issues. In its current state, his personal computing get-up is intimidating, turning personal encounters into confrontations. Mann casts himself as a foot soldier in some kind of cyber-war, perpetrating a personal surveillance-oppression on unwitting victims. On view at TPW is one such encounter with a clerk from the Motor Vehicles Department. The resulting imagery is silent but fully communicative of a certain pathos.  The clerk looks cowed, almost scared, Mann having removed the human element from the interaction. Part of his routine is to ask the clerk in question if he is being filmed, Mann winning the point by, in effect, asserting control over the situation. Implied here is a future where personal interests prevail, proto-militarized like the gated communities of today. Mann contends he does this in the name of “personal safety”,  but it belies a vision that is ultimately dystopic. He exposes issues of great relevance to the contemporary world, but in the end his practice only manages to replicate the system that is the ostensible object of his critique.

Bruce LaBruce in Conversation with Rosemary Heather

Canadian art provocateur Bruce La Bruce
Bruce sees porn as the last radical art form

Well, Googie in Super 8½says “I don’t give a damn about continuity.” And it is kind of a luxury, continuity. Because you have to have a person who is specifically hired to do that job and you really need someone who knows what they’re doing. The person who was doing it on Otto had no clue what she was doing and she’d never done it before and she would come to me and explain all the continuity errors of a scene that I just shot after the fact. And I’d be like, “Oh well, thanks for telling me now”. After everything had been shot…

Army of YouTube

Faced with the awe-inspiring popularity of web-monoliths like YouTube, contemporary art risks becoming nothing more than a quaint relic of the 20th century.

It’s probably not fair to compare contemporary art practice with YouTube; yet there is evidence to suggest that somewhere in the ulterior of its collective brain, the art world does just this, and finds itself lacking. How else to understand the ongoing assurances given in art exhibition press releases and catalogue essays about the important role the viewer plays in the construction of meaning – and the intention to facilitate it with this very exhibition?

If artists once played a leading – avant garde – role in providing a complex and forward-looking framework for reflection on the contemporary world, it now seems most comfortable bringing up the rear, providing explanations for developments already intuitively understood and widely enjoyed by the culture at large.