James Turrell’s Cave and the Unveiling Truth

October 24, 2013 · Print This Article

Into Light

James Turrell‘s work has been everywhere recently. A retrospective of his at the Guggenheim just came down last month. A major retrospective of his work, James Turrell: A Retrospective is up at LACMA.  Other exhibitions include: James Turrell: The Light Inside at Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; Sooner Than Later, Roden Crater at Kayne Griffin Corcoran Gallery in LA; James Turrell at Almine Rech Gallery in Paris; James Turrell Perspectives at the Art Academy Museum, Easton Maryland; and Roden Crater and Autonomous Structures at Pace Gallery in New York – these are all from 2013. The year prior, the exhibition Phenomenal: California Light, Space, Surface was up at Museum Contemporary Art San Diego. This enormous retrospective spanning 3 major institutions (Guggenheim, LACMA, and Museum of Fine Arts Houston) and 92,000 sq. feet may have arrived at a fitting time. [1] What can we say about the experiences he creates for us and what does that mean for our world?

Martin Heidegger, the enormously influential 20th century continental philosopher, writes in his essay “The Origin of the Work of Art,” that “to be a work means to set up a world.” [2] At first blush, this statement seems to coincide with the work that Turrell provides for us as viewer. Then, the question becomes: what is a world, the world? For Heidegger, world is not just an accumulation of objects that exist in the world, a totality of beings, nor is it merely the “region” where these beings exist. Rather, Heidegger defines world as where a being whose being is of concern for it, Dasein, lives as Dasein. This world has various possibilities including that of “public” world and one’s “own” world. [3] These questions of world are significant to Turrell’s works. How do his installations world a world for us? Further, what is the relationship of his works to truth? Do his works enable us to gain access to truth of this world?

It may seem dry to delve into an examination of Turrell’s installation work in terms of Heidegger, but that this may be a moment where the particular issues surrounding worldliness and truth should be addressed instead of the oft discussed perception, reality, and illusion themes. Turrell’s work, whose material is that of light, space, and perception, can be easily read as illusion, that the works merely play with the frailty or faultiness of human perception. However, this cannot and should not be the main theme we grasp onto. Experiencing his work opens up the perceptual space that allows us to examine our being-in-the-world and our relational condition. What I’d like to argue briefly is that Turrell’s works, particularly the early Projection Pieces, create situations of veiling and unveiling, which for Heidegger are tantamount to discovering and truth. These pieces, in their perceptual complexities, point to our relational nature, our being as Dasein.

James Turrell. Afrum (White). 1967. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum Collection. http://www.guggenheim.org/new-york/collections/collection-online/artwork/4084

Light Explained Away

In a general survey of the literature on Turrell, there are multiple mentions of perceptual psychology and phenomenology, with perceptual psychology, considered as science, taking precedence. When phenomenology is referenced, only Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Edmund Husserl are addressed. Martin Heidegger, a student of Husserl and a major figure in philosophical phenomenology is generally left out of these discussions.  Instead of grounding Turrell’s work in the ontological foundation of Being, his work seems to be merely referenced as influenced by phenomenology, particularly of Merleau-Ponty. Turrell’s work, however, can’t just be taken as a product of phenomenology influence; his work participates in the  exploration of this philosophy as it relates to our existential being, our being-in-the-world as Dasein, translated literally as being there.

In Heidegger’s Being and Time, he attempts to tackle the problem of being, of ontology. He says that in order to address this question, we first need to establish who is asking the question. This being is Dasein, the being whose being is of concern for her. Closing Division I of the book — “The Preparatory Fundamental Analysis of Dasein” — is §44, “Dasein, Disclosedness, and Truth.” In this section, he lays out the traditional concept of truth, which relies on the statement’s being in agreement with the object in the world that is external to us, and proposes a more primordial theory of truth which is unconcealing, or in Greek, ἀλήθεια. This formulation of truth as an unveiling, uncovering, unconcealing, depends upon Dasein; fundamentally, truth depends on the being whose being is of concern for it. He does warn, though, that this is not an arbitrary subjectivism. [4]

Before analyzing Turrell’s work, especially Afrum (White), 1967 in relation to Heidegger’s theory of truth, allow me to briefly outline a couple of terms: phenomenon, semblance, appearance.

Heidegger describes phenomenon as “what shows itself in itself,” which is distinct from both semblance (the possibility of beings showing themselves as not themselves) and appearance (“something which does not show itself announces itself through something that does show itself”). [5] These are all made possible, however, by light, illumination: “‘phenomena,’ are thus the totality of what lies in the light of day or can be brought to light.” [6]

In Being and Time, the figure of light takes on the meaning of Dasein’s coming into disclosedness. Heidegger states that

“To say that it is “illuminated” means that it is cleared in itself as being-in-the-world, not by another being, but in such a way that it is itself the clearing [Lichtung]. Only for a being thus cleared existentially do objectively present things become possible in the light or concealed in darkness.” [7]

In his marginal notes, the first “cleared” is marked with an asterisk, which adds “ἀλήθεια — openness — clearing, light, shining.” [8]  Important to this discussion of light is the notion of “radiance” which figures prominently in Heidegger’s essay that appeared ten years after Being and Time, “The Origin of the Work of Art.” Radiance here entails a shining forth or an emanation, something in excess. [9]  Taken in relation to Turrell’s work, his light becomes excessive; it points to its own immaterial limitations, a gesture that pushes us to consider the betweenness and limitations of being. Andrew Mitchell discusses this betweenness that arises in Heidegger’s examinations of Ernst Barlach’s sculpture: “Being takes place between presence and absence, at the surface where the being extends beyond itself and enters the world. Being takes place at the limit of the thing — understanding limit as Heidegger does, not as where something ends but where it begins.” [10]

In the case of Turrell’s Afrum (White), how do these terms of phenomenon, semblance, and appearance function? Where does illusion factor in? What of the truth in the perceptual experience? What about the spatial relations of the between and the limit? Many of these questions that Turrell’s work poses get addressed through phenomenology, but, as mentioned above, it is normally that of Merleau-Ponty and Husserl. There is an easy case for these two phenomenologists, particularly Merleau-Ponty because of his explicit focus on the corporeality of perception and experience, which can easily address the structure of perceiving Turrell’s installations. Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception allows for the human body to actively participate in our experience and knowledge of the world. This sentiment echoes in Turrell’s reply to the question: “Are your works primarily visual experiences for the person who visits the space, not translations of your experiences?”:

“Yes. Of course, it takes somebody’s vision to have set that up, so the artist does create and limit the universe of possibilities, and within that you’re on your own. In that sense it is like any other art. But it does demand a certain decision to deal with it, which is this art’s price of admission. But every art, I feel, has a price of admission, and often many people don’t pay it.  They end up looking at the work rather than into it. I think that’s the biggest problem with contemporary art for a large portion of America. America hasn’t learned it has to pay the price of admission, to look into it rather than just at it.” [11]

Something more may need to be accounted for, however. Is it a matter of what we can know about our experience or what we can discover about our being? Heidegger’s ontological project, which may always be on the verge of falling into a metaphysics, should still remain an important aspect of our questions about art and experience. What we may need to consider when experiencing these installations is that they create conditions for Dasein’s disclosedness. The installations don’t just make us aware of the mechanics of perception, they make us aware of our being-in-the-world. The method of phenomenology leads us to ontological distinctions, and these distinctions shouldn’t be ignored.

 

James Turrell. Aten Reign. 2013.

James Turrell. Aten Reign. 2013.

The Truth in Illusion

Dawna Schuld, along with many other critics, talk about Turrell’s Afrum (White) as illusion; Schuld even juxtaposes the piece to the famous Necker Cube, the line drawing of a cube that switches orientations. In her essay for Phenomenal: California Light, Space, Surface, “Practically Nothing: Light, Space, and the Pragmatics of Phenomenology,” she describes the perceptual experiences Turrell creates for the viewer in Acton (1976) and Afrum (White):

“What follows is the delightful awareness that one can return to the illusion simply by repositioning one’s body vis-à-vis the sensing space. This ability to consciously hold perception in flux is also a characteristic of many of Turrell’s projection pieces, notably the Afrum “cube,” which like a Necker illusion can be cognitively manipulated to invert into its corner or revert into a projected cube that juts out toward us, while with a step to the left or the right it “rotates.” Not one interpretation achieves primacy.” [12]

Further, she claims that “[t]he intentional object is no longer the image on the wall but rather the ways in which we can manipulate our own perceptual mechanisms, within given circumstances.” [13]  Though operative in the works, these claims keep us with the intentional structure of perception Husserl develops, which differ for Heidegger. In viewing Turrell’s work, it is a being-toward, not necessarily a manipulation. Manipulation brings with it the structure of power and control, which isn’t the same thing as unconcealing through the disclosedness of Dasein.

Nancy Marmer’s 1981 review of Turrell’s exhibition at the Whitney, James Turrell: Light and Space, focuses on the “chilling art of deception” which is Turrell’s “more rigorous, even didactic, aspect to [his work] that tends to be ignored.” [14]  This attention to illusion or deception isn’t specific to Marmer. From that same year, Wolfgang Zimmer’s review in ARTnews is titled “Now You See It, Now You…” [15]  This is important. Questions about being and truth are glossed over when the work is only described as illusion and deception, simple plays of perception. This is too simplistic to fully describe Turrell’s work. Rather, it is the interplay of appearance, semblance, and phenomenon (in Heidegger’s sense: of something showing itself from itself in itself). It is not a simple either/or situation, where you either see the illusion, or the “true” material conditions of the piece. The totality of this situation of being-with the piece is the truth of the work, its unconcealedness in the disclosure of Dasein, our being as being-in-the-world.

Turrell claims that “he is not trying to fool the viewer.” [16]  Craig Adcock references Turrell’s rejection of “illusion” to describe his work quoting Turrell: “People have talked about illusion in my work, but I don’t feel it is an illusion because what you see alludes to what in fact it really is — a space where the light is markedly different.” [17] This statement may coincide with one of Heidegger’s from the work of art essay, that the “work lets the earth be earth,” earth here meaning foundation of world that is not merely matter. [18]  Afrum (White) doesn’t merely point to the way our perception may trick us, it instead opens up world as worldliness. In the measurement or, shall I say, rational description of Turrell’s works, the work disappears. Only in remaining concealed as a totality can it allow for the disclosure of Dasein as being-in-the-world: “Color shines and wants only to shine. When we analyze it in rational terms by measuring its wavelengths, it is gone. It shows itself only when it remains undisclosed and unexplained.” [19]

James Turrell. Aten Reign. 2013.

James Turrell. Aten Reign. 2013.

In a world where government shuts down and the NSA surveils our telecommunications because everyone is dissembling as a terrorist, what does it mean for us to consider the unveiling of the world? What is the relationship between surveil and unveil? The surveil, the on top of the veil, still maintains the veil of concealedness. Information-gathering does not get us any closer to truth. Maybe it’s time to think of other ways to be in the world. Dancing with the projected light in the corner of the gallery allows me to experience the work of Afrum (White), with work meaning the “setting forth,” which entails a setting to work of truth. I move around the piece, seeing it this way, seeing it that way. It clears the space for my being as a being in this space with this light and with these others that are also in this space with me. I am in this gallery, in this museum, in this city, in this country, in this world, choosing to move with this lighted corner that has unveiled itself as a work of art. Is this choice a narcissism or a solipsism? A nihilism? I would argue no; my perceptual experience with this work has to involve all others that participated in its making and those that are viewing it alongside me.

In the atrium of the Guggenheim, Turrell’s Aten Reign, encourages us to sit together and decide upon the truth of what we are experiencing. This work has drawn some highly critical reception, comparing it poorly to the collective experience of Olafur Eliasson’s The weather project for example. What both of these projects offer us is the sun, the ability to sit and stare at the sun, the light that burns us. “Aten” of Aten Reign, is Aten, or Aton, the highly controversial Egyptian god of the sun and refers to the disk/orb of the sun itself. This reference to the sun brings us to another important aspect of Turrell’s work: his references to the Allegory of the Cave in Plato’s Republic. In this allegory, prisoners are trapped in a cave and can only see objects of the world as shadows on the cave wall — puppets backlit by fire controlled by puppeteers. If a prisoner is set free, her first experience of the true sun beyond the darkness of the cave is so overpowering and blinding that “he [sic] will suffer sharp pains; the glare will distress [him], and he [sic] will be unable to see the realities of which in his [sic] former state he [sic] had seen the shadow.” [20] This pain makes the prisoner turn away and seek refuge back in the cave where the shadows are more familiar.

What Aten Reign may give us is the space to look into the light without pain. It is a foggy light and may dissemble with its changing colors, but it shows itself in such a way that maybe we can spend the necessary time with it in order to let in unveil itself. Turrell may, in a sense, occupy the position of the puppeteer, but he also opens the opportunity for us to look at the blinding light. One could argue that his skyspaces do this better, and that may be true, but they are also indirect gazes at the sun.

I secretly took a photograph of the installation (I know I wasn’t supposed to). Only later did I realize that a thin veneer of dust and grime had covered the camera lens on my phone. The image that I have of this experience of mine is blurry, foggy, a hazy memory that prompts me to consider what it was that I really experienced.

 

Notes

[1] Wil S. Hilton, “How James Turrell Knocked the Art World Off Its Feet,” New York Times, (June 13, 2013), 1: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/16/magazine/how-james-turrell-knocked-the-art-world-off-its-feet.html

[2] Martin Heidegger, “The Origin of the Work of Art,” in Basic Writings, ed. David Farrell Krell (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1993), 170.

[3] Heidegger, Being and Time, trans. Joan Stambaugh with revisions by Dennis J. Schmidt (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2010), 65.

[4] Ibid., 227.

[5] Ibid., 28-29.

[6] Ibid., 28.

[7] Ibid., 133.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Andrew Mitchell, Heidegger Among the Sculptors: Body, Space, and the Art of Dwelling (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2010),10.

[10] Ibid., 23.

[11] Richard Andrews, James Turrell: Sensing Space (Seattle: Henry Gallery Association, 1992), 37.

[12] Dawna Schuld, “Practically Nothing: Light, Space, and the Pragmatics of Phenomenology,” in Robin Clark (ed.), Phenomenal: California Light, Space, Surface (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2011), 116-118.

[13] Ibid., 118.

[14] Nancy Marmer, “James Turrell: The Art of Deception,” Art in America, vol. 69 (May 1981), 97.

[15] Wolfgang Zimmer, “Now you see it, Now you…,” ARTnews, vol. 80 (Feb 1981): 225.

[16] Craig Adcock, James Turrell: The Art of Light and Space (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1990), 12.

[17] Turrell interview with Julia Brown in Occluded Front, James Turrell, quoted in Adcock, 13.

[18] Heidegger, “Work of Art,” 172.

[19] Ibid., 172.

[20] Plato, Republic, Book VII, lines 515

The “Celluloid Self” and Spaces of Feminine Performativity

September 26, 2013 · Print This Article

The Hagedorn Foundation Gallery, located surprisingly in a nondescript complex of galleries and antique shops in Buckhead, a north-side neighborhood of Atlanta, curated a show focusing on feminism, performativity, and photography. The works in the show by the artists Jill Frank, Mónika Sziládi, and duo Double Zero (Hannah Ireland and Annie Vought) examine how to make a photograph of someone, a person, a woman (perhaps) and what that means. One of the organizing principles of the show – performativity, a buzz word indeed especially since the 1990s with Judith Butler’s work on gender – finds itself in relation to photographs that draw attention to the process of their making. Alongside considerations of gender and femininity as performative gestures, the works in the show investigate the apparatus of photography and imagistic representation itself – Jill Frank’s work in particular. Adding to this work by Frank is the Untitled (Projection) series by Steffani Jemison presented in her solo exhibition, When I Turn My Head, in the upstairs gallery at Hagedorn.

The works in Ready for My Close-Up evoke other images of women from history: paintings, film stills. These other images, not necessarily direct references, exist in an assemblage of representation with Frank’s, Sziládi’s, and Double Zero’s. When seen in conjunction with When I Turn My Head, the sphere of the imagistic medium, photography, opens itself to critical examination and self-reflection. Ready for My Close-Up seems to ask whether the question of female or feminine representation is the question of representation itself.

Jill Frank’s Menacing Romance

Four photographs from Jill Frank’s series Romance are presented in the show: Romance / Popocatépetl and Iztacchíhuatl (2012), Romance / Secret Sniper (2012), Romance / Vertigo (2013), and Romance / Un Homme et un Femme (2013). All images are chromogenic prints with rich colors that provoke fantasies, and with their large size (30” x 37”), the viewer feels as if she can initially step into the scene. The first two images, Romance / Popocatépetl and Iztacchíhuatl (2012) and Romance / Secret Sniper (2012), depict more unsuspecting narratives, whereas the last two images, Romance / Vertigo (2013) and Romance / Un Homme et un Femme (2013) start to take on a more sinister e/affect.

Jill Frank. "Romance / Vertigo." 2013. Chromogenic Print. Courtesy of the artist.

Jill Frank. Romance / Vertigo. 2013. Chromogenic Print. Courtesy of the artist.

A woman lays across a kneeling man’s knee with her head invisible to the viewer – it hangs down, exposing her throat where his his hand rests. Her knee hosts a series of bandages, the slingback of her shoe has slipped from her heel.

Two men stand at the edge of a dock. Wearing matching colored shorts, one holds the other from behind, grasping at his neck and chest. The man standing in front reaches over his head to hold onto the man behind him. The man in front looks up obliquely with an indistinguishable gaze.

These two photographs: Romance / Vertigo (2013) and Romance / Un Homme et un Femme (2013) exemplify the complications Frank creates for our traditional senses of Hollywood romance. Frank’s statement for the show describes her process and intentions behind the series:

“The photographs in this exhibition portray couples re-performing poses inspired by popular media images that were formative in constructing their own understanding of romantic interaction and presentation. The photographed performances challenge the authority and familiarity of the collective visual archive of American romance in order to engender a critical conversation about the influence of dominant representations.” [1]

The show’s title Ready for My Close-Up directly references the last lines aging Hollywood actress Norma Desmond speaks in the 1950 film Sunset Boulevard. The film, a story of a silent film actress gone mad yearning to occupy the space of the Hollywood picture again, ends with her face approaching the camera until it disintegrates into a haze of grey. Her closeness to the camera quite literally destroys her, but it was the years of distance which contributed to her delusions. [2] Hagedorn’s exhibition statement describes the cultural reference to the film in relation to the photographic works shown in Ready for My Close-Up:

“In the last half century, feminism and performativity have influenced contemporary photography more than any other cultural markers. The exhibition title is taken from the exit line of Sunset Boulevard, a film which questions female identity issues, the rehearsal of the self, the gaze of the viewer, and the use of the theatrical to command attention, all influenced by culture and all features of this group exhibition.” [3]

The works in the group show can all serve as critical responses to the film, whether the work is explicitly influenced by the film or not; they exist together in the sphere of representation’s history. Frank’s photographs play out the deranged romantic entanglement of the film’s Desmond and Joe Gillis. Mónika Sziládi’s photographs present the viewer with a crowded and disorienting perspective of cultures and practices of representation. Double Zero’s photographs and video portray a feminine masquerade pushed to hyperbolic extremes.

 

Mónika Sziládi. "Untitled (Ladies)." 2012. Archival inkjet print.

Mónika Sziládi. Untitled (Ladies). 2012. Archival inkjet print. Courtesy of the artist.

 

Sziládi, The Montage-Paparazzi

Sziládi’s photograph Untitled (Ladies) (2012) sticks a fuzzy and blurred face into the foreground of the image. The close-up shot has gotten too close like Norma Desmond’s final close-up in Sunset Boulevard. The six photographs shown at Hagedorn are from her series Wide Receivers, possibly a play on the position in American football, the players that are able to receive passes from the quarterback and are often celebrated for those glorious catches. Her statement describes her interests in the “social sphere and its attendant behaviors” and her “aim to collapse the space between the physical and the virtual.” [4] The images, a flattening of perspectival depth, contain images of imaging or representational processes and those who are allowed representation. There is a sense that when one figure stands in front of another, there is no space between their bodies; one actually cuts through the other’s body.

Untitled (Blonde) (2011) can be read as representing representation itself. Through Sziládi’s inclusion of images of handheld cameras, subjects posing for snapshots, a woman putting on make-up reflected in a mirror, and a perhaps drag queen taking up the center space of the photograph, after whom the photograph is titled, the photograph seems to become a commentary on the practice of photography itself. Next to the blonde, a man was caught with his eyes closed. To the left of him, a man’s eye peers directly out of the frame towards the subject looking at the photograph. Michel Foucault states that the 17th century painting Las Meninas (1656) by Diego Velásquez

“presents us with the entire cycle of representation: the gaze, the palette and brush, the canvas innocent of signs (these are the material tools of representation), the paintings, the reflections, the real man (the completed representation, but as it were freed from its illusory or truthful contents, which are juxtaposed to it); then the representation  dissolves again: we can see only the frames, and the light that is flooding the pictures from outside, but that they, in return, must reconstitute in their own kind, as though it were coming from elsewhere, passing through their dark wooden frames.” [5]

 

Diego Velázquez. "Las Meninas." 1656. Image found at: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/f/f8/Las_Meninas_%281656%29%2C_by_Velazquez.jpg

Diego Velázquez. Las Meninas. 1656. Image retrieved on Wikipedia at: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/f/f8/Las_Meninas_%281656%29%2C_by_Velazquez.jpg

 

Sziládi’s digital composites of images taken at “public relations and networking events as well as trade shows and meet-ups of social segments that have connected online to interact offline” [6] comment on the constructed nature of the way we present ourselves in public and the ways in which we image those constructions. Like Velasquez’s painting, the apparatus of representation shows itself explicitly, drawing our attention to our own practices of presentation and public performance.

 

Mónika Sziládi. "Untitled (Blonde)." 2011. Archival inkjet print. Courtesy of artist.

Mónika Sziládi. Untitled (Blonde). 2011. Archival inkjet print. Courtesy of the artist.

Double Zero’s Revealing Masks

Double Zero’s photographs and video push these meticulous constructions of public appearance to the extreme. In their video Cha cha cha changes (2013), Hannah Ireland and Annie Vought dress each other up with unconventional objects or conventional objects in unconventional ways. Over the course of the video’s almost 23 minutes, the two women take on absurd costuming and masking. With materials that are used for make-up application and other cosmetic tools, their faces become covered in lipstick and face paint, their heads bound in bubblewrap and what appears to be foil that could be used to dye hair. Flower stems are stuck into the fabrics wrapping their heads, blooms sticking out from their faces.

 

Double Zero (Hannah Ireland & Annie Vought). "each other + self-portrait #3 'My left arm and your right arm together'." 2013 C-print. Courtesy of the artists.

Double Zero (Hannah Ireland & Annie Vought). each other + self-portrait #3 “My left arm and your right arm together”. 2013 C-print. Courtesy of the artists.

 

The two take turns transforming each other’s appearance. In what appears to be a reference to Matthew Barney’s Cremaster Cycle, particularly Cremaster 3, they go through processes of bodily manipulation and adornment. [7] If Barney’s Cremaster Cycle is about the development of the male testes, what can be said about Double Zero’s feminine transformations? Their statement reads: “We have united to use our 20 year friendship as the basis for investigating the ways we affect one another, the boundaries between us, and different modes of taking up space in the world. With the complexities of friendship and the trust we’ve built over time, we pursue these themes directly in the actions and objects we make together.” [8] Their photographs and video show a relational transformation. They affect one another whether they choose it or not. The silliness of the objects and the resulting ornate masks when coupled with their facial expressions in the video, the phenomenon of feminine friendship grows into a complex situation of acceptance and denial.

 

Double Zero (Hannah Ireland & Annie Vought). "Cha cha cha changes." 2013. Video.

Double Zero (Hannah Ireland & Annie Vought). Cha cha cha changes. 2013. Video.

 

Norma Desmond, after she convinces herself that her script for her film about Salome, the ancient femme fatale, will be directed by Cecil B. DeMille, she starts a rigorous beauty routine. She claims that she needs to make herself ready to be in the pictures again and a sequence shows her being massaged, prodded, wrapped, lotioned. At one point, while wearing products on her face and with her hair wrapped, she enters Joe’s room, but tells him not to look back at her; when she is made-up in this way instead of the proper way, he is not to gaze upon her. Desmond’s excessively vain self-consciousness, is a private practice made public. At another moment in the film, after gazing at herself in the mirror, eyes wide with frenzy, she rips off the cosmetic strips on her face before walking into Joe’s room to discover he is leaving her. She chases him as he exits the house. To get his attention, she shoots him. She shoots him again. This is the moment of her breakdown. After this moment, all she can do is sit in front of the mirror and prep for the camera.

 

Caravaggio. "Salome with the Head of John the Baptist." 1607. Image retrieved on Wikipedia at: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/1/1a/CaravaggioSalomeLondon.jpg

Caravaggio. Salome with the Head of John the Baptist. 1607. Image retrieved on Wikipedia at: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/1/1a/CaravaggioSalomeLondon.jpg

 

Concluding Remarks: does Jemison’s ink adhere?

Desmond lives in a world of cameras and characters. To her, cinema ended when dialogue began. She says to Joe “We didn’t need dialogue, we had faces.” She then steps into the light of the film projector in her home movie theater that is showing one of the movies she had starred in. The woman actress need only have a face; she didn’t need a voice – this is the kind of cinema that Desmond supports. The voice destroys the perfect face; the face of 1932 Marlene Dietrich’s Shanghai Lily that Laura Mulvey gazes upon in her essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” [9] As Joe Gillis voice-over narrates, Norma is a “celluloid self.” [10] Is the celluloid flat? Does it have any depth? Is her self only surface, the merging of the surface with the underlying anatomy, her body? Or, is her self a thin veneer covering the surface of the filmic foundation?

The upstairs gallery of Hagedorn hosts Steffani Jemison’s show When I Turn My Head which “considers issues that arise when conceptual practices are inflected by black history and vernacular culture” and also “addresses the form and materiality of a photograph through the fugitivity of the image.” [11] Works from her series Untitled (Projections), photographs printed on acetate, explore the ways in which an image may separate from its support. The ink does not sink into the acetate; it rests on the surface, creating a depth of materiality. [12] Mary Ann Doane writes in her seminal essay “Film and the Masquerade: Theorizing the Female Spectator” that “The masquerade, in flaunting femininity, holds it at a distance. Womanliness is a mask which can be worn or removed. The masquerade’s resistance to patriarchal positioning would therefore lie in its denial of the production of femininity as closeness, as presence-to-itself, as precisely, imagistic.” [13] Taken together with the works in the show on the ground level, what do we discover about photography as a tool and method for thinking through and creating structures of representation? How much does the image adhere to what it represents and the foundation which holds that very representation itself?

 

Steffani Jemison. "Untitled (Projection)." 2012. Inkjet print on acetate, gesso, hardware on panel. Image retrieve on Jemison's website at: http://www.steffanijemison.com/index.php?/untitled-projections/

Steffani Jemison. Untitled (Projection). 2012. Inkjet print on acetate, gesso, hardware on panel. Image retrieve on Jemison’s website at: http://www.steffanijemison.com/index.php?/untitled-projections/

 

Sziládi, the figure of montage-paparazzi, makes apparent the apparatus of representation while Frank’s photographs create scenes in which non-extraordinary people inhabit the characters of Hollywood in order to experience true romance. What Frank shows us, though, is that these typical narratives are not without their dangers. Norma murders the man she has come to love. Whether or not that love is true is a question we could ask. In considering Ready for My Close-Up, must this love be artificial? Double Zero’s work seen as a sort of parody of making-up for the camera, expresses the artificial nature of feminine identity construction. However, within the framework of feminine friendship, we can’t too quickly dismiss these gestures of dressing one another. The collage nature of Sziládi’s digital images is seamless. Before knowing that they were constructed, I stood in front of the photographs pondering what parties they came from: where do these people gather? Are they all in costume together, playing into some collective fantasy?

 

Jill Frank. "Romance / Un homme et une femme." 2013. Chromogenic print. Courtesy of the artist.

Jill Frank. Romance / Un homme et un Femme. 2013. Chromogenic print. Courtesy of the artist.

 

Frank’s series grew from an iconic image, at least in today’s age of Hollywood: the image of Baby / Jennifer Grey crawling towards Johnny / Patrick Swayze in Dirty Dancing. A recognizable image. What sets Frank’s later photographs apart is their subjects’ poses are initially unrecognizable. In some way, their illegibility may gesture towards an infiltration of our cultural imaginary that we now fail to recognize. The everyday performances of relationships and romance congeal in Frank’s photographs.  Ready for My Close-Up, a show curated around the issue of feminism and performativity, finds its complexity in Frank’s strangely unsettling images of menacing romance, Sziládi’s disorienting flatness, and Double Zero’s interplay of masking and revealing.

Desmond, an embodied image of the female hysteric, is deluded. Her wide eyes stare out at the film spectator. As the character Salome, a woman who has been historically represented as a seductress, she approaches the camera, staring directly out at us, outside the frame of the film. In this moment, is she re-living/playing her past traumas? Traumas that may have led to this moment? In the film’s final moments, when Desmond declares that she is ready for her close-up, what can we say is exterior? What is interior?  Who is she? And, gazing at her, making eye contact, who are we?

 

Film still from "Sunset Boulevard." 1950. Directed by Billy Wilder. Image retrieved from blog "Cinema is my Life" at: http://www.cinemaismylife.com/2011/02/sunset-boulevard-or-how-hollywood_28.html

Film still from Sunset Boulevard. 1950. Directed by Billy Wilder. Image retrieved from blog “Cinema is my Life” at: http://www.cinemaismylife.com/2011/02/sunset-boulevard-or-how-hollywood_28.html

 

Ready for My Close-Up
September 12, 2013 – October 25, 2013
Artists’ Reception: October 4, 2013, 6:00 – 8:30 PM

Panel Discussion with the artists and Wendy Vogel, Associate Editor at Modern Painters: October 5, 2013, 12:00 – 2:00 PM

Hagedorn Foundation Gallery
425 Peachtree Hills Avenue, Number 25
Atlanta, GA 30305

 

Notes

[1] Jill Frank, Statement

[2] Sunset Boulevard. Directed by Billy Wilder. 1950.

[3] Hagedorn, Statement

[4] Mónika Sziládi, Wide Receivers statement, http://msziladi.com/index.php/image/statement/13

[5] Michel Foucault, The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences (New York: Vintage, 1994), 11.

[6] Sziládi, Wide Receivers statement

[7] I am indebted to Justin Andrews for calling this to my attention.

[8] Annie Vought, “Double Zero Videos,” http://annievought.com/category/double-zero/

[9] Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Screen, vol. 16, no. 3 (1975): 6-18.

[10] Sunset Boulevard.

[11] Hagedorn Foundation Gallery, Press Release for Steffani Jemison’s When I Turn My Head.

[12] During the panel discussion featuring Steffani Jemison, when I asked Jemison if she could describe the title choice and process of making these images, she replied that she was examining the make-up of a photograph: its support and its image. Panel discussion with Steffani Jemison, Rizvana Bradley (Assistant Professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Emory University), and Rujeko Hockley (Assistant Curator of Contemporary Art at the Brooklyn Museum) on 9.21.2013 at Hagedorn Foundation Gallery.

[13] Mary Ann Doane, “Film and the Masquerade: Theorizing the Female Spectator” in Femmes Fatales: Feminism, Film Theory, Psychoanalysis (New York and London: Routledge, 1991), 25. Reprint of the essay’s 1982 publication in Screen: Screen, vol. 23, no. 3-4 (1982): 74-88.

The Place of Utopia: gloATL’s Blue Astro Turf Swings

August 22, 2013 · Print This Article

Introduction: Laying the Floor

This July, I participated in the gloATL Summer Intensive. gloATL is an Atlanta-based dance company that creates physical installations for the public. During the Intensive, there were six of these installations that focused on the concept of utopia for a series of “utopia stations” that was part of its series Liquid Culture: a collection of gestures and sensations from an asphalt perspective that had occurred during the summer for the past few years; this summer was the last of these installations. Lauri Stallings, the choreographer and founder of gloATL, considers these performances installations – physical and public installations; the series is described as “physical installations [that] are unveiled as public utopia stations for arriving, leaving, and staying for awhile.” [1]

During the first weeks of the Intensive, Stallings described to us her interest in utopia, referencing Thomas More’s book Utopia (Of a republic’s best state and of the new island Utopia (De optimo rei publicae statu deque nova insula Utopia)), published in 1516. What seemed to be impelling Stallings to the notion of utopia is that the word utopia has multiple and somewhat contradictory meanings. The statement for this summer’s series of utopia stations describes that “[t]here is a double-meaning in the term “utopia,” being both a good place (eutopia) and a no place (outopia).” [2] The perplexing concepts of “good” and “no” together propelled me to enter the work. During this discussion with Stallings, the company, and fellow intensive participants, I mentioned that it seemed that “no place” had to be impossible. Wherever there is being, there is movement. Even between two atoms, there is an ever-so-slight vibratory motion. Animate form, or life, is exactly that, animate. It moves. [3] If “no place” cannot possibly exist, then what of the “good place”?

gloATL. Utopia Station 1. Liquid Culture 2013. Soundtable. Photo from BURNAWAY flickr. http://www.flickr.com/photos/burnaway/sets/72157634525912059/

gloATL. Utopia Station 1. Liquid Culture 2013. Soundtable. Photo from BURNAWAY flickr. http://www.flickr.com/photos/burnaway/sets/72157634525912059/

All of the installations involved swings, swing sets, and the encouragement of public engagement with the swings. For Stallings, this is a gesture of ultimate freedom; the ability to partake in the childlike joy of swinging within public space. Each installation also had blue astro turf designating a stage of sorts that at most times separated the dancers from the public. However, Stallings said that even this space should not be maintained as an eternal divider. She keeps in mind that a member of the public could always step over the edge of the floor and enter the space of the stage.

In looking back on this Intensive experience and observing the installations while reading Plato’s Republic for my PhD comprehensive exams, I find myself in a rather perplexing state of body-mind. Both Thomas More’s Utopia and Plato’s Republic describe a space where all would be good – proper governance, happiness, order, common property. Both of these spaces are fictional, however, and cannot possibly exist in the real world; a confluence of the double-meaning – a good place that is no place. In encountering a work that attempts through dance to create a utopian space in the current world we live in, the troubling passages in Republic become more clear instances of the perceived dangers of artistic freedom. [4] However, maybe the utopian installations illuminate these same passages in terms of a Platonic sarcasm; since the idea has been so pushed to the edge, it has become ridiculous.

 

Being There

As a participant in the making of the work and also as a viewer, my experience of the series of installations straddles multiple spheres of engagement, perception, and bodily recognition. I have to admit that those three weeks of July were among the hardest I have lived yet. The physical exertion of dancing for hours six days a week was taxing. The emotional investment was more than I had expected. The mental exercising was beyond what I had encountered before. Being in a PhD program at Emory, I don’t often have the opportunity to use my body as the material of my thought and production of work, so putting myself in the mode of bodily “thought” was an exercise in mental gymnastics.

Inhabiting another’s work was something I had not experienced before. Taking on someone else’s idea as my own and incorporating it into my own body was more of a challenge than I could have imagined. The ability to fully take on the choreographer’s concept as inspiration for one’s own bodily experience is a skill that I fully respect. It amazes me to see gloATL dancers express these concepts with their whole bodies; each finger is doing something special; each facial twitch is a culmination of an entirety of being. As Stallings says, “the movement is in your fingers.”

Stallings process is an incredible one to witness. Starting with an idea, it traverses into often unexpected territory, blossoming into full body expression. This part of the process, called “Process” by gloATL, usually came after a warm-up led by Stallings or other gloATL dancers. This wasn’t any sort of warm-up though. Called “Tools,” it was an exploration of internal bodily connections that make movement manifest externally. All movement generates from the inside and radiates towards an external form that can be witnessed. Coming out of a Gaga tradition, a dance technique and vocabulary formulated by Israel choreographer Ohad Naharin, “Tools” is a way to connect to the pleasure of movement. Even when difficult, the ability to move is a pleasure in and of itself. One of the goals is to constantly search for the unexpected places in the body that initiate movement. Stallings often said that if you feel you are comfortable with a particular movement, it’s time to move towards something previously undone, unthought, un/not-moved.

After finishing the intensive and going back into my usually more stationary world of reading books and writing words on a screen, I feel that the world of movement has infiltrated my world of stationary contemplation. I realize that the movement was there all along and that it’s just that I have begun to accept it more fully into the life I am living.

gloATL. Utopia Station 2. 10th and Piedmont. Liquid Culture 2013. Photo by Thom Baker. http://www.artsatl.com/2013/07/review-gloatls-liquid-culture-series-finds-breath-simplicity-freedom-great-outdoors/

 

Swinging Release

During the last installation I participated in with gloATL, I felt something inside come up into my throat. Maybe a purely physical experience, but something tells me that it was more. At the end of the installation, we invited the audience into the middle of the blue astro turf floor by leading them using our elbows as the anchor for them to hold onto. There, after looking into each other’s eyes, we decided as a group to speak: “You have only to say yes.” With childlike wonderment and excitement, about the beautiful swing sets, about the blue of the astro turf, about being there moving, the group performing in the installation let go with screams, laughter, and every other kind of expression that erupted from the core. At this point, something inside my body crept up to the top of my throat, something was attempting to escape through my mouth. I stopped still. If I moved anymore, that thing would exit my body onto the astro turf. I couldn’t fathom that happening. It was a purging that I couldn’t handle happening at that time.

gloATL. Utopia Station 4. Woodruff Arts Center. Liquid Culture 2013. Photo from BURNAWAY flickr.

gloATL. Liquid Culture 2013. Woodruff Arts Center. Photo from BURNAWAY flickr. http://www.flickr.com/photos/burnaway/sets/72157634714580973/

I went home that night after the installation and tried to process what had happened to me. The next morning during process, we went over that moment. The same thing kept happening. Whatever was in there wanted to be let go, but, for some reason, I couldn’t let it. I sat down in the hall outside the studio. My body couldn’t accept what it was saying. The connections between my body, my mind, and my internal emotional existence were confused with each other. It seemed that my mental thoughts couldn’t keep up with the internal movements of my emotions and body. I couldn’t keep it together. I couldn’t participate in the last installation. Of this, I am deeply regretful. I wish I could have made it through, but something, I’m not sure what exactly, kept me back.

Maybe it was the thought of utopia, a freedom I couldn’t comprehend. That feeling deep in my belly that rose to my throat threatened me simultaneously with the “good place” and the “no place.” Something in my unconscious body-mind didn’t understand what that even could mean. How could I occupy that position of “good place” and “no place” at all, let alone at the same time? Maybe this is what Plato was warning against: a radical disorder. If the body, mind, and soul cannot be easily divided and categorized, what happens to that being and the rest of the world she inhabits? Music and gymnastic together as dance brought be to that precipice of disorder that was begging to erupt. This eruption of bodily order holds within it the potential for ultimate freedom from restraint, but also ultimate devastation of a creeping chaos.

gloATL. Utopia Station 3. Goodson Yard at The Goat Farm Arts Center. Liquid Culture 2013. Photo by Ralph Williams. E37 Photography. http://e37photography.blogspot.com

gloATL. Liquid Culture Series 2013 at Goodson Yard. Photo by Ralph Williams. E37 Photography. http://e37photography.blogspot.com

This is the experience that Stallings created – for me, for the public, maybe for the other dancers themselves. Though these installations are meant for public interaction, it is rare that you see an audience member claim the space as her own. The dance floor remains a dance floor for most of the time until glo explicitly invites the public to join them. There is a timidity to dance and art viewing even with the explosion of socially-engaged and participant-driven art. However, during one of the performances at The Goat Farm Arts Center, one of the participants decided to take control of the space. He took on one of the swings hanging from the rafters as his own. He did not want to get off the swing, even when approached by glo dancers that needed the swing to perform the choreography. Eventually, with some silent, eye coaxing he got up and off the swing. In the public sphere, it is impossible to claim a particular space as purely your own. Part of the freedom the series of installations points to is the freedom to not grasp so tightly.

During the ending section performed at The Goat Farm Arts Center and The Woodruff Arts Center, we played a game of switching and racing for swings. It was so satisfying to attain the glory of the swing, but at a certain point, while swinging with pride, watching the other dancers in the middle of the floor fidget with anticipation and wide eyes, I decided to jump off the swing, give it over to another to enjoy. That might be the space of utopian contradiction – both the “good place” and the “no place” together; the space suspended in air where you joyfully float, exiting the swing in order for another to occupy it.

gloATL. Utopia Station 4. Woodruff Arts Center. Liquid Culture 2013. Photo BURNAWAY flickr.

gloATL. Liquid Culture 2013. Woodruff Arts Center. Photo from BURNAWAY flickr. http://www.flickr.com/photos/burnaway/sets/72157634714580973/

 

For more images of the installations, check out BURNAWAY’s flickr sets for gloATL’s Liquid Culture installations at Historic Old Fourth Ward, Goodson Yard at The Goat Farm Arts Center, and Woodruff Arts Center.

For a great review/write-up of the 2013 Liquid Culture series, check out Cynthia Bond Perry’s article “gloATL’s “Liquid Culture” series finds breath, simplicity, and freedom” published on Arts ATL.

Notes:

[1] Statement for Liquid Culture: a collection of gestures and sensations from an asphalt perspective, gloATL, http://gloatl.org/upcoming/whats-next/ (accessed 8.21.2013)

[2] Statement for Liquid Culture: a collection of gestures and sensations from an asphalt perspective, gloATL, http://gloatl.org/upcoming/whats-next/ (accessed 8.21.2013)

[3] Maxine Sheets-Johnstone, The Primacy of Movement, 2nd edition (Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company, 2011).

[4] See for example Plato’s treatment of music and gymnastic as the best tools for educating the body and soul to be temperate, courageous, and good. However, there are stipulations attached to these training methods; no innovation is allowed. Since music is claimed to be the most mimetic art, it comes with a certain power that must be controlled. I don’t think it is surprising that this art form is paired with an art of the body, gymnastic. (Plato, Republic, Book II, 376; Book III, 410; Book IV, 424; and etc.) Also consider the discussion of music and gymnastic in relation to the proper form of narrative in poetry, pure third person narration, which does not inhabit the person of a character and speak through him or her. In Book II, section 377, Plato asks whether music also includes literature, and further, whether this literature is true or false. This leads the members of the dialogue to a discussion of what stories should be allowed to be told and which ones are dangerous to the ears – too influential.

Suspended Radiophonic Breath Terrains: Anna Friz and Coppice at Tritriangle

July 25, 2013 · Print This Article

Anna Friz and Coppice performed in their audio installation at Tritriangle on 5/25/2013 in Chicago, IL. The two installations and two live performances occupied the gallery as co-existing organisms. [1] Each stemming from Friz’s and Coppice’s own larger overarching projects, Friz’s Nocturne and Coppice’s A Vinculum Variation are iterations, though it becomes clear that these iterations are not repetitions, but manifestations of differences in space, time, and materiality. The artists filled the spaces above my head and below/around my feet with sounds produced by other bodies: people, instruments, apparatuses, and radios. The two installations created the terrain in which the live performances inhabited. The earthy landscape, coupled with a cloud of respiration, constituted a world of transmission that enabled relationships to form in and between bodies.

Anna Friz "Nocturne" and Coppice "A Vinculum Variation." Photo by Amanda Gutierrez.

Anna Friz “Nocturne” and Coppice “A Vinculum Variation.” Photo by Amanda Gutierrez.

Installation Navigation

In the space of Tritriangle, tiny blueish-silvery lights floating in air illuminate 82 small silver radios suspended from thin silver wires, a cloud of radios. In one corner of the space is blue light; in two other corners, yellow-gold illuminations. The blue corner holds three hand-built radios by the inventor George Kagan, an accordion, a harmonica, a chair, a mixer, and other sound equipment. Two radio transmitters fixed near the ceiling, send signals on two different frequencies to the 82 suspended radios. The radios, hovering at different levels around my head, emit gentle sounds of an accordian-played melody, breath, and radio static. The golden-brown corner contains a chair, an accordion, a box. Another corner contains a set-up with tape players, speakers, and an inductive mixing table with devices that send signals to the speakers lining the room close to the floor. These speakers emanate sounds of breathing, bellows of an accordion, air passing through processed reeds, the crackling paper inside a shruti box, pressure cuffs, and a funnel. In a third corner, golden light illuminated that illuminates a metal funnel.

A Vinculum Variation; Coppice’s Archived Air Contours

For the installation and performance at Tritriangle, Chicago-based duo Coppice (Noé Cuéllar and Joseph Kramer) created a listening experience that compelled the listener to navigate and inhabit the space of the gallery in a fluid way. Before the performances, the audience could walk freely around the space and stop to observe what was emitting from the various speakers lining the room. During the performance, the audience stilled and the artists and the audio material activated. Cuéllar, playing the accordion and free reeds, moved his own body around and through the space, while Kramer used two custom-built apparatuses: his customized inductive mixing table and customized cassette tape player. Kramer, kneeling on the floor, using this table, which “redistributes the sounds of the Vinculum archive as they are played back through small speakers resting at different locations on its surface,” [2] changes the location from where sounds poured. The cassette tape instrument Kramer designed and created is able to “make a record of the sonic space that also reproduces the recording from moments ago while simultaneously recapturing its own output.” [3]

These devices together create space and time that shift and refuse to remain static or linear. The changes in the part of the room that contained the raw recordings from the Vinculum archive created a constantly changing environment of breathing; audio materials from their ongoing-archive emerged in the space and surrounded the audience with breath. Cuéllar, changing positions throughout the space of the installation, used the accordion’s keys and bellows to breathe sounds throughout the room. Coppice’s contribution to the installation as a whole grounded the audience and the space itself creating a material terrain the viewer could navigate and explore.

Coppice "A Vinculum Variation." Photo by Amanda Gutierrez.

Coppice “A Vinculum Variation.” Photo by Amanda Gutierrez.

Coppice’s installation and performance at Tritriangle emerged from its ongoing project since 2010Vinculum, a constantly shifting index of sounds, bodies, and space that involves isolating and highlighting particular sounds that are specific to Coppice. Sitting down with Cuéllar and Kramer in their studio, they describe their interest in the “behavior of sounds” [4] and the ways in which different sounds demand a different kind of listening. However, Coppice is not necessarily interested in making the listener more aware of the plethora of quotidian sounds that may surround her. Rather, the listener is encouraged to connect to the collection of sounds Coppice draws from to create their compositions. The work is deeply self-referential in its consistent pointing back to itself, its own self-reflexivity. The recordings, which are used to form Coppice compositions, are stored and categorized as specimens the listener can study and discover within the work. Coppice’s archival process, which involves recording the sounds and storing them in built containers or vessels – hand-sewn pouches or built wooden boxes (for Vinculum Specimen Edition), produces a peculiar meditation on the nature of cataloguing. What is capable of being stored? What should be saved? The individual entries/specimens can then be accessed and experienced by the listener in a multitude of ways. Coppice encourages the listener “to play the discs simultaneously on repeat from multiple players when possible.” [5] However, the listener has the ability to change the order and method of playback to create her own way of experiencing the archived sounds. The archive is not static and is rather presented as a collection that is open to change and re-arrangement; it is an “open composition.” [6]

Coppice describes the sounds of Vinculum as quiet and having to be found from a particular point of view. Because Coppice is concerned with each sound’s specific experiential condition, the recordings in the archive capture the particular spatial arrangement necessary to recognize the sound, making the archive one of space and the way the listener and the instrument inhabit space. Many of the sounds Coppice finds, makes, and records relate to the human body and its rhythms. The breath that passes through a tube and the air that traverses through the bellows of an accordion or pump organ indicate the necessity of the body to the production of that sound, whether it is the musician’s breath, hands, or feet interacting with the instrument or apparatus. They claim that it is the “air on the edge of things” [7] that makes its way into the auditory. Coppice’s sounds that insist on the “air on the edge of things” found themselves in conversation with Friz’s dreamy cloud of radio breath that floated above their audio terrain.

Nocturne; Anna Friz’s Radiogenic Objects

Canadian sound and radio artist Anna Friz, who is currently based in Chicago, performed second, immediately following Coppice, in the installation’s landscape. While the suspended radios picked up the transmission of an accordion-played melody, Friz began to play that same phrase in the middle of the space. The recordings emanating from the tiny radios and the live instrument in the installation mingled together in a sea of sounds and lights. When the recorded melody ended, Friz used the live accordion with its bellows to create a drone, filling the space. At one point, Friz got up, put the accordion down, turned on the handbuilt radios, picked up the harmonica, and began to play the instrument, sending it through the transmitters to the radios filling the space above my head.

Anna Friz "Nocturne." Photo by Amanda Gutierrez.

Anna Friz “Nocturne.” Photo by Amanda Gutierrez.

Nocturne is an iteration of her radiophonic installations that began in 2006 with You are far from us, a project she has been transforming since its premiere at Radio Revolten Festival at Ärtzejaus in Halle, Germany. The work explores the notion that radio technology is not disembodied, and that it actually holds within it traces of bodies and perhaps even allows us to overcome distance between bodies. Friz materializes the radio’s possible embodiment through voice and its breath, corporeality, and emotion. Breath and radio are intimately linked; Friz describes the phenomenon of the breath and radio static as sharing the same frequency range – a fascinating aspect of radio’s embodiment. She also describes the radios and their tendency to drift from their frequencies as a precarious bodily situation, not unlike human and nonhuman animal bodies that are subject to their environments and situations. The radios are in relationships with each other, though mediated through the multiple radio transmitters that populate the ceiling of the space.

The first manifestation of the installation You are far from us involved four transmitters, 50 radios, and 5-10 hand-crank Grundigs. This installation focused on the disastrous human condition and the ways in which it is transmitted and created through radio. In her statement for You are far from us, Friz asks the question: “What nearly inaudible signals, transmitted in moments of intensity or crisis — what do people seek to transmit, in a moment between the intake of breath and the breath held, waiting, in tension?” [8] Further, in turning to the specificity of the radio, she states that “[b]uilt on breath and other bodily exclamations typically absent from regular radio broadcasts, the radios operate at the limit of their capacity to transmit emotion.” [9] This interest in the radio as entity and performer itself is something Friz has been working with, an evolvement of her earlier work which conceptualized the radio as containing within itself people and that “the voices emanating from the radio were the voices of the little people who lived inside. Turn on the radio, the little people begin to talk, change the station and they change their voices. I imagined the radio people waited inside while the radio was off, ever ready to perform at the click of the dial.” [10] Now, she conceptualizes the radios themselves as the performing entities, not tied to a necessarily anthropomorphic view of the world. This is not to say that the radios are entirely outside the realm of human experience; they experience the precariousness of the world in perhaps a similar way. They tune in to frequencies and then drift off, floating and locking into a new one — a new world experience.

Friz describes the radios suspended in the floating cloud as sleeping, experiencing REM cycles, taking in the day and processing it through dreams. Nocturne at Tritriangle is an outgrowth of the section “Nocturne” from Friz’s previous installation You are far from us, with the section’s intent being “stilling the breath and relaxing [the radios].” [11] Friz emphasizes that she chooses to privilege the auditory over the visual in the installation because it helps the listener “focus attention on moving through space” [12] and instills the notion that the listener is a sensing body. The stilling of the breath and the radios drives home this recognition. When limiting one sense, other senses heighten. The viewer is no longer dependent on the two orbs situated in the front of the head as guides through space. The audio creates spatial relationships that enable the viewer to navigate the space at her own leisure. This navigational drifting relates to the radios’ own drifts. The radios experience the phenomenon of capture effect, thus causing them to detune and find a new channel to occupy. For Friz, the detuning isn’t necessarily about interference, since the notion of interference corresponds to a cybernetic theory of communication with involves fidelity to a message. Rather, she is interested in exploring “fields of influence.” [13] The radios’ detuning don’t mark a deficiency or breakdown. Instead, the tuning into different frequencies seem to reflect human and nonhuman animal choices to take a turn, go down a different path. The suspension of the inhale, [14] creates the space in which life is lived, with all of its precariousness.

We Breathe

Coppice and Friz created an environment in which the audience and the device could all breathe together, exchanging exhalations and inhalations actualizing a cloud of respiration. Focusing on the breath allows us to recognize that we are constantly exchanging material from our own bodies with the world. Though, this body in its continual state of exchange shows us that the molecules in our own bodies aren’t static and can’t always belong to us; these molecules are only finding themselves to exist within us for a passing moment in time. “The breath does not belong to the self. It enters and exists of its own accord. It inhabits the empty space of the lungs for brief periods and the same molecules and particles may never enter again.” [15]

Notes

[1] Personal conversation with Anna Friz and Coppice at the performance, May 25, 2013.

[2] Coppice, A Vinculum Variation, http://www.futurevessel.com/coppice/work/performance-installation/a-vinculum-variation.

[3] Joseph Kramer, “Episode 31: Porous Notion: Index Fragments and Interpretation,” Radius (Oct. 2012): http://theradius.us/episode31.

[4] Personal interview with Coppice, June 5, 2013.

[5] Coppice, Vinculum, http://www.futurevessel.com/coppice/work/recordings/vinculum.

[6] Personal interview with Coppice.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Anna Friz, You are far from us, http://nicelittlestatic.com/sound-radio-artworks/you-are-far-from-us/.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Anna Friz, Who are the people inside your radio, http://nicelittlestatic.com/sound-radio-artworks/who-are-the-people-in-your-radio/.

[11] Personal interview with Friz, June 8, 2013.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Friz describes the inhalation as suspension.

[15] Meredith Kooi, “Aristophanes’ Hiccups and Relational Spasms,” given at Location/Location symposium organized for Field Static: A Group Show About the Object, Co-Prosperity Sphere (Chicago, IL: June 6, 2012), 6.

 

 

Experiencing Medium(s), Archiving Medium(s): John Q’s The Campaign for Atlanta: an essay on queer migration

June 27, 2013 · Print This Article

Introducing Essays

Atlanta-based idea collective John Q premiered its work The Campaign for Atlanta: an essay on queer migration at the Atlanta Cyclorama on Friday, May 17, 2013 and Saturday, May 18, 2013. The performance, an essay as John Q calls it, insists on exploring the phenomenon of queer migration into urban spaces, Atlanta being one of them. Using the space, movement, and pictorial qualities of the Cyclorama along with archival materials of queer filmmaker Crawford Barton, native to Resaca (about an hour north of Atlanta), later based in San Francisco, John Q essays (used here as a verb) a narrative of history, creative production, queerness, and geography.

In the broadsheet for the performance, John Q lists the definitions for essay as a noun:

“1. a short literary composition on a particular theme or subject, usually in prose and generally analytic, speculative, or interpretive. 2. anything resembling such a composition: a picture essay. 3. an effort to perform or accomplish something, attempt.” [1]

Used as a verb, essay can mean: “to try; attempt” and “to put to the test; make trial of” [2] or “to put to a test” and “to make an often tentative or experimental effort to perform” [3]. Derived from Middle French noun essai, derived from the verb essayer, which comes from Late Latin exagium which means an act of weighing, the word “essay” refers to something active, performative. [4]

Similar in roots to “essay,” “assay,” as a noun refers to

  1.  archaic: a trial, attempt
  2. the examination and determination as to characteristics (as weight, measure, or quality)
  3. analysis (as of an ore or drug) to determine the presence, absence, or quantity of one or more components; also: a test used in this analysis
  4. a substance to be assayed; also: the tabulated result of assaying [5]

As a verb:

  1. a. to subject (a metal, for example) to chemical analysis so as to determine the strength or quality of its components; b. to bioassay
  2. to examine by trial or experiment; put to a test
  3. to evaluate; assess
  4. to attempt; try [6]

The two words, though originating in similar if not same roots (assay originates in Anglo-French), now aren’t used interchangeably (in a simple online search, I came across forums discussing if the two are interchangeable – this is a big deal). At some point, the Latin word which expressed the action of weighing and measuring was split into the action of weighing in thought and weighing concrete objects. How are these two distinct from each other, though? Does the decision to weigh a concrete object necessarily come from a weighed thought experiment, or vice versa? John Q’s weighing of the Cyclorama, the site of the performance, a 42 x 358 foot panoramic painting of the Civil War’s Battle of Atlanta, a complex of history, politics, and space, straddles multiple methods of investigation and examination, perhaps similar to the divided essay/assay. Paired with the Cyclorama is the weighing of Crawford Barton’s archive. As Wesley Chenault of John Q states:

In some ways, the provenance of the Crawford Barton collection did similar work as the Cyclorama in that it allowed us to think about his life in other ways, as patterns of movements and migrations between rural and urban spaces, not primarily as it related to San Francisco. Through letters, films, and more, Barton’s personal papers document his connections to Resaca and Atlanta, archival traces that map over the military campaigns that occurred in both areas. Atlanta, as Sherman understood over a century before, is a city defined by its relevance as a transportation hub in the Southeast. For many, it has long served as a nexus, where motilities of bodies, desires, and histories converge.  Crawford’s correspondence from his time in the city, for example, illustrates how one young gay white man navigated the sexual landscape of the mid-to-late 1960s. Placing Crawford in the Cyclorama, then, allowed the collective to attempt – thus the essay form – to explore not just notions of movement and migration, but also the ways in which they relate to identity, place, archives, and memory. [7]

Description

The performance can be broken down broadly into three parts:

  1. Beginning: the standard Cyclorama narrative while the audience goes through the standard revolve around the painting
  2. John Q takes over the narrative, delivering its essay while the audience continues to revolve in the space while the programmed lights highlight particular aspects of the painting
  3. John Q’s members, one by one, leave the theater and move into the auditorium, inviting the audience members to join them for screenings of Crawford Barton’s films.

The ending space of the performance (the auditorium) is generally the starting point for a tour of the Cyclorama: a video presentation of a Civil War reenactment. In the script of the essay, John Q states: “During a regular visit to the Atlanta Cyclorama, the presentation would begin with an interpretive film in the auditorium and then move here into the space of the painting. Tonight we ask you to navigate the space of the Cyclorama backwards with us, moving metaphorically against the grain of history and exploring, perhaps for the first time in public, a sampling of the film work of our current queer subject, Crawford Barton.” [8] Later, John Q states: “Instead of following Crawford’s biography to its end, we bring you back to his migrations.” [9]

John Q. Campaign for Atlanta. Photo by Cory Locatelli. Courtesy of the City of Atlanta.

John Q. Campaign for Atlanta. Photo by Cory Locatelli. Courtesy of the City of Atlanta.

The films present the Castro, the famous queer district in San Francisco, and of travel. Minimal in their composition and editing, the films are observational in nature; unedited,  perhaps unscripted, they seem to hold the lives of those featured in the films. Resaca, GA, Barton’s hometown also happens to be “the site of one of the first battles in the Civil War military Atalanta Campaign.” [10] What seemed to draw John Q to Barton’s work was the potential to examine his migration to the Castro from rural Resaca in a larger phenomenon of migration, queer migration, and differentiations of space. One of the films depicts men running through golden fields, bare-chested. While watching this moving-image, I was struck by a deep-seated fear – something that causes one to run, to run fast and far away. Especially after witnessing a scene of carnage, destruction, and death represented in the Atlanta Cyclorama, the potentially and possibly joyful images of rural play take on a more morbid atmosphere. Are these fields that of “amber waves of grain” – fields that speak to the national project of America; the fantastic golden countryside? I have to ask then, if these fields aren’t filled with joy, what then are they filled with and why are these men running? Is this moving-image representative of the larger phenomenon of queer migration that prompted John Q to realize this project? What does this mass movement to urban centers mean for America’s rural spaces?

The essay John Q presented during the second turn of the painting starts with General Sherman’s ability to really see geography and an aside about Napoleon’s extensive map collection, both juxtaposed with Borges’ map the size of the place it represents, an absurd exercise of cartography. At one point, John Q points out to the audience that how the painting is viewed is highly controlled:

“In the first turn around the Cyclorama, controlled light directs your attention to the scenes under discussion. The seating apparatus itself takes you on a turn that controls what spaces draw your attention and when. The narrative is set. Your gaze over this space has been determined in advance. It is a visual, pre-cinematic form, which presents the unfolding of geography and history as seemingly inevitable.5 You are a witness to History.6” [11]

One thing to consider, however: can my experience be completely controlled by another, unseen forces, or composition? Do the spinning gears and directed lights completely focus my attention to the spot I’m supposed to? Can I close my eyes, turn my head – experience this painting differently from the way it’s presented to me? This ability, to close the eyes, refuse to look at the space indicated, has much to offer the archival work that John Q does in its public projects and the ways in which they invite the audience to engage with the particular archives presented. In an interview with Julia Brock for History@Work: A Public History Commons from the National Council on Public History, they describe the way they view their work as public scholarship and what this means for its reception, particularly what their take on “public interventions” is. Joey Orr explains that “The learning that takes place in a publicly constructed project is not unidirectional and can never be predicted in advance, so I do not assume our job is to wake people up. I do hope some of our work intervenes in a more street-level, quotidian way into the spaces where people are carrying out their everyday lives.” [12] Andy Ditzler further adds: “I don’t think any of us see ourselves as ‘educating the public,’ partly because we’re members of the public as much as anyone else, and as much as we’re artists or scholars.” [13]

John Q. Campaign for Atlanta. Photo by Cory Locatelli. Courtesy of the City of Atlanta.

John Q. Campaign for Atlanta. Photo by Cory Locatelli. Courtesy of the City of Atlanta.

Experiencing Medium(s)

One aspect of John Q’s performative project is to examine the ways in which we experience painting, video, and installation: how we see; how we navigate the space that shapes and contains them. The painting, though it may appear to be a static entity that can be simply viewed and understood from any time or perspective, is shown to be extremely vulnerable to time and space, the order in which it is viewed in relation to the re-enactment video that is usually shown to the audience before moving into the space of the Cyclorama, facing the gigantic circular painting. When asked further about their take on intervening in a “normal” visual experience, Orr explained that the project is interested in

“how might we visualize the past in ways that foster different kinds of relation to place and history. How might we deal in fragments, the quotidian, memory, and weak theory instead of proliferating the kinds of power that seem structurally reinforced by forms like battle paintings and cycloramas … We understood from the outset that many people would not be familiar with the visual culture theory we were invoking, and this might mean that the connection between how landscape is visualized in cycloramas and how it is visualized through the lens of Crawford Barton’s camera would somehow seem strange. These two very different modes of visuality begin to reflect one another, though, in the context of a critical contemplation of how we do the work of invoking the past.” [14]

In Husserl’s essay “The world of the living present and the constitution of the surrounding world external to the organism,” he writes that space is a “system of places.” [15] In the case of the space of the Cyclorama, there is a multitude of places that coalesce in this one site. It is the site of John Q’s performance, the place of itself in this present moment, the place of the Civil War Battle of Atlanta, Illinois’ cornfields where it was commissioned, Resaca – where the Atlanta Campaign began and the birthplace of Barton, the migration telos for a queer community of which John Q speaks, a pre-cinematic place that records the history of technology in its 360o turn. The Cyclorama itself and its revolving proscenium seating affords the audience explicitly multiple perspectives; an exaggeration of the way we perceive and make sense of the world: “The entire present world which appears as actual is rather a totality of perspectives for me.” [16] For Husserl, there is phantom space, a transcendent space that gives space itself while still being able to change through time and with our changing orientations and perspectives, thus perceptions. The Cyclorama is constituted by this phantom space, but also by a plethora of phantom bodies: soldiers, civilians, slaves, Crawford Barton, migrating queer individuals and communities.

Underlying this space is the seemingly coincidental, the encounter that occurs during times of travel. John Q arrived at the Cyclorama and Barton through what would seem to be mere coincidental experiences that then led them down particular paths, which were manifested in the performative essay. Following the notion of “intervention” mentioned above, the surrealist found object presents itself as a model of surprise, the uncanny, and coincidence. Resaca, GA, only about an hour’s drive away from Atlanta, becomes an uncanny figure – simultaneously familiar and strange. One of the films of Crawford Barton’s John Q presented is of a car journey, passing by signs that advertise Georgia Peaches. The passengers of the car smile and look into the camera.

Crawford Barton. Film still. Courtesy of the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Historical Society.

Crawford Barton. Film still. Courtesy of the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Historical Society.

Ross McElwee’s film Sherman’s March follows a different path than General Sherman’s March to the Sea, begun in Atlanta, which is the end point of the Atlanta Campaign and the site of the Cyclorama. [17] Initially a project that intended to follow Sherman’s destructive path, McElwee ends up following women he becomes intrigued with and attached to; a journey back home to the South. Desire, violence and war, and geography become entangled in the movement through the space of the South. Ross McElwee is attempting, trying, experimenting with what love may be for him in a time of nuclear proliferation, the subtitle of the film and recurring theme that continues to creep into his thoughts and dreams. Pat, the woman introduced to him by his parents who becomes somewhat of an obsession for him, an ambitious actress who is herself searching and trying to become what she wants to be, takes McElwee to Atlanta. There, McElwee describes Atlanta post-Campaign; it was a city composed of children, women, and elders – supposedly a weakened and helpless place without its male influence.

What are cities, urban spaces? What do they mean to us? What are we to make of Atlanta? A southern metropole, remnant of war? What of the space surrounding the city? The space between Atlanta and other US cities? John Q’s use of the Cyclorama signals the ways in which urban space becomes a nexus of lives, loves, losses, and travels. Not only does the performance question who is allowed the position of contemporary flâneur, [18] but also who must take up this position and where. The performance shows us that the metropole and its varying representations hold within them an entanglement of histories, memories, and modes of visuality and experience. 

Notes:

[1] John Q Broadsheet

[2] http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/essay

[3] http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/essay

[4] Ibid.

[5] http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/assay

[6] http://www.thefreedictionary.com/assay

[7] Personal interview with John Q, June 16, 2013

[8] John Q, The Campaign for Atlanta: an essay on queer migration, 2013.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Personal interview with John Q, May 30, 2013.

[11] John Q, The Campaign for Atlanta: an essay on queer migration, 2013. Here, they footnote [5] Jonathan Crary’s Suspensions of Perception: Attention, Spectacle, and Modern Culture and Anne Friedberg’s “The Mobilized and Virtual Gaze in Modernity: Flâneur, Flâneuse” and [6] Alison Griffiths’ Shivers Down Your Spine: Cinema, Museums, and the Immersive View.

[12] http://publichistorycommons.org/library/brock-john-q-interview/

[13] http://publichistorycommons.org/library/brock-john-q-interview/

[14] Personal interview with John Q, June 3, 2013

[15] Edmund Husserl, “The World of the Living Present and the Constitution of the Surrounding World External to the Organism,” trans. Frederick Kersten and Lenore Langsdorf, in Husserl: Shorter Works, eds. Peter McCormick and Frederick A. Elliston (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981), 250.

[16] Ibid., 239.

[17] Ross McElwee (dir.), Sherman’s March: A Meditation on the Possibility of Romantic Love in the South During an Era of Nuclear Weapons Proliferation (1986).

[18] Susan Buck-Morss, “The Flâneur, the Sandwichman, and the Whore: The Politics of Loitering,” New German Critique, vol. 31, no. 2 (April 1989): 217-236.