Going Underground to Find New Ground: Atlanta-Based Collective and Caving as Practice

February 27, 2014 · Print This Article

Descending Into the Cave

On January 11, 2014, I rode an elevator down into a cave, one that contains the underground spectacle Ruby Falls – a waterfall lit by color changing lights and epic Muzak you might find accompanying the timed water spurts of a fountain in Disney World. I was invited to participate in this cave excursion of the hyperreal by the Atlanta-based collective that started the project Speleogen – a project that calls itself The New Cave Art. This trip was meant to engage members of the Atlanta community in an exercise of perception and attention.

From right: David Matysiak, Gary Brown, Kara Wickman, Nghi Duong, Devin Brown, Meredith Kooi, Lear Bunda, Cathy Brown, Meta Gary, Chelsea Weyler, Mason Brown. Image courtesy of Speleogen.

From right: David Matysiak, Gary Brown, Kara Wickman, Nghi Duong, Devin Brown, Meredith Kooi, Lear Bunda, Cathy Brown, Meta Gary, Chelsea Weyler, Mason Brown. Image courtesy of Speleogen.

The collective, and thus Speleogen, was founded by a group of musicians, and this rootedness in the music community is an important aspect of the collective’s projects and ways of working. They have recently started multiple projects, however, for the space of this piece, I’m going to only address specifically the one involving caves, Speleogen. Though Speleogen centers itself on caves, the impetus to start the project came out of a greater desire to work collaboratively and engage in artistic practices that Atlanta doesn’t always offer. In a conversation with Speleogen’s founders Devin Brown, Mason Brown (no relation), and David Matysiak, they noted that what initially led them to explore various structures of collaboration was due to their frustrations with the way musicians are generally pigeonholed into certain roles, times, and spaces. They realized that often this assigning is done by the musician him/herself; there is a certain complicity with the system as it stands. Apart from this structure, they also voiced concerns about the disconnect between Atlanta’s art and music communities. They are interested in the ways in which projects that are considered “music” are accepted (or not) or presented (or not) within an art context and vice versa. Thus, part of the goal Speleogen hopes to achieve is providing an environment that doesn’t fix people into specific and static roles. Speleogen says that they are seeking for artists/makers/scientists/musicians/etc/etc to imagine new possibilities and collaborate with each other in order to actualize those possibilities.

For its founders and many of its members, collaborating is like second nature. Many of them have played in bands with each other over the years and this informs the ways they work together, play off of each other, and establish certain tentative working “roles” within the group. Devin stresses the fact that “there isn’t a singular artist in this kind of configuration.” The concept surrounding the working environment that Speleogen proposes is a kind of autopoietic sort of “collaboratory” work that attempts to create its own world that inherently collaborates with itself. Part of the reason why the project takes on a sort of autopoietic, self-sustaining structure is because of the concerns mentioned above (i.e., fixed musician roles, disconnect between various Atlanta making communities), but part of the reason may also be due to the exploratory stage the collective is still in. Apart from Speleogen proper, the group works on and produces many other projects including ROAM, a monthly podcast that solicits found sounds from musicians, chitchats, a performance project that uses crowd-sourced material pulled from online chats, text messages, and etc., Synaesthesia, a music performance that explores the relationship between sound and light, and Boating, their band along with Jordan Noel, who runs the label Coco Art. These other projects, though “headed” by various members of the collective (ROAM is David Matysiak, chitchats is Devin Brown with Michael Hessel-Mial (not a member of Speleogen, editor of the tumblr Internet Poetry), and Synaesthesia is Mason Brown with Ian Cone (also not a member of Speleogen), are still collective endeavors. Another reason that this group is relatively secluded also has to do with the nature of how art and music venues function in Atlanta. The city doesn’t open to outsiders easily and exploring new mediums if you’re not necessarily already known doesn’t necessarily seem like a possibility.

Speleogen Proper: Inside the Cave

Even though members of the project claim that essentially Speleogen’s methodology could be applied to any object/concept/topic, the place of the cave, the chosen focus of the group, with its particular materiality is an appropriate place to locate and situate Speleogen, and arguably the collective as a whole. Devin recounts that in the cave “you can only see as far as your headlamp shines” and that “all the terrain is treacherous” – an apt description of artistic practice in general; failure is always a possibility. This project is all about searching and experimenting. It’s not about creating a discrete object, the “monolithic product” that is the record or album. Rather, the group tends toward an ecology of production and “not scorched earth which [doesn’t] leave anything to come back to” which the production of a static album can do to its creators.

Descending by elevator into the depths of Ruby Falls. Photo by David Matysiak. Image courtesy of Speleogen.

Descending by elevator into the depths of Ruby Falls. Photo by David Matysiak. Image courtesy of Speleogen.

For Devin, his interest in Speleogen concerns social relations and collaboration themselves as the artwork. At this point in their process, it is uncertain where Speleogen falls in the spectrum of relational art and socially-engaged practices. Since their methodology implicitly illuminates the social structures of musical and artistic production and their dissemination, Speleogen might want to take a page out of Nicolas Bourriaud’s Relational Aesthetics and the (maybe already dead horse) conversation surrounding this kind of artistic practice and see where that leads them. The crux of all of these projects is the structure the collective has created for itself, which enables them to hone their energies. As Mason Brown puts it, “once there’s a structure, you can do anything.”

It is striking that Speleogen chose to center itself on caves. Not only does the cave figure as a rich metaphorical space for imagination and incubation, but it also serves as a point of departure for conceptualizing collectivity and making. If we take Gregory Sholette’s work on the “dark matter” of the culture of artistic practice seriously in terms of cosmic relations, what happens to the underground caverns Speleogen inhabits? According to Sholette’s use of the astronomical and cosmological phenomenon of dark matter, most of the art world’s activities are “invisible” and essentially unaccounted for; resting outside mainstream institutions, these activities create the possibilities for other activities to come into visibility. If invisibility is taken simply in the case of Speleogen’s practices and goals, the dark underground space of the cave serves as an apt metaphor and location. David Matysiak stated during a conversation that part of the project is to (re)build a world, which coming from the subterranean space of the cave means that they are “starting from underground, not even ground level.” For this particular part, and for the collective more generally, this is important; the intent to build a world for artistic practices that does not rely on any already established foundation; the task is to create the very foundation that will serve as the ground. Speleogen chooses to inhabit the margins; whether this is due to lacking a particular knowledge of or interest in the Atlanta art scene is a question that may need to be asked.

Part of Speleogen involves the ritualistic and meditative. Because of the physical challenge involved in traversing caves, the caver’s particular embodiment becomes a site of reflection. What is interesting about the corporeal for Speleogen is how this experience translates into multimedia works that are, for the moment, only presented in a digital form. However, as I mentioned in my last article, even digital work is experienced by some body in some place at some time, an embodied being. What Speleogen has the opportunity to do is push these relationships of the embodied and the digital to new possibilities. One way they can do this is through sound, which for musicians, this is a primary material. Sound, being invisible and immaterial, pours through speakers into the listener’s ears, vibrating the membrane of the eardrum, causing the bones to move, translating waves into concretely experienced sounds that carry with them a particular sense. In a sense, Speleogen could provide the portal into a different sensible space by literally delving underground into a radically different landscape. Mason describes that experience “as going into an alternate world” which “once you’re in that world you think differently.” One obvious way to talk about entering the cave is through the metaphorics of the womb and the female body, and this is indeed something on the table, but putting too much weight into this structure could be too simplistic. Devin, David, and Mason all are aware of the problem of the figure of the male plunging into the depths of the earth. For them, the cave, serves as an incubator space where images (sound-images, moving-images, still-images, etc.) are produced, but as to whether this means created in the womb may be another discussion, which Luce Irigaray addresses in the section “Plato’s Hystera” in her book Speculum of the Other Woman. Unlike Plato’s Allegory of the Cave which quickly dismisses these images as mere artifice, Speleogen describes the images they produce in and from these caves as emanating from the caves themselves and become a way of connecting with others and “communing with old cave spirits.”

Re-Mixing and (Re)Building

If placed within the context of Nicolas Bourriaud’s observations in his book Postproduction concerning contemporary art practices that involve the figure of the re-mixing DJ, maybe the question of Speleogen’s relevance to contemporary art (and conversely, contemporary art’s relevance to Speleogen) becomes more clear. Though these conversations about re-mix and file sharing are not new to the Creative Commons community, Speleogen adds another topography to the existing focus of many projects. However, unlike, say GLI.TC/H, Speleogen is not necessarily interested in delving into these technologies as telecommunicative tools that inherently carry with them disruptions and breakages.

Ruby Falls. Photo by David Matysiak. Image courtesy of Speleogen.

Ruby Falls. Photo by David Matysiak. Image courtesy of Speleogen.

Because their focus is on sharing materials with each other and re-mixing “completed” works into new ones that then become material for further re-mix, the group is constantly moving as David states: “you give the idea a chance to grow the way it wants to grow … you’re just working on things, you’re always just playing with materials and it’s not about showing off at the end “Here we did it!” You’re always moving … encouraging people to walk with you.” This calls to mind Bourriaud’s claim in Postproduction that “the contemporary work of art does not position itself as the termination point of the “creative process” (a “finished product” to be contemplated) but as a site of navigation, a portal, a generator of activities”(19). Speleogen is concerned with carving out a space that enables them to keep on making; part of this space is left open to others – they encourage others to hop on board with them.

As I mentioned above, this ethos is not new to contemporary art. Chicago, for example, has the collective Temporary Services among others, a multitude of artist-run spaces, and strong Creative Commons and GLI.TC/H cultures. Atlanta is still picking up on these issues. Eyedrum, one of the venues/collectives that has been around for the longest, serves as a space for experimentation. MINT Gallery also attempts to open its doors to emerging artists and curators. There are also a few other artist run projects and spaces including Beep Beep and the Atlanta Zine Library. However, this Atlanta-based group is not interested in the institutionalization of their practice and is still figuring out the Atlanta landscape, which can feel at times quite closed.

To quote Bourriaud’s Postproduction again: “precariousness is at the center of a formal universe in which nothing is durable, everything is movement: the trajectory between two places is favored in relation to the place itself, and encounters are more important than the individuals who compose them”(49). Speleogen is still precarious. It is looking for its audience. It is looking for its space/place/location/situation. Considering that core members of Speleogen also work with each other on many other projects including projects mentioned above (Boating, ROAM, chitchats, and Synaesthesia), the method of working that fuels Speleogen also fuels these other projects, making these discrete projects porous to each other. These projects are all about play; as Devin states: “this is all play … everything is an opportunity to expand and riff.”




REMINDER: We Are Perceiving Bodies: Observations of Four Works on View in Atlanta

January 23, 2014 · Print This Article

In keeping with my interests and research in phenomenology and embodiment, this article addresses four disparate works that are currently on view in Atlanta. Drawn from four separate shows — Coloring and In Translation at the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center (ACAC), Live Amateurs at MINT Gallery, and Gyun Hur – A System of Interiority at Get This! Gallery — these installations address and provoke bodily experience. Unlike the other works in these shows, other than possibly Anne Lindberg’s at ACAC, these works invite the viewer to inhabit the space they create. Each of these installation-based and -esque works instantiate a world within the particular gallery space. Broadly, these four pieces can be grouped into two categories: color fields/dimensions and bodily encounters. Rutherford Chang’s We Buy White Albums at ACAC and Gyun Hur’s A System of Interiority at Get This! both open to the viewer an experience of color. Jonathan Bouknight’s Two Dancers; One Carries the Weight of the Other at ACAC and Maggie Ginestra’s Angel of the Interior Heaven at MINT create moments of encounters with the human form, its materiality, and that of our own.

Traces of Color

In our everyday existence, our perception of color does not correspond to a geometrical color wheel. We do not necessarily examine the red of a fire truck when we see it wheeling towards us in our rear view mirror; rather, the red speaks to us, telling us to pull over, signaling to us that there is a fire, a situation, somewhere that needs to be tended to. In this confrontation with color, the pure red that exists as a particular wavelength does not concern us. The object, the red firetruck, exists as a phenomenon in our everyday being. Both Rutherford Chang’s and Gyun Hur’s installations create situations where objects are allowed to rest in their object-ness and our perception of their colors in their particularity are brought forth.

Rutherford Chang. "We Buy White Albums." 2006 - ongoing. Image courtesy the ACAC.

Rutherford Chang. “We Buy White Albums.” 2006 – ongoing. Image courtesy the ACAC.

In the case of Rutherford Chang’s installation We Buy White Albums, included in the show Coloring at the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center, the color white, which, depending on which theory of color and perception you choose, may not  be a color at all. Chang, in his use of a white object, exemplifies the ways in which bodies and objects collide, rub off on each other, imprint themselves upon the other. If white here is considered the gathering of all light on the spectrum, we can push the metaphorics of accumulation and negation; white as a manifestation of maybe both of these. By a process of collecting first-presses of the Beatles’ White Album, Chang presents us with cultural signifiers that have visibly and explicitly been shaped and affected by bodies. Though each of these vinyl covers is white and was released in 1968, the installation presents the viewer with a range of color, wear-and-tear. Some of the album covers have drawings on them. Some have stains and spills. Some have an exaggerated impression of the vinyl disc lying inside; years of pressure worn into the album sleeve. The wall installation, though not touchable, allows the arranged albums to resonate with touch; the fingertips “feel” the cover without touching it; the fingertips can sense those who have touched the album before. Apart from the wall are album bins that the viewer can sift through, allowing her to touch these objects with her own hands, connecting to the hands that have touched this very object before. The signs of history and others’ beings are traced, etched, scuffed, buffed, and impressed into these seemingly identical and mass-produced commodities. Accompanying the installation is an audio piece that is a layering of 100 copies of the songs from the White Album on top of each other, which illuminates the subtle differences between each of the albums; the “various scratches, dust, and differences in the pressing of the records.” [1] Even though these commodities are machine-made, the audio points to the object’s own materiality and the ways in which the body’s handling of them further affects their material conditions. In a way, Chang’s piece illuminates the ways in which, as Merleau-Ponty states, “each object … is the mirror of all others.” [2]

Gyun Hur. "A System of Interiority." 2013. Image author's own.

Gyun Hur. “A System of Interiority.” 2013. Image author’s own.

At Get This! Gallery, Gyun Hur’s new installation work A System of Interiority creates a constantly changing experience of color for the viewer through its use of multiple constructed layers. Built in an L-shape against two walls of the gallery, the work consists of a structure made of glass panes resting on columns of bricks with mirror panels connecting the glass to the cement floor. On top of the glass panels are three piles of hand-shredded silk flowers and powders in magenta, yellow, and orange. Underneath the glass panes, on the cement floor, is a ground of brown/black dirt and another material that sparkles. Above, a lighting system in three parts: a two-sided color-changing track, a standard can light, and a panel holding a grid of naked lightbulbs. This installation does not give itself easily to any vantage point; it requires exploration. Sitting on the ground at the vertex, the point where the two large glass panes converge, I witness the piles multiply in the mirrors against the back walls and those on the ground partially covered in dirt. Peering under the panes, into the dirt directly, a miniature landscape opens up that gives the illusion of a highway underpass; the stacked bricks transformed into concrete columns. The earthy brown contrasts with the black sparkles that reflect the lights above. The magenta, yellow, and orange piles, radiate color on top of the glass while the mirrors underneath them reflect other, more muted colors. The ways that the surfaces of glass, mirrors, piles of powders, and dirt reflect each other and the viewer, opening a field of tranparently-opaque relations, which according to Merleau-Ponty is a certain translucence: “The fully realized object is translucent.” [3] We delve into it in our perception of it, but only to a certain extent; not all of the object is perceptible at once; it hides something within itself.

Constructed Bodily Encounters

In our everyday experience, when we see bodies, we recognize them as human bodies like that of our own. However, Descartes (in)famously states in his Meditations of First Philosophy from 1641 that those bodies wearing hats and coats he views from his window could in fact not be human bodies at all: “But what do I see aside from hats and clothes, which could conceal automata?” [4] In art works that make use of the human body, particularly that of the living, breathing, fleshy human body, the problem becomes how to regard these bodies. Since they are part of a work of art, what is their status as objects of my gaze? Who are these people I am looking at? Is it ethical for me to gaze upon their forms? How should I contemplate them?

Jonathan Bouknight. Installation view of drawings component of "Two Dancers; One Carries the Weight of the Other." 2013-14. Image courtesy the ACAC.

Jonathan Bouknight. Installation view of drawings component of “Two Dancers; One Carries the Weight of the Other.” 2013-14. Image courtesy the ACAC.

Jonathan Bouknight’s installation, included in the show In Translation, also at the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center, consisting of a video monitor on one wall and five 7.5 ft tall drawings on the opposite wall, is a manifestation of the problematic experience of watching moving bodies and then viewing a seemingly static representation of them. The piece, part of Bouknight’s Gaze Series, the work’s process creates multiple possibilities of embodiment. The video depicts two dancers; a man and a woman, wearing grey – the woman in a grey top and shorts, the man in only grey shorts, bare-chested. The angle of the video, at first disorienting, allows the viewer to penetrate the space between these two bodies that are at times intermingled, at times only touching. The layers of drawings on 7.5 ft tall pieces of butcher paper gaze at this video. Each day of the exhibition, Bouknight works in the installation space and draws the video. In order to see the video, Bouknight has to turn his back to the drawings, thus making them blind contour. The drawings, made using black acrylic paint, have a movement all of their own. When focusing on the drawings, the audience is not able to see the video, and vice versa. This limited perception, intentionally created by the artist, allows the viewer to see each aspect of the work on its own – the drawings are not merely illustrations of the video. They are a layered exercise in line and movement. The viewer can lift one drawing to reveal more layers of drawings underneath. Each layer a manifestation of a particular viewing experience that is translated onto paper. Both these aspects of the work produce certain corporeal consciousness and affectivity. The layers of drawings bring about a similar weightiness that is felt when attending to the video of the two dancers; a play of movement, shifting arrangements, and physics enter into my own bones, muscles, and sinews.

Maggie Ginestra. Performance view of "Angels of the Interior." 2014. Image by Jill Frank courtesy of Ginestra.

Maggie Ginestra. Performance view of “Angel of the Interior Heaven.” 2014. Image by unknown photographer. Courtesy of artist.

At MINT Gallery, within the jam-packed show Live Amateurs, lives Maggie Ginestra’s performance and installation Angel of the Interior Heaven #s 1 – 4. A card table with four folding chairs surrounding it is in a back corner of the gallery. On the table is a plate of nibbled on cookies, cards, and hand-felted scarves. Now, these chairs are empty. They were complete with sitters at the opening on January 11, 2014. They will remain empty until the closing of Live Amateurs on February 7, 2014. During the first performance, the sitters, naked save the hand-felted scarves, conversed with each other over cards, cookies, and wine. Other than trips to the bathroom, these nudes remained inside a privately public space; audience members were onlookers except when sneaking a cookie. These bodies, so exposed to the viewer, yet also so distant, provoked otherworldly and mystical imagery. They might have been those gods sitting atop Mount Olympus watching the mortals below. However, these gods were not concerned with we mortals; they seemed indifferent to our presence. These performers, on display for us, elicited somatic responses. The viewer was faced with the decision to gaze — perhaps only a sidelong glance, a glance perhaps engendered in our gender. It was not necessarily the initial confrontation with the naked human form that created a moment of discomfort; something else in this arrangement blocked my gaze. Perhaps something related to the poetry Ginestra provides with the performance/installation: “For the angels of the more interior heaven are able to speak with men by means of spirits of the interior heaven, thus this is effected mediately.” (Emanuel Swedenborg, from The Spiritual Diary (1747). The terms “interior” and “mediately” being most important here. The gallery during an opening is usually an openly voyeuristic place: we gaze at the art on display and the other patrons that for the night share our space. But in this case, it was uncertain what my role here was: mere onlooker, voyeur, participant; there is an unease provoked by this ambiguity. Do these beings want me to interact with them? Am I supposed to serve as a sort of mediary between their internal space and their external surroundings? Or, do they want me just to leave them be? This is the moment of decision that I have to grapple with, which demands me to negotiate my bodily arrangement and positionality.

Return to Our Perceiving Flesh

Perceiving artwork is a bodily experience; the viewer is always perceiving the work from somewhere in some body, in some particular embodiment. This is not only true for installation work that more or less explicitly invites the viewer’s body into the scene, but also for paintings, digital work, and etc. In Heidegger’s essay “Origin of the Work of Art,” he describes a painting of peasant shoes made by Van Gogh as the creation of a particular world that we gain access to; we can imagine the possibilities of these shoes and the way they become equipment for the person wearing them. [5] I’m interested in how works are able to create new worlds for us to inhabit, on the micro scale — Chang quite literally creates the space of a record store in the gallery that we can peruse, though we always find the “same” record with every turn, and also on a macro scale — Ginestra’s “angels” trace out an almost ethereal world that we cautiously navigate. These installations make us hyperaware that in our viewing of them, we have to negotiate the space the works carve out and the other viewers’ bodies that are also present. In doing so, we are forced to return to our contoured, fleshy, perceiving bodies.

Jonathan Bouknight. Installation view of video component of "Two Dancers; One Carries the Weight of the Other." 2013-14. Image courtesy the ACAC.

Jonathan Bouknight. Installation view of video component of “Two Dancers; One Carries the Weight of the Other.” 2013. Image courtesy the ACAC.

Both In Translation and Coloring are on view at the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center until March 8, 2014.

Live Amateurs is on view at MINT Gallery until the closing reception on February 7, 2014. Maggie Ginestra will stage another instantiation of Angel of the Interior Heaven during the closing reception from 7-11pm.

Gyun Hur’s A System of Interiority is on view at Get This! Gallery until March 1, 2014. The gallery will stay open until 7pm on Wednesdays in order to experience the light change to night in the installation.

Notes

[1] Rutherford Chang’s statement for Coloring.

[2] Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, trans. Donald A. Landes (London and New York: Routledge, 2012), 71.

[3] Ibid.

[4] René Descartes, “Meditations on First Philosophy” [1641], trans. Donald Cress, in Philosophical Essays and Correspondence, ed. Roger Ariew (Indianapolis and Cambridge: Hackett, 2000), 112.

[5] Martin Heidegger, “The Origin of the Work of Art,” in Basic Writings, ed. David Farrell Krell (New York: Harper, 1993).

 




Cosmic Images and Inner Realities: P. Seth Thompson’s “The Last One”

December 26, 2013 · Print This Article

Images: An Abridged History

This past semester I taught an undergraduate class at Emory University titled “Visual Studies: The Image.” Some of the questions the course focused on were: what is an image? what does it mean to make an image? how should we look at images? what do these images do to the way we think about the world? In a world saturated with images, I thought it important to encourage students to consider the long and complicated history of the image.

Just a few broad strokes to contextualize, a brief, abridged, and very limited history, a few mile markers:

5th century BC: Zeuxis and Parhassius engage in a painting contest. Zeuxis painted a scene of grapes. Birds, attempting to feed on them, flew into and pecked at the painting. Next up was Parhassius. Zeuxis demanded to see the painting that was hidden behind a curtain, but Parhassius revealed that the painting was in fact the curtain.  Parhassius wins: his painting of a curtain fooled Zeuxis, a fellow artist, while Zeuxis’ painting of grapes only fooled the birds. [1]

Plato’s Allegory of the Cave in Book XII of his Republic tells a story of prisoners who are trapped in a cave and have only known a play of shadows on the cave wall, created by puppets backlit by the cave fire. These shadows are their only reality. In the event that one of the prisoners leaves the cave, his eyes, blinded by the sun’s light, can’t deal with actual reality. He chooses to go back to the cave unless he is encouraged to remain outside of its depths. However, in Plato’s Timaeus, the origins of the cosmos is attributed to its being the image of the eternal paradigm; this is a materialization that is divine. [2]

Sacred texts of the Abrahamic religions describe the function of the image. We find that man is made in God’s image, but we should not worship false images, idols. Fast forward to 8th and 9th century Byzantium and the clashes over the status of the icon; a debate that finds its roots in Greek philosophy along with Christian theology. The image is either sacred, or it is false and should be destroyed. [3]

Then, consider the birth of photography in the 19th century and the rise of cinematic propaganda. Now, reality television, Instagram, and the space program. Or, “Charlie Rules the World”: Episode 8, Season 8 of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia – the Gang gets sucked into an online game and their distinctions between reality and fantasy, actuality and virtuality, blur.

 

Outer Space and the Domestic Television

Atlanta-based artist P. Seth Thompson’s show The Last One, which closes on December 30, 2013 at {Poem 88} in Atlanta’s West Midtown neighborhood, presents the viewer with the artist’s confrontations between reality and image, truth and fiction. Using science fiction as the portal, Thompson shows us the strange and close encounters we have with the images that in/form us.

The center piece of the show, the video An Event Cannot Have An End Time in the Past, is an exercise in memory, news media, scientific teleology, and disaster. Made using primarily the artist’s childhood home movies, the video’s layers reveal a space-scape that fill in the contours of the family’s bodies on screen. In an abrupt ending, we witness the 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger explosion; its footage become home movie, entering the family’s domestic space on a screen that serves as the centerpiece for a living room. The sound, composed by Jon Ciliberto, takes the viewer on an ambient journey up to a transformative climax. As I finish this article, the TV program “How the Universe Works” on the Science Channel plays in the background at my friend’s mother’s home. I am here for Christmas. The lights of the Christmas tree bounce off the digitally rendered stardust and animated theaters of comet crashes, planetary orbits, and blackhole consumption. The TV viewer is informed of the Earth’s pending catastrophe; the Earth occupies a precarious position in the universe that is always on the precipice of doom.

P. Seth Thompson. "An Event Cannot Have an End Time in the Past." 2013. Courtesy of the artist.

P. Seth Thompson. “An Event Cannot Have an End Time in the Past.” 2013. Courtesy of the artist.

Thompson’s statement accompanying the show claims that he is “co-opt[ing] and challeng[ing] the images to underscore our complicity in the suspension of belief in the digital era.” [4] What is the “challenge” he is posing to images? What does the rhetoric of challenge mean in the context of the Challenger’s explosion? What has our fascination with images of space done for our understanding of our position in the world? The American space program, more rigorously tended to after the launch of the Soviet’s Sputnik, serves as an entryway into the ways in which images – both physical and mental – inform policy and American everyday life. In America’s determination to win the space race during the Cold War, where two major nations became images of themselves, what gets covered over? How do these images of space and nation converge to influence everyday realities?

Thompson’s addition of his photograph Niels Bohr Through the Looking Glass, points further to American policy and its way of navigating science. Bohr, a Danish physicist who received a Nobel Prize for his contributions to the research on the structure of atoms and quantum mechanics, was also involved with the Manhattan Project, the project that developed the atomic bomb during the Second World War. Not only is Bohr an interesting figure to include here, an important scientist and public presence, but it is also his theories of light – that is, the discovery that light behaves as both a particle and a wave – that are important to the show. Light, the essential factor in the production of photographs, is itself unstable.

P. Seth Thompson. "Niels Bohr Through the Looking Glass." 2012. Courtesy of the artist.

P. Seth Thompson. “Niels Bohr Through the Looking Glass.” 2012. Courtesy of the artist.

 

Reality’s Virtuality

Thompson states that “all we have is the world we create in our head, and if that’s not reality, then nothing is reality. We are left in a world of our own making and that is perfectly fine with me.” [5] Part of this statement may be a re-investment in the simulacrum, a concept made famously negative by Baudrillard [6]; a re-investment that I think needs to be seriously considered. In its Latin origins, the term “simulacrum” means merely similarity or likeness. This likeness, however, evolved to describe a likeness that is inferior, without substance. It is a likeness that does not have a model to fashion itself after. This substance-less image has the potential to open imaginative space, but in terms of a reality that only exists in our heads, I hesitate to fully jump into this spaceship. What does it mean to claim that all we have is what’s in our head? Going back further in time, is this a reclamation of philosopher René Descartes’ doubting of all things?

Descartes’ project, which was an attempt to discover the truly certain, rejected sensory experience because of its capability to deceive; the only certainty we have exists in the mind. This rejection of the corporeal led him, in his Meditations on First Philosophy, to reject physics (important to the premise of this particular exhibition), since it is a science based on corporeal nature; he turned instead to geometry. [7] Descartes’ dismissal of the body and the sensorial serves as the starting point for its own deconstruction in the project of phenomenology. For Edmund Husserl, the appearance is all we have and we must bracket out any notions of an underlying reality of the object. These appearances, taken as phenomenon, are images experienced in perception. They are both there for me as existing in my perception, but they also transcend my perception and are apart from me. These images can’t merely exist in my head; they have to have their own sort of actuality. [8]

 

Disintegrating Images

As I’ve mentioned above and in a previous article, [9] the image has been historically regarded as a dangerous falsity. It is not only not truth, but it is a danger to truth itself; it is only a shadow on the wall. Chris Marker’s short film that uses text from Plato’s Allegory of the Cave shows the potential danger of our fascination with cinema, a stance that Walter Benjamin writes of in his 1936 essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” [10] Benjamin describes the way in which the film actor, in acting for the camera, uses “his whole living person, yet forgo[es] his aura” (229). This “self-alienation” opens the door for Fascism to render politics as an aesthetics (242).

Thompson’s layering and pixelation of the cinematic image exhibits a gesture of disintegration, not necessarily incorporation. What is the image disintegrating/dissolving into? Our collective imaginary? His photograph The Spaceman’s Disappearing Act, presents the viewer with an almost illegible image when viewed up close. However, when viewed from the side, the image reveals a person clad in a spacesuit. It is only from an oblique view that the spaceman reveals himself. In the Lacanian sense of anamorphosis, the viewer gazes upon the distorted image which conceals the Real and thus recognizes herself as the annihilated subject; she can’t be the privileged center. [11] She becomes aware of how she is seeing and therefore aware that she can be seen from such an angle. She is an image that can be perceived.

P. Seth Thompson. "The Spaceman's Disappearing Act." 2013. Courtesy of the artist.

P. Seth Thompson. “The Spaceman’s Disappearing Act.” 2013. Courtesy of the artist.

Outer Space, as the final frontier, serves as an extreme example of our fantasies. However, more “mundane” images fill in our memories and bodies. As I wrote about in a previous article, [12] Jill Frank’s photographs, comprising her series Romance, approach similar issues Thompson addresses, of the ways in which cinema inhabits our everyday lives. However, what we find in Frank’s work is the bodily mimicry of the viewed. The cinematic image, not registered itself on film, is instead registered through the bodies of the photographed subjects. The image has been acted out, performed, incorporated into everyday bodies.

The Last One offers actual and virtual disaster with sentimentality. Thompson references the hero’s journey, a theory proposed by Joseph Campbell that organizes quintessential heroic journey stories into a definitive structure. The structure, formulated for the traveling male, is a formalization of the relationship between constructed narrative, everyday life, and mythology. This constructed narrative enables the space program and therefore constituted the situation in which the Challenger catastrophe, witnessed through the media, could occur. What happens when disaster is sentimentalized in the domestic sphere? The images in The Last One may occupy an oppositional pole to Warhol’s works on disaster, car crashes, and American violence. Warhol shows the viewer news media coverage of American disasters without sentimentality. They are cold and alienating. In a sense, Thompson’s works invite the viewer to engage with them in a way that bring her into the narrative fold. However, the danger here is that she can get too comfortable. The question becomes: in our everyday lives lived in the midst of disaster and violence, how do we navigate these images surrounding us in a way that simultaneously connects to and disengages from them?

 

Notes:

[1] Pliny the Elder, Natural History, Book 35, Chapter 36

[2] Plato, Republic; and Plato, Timaeus 

[3] See for example, Alain Besançon, The Forbidden Image: An Intellectual History of Iconoclasm, translated by Jane Marie Todd (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2000); Gerhart B. Ladner, “The Concept of the Image in the Greek Fathers and the Byzantine Iconoclastic Controversy,” Dumbarton Oaks Papers, vol. 7 (1953): 1 – 34; and Marie-José Mondzain, Image, Icon, Economy: The Byzantine Origins of the Contemporary Imaginary, translated by Rico Franses (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2005).

[4] Statement for The Last One, http://www.poem88.net/p_seth_thompson_slide-2013.html

[5] Ibid.

[6] Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation, translated by Sheila Faria Glaser (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1995).

[7] René Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy [1641], translated by Donald Cress, in Philosophical Essays and Correspondence, edited by Roger Ariew (Indianapolis and Cambridge: Hackett Publishing, 2000): 97 – 141.

[8] Edmund Husserl, Cartesian Meditations: An Introduction to Phenomenology [1931], translated by Dorion Cairns (Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1999).

[8] Meredith Kooi, “James Turrell’s Cave and the Unveiling Truth,” Bad at Sports (October 24, 2013), http://badatsports.com/2013/james-turrells-cave-and-the-unveiling-truth/.

[9] Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” in Illuminations, edited by Hannah Arendt, translated by Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken Books, 1977): 217 – 252.

[10] Jacques Lacan, “Anamorphosis,” in The Seminar of Jacques Lacan: The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, Vol. XI, translated by Alan Sheridan (New York and London: W.W. Norton & Company, 1998): 79 – 90.

[11] Meredith Kooi, “The ‘Celluloid Self’ and Spaces of Feminine Performativity,” Bad at Sports (Sept 26, 2013), http://badatsports.com/2013/the-celluloid-self-and-spaces-of-feminine-performativity/.




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.