Caroline Picard: You’ve talked about how you’re interested in looking at “nature” as a social construct. Can you say a little more about what you mean by that?
Linda Tegg: I am interested in how ideas of the natural are formed and manifest in our interactions. This interest began with interpersonal relationships and has expanded to include those generally not considered persons.
Wildlife documentaries, popular science, religious education, almost anything considered non-fiction is of interest to me. From the museum of natural history, to the eco-safari, to YouTube, interest in animals can rest largely on the surface. Through a recent work I call cameratrap, I consider adaptations that humans make to their own surface appearance when attempting to embed themselves in a so-called “natural” environment. I wonder what the hunter achieves when their prey doesn’t show up; or what we understand natural behaviour to be when the when the wildlife documentary doesn’t play out as we expect.
CP: How do the mediums of photography and video differ for you?
LT: In my work they speak the same language. Sure, they are by no means identical, but they hinge on the same relationships. It’s difficult for me to think about my photographs and videos in isolation of their environment, viewing conditions are so integral to how I make and experience art.
CP: How do you use those mediums to explore (and blur) the nature/culture binary?
LT: I see my photographs and videos as participants in an ecology of images through which we understand and orient ourselves. I seek moments in mediation where categorical shirts can occur, and find focus where illusion meets embodiment, animal actors for example.
CP:What do you mean by “animal actors”?
LT: I mean animals that have been trained for the film and television industry. Animals who perform our idea of their natural behaviour for the camera. I once encountered Holliwolves, wolf dog hybrids who are trained to move like wolves.
CP: What made you want to start working with grass? Is there a way that you compare it to a photographic process?
LT: My interest in grass was sparked by a local concern. I was curious to explore what the State Library of Victoria replaced in its founding. What other life forms occupied the grounds of that building? I learned that a grassy plain woodland had once stretched across the site and wanted to see if those plants could somehow grow back there again, and if conditions could be found where those same grasses might co-exist with the State’s collection of cultural artifacts. Had the Library been built on a former rainforest I would be working with completely different plant community. That said, it is no co-incidence that Melbourne was built on grassy terrain.
CP:Why do you say that?
LT: Working and thinking with grasslands led me to consider how humanity approaches the world-for-itself (or us); the impulses, instruments, and frameworks of colonization are at play everywhere. The camera is certainly in line with that same mentality and I constantly wrestle with that awareness in my work. Working with grassland plants prompted me to shift my focus to the background.
CP: How might privileging a background (or grassland) influence your experience of art history?
LT: Looking into the background of 19th century paintings of early Melbourne wasn’t exactly informative in terms of which plants were growing on the site. Enormous complexity rendered by a green brushstroke, something to slide right past. In one sense I felt that researching and growing the grasses was illuminating a blind spot. I was drawing that blur into high resolution, so much so that it shifted into another order entirely. Seeking that kind of clarity is very much a photographic instinct.
CP: At the same time, once you shift that interest, wouldn’t you suddenly just turn grassland—in this case—into a kind of foreground subject? I feel like I’m inadvertently asking you about photography again…
LT: As an artist who thinks through photography I can’t help but draw endless analogies—a tray of seedlings appears as a selection of pixels. Eventually, as I understand more about the plants, my interest in the surface subsides and I can see them differently. Before working with plants I understood more about the chemical processes involved in the development of a roll of film into a photograph than the development of a seed into a plant. This allowed me to understand the seed as a latent image. The growth of the plant was imbued with the magic of an image appearing in the darkroom. Of course they’re not just images, they’re living beings.
CP: How do you consider your grass installations in relation to your photographic interests?
LT: I see the installations as a complex of ecology and illusion. I arrange the regular containers of grasses and plants into forms that resemble landscapes. The rigidity of the containers persist, advancing and receding in counterpoint to the volume of the plants. Despite my Romantic aspirations of verdant hillsides the grid pattern is a constant reminder that the plants are drawn through an anthropocentric structure. The illusion of “nature” can break apart, the same way that a film’s continuity shatters when it’s slowed down.
CP: What is it like producing grass installation outdoor in/situ (as with Grasslands) for instance, versus producing indoor installations, like Terrain?
LT: My first inclination was to bring the plants indoors, so that they could be in direct proximity to the State Library of Victoria’s picture collection. There were many beautiful gestures to be made in bringing a grassland into the Victorian-era gallery. However, the head of conservation (who, at least in theory, entertained my ideas) calculated how many months each of the paintings would need to be rested if exposed to the same light the grasses required for just one day, and after likening the impact to a natural disaster, vetoed the idea. Eventually the grassland was allowed to occupy the Library’s front steps and lawn. As far as the plants were concerned outside was the right choice. They thrive in the sun and open air.
I remained curious about the quarantine room in the library—the evidence they had collected of bookworm, the oriental rat flea they found in a manuscript, the illustrations of silverfish life cycles on the wall.
CP: I can’t believe I didn’t think about how strange it is to cultivate plants indoors! That seems like a really significant aspect, and maybe also ties into the nature/culture binary…
LT: The indoor installations are a struggle for survival. The plants I grow are not the kind of plants that are suited for indoor conditions. They are spouted from the supermarket, usually grains, that require full sun. As a result I race to keep up with their needs and constantly fail. Changes in the building’s heating have huge impacts. Plants’ also impact their surroundings; the air quality surrounding them improves.
Within most institutional building’s plants are imposters, let alone the other life forms they bring forth. I grew my last installation in a large plastic bubble nested into my studio. Psychologically, I wrestled with it as a self-imposed form of restraint but in the end was happy to share in the plants’ containment.
CP: I was wondering if you would speak a bit more about the significance of the Whole Foods’ bulk bin aisle as the source of your seeds and grasses in Terrain? I feel like there are so many nuances of networks and economies at play, things that become strangely invisible when one is faced with the gallery installation of your work.
LT: In one sense it was a direct way for me to overcome some of the alienation I feel in the supermarket, a marvel of modernism if you will, where everything is on hand, ripe for consumption. By spoiling the grains they’re able to grow into plants—suddenly they can’t be moved so easily, they can’t be traded as they were, and they shift categorically.
The process also disrupts the order of the bulk section, where plexiglass silos emphasize the diversity and division between varieties. Where every variety is represented by a Product Look Up Number that ensures a uniformity across stores. I seek to undo this, to unknow them as food and understand them as plants, as beings with a potential beyond my consumption. I consider them a community, a manifestation of the various human and non-human networks that brought the grains and legumes together in the bulk aisle, as a kind of reflection of our co-evolution.
LT: It is not surprising that this complexity is evasive. I must admit that I didn’t have a clue what a garbanzo bean plant looked like until I grew one. The plants in their plurality easily become generic grass a ground for human action and expansion. Even in a gallery installation where every convention would invite one to look closely, to consider the plants. They slide so easily into symbolism, into an image of rolling green hills, another image of prosperity.
I chose Whole Foods as it caters particularly well to people who want more from their food. I think about the reversionist fantasies behind the Paleo diet, that our bodies are more in tune with a pre-agricultural diet. That we can indeed buy a nine dollar packet of Paleonola Maple Pancake Flavored Grain Free Granola and be better for it.
CP: What about care? As someone who worked with you as a curator, I feel like the way that you have to maintain and grow the grasses mostly invisible to a public, but also essential to the underpinnings of your work. I’m wondering how you think about that in relation to the artistic act or gesture…
LT: As the caretaker and orchestrator I am flat out in the midst of this operation. I grow the plants in regular modular containers and rearrange them throughout the exhibition. Indoors it really is a fight for survival.
When working with the grasslands project I thought a lot about what stays and what goes. The care that goes into preserving the State’s cultural heritage and the recurring acts of violence I saw inflicted on Grasslands. Everywhere I looked I saw them giving way. Even the artwork was pulled up one night by the Library’s own contractors to accommodate a display of BMW’s eco friendly vehicles.
Caring put me into a specific and active relationship to the plants; in some ways we’re in it together. The act of caring creates the potential for us to influence each other. We’re co-constituted. I also think that care bring things into visibility. I remember coming across a grassland restoration group weeding an embankment. To see them on their hands and knees, fighting the tide like that, really stuck with me.
November 16, 2015 · Print This Article
Many of us have at least once known the feeling: Am I being too loud? Am I yelling right now? Can everyone hear me chewing? Is the sound of moving my chair along the floor driving everyone else into a steaming rage? You pull out your headphones or look up from your work and glance around, anticipating dirty looks from officemates or strangers. Our sense of sonic etiquette is based in substantial part in the assessing of external responses to our behavior. But imagine now, if it requires imagining, that you have never been able to hear yourself. That your sense of which sounds are too loud or too soft, which sounds are good and not good, which sounds are deemed appropriate for which situations, has been determined by the reactions and standards of people whose experience of the world is radically different from your own.
Christine Sun Kim is a sound artist who has been deaf since birth, and who uses the medium to question “the ownership of sound”. She uses myriad forms (performance, drawing, painting) to explore her relationship with sound and its role in social behavior and spoken communication. Earlier this fall, I had the delightfully grating experience of Kim’s Fingertap Quartet at Links Hall, presented by Illinois Humanities. Fingertap Quartet engages with the social valuation of sound through a play on Harry Roseman’s contribution to Draw It With Your Eyes Closed: The Art of the Art Assignment. Replacing Roseman’s use of “a work [of art]” with “a sound” yields the quartet of prompts in the piece:
1. A sound that you like and think is good.
2. A sound that you don’t like and don’t think is good.
3. A sound that you like, but suspect might not be good.
4. A sound that you don’t like but have to admit is good.
Christine Sun Kim. Photos by Claire Britt, via Illinois Humanities.
Just prior to the performance, I had the opportunity to participate in a Master Class with Kim and Danielle Linzer (Director of Access and Community Programs for the Whitney Museum of American Art), as a part of the Elective Studies series. (If you aren’t familiar with Elective Studies, it’s a fairly new and truly special bit of programming from Illinois Humanities that provides unique educational opportunities for artists. I heartily recommend keeping an eye on it.) Kim’s professional practice is somewhat two-pronged; in addition to her personal art practice, she is also an active educator. Kim and Linzer have been working together for years on something called The Vlog Project, a video series created by the Whitney Museum to provide inclusive access to contemporary art. The videos feature a mix of American Sign Language and visible text, and Kim and Linzer have been experimenting throughout the process to find the right blend of techniques to yield the best results. In addition to hosting the master class, Illinois Humanities also worked with Kim, Linzer, Jennifer Hart, and Matt Dans to film two new vlogs in Chicago, which should be available online soon.
These vlogs are also certainly accessible to hearing viewers, and are listed amid other content on the Whitney website, so while they are searchable under the “Access” tab, they can also be stumbled upon by visitors to the site. More than merely comprehensible to a hearing audience, they are interesting to watch, providing information not only about a specific exhibition or artwork, but also giving a glimpse into the personality of the individual, and the unique expressive qualities of ASL. For example, in this video, Kim discusses the Whitney exhibition Singular Visions, with particular attention to Paul Chan’s 2005 piece 1st
Light. You can really see here, especially in her description of the exhibition layout, the spatiality of ASL.
The master class was largely a discussion of best practices and lessons learned as they’ve developed this initiative. The range of attendees was fairly broad within people working in the arts and/or accessibility, including representatives from large, established institutions like the MCA to more DIY endeavors like the Chicago Home Theater Festival, as well as individual artists and professionals. Perhaps more importantly, the range of familiarity with Deaf culture and access initiatives was vast. Some of us knew little beyond perhaps the ASL alphabet and a general awareness that ableism is an issue in the art world. Some were professional ASL translators, some were deaf artists, educators, and other professionals.
While the class was at times a bit dry for someone already somewhat experienced in video, and not necessarily planning to generate this specific kind of content in the future (which was, after all, what everyone was there to learn to do), this was a really illuminating experience. In addition to providing me with a bigger picture understanding of Kim’s practice, the workshop allowed me to witness conversations around the culture and concerns of certain deaf individuals and of Deaf communities as relates to media production. For example, content created by hearing people for deaf people can sometimes miss the mark on how much visual information is occurring at once. A one-shot video of someone standing still signing in front of a single image or blank background feels like a dry PSA, but a video with signing, captions, infographics, jump cuts, and other complexities may be too dense to really be absorbed. (Which isn’t to say hearing people creating content for hearing audiences don’t often hit the same stumbling block.) It was getting the sense of the personalities and interests of particular individuals in the room, however, which contributed most to my appreciation of the performance afterward.
Kim, smiling at you from behind a laptop, begins Fingertap Quartet by addressing the audience without the use of ASL or an interpreter, as you watch her typing and scrolling projected live behind her. Her voice–her unique personality in communicating–comes through clearly in the timing of her typing, her facial expressions, her sense of humor. She introduces you to the project, explaining the four prompts that led her to create the Quartet. The sound files within the performance were created through collaboration with Dev Hynes of Blood Orange, (another compelling artist, whose media presence often engages with other activist issues). Kim used her voice, transducers, and recording equipment to create audio recordings, as well as textual descriptions to use in working with Hynes on the compositions.
When we were seated, a section at the front to one side was reserved for audience members who would need ASL interpretation. This was not, however, a simple facilitation of access, but a fundamental part of the performance. As each of the four sound sequences was played, the hearing members of the audience experienced a high-volume audioscape of Kim’s good and bad sounds. (“Sorry!”, Kim typed after seeing me put in my ear plugs–not to keep the sounds out, but to reduce them to a volume I could more comfortably understand. My hearing difficulties are the self-imposed result of youthful foolishness and noise bands.) The deaf members of the audience, however, had a totally different experience. Kim sat near them, and held an animated conversation in ASL about (I think) what kinds of experiences she was alluding to in her texts and recordings. There are sounds that are pleasing to make, but seem to bother the people who hear them: a sound that you like, but suspect might not be good. I found myself bouncing my attention between the sounds and attempting to understand snippets of the conversation, several of the participants of which were people I had spent the prior hours with, but now without the intervening speech of the interpreter. Despite my understanding of facial expressions and body language, and a slight familiarity with the conversationalists, this was something I could not be a part of. This was not something I could even fully comprehend. This part was not designed for me, just as the auditory part of the performance was not designed for some of the others. But all parts were necessary for the event to take place.
After all the dialogue about inclusivity, about how to invite larger populations into something shared, here was a great example of the power of having totally different experiences running parallel to each other as a part of the same piece. We all could see the visual representation of the sound file, the peaks and valleys of the .wav as we moved along its timeline, and could read Kim’s typed text, but for much of Fingertap Quartet each audience member was on one of a few possible tracks. Not everyone was at an identical performance, but I suspect the salience of that fact was a part of all of them. The sounds were certainly not all sounds most people would like, and the inability to access an aspect of the performance was potentially frustrating, but the overall experience was challenging in a pleasing way. An attempt to categorize it into one of the four prompts brought me to this compromise: A sound you don’t like, but that you enjoy.
Experiences are always tempered by the bodies in which they occur. Sometimes an increased awareness of this fact results in efforts to produce content that can be accessed by a larger percentage of those bodies. Another approach, as found here, is to create work that weaves those very difference into the fabric of the art itself.
Heather Lynn is a Chicago artist best known for the band Pure Magical Love, the opera Templehead, and running Church of Templehead gallery with her partner, Michael Perkins. Her newest project, Genesis and Nemesis, set to open in September, is a three-act play that blends elements of traditional theater, performance art, video, installation, ritual, music, Reiki, classic special effects, and dance. Staged in an immersive environment, the audience is invited into a post-apocalyptic compound for an experience that is part celebration, part cautionary tale.
Genesis and Nemesis video stills courtesy of the artist.
Although Lynn is the writer and co-director of this piece, and plays the role of Mary Malachai, it is by no means a solo project. The work is being developed in collaboration with a group of Chicago-based artists, musicians, healers, and activists, including Efrén Adkins , Kaycee Conaway, Sky Cubacub, Zach Hebert, José Hernández, Zachary Hutchinson, Veronica Hyde, Andi Jane, Paul Klekner, Bret Koontz, Kalina Malyszko, Sarah Marie, Isabelle McGuire, Ariel Mejia, P. Michael, Michael Perkins, Jon Poindexter, Travis, and Julia Zinn.
In anticipation of this forthcoming production, I sat down with Lynn to ask her a few questions. Imagine a backdrop of shining, multi-patterned tapestries being meticulously constructed from dollar store treasures, mismatched fabrics, glitter, trash, glue. They are beautiful, in an obsessive, maximalist way. Heather and I sit at a small table on chairs she has reupholstered with dark and glittering fabric.
Can you tell me about your background as an artist?
There’s really no one defining thing. I feel like by the time I’m known as “that girl who does that thing,” it’s time to move on. I’m an untrained artist; I dropped out of high school. My only training really is dance, and I think that influences a lot of the way I work. I had my own dance company for a while. When I was younger, I was in this band that got a lot of attention. I went through a phase where I did watercolor paintings. [Now,] people keep asking me how the new opera is going, like “oh, she’s the girl who does the operas.” I believe that the best of us comes out when you’re creating a structure that you need to exist. And for me it’s about changing the context.
How has your dance training influenced other aspects of your practice?
Take ballet: you learn these really repetitive mundane things, but you learn them to shape your body into the type of machine that can make these amazing things. It’s that idea that if you do it every day, you put the work in, that’s what matters. I’m very work-oriented. The work I like best is work where I can see the effort behind it, effort is often more interesting to me than a beautiful result.
My favorite job was when I worked at Fannie Mae. When there was nothing to do, there were just pans and pans of chocolate in back, they all need to go in little white cups. There’s no way you’ll ever get them all done, but there’s always some to do. So you just do it, and it’s about finding pleasure in the task. You can put art into anything you do, even if it’s just a game you play in your head. You do the peasant work, but you act like a goddess.
If my brand is anything, it’s relentless sincerity and hard work. I’m never really worried about anyone ripping me off. What are they going to steal? The hours of intensive work I do myself? The feminism and politics? Please, steal that!
Do you feel like there is a common denominator across your shifts in medium?
Community-based, a lot of work, constantly topping myself, really DIY. Creating my own world. I have a world in my head, and I feel very at odds with the outside world. Another defining thing was sorting out my mental illness—or what we call mental illness. I think a lot of it is just being sensitive in a world that doesn’t stop to acknowledge all the ways it’s fucked up. And [art] is my way of sorting through that and surviving. A lot of my mental health stuff sorted itself out when I started really manifesting the things I see in my head with [the band] Pure Magical Love. I wrote these mythologies that were about expelling certain demons. Everything I do is me trying to be normal, but everything in my head is so crazy it comes out all fantastical.
The way I work it’s usually about transforming something, whether it’s myself, the space I’m in, the pile of garbage into something beautiful to worship. We make choices all the time, every day, and we are constantly transforming things. I like to take control of that—being mindful of the transformations I make.
You do a lot of community work in your gallery, and much of your artistic work is driven by community and social issues. How does that fit into your artistic practice?
I’ve always been really sensitive about social issues. I had a lot of spaces when I was younger where I didn’t feel safe. If you can’t change the world, change what’s in front of your face. For me the biggest tragedy is any living thing unable to follow its own design, and I grieve for all the living things that don’t get to do that. A lot of my work is a response to displacement. Making a space where you can. I feel like for so long no one wanted me to do anything, so just that act of being visible, of taking up space, was very defiant. You’re part of a sexist scene? You’re part of a bunch of shitty stuff? Put more of you in the room than them. There’s this crazy sincerity about what I do, and it makes some people so nervous.
So can you talk a little bit about this new project?
I feel like this is a companion to [the post-apocalyptic opera] Templehead. I didn’t feel done with it. Templehead was about these people who have been displaced. They’re about to go extinct, but they find beauty and meaning when they can. [Genesis] is more about who survives, who benefits, who knows this is gonna happen and doesn’t stop it. People with money access would end up safe. When you’re dealing with money, it becomes abstract, and you’re not thinking about how having an extra three points on your stock is going to affect a town, because you’re not thinking about the community. Money can become a mental illness.
I wanted to reimagine [the Templehead story] where we don’t have to die, and we can evolve to meet the challenges that we’ve created for ourselves. Templehead ended on this sad, bittersweet note. This is going to end on a very uplifting, empowered note. One our collaborators practices Reiki, and at the end we do this ritual spell to activate the entire room. A bunch of people in a room, caring about the same thing, can have a positive impact. That’s kind of what this play’s about: the different gifts we have, how they can come together and fight something.
Where does the title, Genesis and Nemesis, come from? In your work there is often creation and destruction occurring simultaneously, and that title feels like a good encapsulation of that.
In this world in the future, there’s this fable about a boy named Genesis and his sister Nemesis. After the Unrest, they find this beautiful beach with all these minerals that could be used to rebuild the world. He wanted to find people to help them transform the minerals into materials, and she thought the beach was beautiful and wanted to protect it. They fought. He went off to find people, she warned him not to come back or she’d have to kill him. He comes back and she’s dead, she didn’t have anything to eat. It’s this story to instruct people to value the greater good over nature, a way of making people think about things a certain way. [But] Genesis and Nemesis were actually one person, turned into two. The way we remember always has an agenda.
We wouldn’t need to create if there was no destruction. But this is the world I live in, so I create and destroy with equal joy, and I’m very upfront about it. Collapsing the binary, for me that’s what it’s about. I don’t want like a nice story that wraps up neatly, I want a good story where we dig into this shit about ourselves that we’re constantly learning.
At the end of the day, in spite of it being about all this global stuff, it’s really about my journey. I see things that aren’t there, I constantly have to second guess what I’m seeing and feeling, but that actually worked to my advantage, because I’m not afraid to not know. I’m not afraid of what a mess it is; you’re part of the mess. Anyone that says artists shouldn’t be narcissists doesn’t really know what it means to tell yourself that you’re good enough to send something into the world. You have to start with the ego, you have to know what you want for yourself. You start with the things you care about, and it spirals out. I think you connect systems of oppression when you start with yourself.
Looking at the visual aesthetic of the things you make, there’s certainly a sort of controlled chaos.
For me it’s creating new ideas of luxury. Because it’s not all about money. Capitalism wants you to think it is, we have this idea that there’s not enough to go around, and if we want beauty we have to exploit someone, and we think it’s worth it. But you can make something special out of nothing. It doesn’t look like luxury like Versailles, but there’s something elegant about my little reupholstered chairs with my favorite fabric. It’s my own type of luxury, not waiting around for someone to tell me that I can have something nice. I can make nice things. We’ve created such a surplus of bullshit, both physical, emotional mental and it’s time to transform it. That’s where I’m at with this play; I really do have hope for the future. I know because I’m so scared all the time, so I must have hope.
How has this project been collaborative?
Before I fleshed out any of the characters, I got [the performers’] permission to write them into the story. Not to say that every little thing is literally what someone would do, but I really did try to think about giving them choices to naturally commit to. We do a lot of workshopping. Everyone has say. I love this, because it’s a room full of people talking about characters that I wrote, it’s like playing Barbies, but with my brain.
One of the workshops we did, I had everyone come in and tell me: what is it about your character that makes them both awesome, and suck. The thing that makes you awesome is the thing that makes you suck. That’s something with this play I’ve really tried to emphasize: there are no villains. If there’s a villain, it’s a system that is the result of human error. I don’t believe in evil people. I think the minute you’ve decided that someone is just the bad guy, you’re not going to figure anything out. I’m a little nervous about this play, because people want a strong hero and a strong villain, and this isn’t that. There’s definitely a force that needs to be destroyed, and another force that needs to be protected, but you can’t walk away “yeah, these bad guys totally got their asses kicked.”
My friend Sky (Cubacub) is helping with some of the costumes. In the story, I do all these crazy costumes, and I’m not skilled, but people see me doing it they start making these mass-produced really nice costumes. That’s what I feel like I do so often—I’m not really technically good at anything, but people like that I’m obsessed.
And how do the video segments fit in?
There are a few different ways we use them. There are these transmissions that are happening between this giant government that’s in control of everything, and this small group of people in hiding. It’s kind of uncanny… I got this idea for this, and after I started writing it I started hearing about ISIS, and in the months after that they really kind of developed that war through social media.
Working with video is very challenging for me, it’s sort of the opposite of what I do, but I have enjoyed working with video. As a dancer, I’m getting older, my body can’t do all the things it used to do, which is so hard for me to accept because I’m a hundred miles an hour no matter what. But as I can do less, maybe I can make video choreography. I’m interested in exploring it, but I don’t think I’d ever make a straight-up movie. I am really invested in doing work you have to experience live. I think it’s in reaction to the Internet and it being so easy to generate, repost stuff. I want to make things where you have to be there. This has to happen at this point in time because these videos are with these people, these people have busy lives, when this is over we’ll probably never do it again. It has to be seen in person.
geniusÂ brilliant strange that it can only be art, let’s agree to call it a serious WTF? You can find their youtube channel here.
March 20, 2012 · Print This Article
I arrived 11 hours late to the movie. I asked the ticket-man if I’d missed anything. Yeah, he said, you missed the really dirty parts.
Jesse Cain‘s Parts and Labor is 13 hours. It is his hands replacing the engine of a car, piece by piece. The work is shot in sparkling HD, with steady close-up shots. The compositions are arresting. The depths of field are shallow. His hands, the moving parts, the parts his hands are moving shift in and out of focus as he works. It is a durational film, certainly. It is the length of time it took him to perform the action–over two years. The labor dictates the form, the length, the shape.
Parts and Labor showed in a traditional theatrical space, the mainstay Anthology Film Archives. People were welcome to come and go as they pleased (as one might during any other movie), and did. Audience members left to eat a meal, to drink a drink, perhaps, even, to perform their own labors.
The film is tremendous. My brain was abuzz with the ways we can ensure the cinematic experience is maintained when moving images are brought into visual art contexts. The world of art has never been so formally or materially diverse, of course, but not all presentation strategies are utilized equally. I am continually surprised and annoyed by curators, artists and exhibition-makers’ insistence on showing films and videos with integral trajectories on a loop. There are, obviously, makers whose works are meant to be looped and meant for gallery contexts. I don’t know how effective Tony Oursler‘s puppet projections would be on a screen, in a traditional cinematic environment (actually, I bet it’d be amazing). There are also, of course, pieces that can function (and change meaning, etc.) through a variety of exhibition strategies. However, for works meant to be seen in their entirety (and, as obvious as it sounds. starting at the beginning and ending at the end), it’s a travesty to not even allow audiences the chance to experience them in their intended state.
It is, then, with great excitement that I believe the 2012 Whitney Biennial has pulled it off. Along with Elisabeth Sussman and Jay Sanders, the show’s curators, Thomas Beard and Ed Halter (who also run the recently moved and renovated Light Industry) have not only assembled an excellent calendar of screenings, but with the Biennial’s staff have done a wonderful job of presenting films in a museum in a way that honors the unique capacities of both of the traditional exhibition models. On the day attended (Friday), Jerome Hiler‘s quiet, beautiful Words of Mercury began every half hour, on the half hour. There is a sign at the tightened curtain requesting audiences wait until the next half hour to enter. There were still the types of conversations one might rather not hear during a screening, but those mostly died off within the first ten minutes. I sat near the front and absorbed very few of the stings of walk-outs. Noise from other rooms was minimal and Hiler’s hypnotic, textural superimpositions were given the space to breathe they needed.
One hopes other exhibition organizations will follow the lead of the Whitney in their exhibition of time-based works. Through very simple means (in many cases more suggestive and informative than anything else), viewers were able to see the works as they were intended. And, with a show as vast as the biennial, the time until the next screening just means a greater, longer consideration of works whose temporal strategies are less oblique.