By Ellie Dicola, October 12, 2014
Opening day. I’m sitting on a low wooden stool in the middle of the gallery. Certain sounds have always triggered me into near-hypnotic states, and I find myself involuntarily going into a trance. Two young women, singers, pace through the gallery in slow-motion leaving a trail of intonations and ringing bells in their wake. They chant: “…we remember them”, the only words I can discern. It’s a funeral hymn for the myriad animals plastered on stacks of newsprint across the walls of the main upstairs galleries.
I fell in love with Ann Hamilton’s installations when I was about 18, in the 1990’s. For those who aren’t familiar with the internationally celebrated artist’s work, imagine a floor tiled in copper pennies, a chamber covered in beeswax, live canaries set free throughout the galleries (this also took place at the Henry in 1992). Typically working on an expansive scale to transform institutions and specific sites, Hamilton is a master at seamlessly weaving together extremely complex subject matter. The breakdown of language as it relates to knowledge, empathy and history; examination of labor and process; bodies of research, accumulation and collection and congregations of human bodies, are among themes she’s known for. Her use of ephemeral, fibrous or elemental materials can be deceptive. Beneath the visceral surface there’s always rigorous spatial planning, organization and consideration of detail through which concept isn’t represented by form, but one with it.
The Upstairs Rooms: Burial Chamber
In late 2010, the news announced that thousands of birds were dropping dead from the sky, fish carcasses washing up on shores in droves. These events were happening in discrete locations worldwide and no one knew why, no one could find the common link.
Hamilton’s massive collection of images comprising about a quarter of the common S E N S E’s whole reminds me of a few things: the apocalypse, a biological epidemic’s sense of volume, a belief held by some Native Americans that the act of photographing could steal the subject’s soul, the BP oil spill. Birds’ heads (among specimens represented from the UW collections) are squeezed sideways against the lens of a scanner and recorded, their necks stretched, the patterning of their feathers coming in and out of focus. I flashback to images of oil-soaked pelicans emerging from the tarpit of the Gulf Coast in 2010.
Double-sided prints are layered in piles and hung salon-style from floor to ceiling. Mainly birds, I can also discern porcupine quills and newt-like forms. In another scan, a pair of fur-covered hands grips the surface. It’s hard to spend time with these images without feeling a sense of grief, for the stories of life and death we project onto them. But this isn’t bleak documentation of an oil spill, and the souls of the departed have long since passed to the other side. If anything, this is the opposite of that. It’s Hamilton’s effort to touch and hold witness to a disappearing plane, threatened by extinction. The purpose of cataloguing is in itself, arguably, a commemoration: the human drive to touch life, history, experience. Maybe, to touch is to save.
The installation utilizes time as a medium, as wall text just inside the Henry’s entrance explains: “Over the six-month duration the project will shift, with some elements depleting and others accumulating.” Viewers are free to tear pages from these hung “books”, and they do. My companion, artist Dakota Gearhart, remarks about the sound of paper tearing through performers’ murmurings. “People are so anxious to take images of dead things, which are usually avoided.” …Avoided in a world whose own death becomes increasingly immanent while human mortality is technologically altered.
Gearhart continues, “Abundance of the sacred, all these images of death, are rendered meaningless on newsprint through their sheer volume.” As if, reproduction and disposability make these objects safe to touch. I begin to feel self-conscious about the act of taking.
Lining the walls of the Henry’s smaller galleries leading into and out of the bird chambers are shelves offering writings, also reproduced on newsprint and available for the taking. Creationist texts from the Bible sit alongside scientific texts about taxidermy and taxonomy. There’s a passage from Virginia Woolf’s The Waves and passages about memory and ruin from poems. There are singular images: a photograph of an early 1900’s man holding up the dead body of an eagle, its wingspan twice the size of his own body.
Centrally positioned vitrines, like caskets, hold a barn owl and two Olympic marmots lying belly-up, paws opened to the sky; also wolf hides and historic illustrated books. These, we cannot touch. I feel as if I’m attending a wake.
The Downstairs Room: Dressing Chamber
From the overhang a level above, the installation looks like a city of office cubicles. If the bird rooms were otherworldly in all their sacred embodiment of death, this room feels human and worldly. Its exhibited objects are products of labor and industry, and each cubicle’s contents are catalogued with neat labels. Yet something’s askew. Timescapes overlap and break down; instead of blinking Windows PCs, the cubicles hold garments a century old, sampled from the UW collection.
The “cubicles” are actually a labyrinth of vitrines on wheels, enshrouded in cotton muslin curtains. Displayed behind the layers of glass and fabric are Native American leathers embroidered with beadwork, pelted Alaskan parkas, a feather capelet from the theater department. All of the clothing is made from animals.
A young woman sits on a stool, peeking into the enveloped space above a vitrine, quietly reading aloud from a book. I can’t calculate her words, only their sound. Lullabies spill over from performers in another part of the museum.
The Other Downstairs Room: Drone Chamber
Its floor is paneled wood, its walls are bare, its skylights are open. Little wooden stools are scattered low to the ground, while toward the ceiling windmill-like structures alternately lie dormant and swivel around metal poles. These are bullroarers, and when they whirr they’re like droning forcefields. Layers of sound panned in all directions, beside me, behind me, further behind me, to my left. A couple of singers stand against the wall, so still that at first I think their incantations are piped into the room. Now one side of the room’s silent, inert, while the other choruses.
Bird-like, winged flying birdhouses. Individual flights are similar but nuanced, seemingly on individual motors not motion sensors, though there’s a pattern—there’s more repetition, and again the sound of paper tearing from the stacks of text lining one side of the space.
It’s somehow more difficult for me to connect to this specific installation. It approaches touch in a removed, abstract sense, next to the organic immediacy of other works. It’s less anthropomorphically relatable and more about what organisms theoretically become together, in Hamilton’s own words, forming a micro-community. She writes about the bullroarers:
"Inspired by ancient instruments used from Greece to Australia to call or signal over great distance, often to gather people together….its deep tonal drone evoking a buzzing hive, a flock of birds, a micro-community of individual organisms operating together."
In our contemporary era, the topic of network is so saturated. We’re inundated with it. From social media to social practice, our evolution seems to be carrying us farther from the physical object, from the individual. The challenge of this particular installation, for me, is perhaps further testimony that tangible touch is still intrinsic to the human experience. That it’s situated in the museum as the last of the works encountered belies another time-based revelation—with little to touch in physical form, one feels disconnected in contrast. And yet, as Hamilton points out, “hearing is how we touch at a distance”.
Accumulated Human Projections
A sign in the corridor reads, “Portraits from the Test Site will accumulate over the duration of the common S E N S E. Please do not remove.” Beside it hangs a lookbook of photographs taken upstairs in the project space, of blurred visitors behind a milky scrim. Additionally, the public can contribute to the ongoing project by submitting material about touch to a tumblr blog called Readers Reading Readers. Inevitably, the human will is projected upon Hamilton’s eerie, somewhat ghostly landscapes.
Poetics of Witness
We got to meet Ann Hamilton during the opening. Accessible and warm, she said about the project—specifically the scanned animal images and related specimens—that “it’s about honoring life that’s disappearing.” Her statement makes me think of the poetry of witness, a “tradition of 20th century European poetry in which [political] circumstances pervade the poem and necessarily complicate the extent to which the poet can exercise agency”. Viewing this work is an act of being with the represented organism. It’s contemporary ritual, burial ritual, singing, storytelling, eulogizing, taking a funeral placard in memory of the deceased.
the common S E N S E is on view at the Henry Art Gallery through April 26, 2015. Related programming and shifts in the installation will take place throughout the duration.
Some thoughts on video, time, form, death, subjectivity and swans, published for ‘Video Library’ at Hedreen Gallery, Seattle University
DO YOU WORK PRIMARILY IN VIDEO?
I’ve become a time-based thinker in many ways, and video is a natural anchor for intersecting interests: visual form, performance, language/text, alchemical processes that unfold over time, such as ice melting. I’m still infatuated with touches, smells and messes: silk, beeswax, clay/mud collected from the dripping bluffs of Discovery Park, a needle’s head hitting the same spot on my thumb as I practically give myself carpal tunnel, the chaos of objects that I live with and assign meaning to, splayed out in all directions…And one way video (like writing) fits with tactile material, is allowing a way for mess to extend into imagined or virtual form. A space ‘between the digital reality and expressions of genuine longing for sensuous tactility’ might sum up my relationship with video.
WHAT INTERESTS YOU IN VIDEO AS MEDIUM?
My approach is heavy on improvisation. It’s mercurial and super messy and a bit chaotic because I never really learned how to produce video. I have ideas and images in my head, and to find form for those, my process has always been rigged between borrowed gear, outdated equipment, cracked software, working by trial and error and using limitations as one of many structural/decision-making strategies. I work with either my phone, or a standard definition mini-DV cam from 2005. I’m a poor planner and only when I’ve taken hours of footage do I recognize patterns and say, ok, I want exactly this. My version of scripting is basically journal entries and essays; everything’s strongly tied to writing. You can do almost anything with video because it literally is time.
Similarly, my subject matter’s all over the place and kind of a ‘mess’. In school we were encouraged to stick to a cohesive trajectory, and by contrast I feel a little manic, but I’m interested in things that refuse static definition. There are connecting threads from a position of metaphor, symbolism or symbolic meaning (which is how I think about things).
Most recently I’m interested in performing ritual on video; working with elements like fire and water; forcing myself to cry through repeated exposure to onions; performing processes that speak to broken time, passage, broken form (loss, fugue); subjectively assigned meaning. Caught between representation and ‘the thing itself’, the nature of belief—unresolved. Death in broad terms (and a bit more literally as I’ve been surrounded by a lot of it in recent years): impulse toward absolution, cannibalizing the self. Residue, the felt history of spaces, and especially spaces I inhabit.
If I’m going to be entirely honest, all is based in subjective experience. Most recently I’ve been thinking about how to own the subjective position, claim it as radical act. I’m about to start working on a ‘video diary’ which I envision as a document of witness, a piece of fiction, a piece of non-fiction, and a platform where it’s ok to work out the mess (it can always be edited down). Four days’ immersion in a literary conference recently led me to a journal of asemic writing (‘having no specific semantic content’), which is basically the breakdown of form or the construction of form, depending how you look at it. And so I’ve started mining my (written) diaries, breaking their content down into visual, symbolic and performative forms for the video diary project.
NOTES ON SWAN SONG/ELLIPSIS
The ‘swan song/ellipsis’ videos were the last pieces I made from a series of little myths, written passages inspired by the apocalypse, by strange, synchronized events that unfolded in the news: thousands of birds dropping dead from the sky and fish washing up dead on shores worldwide. Phenomena, patterns, ruin, disappearance or a disappearing plane. By giving them a story, I wanted to honor forms that exist and live within time. Here was a place, in rural North Carolina, where I watched a swan and a duck swimming around, and they watched me. Of course when the world is gone, the video will be gone too, but the residue of having made it will always exist as a mark upon time. So I guess that’s how I see it ultimately existing, as a mark upon time. In ‘ellipsis’ the birds are participating in ritual, cycling around an invisible point in the sky. I didn’t want to assign specific meaning to that, but I was interested in the phenomena from the standpoint of what might be suggested. Again, in the swan video, broken form: a sequence of events that’s only partially articulated, an inverted landscape, disorientation, shift, drift, stutterance. Heavy, baroque-like processing of the footage. Swans are things of beauty and transformation, but there’s also something really sad and dark about the video to me. We can never quite escape our own histories. In the absence of direct language, there’s a sort of silence that oblique gestures can’t quite break.
Discovery Park, January 20, 2014: Sun, bright & clear. Cold air. I love winter even though I’ve been cold so long, a kind of cold that never finds warm, unlike the northeast with its steamy pubs and cafes. Grassy bluffs up by the farmhouse a lot like places I may or may not have ever been to: horse farms woven around old millers’ roads in northern Virginia, wooded trail snaking around creek in back of the house at Samaga, copperheads poking through its muddy banks. Now: branches bare reaching up toward sun, beds of shed leaves soggy, dense with the stench of summers past. A plot of young evergreens in a green clearing off the path. The beach, same smooth sun-bleached logs as in Canada, pews strewn around and facing outward to the water’s wide stage, gilded haze shrouding Olympics’ jagged spires, where somewhere beyond starfish cling to rock steppes remembering so many Julys, gull estuary just past tide-line, tide coming in, muddy bluffs like sponges holding too much water for the dripping earth.
I. (The Room) A Holy Mess
A nucleus, spewing charged objects like a Mike Kelley-esque terrain of desire. Death and Transfiguration: Do objects spit it at your heart—?… Loving, hating, dying—is the residue transferred through these hands—? The culmination of a thousand unsung rituals, a handbound book, pillow of sewn white feathers, leather satchels holding yarrow ash (these are the urns). The stains of your inky fingerprints are words on a scroll of paper browned in the oven. Panels of soft black courderoy bound with floss, bleached and unraveled, inverted constellations. Low steppes made of mud gleaned from the Discovery Park cliffs, of the wax of a hundred burned candles. You might crouch down before them. You might have to crawl, to reach into a canopy of beaded sequined opalescent glinting chandelier-like things, pink glowing Himalayan saltlamps: can you trace patterns where they leak salt across the floor? The holy mess of dying. All is symbolic: 'floating someplace else, outside the orbit of the literal humanism of his time. He was a pantheist in search of radical detachment.'
II. (The Ritual) Sex and Death
I sit inside of it. I wear a handmade shield of tears. And all I remember (playing on loop, a little monitor inside a gilded frame) are men wearing tall hats and robes, swinging little metal balls of smoking incense down the aisles, placing wafers in my mouth and sprinkling water on my head, asking me to kneel, bow, bow some more until absolution comes. When I was young, I had an accident and my chest was punctured. I’ve always been afraid of things coming at my chest, forever explaining to lovers don’t touch me there! I’m standing perfectly still, your hands reach toward the sandwich-bag balloons pinned across my sternum. Full of ash and ink and saltwater, if you puncture it, it’ll spill across my skin. How will that make you feel? Will it be possible to maintain the boundary between forms?
'I can't quite make it out just by the patterns of movement. I see what it's trying to say. It wants to eat me…Multiplicity…Wanting to be the other, there they are. See how alive they are, see the repetition. This is distance, this is… a construction. There they are, there in a labyrinth of egos. All thinking and doing the same things until we get to where we are going and our personality buries itself under the common ground that we share.'
…An unnervingly calm and part-(un)human voice croons through a set of speakers as I walk into the old 17,000 square foot Egbert’s furniture warehouse in Belltown.
The rumblings’ source is Dakota Gearhart’s Small Cells installation in the main floor’s back room. I move toward the voice; I sit down within it and allow it to seep in through the crown of my head. It inadvertently anchors the various surrounding large-scale projections and blinking monitors.
In this glowing darkness, I want to lose track of where and what I am.
There’s something undeniably sexual about the experience. The voice alternates, as if belonging to a woman, let’s say a murmuring late-night DJ reciting poetic narratives about cellular biology. Then the voice becomes a low, digitally manipulated incantation chronicling the existential crises of what might be a DNA strand. And there’s the act of seduction itself, the partial loss of self inside the territory of sound and reverie, automatic repetition. But it’s a hypnagogic sort of sex; a fucking that’s executed through some hidden part of the mind and verges, almost overpoweringly, on trance state. This is meta-sex, belonging to both and neither gender, belonging to the literal process—the multiplication of cells and the compulsion to mutually produce, become, and thereby absolve—cannibalize—the other. Below the narrative, a drum roll unravels into an omnipresent marching heartbeat. There’s a looping video too, glittering like an amethyst geode, crystals pulsing to the left, to the right, up and down. But these prove too weird to be crystals, are more likely zoomed-in found footage of plasma, or microscopic organisms blurring in and out of focus. Not pretty but mesmerizing, not trippy but mind-fucking, not clinical but truthful.
Let me back track. As part of the Storefronts Seattle initiative to activate empty spaces, RINSE | REUSE | REPEAT, Interstitial Theatre’s inaugural show at Belltown Collective (formerly Egbert’s), has come and gone. The curatorial vision’s a “video art show dealing with the tension that builds through repetitive actions we take in an effort to achieve happiness”. I too presented work—a two channel video called Mutual Dreaming—and so this document is by no means intended as a formal review. An article featured by Jen Graves in The Stranger in conjunction with the opening in mid-October shed much-deserved attention on Interstitial Theatre’s broader initiative, but I wanted to create an archive of some works themselves.
A pattern of micro-themes became evident within the overarching premise of ritual/repetitive performance mechanisms that explore emotional realms through video. This document examines the sex-death axis interpretively, primarily through four works.
And so, extending outward from Gearhart’s installation is a video presented at eye level, You Leave Here by Massachusetts-based Sarah Bliss. Two hands at once caress and consume one another. The piece is, according to the artist, about communication—the most immediate (i.e. visual) association being sign language. The right hand grips the left hand’s thumb, which pokes upward through an opening of fingers like an erect, fleshy penis. At a low volume voices speak in what sound like heated foreign tongues, but I can’t be sure. It’s an auditory palimpsest. The voices are joined by a woman’s sex-noise moans. I think of something curator and yoga teacher Julia Greenway said when we were watching the piece together, that many of these works relate directly to what she teaches through her yoga practice about awareness of the body in relation to the space it occupies. I think about how the body cannot be de-sexualized. The video reaches the end of its loop (or maybe it’s the beginning), and I realize what I thought were foreign tongues, is actually a mantra repeating, “you leave here”.
In the opposite room there’s a 3-channel video installation by LA-based Weston Lyon, Toss Up (Test), displayed concurrently across monitors mounted to the wall. A digitized form recalling origami is presented as a series of still images, cycling through various speeds and different iterations that never align—like a futile slot machine challenge. The space between forms is punctuated: here, by a blue matte filling any one screen for a matter of seconds, there in a flash of red.
I think of image archives, of the impressions images leave behind when they die, the “work of art as ruin”. As Marta Jecu so insightfully writes for e-flux in “Concepts Are Mental Images: The Work as Ruin”:
“How can a work dealing with destruction, absence, contingency, transformation, and constant change be defined according to its virtuality?…A ruin maintains a visual form, but transmits its totality via the virtual. It does not function as a promise of future signification, but as a sort of embodied potentiality. It represents a spatial organization connected organically to other spaces—spaces to which it carries its connotations and quintessence. Seen as a ruin, the work becomes a collection of moments.”
The images further disintegrate at the loops’ center-points. They grow fainter as the progression wears on, until forms blur in and out of one another, ultimately bleed into a silvery field. It’s at this point that the image dies. If the image is a thought, an association, then the flashing red glow is its archive, a feeling.
Toss Up (Test) has no audio, but right behind it Saskia Delores’s short, projected Antartica wails with an eerie ballad that could be floating in off the Titanic circa 1912 (if I let myself imagine). The video’s a macro of crumpled paper rendered in richly nuanced black and white, resembling an iceberg. The song’s composed and sung by the artist, and unifies the works in the room through a sense of nostalgia, longing even—for what’s perpetually shifting, melting, bleeding, fading—for what dies in form and lives in the memory.
…Like Erin Elyse Burns’s Billows, a single-channel projected video. A white curtain in a bare room, a fir wood floor and high molding. The curtain billows out from an open window, flirts with a slant of light, then inverts with the air, pulling back to stretch across the frame. Seconds of clarity cut through the reverie, a flash, a foggy, fluorescent white sky enveloping a vague tower, then the apartment building across the alley. A female figure appears, silhouetted and obscured. To witness the ensuing sequence requires a significant time commitment from the viewer:
The curtain hugs her as it pulls inward; when it puffs back out she goes out of focus. It takes a really long time for her to step onto the ledge, one foot then the next, barefoot. She stands. She waits for an even longer time, before disappearing in a flash of brilliant light. Maybe she jumped? But this work is lyrical, not literal. As the image dissolves into that smokey white, it seems more plausible that the woman, like the images of Toss Up, died as a cinematic representation and became an archive.
Erin Elyse Burns, Billows (still images of projection)
Full list of participating artists: Joana Stillwell, Erin Elyse Burns, Dakota Gearhart, Ellen Dicola, Michael Lorifice, Saskia Delores, Weston Lyon
Audio installation by Day of the Machine