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have ideas and images in my head, and to find form for those, my process has always been rigged between borrowed gear, outdated equipment, cracked software, working by trial and error and using limitations as one of many structural/decision-making strategies.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