May 17, 2007

Candice Breitz: Identity in the Cutting Room

Filed under: Identity — Graham Coulter-Smith @ 4:17 pm

Candice Breitz, Father + Mother, 2005. Multi-monitor video installation in two separate rooms.

The 51st Venice Biennale, 2005, commissioned a work from Breitz and she created the double video Father + Mother, 2005. The two video installations were exhibited in totally blacked out rooms conjoined by light and sound trapping doors. Each piece consisted of six wall-embedded monitors in a sculptural semi-circular array. In each work Breitz took six films that dealt with issues concerning mother or fatherhood and extracted scenes in which the principal actor makes significant statements to camera. Accordingly, in each case we are confronted with six major female and male actors, and to intensify the aesthetic effect Breitz blacked out the background leaving only the actor and, if necessary, a significant prop (e.g. a wine glass in the case of Diane Keaton and a beer bottle in the case of Harvey Keitel). The clips are short, sometimes so very short that the loop becomes obsessively repetitive: ‘God damn her … God damn her … God damn her …’ (Dustin Hoffman).

The overall effect is to offer the viewer a new perspective on film. We do not usually watch six films simultaneously. In addition, Breitz takes us out of the narrative stream of any of the films (and the concomitant suspension of disbelief) giving us instead an opportunity for a cross-genre comparison. There is an intentionally analytical, semiotic empiricism to her work. We see for example the similarities across the array of films, sometimes to comic effect when each of the six actors appears to be speaking virtually the same line. Typical generic statements include ‘I can’t take any more of this’, ‘your mommy has gone away’, ‘you’re marrying who?’, ‘haven’t I been a good mother?’ etc. Individually they are not especially significant, but when we see an array of a half a dozen screens presenting material from different films uttering similar sentiments via similar phraseology the viewer’s response becomes more complex and self-reflexive than when transfixed by a single narrative.

The reaction of the audience was interesting, and as I sat in these works for a quite a while I am able to report that it was probably the most popular piece on exhibition as well as being intellectually, technically and aesthetically sophisticated. There were bursts of laughter, but some of segments provoked thoughtful silences reinforcing the generality of the human situations being treated in these filmic snippets. Which leads to another level of her work: the fact that this method enables Breitz to synthesise several screenplays creates a formidable reflection of contemporary values that is not limited to America alone, but to contemporary Western culture in general. The viewer is invited to consider to what extent such media art is transmitting moral propaganda, and to what extent it provides constructive, theatrical reflection on contemporary circumstances. Mother and Father provide us with a meta-semiotic experiment which, in an archaeological-anthropological fashion, avoids any definitive stance on the data it presents; yet, because of its sophisticated presentation, it guides the viewer towards more complex understandings of mass media and mass culture.

The next work I will examine is Breitz’s Becoming, 2003, is of interest because it combines an intense application of deconstructive nonlinear narrative with a mapping of fine art onto the field of mass media. What results is interesting, because it shifts away from the resolute rejection of mass media evident in the work of artists such as Barbara Kruger and Hans Haacke and points instead to a more fruitful interaction between the deconstructive dogma of nonlinear narrative that is a defining feature of contemporary fine art and the everyday culture of the postmodern world permeated with mass media and consumerism.

In Breitz’s Becoming the notion of multiple points of view comes to the fore, as does the idea that the viewer is presented with so many viewpoints that taking any definitive point of view is made very difficult. Becoming is also of interest because it is almost a nonlinear narrative, creative game that viewer-readers could play.

To construct Becoming Breitz selected seven Hollywood feature films of the romantic genre in which the principal actor—Cameron Diaz, Julia Roberts, Jennifer Lopez, Meg Ryan, Neve Campbell, Reese Witherspoon and Drew Barrymore—plays a woman whose identity is entangled in her relationship with a man. Breitz’s basic method of processing these seven films is similar to her earlier works Soliloquy, 2000, and Diorama, 2002, in that she extracts a clip wherein the actor delivers a monologue to camera. In each instance the actor is expressing intimate feelings that intensify the effects of empathy and identification on the part of the viewer. Yet, of course, in each instance we are witnessing complete fabulation, a fact foregrounded by Breitz’s addition of the processes of extraction and looping.

In the Becoming installation an arrangement of seven colour monitors display the actors delivering their monologues. But this set of monitors is doubled by the addition of seven black and white screens that show the various scenes re-enacted by Breitz. Breitz is shown miming the facial expressions and gestures of the various actors in the various scenes but, in each case, she retains the original soundtrack. As in Sherman’s Film Still series Breitz steps into the shoes of an actor thereby partially erasing herself. Yet, in contrast to Sherman’s Film Still series, Breitz does not dress up and make up to resemble the particular actress she is mimicking. Instead we see a row of images that are identifiable as the same person—Breitz—only the voice and the gestures are different. Through this tactic Breitz situates herself as a viewer-reader who is deliberately resisting narrative immersion in order to appropriate the Hollywood gamespace, altering the rules so as to make the game her own.

One can compare the operation Breitz performs on Hollywood films with Barthes’ demonstration of a distinctly radical approach to reading Balzac’s short story ‘Sarrasine’ offered by Barthes as an instance of the ‘writerly’ text: a text that challenges the interpretive-creative capacity of the reader. Graham Allen describes Sarrasine as a ‘disturbing twenty-page story existing somewhere between Gothic intrigue, comic tale of ignorance and psychological study of the illusions of love’ (Allen 2003: 84). Barthes takes the challenge of this writerly text seriously, and his approach is not unlike Breitz’s surgical deployment of the scalpel to Hollywood film. Barthes’ analysis of Balzac’s story lasts over two-hundred pages and entails breaking Sarrasine into units of meaning that Barthes refers to as ‘lexemes’ and classifies according to a number of ‘codes’. His analysis of ‘Sarrasine’ takes creative involvement in the writerly text to a level of obsession comparable with creative labour. Yet one can question whether such analysis can be creative.

From the point of view of romantic aesthetics an analysis such as Barthes offers in S/Z cannot be creative because creativity arises out of the unconscious whereas analysis is fundamentally a conscious thought process. Also analysis tends to be linear whereas the flux of desire that allegedly motivates creativity is rhizomatic (Deleuze 1987). We have an issue here because if we cannot call Barthes’ analysis of ‘Sarrasine’ creative then neither can we call Breitz’s Becoming creative due to the fact that it possesses several analytical features, the extraction of specific information from a corpus; its arrangement into a series and a critical intervention. In a sense one can describe it as an exercise in film studies transformed into an art game. But we can remember Rikrit Tiravanija at this point and his declaration of everyday life as a work of art. If eating pad tai can be a work of art then perhaps film studies can be creative too.

In order to allow a work such as Becoming to be defined as ‘creative’ we have to allow an element of analysis into the creative process. It was argued in chapter four that unless creative process takes place in a hypnagogic trance then conscious analytical judgement will inevitably play an important role. An artist always has to pass their own informed judgement as to the quality of what they have produced. Every artist is, therefore, an interpreter/reader of their own work. Moreover, if an artist uses appropriated, readymade works of art for their source material, as is the case for Breitz, then interpretation plays a role at the beginning as well as at the end of the creative process. She employs judgement to select her raw materials, which are creative products to begin with, and then interprets her own treatment of that material. What we are examining here is the interface between interpretation and creativity. And this is critical to an examination of the writerly text or what one also might refer to (with less stress on literature) as the creatorly text: which is to say a text that requires creative engagement on the part of the reader.

But although Becoming can be described as a text that demands both a creative and a critical response from the viewer-reader the cinematic texts Breitz uses as her source material are not. In Barthesian terms they are ‘readerly’ which is to say they would be defined by Barthes as demanding only passive immersion with little requirement to be critical on the part of the reader. In order to shift Barthes’ literary concept of the ‘readerly’ into the field of art theory we might call such texts spectatorial because they do not require intellectual engagement. But that does not mean that they preclude such engagement. What Becoming shows—and what Cindy Sherman showed in her Film Still series—is that active readership can be applied to any text whether it is readerly or writerly, spectatorial or creatively and critically engaging. The entire field of media studies is based on the fact that apparently simplistic, readerly texts can be approached in a critical and intellectual manner.

What distinguishes Becoming from an exercise in film studies is its release from academic protocol and the fact that it is practical rather than theoretical. Barthes’ response to ‘Sarrasine’ does not step outside of the genre of literary criticism. In contrast, Breitz’s response to the films she chooses is articulated in a different category, that of the work of art—more specifically the video installation. We begin to see that the difference between whether something is called creative or not-creative depends largely upon convention and institutional framing. Take the pages Barthes S/Z out of their binding and exhibit them on the walls of an art gallery and it becomes an instance of installation art. S/Z is as creative as Breitz’s Becoming, but we do not call it creative because we reserve that word for artefacts that obey culturally constructed rules of presentation.

The suggestion that creative practice cannot be intellectual would probably be challenged by many artists. It is certainly possible, however, to have art that is not intellectual; but this is not the case for deconstructive art. Assuming a romantic-aesthetic stance once again, we could argue that S/Z is not a creative text because it uses a pre-existing work of art—it is not original—but that argument was shot to pieces by the postmodern appropriation movement of the late 1970s and 1980s in which Sherman was a leading figure. Indeed that argument has been undermined since the arrival of the Duchampian Readymade in the early twentieth century.

And reference to the Readymade is pertinent to a consideration of Becoming. Earlier I suggested that Breitz takes the Hollywood narratives apart and reconstructs them as an alternative game that becomes her own. It would be more accurate, however, to note that she takes the Hollywood narrative and transposes a readymade game onto it. Breitz’s Becoming was, in part, inspired by the eponymous MTV series. In MTV’s Becoming ‘ordinary fans’ are transformed into their favourite artists (e.g. Shakira, Enrique Iglesias, Nelly Furtado, B2K, *NSYNC). An advertisement for MTV’s Becoming notes that ‘our “stars” will get every bit of the glitz and glam afforded the celebs themselves, and to top it off, they’ll even recreate a classic video by their favorite artists’ (MTV 2006). Breitz avoids the ‘glitz and glam’ by dressing simply against a neutral background shot in black and white. She deglamourises the representation of herself thereby underscoring the fact that her version is not an uncritical, unquestioning mapping of self onto the hyperreality of celebrity. There is also an element of surreality in seeing the same person ‘talking’ in so many different voices, which intensifies our sense that all the ‘people’ in Becoming are simulacral. The normal mode of reception for these films is one of emotional engagement (identification) in the characters portrayed on the screen. Breitz closes off that avenue of reception and forces the viewer to engage in a more intellectual, reflective engagement.

Experiencing Becoming we begin to understand what is entailed by the ‘writerly’ text: it requires intellectual rather than emotional engagement. In 1846 the aestheticist poet Charles Baudelaire explained: ‘Romanticism is precisely situated neither in choice of subject nor in exact truth, but in a way of feeling’ (in Honour, 1979: 14) [emphasis added]. The shift from a romanticist emphasis upon emotional involvement to intellectual involvement is one of the key features that distinguishes deconstructive art from its romantic-aestheticist predecessor.

But there is another facet to Breitz’s Becoming, which pertains to its relationship to the game that is karaoke. Becoming is essentially video-karaoke and one can note that she created another installation entitled Karaoke in 2000. In the current configuration of Becoming the game is played only by Breitz, however, it is not hard to imagine adding another layer wherein the viewer could face a ‘karaoke camera’ and join in. What is most interesting here is considering why a fine artist would not consider this. One reason is that the fine art frame of reference conventionally demands a focus on the individual artist creator. That is a legacy of patriarchy that demands as much interrogation as does the portrayal of female stereotypes in Hollywood cinema. We may also feel that adding a participatory dimension would make Becoming less ‘serious’ but Breitz makes the point that she uses mass media to create accessibility (Breitz 2004).

One of the reasons why Becoming could easily morph into a game is due to the technology Breitz is using: it is a relatively short step from video art to interactive video art. The next instance of contemporary installation I will examine steps even closer to attaining such a goal via its use of computational video.



Aernout Mik: Simulation

Filed under: Simulation — Graham Coulter-Smith @ 4:14 pm

Aernout Mik, Scapegoates, 2006

Aernout Mik’s videos are resolutely anti-narrative, they are tableaux vivant, mises-en-scène that deliberately dispense with any sense of narrative progression or reward for narrative expectation. They operate in the interstice between still photography and film; they are, essentially, still photographs that move. His work is partially comparable to instances of ‘still-moving’ video art such as Sam Taylor Wood’s video portrait of the British celebrity footballer David Beckham filmed when he was asleep in a hotel room.[1]

Yet, although Mik’s work fits into the category of still-moving video there is in fact an implicit narrative. His work often concerns people in positions of authority, often in uniform, mixed with people who do not possess authority and sometimes counter authority. We see videos for example of combined services dealing with a road accident; a training ground for border police; armed military personnel herding civilians into an auditorium for an unspecified purpose; what appears to be a parliament with men and women in suits combined with what appeared to be passive protesters in casual clothes carrying out antiauthoritarian action such as pulling T-shirts over the head and disgorging food. If there is a ‘narrative’ theme, and there does appear to be one, then it seems to concern what the Frankfurt School thinkers referred to as the ‘administered world’.

All Mik’s video tableaux were exercises in simulation until 2006when in ‘Raw Footage’ he decided to use raw footage of the civil war in the former Yugoslavia obtained from Reuters and ITN. The problem for the viewer confronting such footage in the context of an exhibition of Mik’s work is that there is no perceivabledifference between real, raw, footage and simulated footage. It is easy to see the plumes of smoke billowing over a large neo-brutalist building as fake and the sound as foley effects. Similarly soldiers who are shooting, drinking Coca Cola and launching mortar shells could easily be actors.

One is reminded here of Georgina Starr’s video Crying.The story behind Crying is that Starr was working on an art project with a video camera running, she felt depressed, forgot about the camera and began to cry. She kept the footage for some time until friends suggested that she use it for an art work. From the viewer’s point of view what is interesting about crying is in even when we know that the footage is ‘real’ there is no significant difference.

The fundamental problem with the current means of visual reproduction that we have at our disposal is that we cannot tell the difference between reality and simulation. The point of Mik’s work appears to be to draw our attention to the highly simulacral status of the illusion of life that is film.

One can consider the two aspects of mediatised simulation :firstly, the epistemological-ontological ramifications; and, secondly, the social implications. From a social perspective, for example, one can point to in the manner in which social documentation by photography and film has contributed to an extension of human social consciousness; from anepistemological-ontological point of view, one can point out that photography and film by no means offer a guarantee of truth. Recall, for example, RenéMagritte’s painting This is Not a Pipe which is a painting of a smoker’spipe together with the caption ‘ceci n’est pas une pipe’. One of the points Magritte is making is that although it is self-evident that the painting of a pipe is not an actual pipe the role of imagination in cognition is such that weoften accept the sign as a substitute for the real.

It was the 18th century Scottish philosopher David Hume who first pointed to the importance of the role of imagination in human cognition. Indeed Hume argued that imagination was the principal faculty of human cognition, which is quite a revolutionary claim to have made within a period in history when reason was seen as the highest human faculty.[1] The power of imagination is the power of abstraction, the ability to create models of the world within the mind that can be manipulated outside of the dangers associated with actual reality (Dennett 1996). There is obvious survival value in our capacity for imagination but it is also the case that we often accept the model of reality as actual reality. The phenomenon of the “suspension of disbelief” is not limited to our experience of theatre and film, it actually pervades all of our experience. Human beings possess a remarkable capacity for self-deception, we can believe in God, we can continue smoking in full knowledge it is seriously damaging our health, we can blithely ignore the fact that we are destroying the planet and exploiting the Third World. Such are the everyday instances of the abstractness, the virtual autism of human consciousness.

The philosophical ramifications of Mik’s focus on simulation are of interest because they point to the fact that mass media are not contributing to an expansion of social imagination and social consciousness that early media theorists such as Walter Benjamin would have desired. Thetechnology that promised mass awareness of global events is also the technology that provides mass illusion.

Is too easy however to accept Baudrillard’s thesis that reality has been superseded by simulation. One can, instead, picture a more complex situation in which mass media both masks and reveals the manifold of social realities. One can cite the instance of the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 and the role that West German television broadcasts played in providing East Germans with knowledge about life on the other side of the wall.

The fact that imagination offers no more than a diagram of the experience of others whom we do not know personally means that it is possible to inflict suffering without any overbearing qualms of conscience. The fact that there are 800 million people in the world who are starving and a similar number who are overeating is, similarly, merely a diagram in our consciousness; such figures do not excite our conscience sufficiently to make us want to do much about this problem.

In Mik’s work the human capacity to casually collude in inflicting pain and death on distant others is figured in his depictions of authority: the people who wear uniforms or suits. The fact that his narratives go nowhere appears to indicate that the paucity of human conscience is intimately interconnected with the dominance of simulation in mass media. In particular, his work points to the fact that even the considerable power of contemporary technologies of visual reproduction are incapable of expanding human collective conscience; in fact they are largely used to contract it. Documentary films are considered to be boring and/or depressing, and most people would much rather watch something entertaining.

Marxism tried to place the blame on an all-powerful capitalist hierarchy who brainwashed the masses, but this is no longer convincing. The fact of thematter is that human conscience is fundamentally tribal. According to social anthropologists human imagination cannot stretch beyond a social configuration greater than one hundred and fifty people.

Aernout Mik, Scapegoates, 2006

Mik’s work characterises the mediatised window onto the real as being mostly blurred or rose tinted in order to protect our sanity from the collective violence we all collude in, violence against the Third World, violence against nature. Looking at a photograph or a video of warfare is a million miles away from being there. And what is interesting about Mik’s Raw Footage is the everydayness of being there, the everydayness of slaughter. The Serbian soldiers who casually launch mortars at their foe smile to the camera puff on a cigarette and drink Coca Cola. It almost becomes an allegory for our everyday violence.

And in this sense Mik’s work is more subtle and sophisticated than the overtly political ouevre of Thomas Hirschhorn who rams a message we are already only too well aware of down our throats giving us the impression that his principal ambition is to ride to aristic fame on the moral bandwagon. Whereas Hirschhorn purveys radical-grunge-chic Mik’s work is genuinely thought provoking. Ultimately Hirschorn’s overtly political messages are cardboard cutouts framedby the up-market shop window of the art gallery or the art fair, the brillianceof Mik’s work is that he foregrounds the problem of our cardboard cut-out conscience and consciousness.


[1] In her Beckham video Taylor-Wood consciously referenced Andy Warhol’s debut film Sleep, 1963, which is a five-hour film of John Giorno sleeping. Warhol is, accordingly, the father of the still-moving image.

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