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.


Leave a Comment »

No comments yet.

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Create a free website or blog at

%d bloggers like this: