We know the value of the moving picture, and I shall not begin on the kind of cinema / film / industry that the access to this technology has meant in the more impoverished nations of this world from which independence has meant more creative films. Of course even that, at least in our shores, is beginning to be the exception instead of the rule.
At the Singapore Biennale 2011, the moving picture, the camera itself, is focused on things other than just making movies. This is not to say that there are no films here: it’s to say that the films become not just cinema, but actually and truly, installation art. It’s not to say that film ain’t art, but in the hands of curatorship that actually treats film as art, the act of entering a room, putting on headphones (or not) and just watching, seems more like a spectatorship of art, and not just movie viewing.
Ryan Trecartin‘s Re’Search Wait’S (US) is a video installation in one of the first floor rooms of the Singapore Arts Museum. Entering the space, the gut reaction is to cover one’s ears and be an old lady about it: this is too noisy, too confusing, too much. After all it is four videos playing at the same time, only made distinct by the seating made available for each one: a sofa at the far end, bleachers on the other, a bed and a dining table in front of each of the other two. The images are of people performing extreme human behavior, from cross dressing to heavy goth make-up, big fake boobs and made-to-shock outfits, a statement really on the behaviors and superficialities that contemporary media have imposed on identity. The movements are frantic, the editing making it more frenetic, but the effect really is for the spectator not to sit on one side and watch one thing, as it seems to call out to be viewed all at once.
This room and its noise, both auditory and visual, just demands spectatorship. The lights are low, as if you were to relax on the sofa, or fall asleep with these movies on and it necessarily invokes awe in the way that art-you-don’t-quite-get-the-first-time requires you to sit and stare and concentrate.
At the National Museum of Singapore‘s lower ground floor, where what I thought was the best curated area for the Biennale was set-up, the video installations don’t just require a sit-down, as it does challenge the spectator’s ability at bombardment: it might not be as noisy literally, but there is enough here to keep the eye moving, the mind perturbed.
The Propeller Group‘s “TVC Communism” (Vietnam) is one huge screen divided into 12 squares, almost as if it were a game show with 12 contestants, except that it had only about 4 to 5 people in different moments of (in)action in every square: only one person speaks at a time, but every person in every frame is in movement, writing on the white board, pacing across the room, smiling at whoever’s in the room as well.
As such the discussion remains animated, even as only one person is speaking, yet there is also an amount of introspection and quiet because these are what the screens necessarily capture. Thinking and quiet is shown to be as important as verbal articulations, but it’s more than these too: it’s a glimpse into the process of creating copy, into the thought process that goes into advertising, one that highlights on the one hand its absurdity (how hard is it to sell something, really?), on the other its seriousness (how is it to sell something really?). That they are in fact talking about communism in Viet Nam, adds another layer of humor really, if not a contradiction that kills.
Which is also what happens when you’re watching a video installation that speaks precisely of both surveillance and anonymity, of the every day and its being extraordinary in its normalcy. Because to watch a camera, watching people, is just the strangest act of surveillance still, or big brother syndrome that we’d like to deny we know of.
At the old Kallang Airport, the second floor rooms of one wing have broken down walls and make distinct works by five different artists by utilizing light and wall space and media. Leopold Kessler‘s three small flatscreen installations is distinct because it isn’t at all visually overwhelming and is barely with any sound. It is counterpoint to the other screen at the far end of this room, a long and narrow flatscreen that reveals the sounds and sights of water ebbing and flowing in and from the underground water drainage system of Singapore, a work by Charles Lim (Singapore).
The latter is “All Lines Flow Out” something that may be seen as easily and simply the untold story of water: there is nothing extraordinary about that ordinariness. except that the visual of these waters is almost hypnotic, with the tunnel in sight, and the water movements seemingly flowing. Yet the visual is also one that comes from a drifter, the one whose path cannot be recorded by water, the one who is as transient as every other piece of lifeless form that traverses the unseen and disregarded systems of an ordered society.
Sitting through the movement of water here, one is reminded not so much of its easy flow, as it is of its seeming chaos, the impossibility of its capture, the random act(s) of violence in its mere existence. Dried leaves in nets hang from the ceiling behind the bench for spectators: the effect is a seeming entrapment, on the one hand seemingly flimsy, on the other almost a drowning.
Sitting in front of Kessler’s three small screens against one wall meanwhile is when spectatorship becomes the act of watching people watching something happen. Kessler (Germany) deals with the every day by experimenting with people’s reactions to minor disturbances to the standard operations of daily living. in “Secured/London” (2005) a latch is installed in a London phone booth, revealing people’s almost automatic acquisition of the habit; in “Diplom/Academycable” (2004) a stretch of electrical cord cuts across the city from an electrical socket in the fine arts university of Kessler to his own apartment, stopping traffic and messing up pedestrian movement in the process; in “Import/Budapest-Vienna” (2006) Kessler smokes cigarettes from a pack attached to a train that stops from Budapest to the public’s surprise if not disgust, except that they are in too much of a rush to care.
The latter is what’s ultimately interesting about this act of watching Kessler’s experiments: as you sit and watch, you’re actually looking at people who barely slow down, revealing only the smallest of reactions, almost always just a surprised look at the man who’s smoking a cigarette where it ain’t allowed, or walking through the city with an electrical cord.
But people in these videos are busier than I am, seated as I was in front of those screens on a hot Singapore day. These people I’m watching are Kessler’s subjects as they are these works’ objects, a revelation of how we are all objectified by the system of the every day, regardless of whether we know it or not, or want it for that matter. In this sense that camera on people, with the slightest of reactions if at all, is already a revelation of that which the every day forgets, which the normal silences.
It is this silence that’s also inherent in Jill Magid‘s “Evidence Locker” (US) a project that had her working within the system of surveillance in Liverpool, where she becomes its self-conscious subject. She walks the city vis a vis CCTV cameras capturing her every movement; she walks the city and has four different conversations with it, each one being shown on big TV screens in one area of the NMS. Magid’s work creates instances of intimacy that seem totally removed from what surveillance is suppose to capture, from what it is suppose to see: movements not people, action not personality.
It’s in this sense that I could only love the three huge screens that make up Beat Streuli‘s “Storylines” (Switzerland). Using video clips and still photos of people walking through the cities of New York and Singapore, the effect of a room’s walls filled with larger than life digital images of people one after the other is like livingprecisely in what is a virtual city. The people’s everyday expressions are a surprisingly interesting look at people, the kind of seeing that is only possible given the size of these screens, their faces up close. Individuality and personality are thus proven possible despite a camera, precisely because of a camera that intelligently captures people.
It’s Superflex (Denmark) meanwhile that bravely refuses people’s notion(s) of the sacred, the important, the imperialist symbol that is untouchable. In “Flooded McDonald’s” Superflex creates a replica of a standard McDonald’s store and floods it, until Ronald McDonald begins to float with every piece of fastfood in the store.
My first reaction to it was laughter — it’s everything and funny to see Ronald McDonald slowly lose footing and be trapped afloat in that tiny store. And then it slowly becomes love: how else does one react to the obvious distaste for McDonald’s and its transnational character? Ronald ain’t the one drowning in a flood, as it is all of us.
In all these works, the TV as medium, the camera as tool, the visuals presented, require of the spectator a participation on the level not just of viewing, but also of seeing: these aren’t stories being told, as they are camera images that exist in the every day, and their process of questioning the normalcy of precisely that. These are video concepts that insist on being critical of its own existence, that lives up self-reflexivity to the hilt, making it seem like a mirror on that bigger camera that’s on all of us.
It’s in this sense that these works required me to be spectator of art versus just movie viewer (though of course these must be intertwined in some form), requiring me to keep from insisting on a story or a narrative, forcing me to instead focus on what is there which, in all these works here, is about just what’s out there, too: the normalcy and standardization of normal life is the subject and object of these video installations. The resistances and rebellions that are possible within it is what these works of art reveal, no matter how small, and spectators are really all but required to watch these videos and not just see moments. Instead we are forced to see people, and how they themselves crack that system in their acts of seeing, as do these video installations that gently insist — nay, demand — that these systems be questioned and critiqued.
That it none of these works were loud and serious, grim and determined, works perfectly with the kind of revolt these video installations allow: one that is about sitting quietly, watching intently, and being forced into an amount of self-reflexivity. Like those cameras, and as expected, we’ve been trained to see images and not people. And no, there’s nothing relaxing or quiet or normal about seeing them all for the first time, and dealing with what this act of seeing reveals about them, about us.
Welcome to video installation art spectatorship! You’ve got nothing to lose but your movie viewing habits.
Tagged: Beat Streuli, Charles Lim, Jill Magid, Leopold Kessler, Ryan Trecartin, Singapore Biennale 2011, Superflex, The Propeller Group, video as art, video installation art, video installations, watching movies versus art spectatorship