I sat in a gallery, at a table, in a turret. This was semiprivate space. At Northern Illinois University, the gallery is in a building like a castle. The turret room has arrowslot windows. It felt well-defended. I had daisies, the signifier for the piece. I wore grey. I waited.
I had invited audience members to come to the gallery, to tell me a story about guns. My request inverted the art object’s signal flow. The audience usually comes to a museum to get something. Now they were asked to give something.
His father taught him how to shoot. What the gun actually does. How to respect it, what code of conduct was related to it.
I am no therapist. I listen when people tell me their experiences. I can be present for their narratives.
Beyond that personal skill, this work is the fruit of working directly with audience for years. I have hosted experimental art-video shows. I used to guard art in museum-spaces from drunk people. I guided museum tours.
This work is a long look at audience relationship with the mediated story [ the artwork itself / the stories in news and entertainment media ] and its authority.
My studio space [ a computer ] means I sometimes make art in public spaces, like coffeeshops. Making ungun I was working with decayed images of guns. The visible screen became an invitation to strangers to interrupt, to ask “Hey what are you doing? That looks cool.” To tell me about guns. About being American with guns.
It meant staying alive, to carry three guns through Bosnia-Herzegovina as a UN-authorized peacekeeper, discovering countless bodies in fields, barns, knee-deep in pits, bodies made by guns.
Guns are surrounded by cocoon of silence spun, paradoxically, of fear and bombastic noise. They are intimately connected to issues of authority. Who has the right to tell a story about guns – a story that easily can, illusively, be corrupted, become, paranoidly, the story about –
How could she raise her sons and keep guns out of their hands?
I spent four hours in the gallery listening to the space, to the visitors. Very few people accepted my invitation. That inversion of audience relation to public art space needs a different introduction, perhaps.
I listened to the gallery sounds, to the floor creaks, the oops its time for me to leave hustle footsteps, to the fear. Staff at NIU are most afraid of the young white men with baby faces. That’s what NIU’s mass shooter looked like.
She left the day he brought a gun home. Things were bad enough and she knew the statistics.
Good art encourages the audience to examine their own experience. Art about guns doubles the authority of the mediated story – doubles the illusion that truth is outside of onesself – for the audience.
This is tricksy, working with potentially painful or trauma-sourced content. What is only a signifier for the artist can evoke intense memory for audience members. Memory of lived experience powerful enough that it denies the artwork. It also can challenge the audience member’s ability to manage that memory.
The reality, for people who have survived gun violence personally, or whose daily lives are affected by navigating spaces shaped by that violence – the audience needs to retain that authority over their own difficulty. Ceding that authority to the art doesn’t work.
So – instead of censoring published media, give space for the audience’s voice. Give them a space other than they have to avoid the signal of information coming from the artwork in order to be OK.
I was thanked by members of the NIU community who could not look at UNLOADED. It was the language of gesture, ameliorating the re-traumatization that can be provided by published media.
poetics of annihilation : motoi yamamoto’s salt installations
“In Japan, [salt] is indispensable in the death culture… In the beginning, I was interested in the fact that salt is used in funerals or in its subtle transparency. But gradually, I came to a point where the salt in my work might have been a part of some creature and supported their lives. Now I believe that salt enfolds the memory of lives.” Motoi Yamamoto
Earlier this evening I saw Bill Viola’s “Hatsu-Yume (First Dream)” in an intimate screening. The artist was present, along with faculty members and an audience of thirty to forty people. We sat in a small auditorium in a small, excellent liberal arts school.
“Hatsu-Yume (First Dream)” is about eighty-five minutes long. On the surface, it scanned like Chris Marker’s film, Sans Soleil. I say ‘on the surface’ because it was just a moment that inspired that connection – the moment ‘pachinko’ is on screen, and then, later, a man lighting a cigarette, one of the only completed human gestures in the piece. If Sans Soleil had been made on video and without the narrative, then they could be twins. Instead they are distant relatives, only connected by the fact that the audience is considering moving images that, scene by scene, unfold like a photo-roman . . . if each of the photos is a technically-perfect, gorgeous long moving-image shot. Oh, and both works were shot in Japan – Viola’s in its entirety, while Marker’s Sans Soleil was mostly filmed there.
What’s the distinction between video and film? As Christopher Zimmerman put it in the liner notes for the evening’s get together, “”Where film is a succession of individual still images … video consists of constantly vibrating signals.” That’s key. In each work’s case, the maker’s use of the form is perfectly mirrored in the expression of content presented by that form. Marker’s film is a series of shots, of images expanded. Marker uses mostly jump cuts as he provides a long sequence of images which become narrative, when paired with the voiceover.
Video, particularly analog video on tape, is about signal. Talking about his work this evening Viola repeatedly referred to signal. The technical metaphors for him, of signal being a way of accessing an inner world or imagined world, of signal’s liquidity, its nature as carrier of light ~ that’s the core of the medium for Bill Viola. The series of scenes transitioned by fade-to-black are usually slow-mo. Visual information shifts in a series of liminal perceptual spaces; the viewer can lose themselves in sensory input or decide to recognize the information displayed on the screen.
During Q&A I admitted to the artist that I was so tired I was closing my eyes in the middle of the opus. Viola interrupted me to reply, “That’s OK, I slept through parts myself.” About two-thirds of the way through the film there are shots of dying squid, on a Japanese fishing boat. They’re beautiful. Captured in the highest fidelity Sony cameras available at the time, glossy, a particular coral peach, they are just dying. We watched them die, in slow motion.
Squid death was discussed by the academics with some horror. Kira Perov, Viola’s creative partner, spoke to the difficulty she had when they were originally shooting the work on the fishing boat. She struggled with the question of putting the equipment down to rescue the animals. It horrified her to watch them die.
Today, I took a long trip to a small town in Wisconsin to meet the artist, to see the work. Bill Viola’s work has sustained me for a long time. I am a multiple near death experience survivor; Viola’s own NDE experience deeply informs his work. His work is oxygen for me.
On a Greyhound bus I split my time between Twitter and Facebook attempting to find out if my Boston friends were OK. What in Gods name happened there. I somehow kept my stomach firmly in my belly, not becoming nauseous even though the fragments of information did not piece together. Made me disoriented. The speed of (dis)information, insistant squabbles about authenticity, tweets that stated “quit just retweeting things”. The utter lack of clarity as major news outlets chose the wrong information to publish to those who still use TV, and then retracted, then asserted something else.
The long slow shots of dying squid made sense. Watching the beautiful, projected analog video – no, I couldn’t look away. It was slow. In its slowness my mind and heart were allowed to come into a shared rhythm of comprehension that respected my whole being. Horrifying, yes, but in a comprehensible way, an acceptable way.
Now I pick out the shrapnel from the fragmented “communication” about the bombings at the Boston Marathon out of me. I have a bit of skill witnessing difficulty like this, I’ve practiced with the ‘poetics of annihilation’ attention/artwork over the years. Yes, I say, once again, media’s doing it wrong. I think we already know that.
March 16 2012 somewhere around 5:30 pm a pedestrian went under the wheels of a metra express train. Delays were for 75 to 150 minutes. People at Des Plaines station were frantically calling for cabs or family members to pick them up, or trying to figure out buses. I started walking, to process a long day at work.
I headed towards the next station. I passed this metra train, waiting, in the dark.
Only after I started taking pictures did I realize the train was full of people. Later, when it finally moved, I discovered a second train was parked behind the one I had been photographing.
Text excerpted from Milorad Pavic’s The Dictionary of the Khazars (1984 in Serbian, 1988 in English). The second paragraph of this excerpt was used by singer-songwriter Peter Murphy in lyrics to the song Shy [Deep (1989/90)]. This creation was simultaneous to Neil Gaiman’s Sandman universe, which first began to publish October of 1988 (cover dated January of 1989). In Gaiman’s archetypal system, Dream and Death are brother and sister.
Akshany, Yabir Ibn (17th Century)
Anatolian minstrels (lute and tambourine players) believed that Satan used this name for a while and that he appeared under it before one of the most celebrated lute players of the 17th century – Yusef Masudi. Ibn Akshany was himself a very deft player. There exists a written record of his fingering for a song, so we know that he used more than ten fingers to play his instrument.
He was a good looking man; he carried no shadow, and his shallow eyes were like two trampled puddles. Although he declined to make public his opinions about death, he conveyed them indirectly through his tales, advising people to read dreams or to gain knowledge about death from the dream hunters. Two proverbs are ascribed to him: (1) “Death is the surname of sleep, but that surname is unknown to us”; (2) “Sleep is the daily end of life, a small exercise in death, which is its sister, but not every brother and sister are equally close.”
He once wanted once wanted to show people just how death operated, and he did so by using a Christian military commander whose name has been preserved: he was called Avram Brankovich, and he fought in Walachia, where, Satan claimed, every man is born a poet, lives like a thief, and dies a vampire.
From Mrs. Dalloway:
“What business had the Bradshaw’s to talk of death at her party? A young man had killed himself. And they talked of it at her party – the Bradshaws talked of death. He had killed himself – but how? Always her body went through it first; when she was told, suddenly, of an accident; her dress flamed, her body burnt. He had thrown himself from a window. Up had flashed the ground; through him, blundering, bruising, went the rusty spikes. There he lay with a thud, thud, thud in his brain, and then a suffocation of blackness. So she saw it. But why had he done it? And the Bradshaws talked of it at her party!
She had once thrown a shilling into the Serpentine, never anything more. But he had flung it away. They went on living (she would have to go back; the rooms were still crowded; people kept on coming). They (all day she had been thinking of Bourton, of Peter, of Sally) they would grow old. A thing there was that mattered; a thing, wreathed about with chatter, defaced, obscured in her own life, let drop every day in corruption, lies, chatter. This he had preserved. Death was defiance. Death was an attempt to communicate, people feeling the impossibility of reaching the centre which, mystically, evaded them; closeness drew apart; rapture faded; one was alone. There was an embrace in death.”
Virginia Woolf’s meditation on the social problem of the appropriateness of discussing suicide in Mrs. Dalloway. Mrs. Dalloway has spent the day arranging for the party, which is unfolding at the moment of these two paragraphs. A soldier back from The Great War has committed suicide. This death, discussed by her party guests, puts her off. How can it be discussed in the midst of gaety, of social connection?
That’s the thing, isn’t it, the barbarity of suicide, the difficulty of necessary social communication of the event itself. How do we articulate an incomprehensible action to each other? Or an action that might be closer than we’d wish to express … fear of suicide’s contagion, the name of the act becomes hissed in whispers, like that of a cancer diagnosis of a friend.
There will always be that line giving pause, “But he had flung it away.” No melodrama here, just Woolf presenting the puzzle of how to include a stoppage in with the continuation of society life.
i created this video originally for a performance artist’s one-woman show in 2007. the animated gun motif is one that i’ve used since 2006. it is a potent symbol for violation of will and defense of same, this hand-held machine used only to maim or kill others.
i revisited it today because someone in my town shot and killed three police officers responding to a domestic disturbance call. Wrote an essay about the nesting boxes of powerlessness regarding domestic violence for The New Yinzer. I used the animation for an illustration.
You can read the essay here
as i wrote when i posted this animation to youtube …
what a lethal illusion, the allure of the gun & its ammunition. today some people in my town spent a lot of ammunition at each other. some of them died. i get extremely frustrated by our culture’s inability to deal with our incivility in any other way than with violence.
so i make animations. isn’t it beautiful, this illusion that a gun or some immediate violence (pull that trigger!) will solve those problems for you?
but they don’t. it just keeps going.