Who Are You, Really?
By Donna McAlear
The exhibition’s title and curatorial premise are misleading and do not truly reflect the exhibition on technical, visual and intellectual levels. Audiences expecting to see "new" technology and spatial experimentation will be disappointed. Indeed, savvy art museum goers and general audiences alike will recognize that Blocher, Closky and Laurette are not innovators in the use of new technology and media. Large-screen video projections, low-tech, pseudo-television productions, computer art, Internet links and interactive installations are fairly commonplace. Further, these artists use video and computer-based media in white-cube gallery spaces in ways that are especially straightforward.
Rubin’s intellectual reference to Duchamp is a token gesture to art history that means to ground the artwork in a viable historical tradition of art practice. However, this statement rings hollow; today artists are more frequently influenced by sociocultural events and disciplines beyond the art historical canon. This is especially the case with Blocher, Closky and Laurette, whose art depends on unique, orchestrated social collaborations. In particular, Closky’s contribution to this exhibition requires audience participation with his computer and Internet installation to exist fully.
Nouveau Techno is a catchy title, but it sells the insightful observances of the curator and the artists short. In fact, it glosses over subtler, philosophical connections between these artworks.
That said, Rubin thoughtfully organized an exhibition of perceptive artists who require audiences to spend real time with the art in order to consider and appreciate the concepts. Rubin knows that the heart of the exhibition is the artists’ penchant for sociological research. As he puts it: "In the case of Blocher, we might label her work ‘behavioral studies’." This is true of all the artists; a cerebral approach is exactly why the works of Blocher, Closky and Laurette resonate. Greater elaboration by Rubin on why this is significant would illuminate the exhibition to better effect.
These artists share an intense curiosity about the human psyche. Encounters with human subjects are the core of their presentations. Blocher, Closky and Laurette ask the same question, albeit, in various ways, of the individuals featured in their work: Who are you? Blocher seeks the soul hidden within mere appearance. Closky heightens one’s awareness of the body in a space that palpably simulates a vast material and psychological distance between matter and mind. Laurette teases the senses by provoking and revealing human desire for things and power in a material world.
Blocher and Laurette use video and interview methods to come face-to-face with strangers, but to different ends. The Center for Contemporary Art commissioned new installations for Nouveau Techno, and the artists filmed in New Orleans in 2003. They elected to treat Louisiana’s historical subjects, Blocher exploring the notion of slavery in Living Pictures, What belongs to them (2004), and Laurette re-appraising the legal machinations of the Louisiana Purchase of 1803 in The Louisiana Repo-Purchase (2003-04).
Blocher and Laurette script the interviews with their subjects beforehand, and both use confrontational tactics that are common to mass media. Neither appears in the resulting videotapes because both value the subjects’ responses to their questions. It is the inimitable responses, edited by the artists for heightened focus, which render the art so compelling. Importantly, their art is differentiated by intent and result. Blocher serves pathos. Laurette tempts humor and enjoys irony.
Blocher typically finds willing subjects by placing advertisements in local newspapers or on flyers, inviting people to bring a few special items with them to a taped interview with her at an appointed time and place. Blocher’s encounters are up-close and intimate. Her subjects are interviewed one-on-one for long stretches of time. Off camera, she whispers questions into the subject’s ear. We don’t here these. We are only privy to the subject’s responses. It is Blocher’s intent that, over time, her subjects will expose a vulnerable trait — a gesture, a hesitation, a side glance, a word, a rejecting act — that offers a glimpse of that person’s true soul. In Living Pictures, What belongs to them, Blocher’s questions about slavery produced emotive reactions from her subjects — including tears, fearful body language and empowering statements — that are unsettling to watch. A Louisiana black man relates a heartfelt story about hunting and killing a buck in vivid detail with tenderness in his voice and a dreamy expression of peace on his face. His love and respect for his fallen prey is clear. He is in awe of the ritual of the kill. Yet, toward the end of his interview, the man states that he has never had a desire to be with a white woman. Why? He feels superior. The viewing audience tenses. The tenderness in his voice and face evaporates, replaced by a cold statement and steely stare, when the topic of racial, gender and sexual power relations is broached.
Laurette’s approach to the interview format mimics the news media. In The Louisiana Repo-Purchase, a staff member of the Contemporary Art Center poses as a television reporter who randomly questions New Orleans pedestrians about a fictive political situation. In 2003, the French have engaged an international court to reconsider the legality of the Louisiana Purchase of 1803 with the goal to buy back the American territory for France. The reporter asks passersby to comment on this unexpected development in world affairs. Some admit ignorance but earnestly try to engage in debate, however naively. Others express outrage and American patriotism. Many are incredulous, doubting the reporter’s story. Regardless, most perform with openness and honesty because a news camera records their words and actions. The depths of peoples’ naive or radical natures are heightened by the preposterous political event and playful investigative reporting fabricated by Laurette.
The contrast between Blocher’s and Laurette’s subjects is captivating because all are caught off-guard. The private and public interview styles and specific questions asked by the artists provoked and, perhaps (in Laurette’s case), predicted such exceptional rejoinders. Blocher’s gallery audience quietly sits facing a video projection and watching portrait-style, larger-than-life strangers disclosing private stories about the condition of slavery, how they define it and how they feel it. The audience witnesses some rare and raw moments that are normally hidden. It’s disconcerting. Conversely, Laurette’s audience laughs freely at the gullibility of people trying to please a reporter by saying the "right" thing or, at least, something entertaining in keeping with mass media expectations.
Closky’s web site installation +1 (2000) is the more conceptually complex and most fascinating piece in Nouveau Techno in spite of its deceptively minimal presentation. Like Blocher and Laurette, Closky asks his audience: Who are you? Furthermore, the silent installation space, filled only with a wall-size projection of a web page and a mouse sitting on a slim white pedestal, begs an additional phenomenological question about existence: Why are you here? The subject of this piece is the person visiting the space and their decision to manipulate the mouse (or not), causing the numbers on the web site to increase (or not). After taking action (or not), the artwork is the participant’s experience, namely, what they experience physically and psychologically.
Closky’s work replicates and makes transparent the numerical counting system that tallies visitation to web sites. The key visual elements on the projected web page are the centrally positioned symbol and number "+1" positioned above a (by now) six digit number. Because the "+1" is framed by a white box, the participant moves the mouse (by instinct and habit) to the box and clicks. The larger number below increases by one, validating the notion that "+1" equals the participant and, with the click of a mouse, he/she has been acknowledged as making a real-time contribution to Closky’s piece. However, he/she is free to continue clicking, and each successive click of the mouse immediately negates the "truth" of the first, single "+1" as the numbers increase infinitely.
This tension generated between "+1" and "more and more" proves the wry genius of Closky’s piece. Initially there is a palpable awareness that you physically exist and you intellectually "count" — after all, you are standing alone behind a white pedestal activating a mouse. Nonetheless, as you see the larger number rise incessantly, you become aware that your existence might be insignificant and even questionable, within the broader universe.
I visited this installation on two separate days, and noticed that visitors did not remain in Closky’s space for long. I believe this attests to the success of the piece. Closky’s +1 is haunting in a way that Blocher’s Living Pictures, What belongs to them and Laurette’s The Louisiana Repo-Purchase are not; it’s only about you. You can forget or dismiss the lives of others as your live yours. In the empty space of +1 there is a growing sensation of weightlessness and disempowerment. You are alone. Who are you? You are alone, really. You leave the room to escape the truth.
Nouveau Techno: New Media Installations by Sylvie Blocher, Claude Closky, and Matthieu Laurette on view at Contemporary Art Center, New Orleans
July 17 — September 19, 2004