Monday, May 11, 2009

Reflections on Michael Rush: "Balance and Power"

During this curious week, perhaps the last week in which the Rose Art Museum will exist as a fully functioning public art museum, I've been reflecting on the many academic partnerships that Cultural Production faculty and staff had with the museum's director, Michael Rush. Our first such partnership emerged when Michael brought to campus the remarkable exhibition, "Balance and Power", on video surveillance in contemporary art, which he had organized the year before at the Krannert (University of Illinois). Michael encourage me and my colleague Andreas Teuber (Philosophy) to develop an academic symposium in conversation with the exhibition. Inspired by the happy coincidence that Justice Louis Brandeis, for whom this university is named, had invented the right to privacy in 1890, we called the conference, "Privacy Rites: Space, Surveillance and Power in Historical Perspective." Our colleagues' musings ranged across the toilets of Pompeii, the dynamics of subjection and surveillance in Elizabethan poetics, and post modern and post panoptic regimes of marketing and contemporary art practice. We concluded with a performance in the Rose of Dmitri Shostakovich's Chamber Symphony, evoking the terrifying knocks on the door of NKVD and its regime of constant surveillance.

In the Foster wing, Michael had curated a dizzying labriynth of video screens, juxtaposed at angles, displaying an array of contemporary video artists' engagement with the problem of surveillance.

As an anthropologist, I found his linked installations led me to new insights on my own research in rural southern Africa, on a topic seemingly remote from contemporary video art. In the late 1980s, I spent about a year following a mass witchfinding movement as it made its way across the impoverished rural communities of eastern Zambia. As had been the case with previous popular movements in southern and central Africa aimed at detecting and neutralizing suspected witches, spirit-possessed diviners held large ceremonies in which they directed small hand mirrors at each every villager, one at a time. The mirrors, which were frequently compared to “cameras” and “X-ray machines,“ were said to reveal to the witchfinder the otherwise secret amount of “witchcraft substance” inside each man and woman. Those accused hardly ever protested their innocence, and often stood by meekly as their house walls, roofs and personal possessions were ransacked by the youthful witchfinders seeking incriminating witchcraft horns, which were widely held to be definitive proof of mystical malfeasance.

When I asked the leading witchfinder, “Doctor Moses” why hardly anyone resisted these interrogations, he explained,

"When they stand in front of the mirror, they can’t resist, they can’t run away… It is like when somebody is in front of a television camera. They just want to be seen. Even if they have a secret they want to hide, they can’t resist the camera. They just want to be on the screen, they can’t say no... That is how we trap them, here in the Circle of Truth. No one can turn his face away from the camera, as much as might want to!"

Two decades later, encountering Michael Rush's exhibition, I began to understand how deeply prescient Doctor Moses’ words were. Surveillance is ever-more extensive, and yet, as suggested by the works of art in Balance and Power, as well as the ever growing popularity of American Idol and Reality TV, the lure of the camera is ever more irresistible.

The all-seeing camera, we are repeatedly told by those in authority has the capacity to safeguard the body politic of all that afflicts us, even as it renders us paralyzed in a stupefying hall of mirrors. For months even years after each witchfinding rite, communities were caught up in complex, painful debates over degrees of complicity in the violence of the ceremony, which caused them in various way to see themselves as the embodying both the gaze of the righteous as well as the subject and object of voyeuristic, licentious gazes.

Our title, “Privacy Rites” evoked these and many other ironies, so reminiscent of the core paradoxes at the heart of any ritual process: we are deeply attracted and flattered by the camera and the screen, even as we seek to flee or evade them. Yet privacy in its modern forms is not itself a ritual process as such, but rather seems born of the interruption of earlier ritual sequences, especially those oriented around the domestic realm. Consider for example the mythic crisis which supposedly gave birth to the modern “right to privacy”, as formulated in Samuel Warren and Louis Brandeis’ famous 1890 law review article. They were, it is said, inspired to write the essay due to the violation by a news photographer of the wedding breakfast party of Samuel Warren’s daughter.

Why was this so terribly heinous? After all, a picture of the bride and groom taken that afternoon after the wedding ceremony would presumably have been viewed as an entirely appropriate addition to the Society page. During an afternoon visit to Balance and Power, looking at the various filmic penetrations of bodily space and ostensibly "private: domains it occured to me that the key violation in the Warren case seems to lie in the (premature) interruption of the processual structure of the wedding rite. As anthropologists Arnold Van Gennep and Victor Turner note, rites of passage are structured in three phases: (a) separation of the principals from everyday life,(b) the liminal or "betwixt and between" phase, in which the principals stand outside of conventional categories and experiential coordinates, and (c) re-integration or re-aggregation, in which the principals re-enter ordinary life, usually at a higher or altered social level or status. At the Warren breakfast wedding party, the photographer seems to have invaded the first phase, of separation, from which even the groom would have been excluded, as the bride's immediate family celebrate their solidarity with one another through commonsality just as they are about suffer their impending partial dissolutoin, that is to say the 'loss' of their daughter. The unauthorized photograph in this sense punctures the restricted ritual domain of the separation phase, thus imperiling the overall logic of the entire wedding ceremony, the quintessential rite of bourgeois social reproduction that celebrates the birth of the ethereal transcendental adult selfhood. The modern concept of “privacy”, in other words, is born of a truncated or perverted ritual process.

This theme, of a captivating violation of ritual, a rupture that is itself constitutive of new modes of personhood, ran through the many presentations we heard at the Privacy Rites symposium, as well as the many works of art displayed in Balance and Power. Tim Hyde’s Untitled Bus allowed the viewer to partake of a dreamscape of nocturnal travel, the reverie of the mind’s blankness on the ride home at day’s end, which only bursts when a passenger spies the camera and in turn locks our gaze in his gaze. We were propelled into a sudden awareness of of private space only at the moment when the normally secure wall of the screen has been punctured. In Jill Magid’s Lobby the artist’s willfull violation of conventional bodily and public/private boundaries, hijacking a public video screen to reveal her bodily orifices while standing in full and open sight of passers by, inspired multiple reflections by viewers of the nature of voyeurism: we are not only taken on a microcosmic fantastic journey though under her clothes but also, from the commanding heights of the lobby atrium, gaze upon the faces of astonished onlookers, whose public privacy we now violate. In turn, in Mirror Site, Kevin Hamilton skillfully presented us with a fractured vision of contemporary media-mediated public space. We are strangely exposed on screen, even more so than we are in normal public space, precisely because conventional relations of self-other are inverted and subverted in such puzzling ways.

There is thus, I gradually realized, a thread of continuity across twelve decades from Warren and Brandeis’ wall climbing photographer to these recent works of video art, each of which, paradoxically, helps birth a new awareness of the private through acts of rupture, violation and transgression.

More subtle violated boundaries characterized Jim Cambell’s Library (2004) in which the shadows move in and out of of the New York Public Library. Libraries are, in the best sense of the term, deeply haunted places, in which the presences of those who have come (and left) before us are continuously sensed if not quite immediately graspable. The monochramatic schema of the piece nicely evokes the black and white textual media through which, in effect, the living and the dead encounter one another in the library. His evocation of photogravure also moves us back and forth across generational time: are we seeing the library staircase as it was yesterday, last year, or a century ago? Are all the city's dwellers, the living and the dead, passing by one another in a great, shadowy parade? Might we sense a mournful, elegiac tone that obliquely references the losses and the legacies of September 11, 2001? (And might we also read the work as a commentary on the Patriot Act and the increasingly routine surveillance of libraries and their patrons that has followed in the wake of that tragic day?)

As I hope this example suggests, Michael's exhibitions, substantial works of scholarship in and of themsleves, have stimulated and propelled further works of scholarly reflection and critique. I've loved that his shows push us to see the political and the aesthetic in new, unexpected ways that they simultaneously engage our intellectual and artistic faculties, that they are conversation with classical and contemporary works of scholarship and encourage us to re-read these works with new eyes. Michael's relentless curiosity, his rigorous standards for analysis and presentation, have constantly pushed me as a scholar of ritual to rediscover the enigmatic dynamics of symbolic action lodged in the interstices of late capitalist social worlds. For that, I remain deeply grateful.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Waterfall projection project...moves indoors!

Since rain was predicted for over the weekend, we reluctantly decided to move the waterfall projection project ("My hands were busy/my mind could wander: Creative Economies on the Charles River") indoors, as our contribution to the 10th Boston CyberArts Festival. So Sunday night (May 3) we gathered in the main hall of the Charles River Museum of Industry and Innovation, and projected the eight minute video loop on the redbrick interior wall of the hall, immediately down river from the waterfall itself. Bryce Peake, the class TA, and I were assisted in this by Howard Phillips, Associate Director and video instructor at the Boston University Center for Digital Imaging Art (CDIA), his student Mike, a film and video student at CDIA and Elln Hagney, the Museum's Director of Education and Development. The video work itself was developed by students in the Museums and Public Memory (Anth 159a) course--Casey Golomski, Jesse Cates, Theresa Barbaro, Mao Matsuda, and Shai Dobrusin--along with Bryce Peake and our undergraduate Community Engaged Fellow, Anna-Lisa Macon.

Earlier in the day Bryce realized that if we were going to move to within the Museum space, it made sense to re-edit the audio of the piece, taking out the industrial machinery noise, and putting in background audio of the Moody Street waterall. Bryce also effectively superimposed the video on a background of the moving water of the waterfall, so that the viewer had some sense of what the piece would look like projected on the falls. (Bryce's intention was that we would some of the Museum's machinery in the background during the screening; as it happened, we found the actual machinery noises made it difficult to make out the recorded audio, so in the end we ran the work without live machine sound.)

We had been toying with projecting the work straight upwards, onto a fabric scrim that we would trig between the upper gallery and the large boiler, but as we looked around the space, we realized it would be a shame to enclose the marvelous open gallery of the main exhibition hall, with its evocative, looming machinery and distant vaulted ceiling. Howard kindly brought over a couple of CDIA video projectors and a splitter. (In theory, this should have allowed us to project the video work through three different projectors, but for some reason we were only able to get this work through two projectors). We aimed one projector at the great red brick upper wall of the gallery; we mounted a second projector on a music stand and tited it downward so that it would project onto gallery's main floor. This would have been a really interesting effect, but for some reason, after a minute or so the tilted projector begin to project a strange "spiderweb" effect, which made it very difficult to discern the actual video work. (We realized later in thee evening that we could have overcome the effect of tilting by using a mirror system to angle the projected image downwards...which we might try next time.)

In any event, we ended up projecting the second image straight out, on the far right brick wall of the gallery, as a kind of elongated, fainter echo of the first image.

We were quite pleased with the overall effect of the installation. With the lights lowered, the marvelous machinery assembled within the museum took on uncanny qualities, a little reminiscent of the gaslight or oil lamps that might once have illuminated the Victorian interior. Although we lost a good deal of resolution in the projected moving images, the redbrick background, in between the grand arcing windows of the gallery, did summon up the sense of a portal into the past--the very effect we had been hoping from the waterfall projection. Even the reduced color saturation and resolution of the elongated far left projection (near the looming shadowy, massive hulk of the old boiler and heating ventwork) worked nicely, summoning up associations with the early days of black and white film, fading back, as the eye continued left, to an evocation of the magic lantern era that preceded film itself.

As the piece looped for the next 90 minutes or so, I found myself discovering new aspects of the video work in this particular environment. Lined up between the grand interior windows on the main hall's inner wall, the three frames of the video's triptych manifested themselves as a line of windows, opening up to different moments in the city's industrial and post-industrial history. The Francis Cabot Lowell factory buildings had initially depended on the energies of the Charles River, channelled through sluices, turbines and conveyor belts, and it was marvelous to view the video montage of the legacies of those translated energies (of mechanical and human labor) surrounded by the mechanical looms and converyor belts of the early industrial revolution. The central segment with Barbara Zeles (from which the work takes its title) worked especially well within the industrial hall; her work with yarn and fabric seemed a kind of living memorial to the generations of women who labored in this space, between flowing water and pounding machinery, to transform fibers into fabric. Even the soundtrack, building towards a cacophny of voices and water power, took on evocative effects within the factory hall, summoning up, to my mind at least, spectres of the workers and machinery that had for so long labored and cycled inside this cavernous space.

I found myself thinking that taken as a whole, the installation in this particular site also summoned up a anticipatory sense of the cyborg, the enigmatic bio-mechanical figure that functions as a kind of totemic emblem of our era (yet another Terminator film is set to be released this summer.) As Anselm Rabinbach argues in The Human Motor: Energy, Fatigue and the Origins of Modernity, a defining obsession of the 19th century was the tableau of the human body as a complex mechanical engine, simultaneously liberated and enslaved by the mechanical devices fashioned by its own hands. Watching the varied hands projected on the factory's interior brick walls, engaged in diverse forms of mechanically-mediated labor (from setting linotype to bicycle-making) I had a visceral sense of what the transitional moments to industrial labor just might have been like, as human creative energies were simultaneously magnified and alienated, intensified and dissipated, liberated and re-imprisoned.

To our delight, at least forty-five community members, a number of them digital artists associated with the Boston CyberArts festival, attended the production. We had a range of fascinating conversations, and were left excited at the prospect of future collaborations down the road, including in the next CyberArts festival in 2011. I should mention that the other new media works in the museum, including installations by Claudia Bucher, Chris Abrahms, Tim Hickey's students, and others, looked great, and it was fun to see our work, in effect, in conversation, in conversation with theirs.

We're still eager to project the work on the Moody Street waterfall, and may try to do this for the upcoming Charles River festival in June or Historic Waltham days in July, and perhaps once school is back in session in September. But for now we're delighted with this chance to collaborate with Elln Hagney and the CMRI, in their continuing explorations of the shadowlands between the mechanical and the digital--and between, to paraphrase Barbara Zeles, the labor of human hands and the labor of the human imagination.