February 2008, Function Emits Fiction
Rod Dickinson, The Milgram Re-Enactment, 2002 copyright the artist
By Maria-Hélèna Pacelli
At first glace, the themes are reminiscent of George Orwell’s classic novel 1984. Taken further, Dazibao’s current exhibit explores different aspects of photography in an optic that uses documentary practices in the construction of narratives. Showcasing five artists from around the world, this exhibit displays images that span the spectrum of functionality in their exploration of fictional constructions. They converge around themes that address surveillance culture, the ever-invasive presence of image recording in our daily lives and how the two intersect in a way that downplays voyeurism while conditioning us to the sensation of being watched.
In the construction of her work Faceless, Manu Luksch’s defied current practices in the realm of surveillance media by first performing for video cameras in various public spaces and then obtaining the footage to be used as ready-made source material. To protect the identity of individuals appearing in the material when it was released, the faces were removed from the recordings. This work becomes a comment on the erasure of the participant, and a reflection of how in surveillance practices but also in society more broadly, we strongly associate the face with identity. At the same time, this work both in practice and in essence blurs the lines between function and fiction by recalling the functionality of the recording medium, while exploiting it to create a narrative-based work.
Rod Dickinson offers an alternative procedure in exploring the conflation between function and fiction in The Milgram Re-Enactment. A re-staging of psychologist Stanley Milgram’s well-known experiment held in 1961 in the study of obedience and authority, this piece uses actors in order to re-create and record a rendition of the events surrounding the experiment. Both the process and the product of this recording call attention to the different levels of theatricality involved in the original experiment and its re-enactment. In the original experiment, actors were used to take the place of authority figures who were administering what was presented as an experiment to test memory response using electric shocks. Volunteers entered the situation unaware that the authority figures were actors and that the goal of this deception was to assess the volunteer’s response to the authority figure requesting that the electric shocks continue despite their moral objections. What’s more, in this re-enactment, we now find actors playing these actors as they stage a documented event in a fictional setting. The viewer, now complicit, is left with the task of examining overlapping instances of documentation that give rise to questions of morality and response to authority.
David Thomas’ Probe seems to explore surveillance media in a more didactic fashion by inviting the viewer to consider the similarities and differences between recording media as it may be used in public or private spheres in its visual language. In a dual frame, Thomas compares the jerky movements of surveillance movements to the motions of a person making naïve use of a personal recording camera. As we consider the similarities in the rough characteristics of the cinematography in both these examples, we must also think of the juxtaposition of private and public spaces that occurs simultaneously. The ways in which fictional elements come together are thus inevitably imbued by their functionality as well as the spaces they inhabit.
Pavel Pavlov takes this exploration of spaces and surveillance into open territory with The Parking Lots File (2001+1). In a series of prints, Pavlov shows geometrically shaped excerpts of parking lot surveillance images which appear to hang on the page only enough to suggest their referent. Pavlov’s images depict a strategic deconstruction of familiar parking lot scenery in a ritualistic fashion that can be recognized in each print. This method seems to point towards the systematic format proper to surveillance footage wherein all motions and recordings are automated. By suspending the viewer’s connection with the wholeness of space, this piece equates spatial deconstruction with the alienation that emanates from surveillance footage. By nature and format, surveillance video seems inherently devoid of sentiment, and by suspending the viewer’s ability to draw narrative links, this work highlights the discontinuity that can emerge from the absence of narrative structure.
The eldest piece in this exhibit was Michael Klier’s 1983 film Der Reise (The Giant), a work that collects surveillance media recordings from various sources, with the common vantage point of looking down on its subjects in footage showing mostly public spaces viewed from above. Even the title seems to recall George Orwell’s Big Brother personage and brings the viewer to reflect on this sensation of being watched from above, or falling under the omnipresent gaze of surveillance recording media. The breadth of its content speaks to this idea of an “interconnected surveillance apparatus”* that Klier exposes in his work.
It is interesting to note the different ways in which the works in this exhibit address multiple aspects on the theme of surveillance, and how these utilitarian images can also serve to construct fictional storylines once brought into an artistic sphere. At the same time, the content as well as the source of much of the footage used or re-created in the context of these works still creates a space for dialogue over the politicized aspects of surveillance media both in its utilitarian form as well as in its capacity for creating narratives which are themselves disconnected from the source material.
These pieces converge in a way that addresses the various facets of surveillance culture: the interplay of surveillance and obedience to authority, the conflation of identity and countenance, alienation from natural and constructed spaces, the appropriation of images and media, as well as the muddling of private and public spheres. These notions can be extrapolated to a macrocosmic level that extends surveillance media, encompassing also the subject’s increasing desensitization to subjectivity as it correlates with the increasing presence of surveillance media. In a context of omnipresent recording media, the irony embedded in this showcase is that the very media used in these works lend themselves to the scrutiny implied therein.
This exhibit reminds us of the important role that contemporary art must hold in exposing current issues and offering a critical perspective on mainstream discourse as well as popular culture. It is also essential to present content that is meaningful to viewers and relevant to their daily lives while creating a space for dialogue. By bringing everyday situations and objects into an artistic realm, the artist de-contextualizes our taken-for-granted reality and reminds us that our everyday lives can be intensely political.
Photos courtesy of Dazibao