Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The Ideal Glass: On Laura Elrick's Stalk

I just watched/listened to Laura Elrick's Stalk for the second time and again was deeply unsettled. This is a deeply unsettling piece, yet one that we can, like the glass window of a city, pass by.  Or, like the body of another, manipulate just this much: turn on, turn off, rewind, fast forward, skip & let go.  Interrogate.  As poem, the digital artifact becomes fleshy and vulnerable.

This time in viewing the work I was interested in looking, in seeing or sensing on the micro level, those moments, planned and unplanned, that occurred just at the edge of the frame.  

Elrick and her collaborators here--Kythe Heller, Kristin Prevallet, several others--as well as Kaia Sand, who gave a talk on Stalk for Nonsite Collective several months ago called Poem/Nonpoem, are interested in projects of dissensus, events where aesthetic and political practices collide, as Sand puts it, works that "allow the two to be translated into and through each other."  Elrick's piece is certainly working at this level--not unlike David Buuck's BARGE or Sand's own Remembering to Wave (out now thru Tinfish Press).  There has been a resurgence in contiguity between poetics and political intervention in the past decade, a re up and rethinking of Ranciere's "redistribution of the sensible."  Though still unusual in today's contemporary poetic landscape, a re-imagining of a sort of poetic terrorism, of a politicized recalibration of the happening, has become a tactical concern for increasing numbers of artists, and this interest is every bit as conditioned by our eternal present's situation of deepening crisis as it is a response to a long (in art time) period of underwhelming aesthetic production--both in poetry and in experimental music and visual art. 

The landscape of crisis is what Elrick's Stalk unearths, is what the film's tagline calls, not wrongly, "part dystopian urban cartography."  Here crisis embodied is the fragile and self-same subject, the ignored, and transparent, where a question of whether it (not I) is breakable and/or visible, is tested.  Is the crowd that which washes it ashore, or away?  Are we that crowd?  Am I both or neither?  "Is that a person?" begins the poem, the screen dark for nearly a minute of forefronting language that Elrick and others overheard, recorded, individuals who voiced from within that crowed some response to the lone, hooded figure in orange jumpsuit, shackled.  "I feel like asking: do you want me to call somebody?" Where "to call somebody" is to suggest that the figure is either crazy or the act frivolous, in need of professional cleanup.  Sand beautifully discusses the multivalent signification:

Elrick’s trudge through New York streets juxtaposed prisoner and public crowd while drawing a contour line—as geographer Cindy Katz terms it—to the prisoner that is not juxtaposed, the out-of-sight prisoner, caged at Guantánamo, for whom we are the same public crowd.

On one level of reading this work, there is the obvious interventionist centrality of the hooded figure wearing the iconic Guantanamo orange, the walk (or stalk) as both overt political protest and as dissensus--as reminder to anyone who sees and is confronted by the work (either the event or its archive in the form of video poem) that there are hundreds of detainees being tortured at this moment, right now.  But, as Sand points out through Herbert Marcuse (and this is the question that's central to my work, at least the question I grapple with consistently), what alternatives are there to work that is simply "consciousness raising"..."puppets and protest"? That is, the artform that collides politics and art without leaving both, or either, normatively fixed, intact?  How to transform both "politics" and "art" in and through this collision?  Elrick gives us one kind of tactical move in Stalk. 

I'm reminded in posing this question of Buuck's review of Fernando Botero's Abu Ghraib Series for Artweek, wherein the controversial paintings of tortured men, beautifully wrought, erotic, stylized gained a lot of negative and positive excitement, praise for the "empathic" and "humanizing" images.  For Buuck, these paintings are, however interesting, lacking in dissensus, perhaps (in my estimation) because under all the juxtaposing of the erotic with sadism, pain with our pleasure in watching it (Sontag echoes here throughout), the work recapitulates old divisions, normative vocabularies, becomes itself a mode of "consciousness raising" on the one hand, and painterly skill on the other, the two only joined by the singularity of the painting, and not much more:

Ultimately, it will take artists, critics, and everyday image-consumers to construct new idioms of visual criticism by which to engage such images in a manner that attends to the complexities of such travesties while at the same time risking the same kinds of confused and contradictory responses in our own politics and protests, that might move beyond the necessary exclamations of disgust and/or empathy, towards active dismantling of the image-worlds and militaristic policies that give birth to these new forms of torture and image-making. 

Then what is the vocabulary of atrocity?  What would a new aesthetic language that confronts our contradictory impulses to these particular atrocities--these images and reports of torture--look or sound like?  As if in direct response to Botero and his work's positive reviewers, Elrick's voice, with a strange, detached sadness, reminds us to shine a light on our eyes as they watch, to see in them the contradiction:

     Empathy intoxicates the premise of this place... We... We that is temporary and abundant, 
     something that waits...

Stalk takes us out of the gallery, away from the normative in many respects.  Gone are the usual conventions of the poetry reading, gone is the page with its lineations, allowing us to see where the report begins and the lyric ends, where they blur. And gone too is the straightforward didacticism of "message," as the central character in this narrative is not the hooded figure (the hooded figure is only the trigger), it's the crowd, and at times, individuals within that crowd, and the city which is us insofar as we construct it (to paraphrase Kristin Prevallet from her A Catalog of Lost Glimpses).  

During a proceeding viewing, I took notes, scene by scene, pausing, of the crowd's reactions. Sand rightly takes note of the predictability of it all:

In June, her walk through the city was planned with precision, but submitted to the unpredictability of the city. Yet much was predictable about the reactions of crowds of people.

Homeless woman under a blanket. Fervent believer shouting scripture. Orange jumpsuited prisoner shackled and shuffling. We among the crowds don’t respond, part urbane (nothing surprises us); part safe-sure (less contact, less mugging); part co-habitationally respectful (we can all do our “thing,” living in close contact while retaining partial autonomy). 

True, much of the film shows Elrick going seemingly unnoticed, or noticed but not noticed. In all, by my count, there were only two occasions in which (interesting in itself) a person took a photo (camera, phone camera) of Elrick, and only once did a person (man, striped shirt, midtown) try to talk to Elrick (since I have yet to talk to Laura about Stalk, I don't know what was said, and so will be one of the things I will ask).  For the first ten or so minutes of the work, I saw very few (hardly any) double takes, or obvious stares--yet for the second half (mostly filmed in midtown Manhattan) there were several (whether this was a purposeful edit, or whether part of midtown's psychogeography entailed this "naturally," I don't know).

The lonliness of the hooded figure, and the crowd's dynamic as crowd (it's easier to ignore the othered, the marked, among a sea of strangers) is a deeply haunting feature of the work, with Elrick's lyric interspersed with lines by Baudelaire, Silliman, others, especially at the beginning, where most of the crowd seemed not to notice or care to notice the hooded figure, this lyric dissolving into detainee reports, which, having worked with these myself for a forth. book, are both horrifying and emblematic of the way we treat each other whenever threat (unknown, othered) approaches. 

     The ideal glass, big public... again detainee was shown 9/11 video. Detainee did watch,
     but this time without exhibiting any emotion... averted his eyes... Great place for people

And this ghostliness, this haunted glass sea of individuals, speaks to that dystopianism in the tagline, and occasions Sand to ask if we are too urbane:

Are we always among a crowd, the prisoner—shackled on the street, the prisoner shacked on an island—while we are urbane, safesure, cohabitationally respectful?

It's hard to conjecture on a whole scene of multitudes, what the mind-sets are here, and whether there is some uniformity of intention, so to speak, as there is of behaviors.  But to elaborate on what I take Sand to be getting at in suggesting the individual might "always be among a crowd, the prisoner":  what I noticed, beyond what Sand really nicely points out above, especially in the second half of the work, or what I felt I noticed, was an interest in the hooded figure, but a hurried one.  Like the man who approaches Elrick briefly, everything is brief, everything is hurried, everyone is on their way, in a hurry, always on their way.  Where are they going? We may be urbane, especially in New York, given the term's association with this diverse city of high end purchase, but we're also alienated.  We're going to work and in a hurry, and if not in a hurry to get somewhere because that is what we're told we must do, we're often thinking about being in a hurry--soon, which is also being in a hurry.  Propelled like buckshot from a gun we hurry, or we stand and ponder as marionettes on crank, and the hooded iconic figure of the detainee is a flicker in the corner of our eye, and if you only had the time to stop and ask yourself... "is that a person?"  That is, is the detainee (terrorist) a person?  Were you a tourist in one of those shots, your reasons for looking the other way, or beyond, or briefly, might not be dissimilar: you have no time for troubling matters--maybe you're liable to be dismissive even ("stupid radicals!"), because your boss gave you exactly 5 days to see EVERYTHING NEW YORK HAS TO OFFER, which includes the statue of liberty, the museums, the Empire State Building, and Ground Zero.  You'll ponder art in relation to politics, you'll have to ponder the U.S. policy on detainees and torture, later, because how are you going to fit ALL THIS IN IN 5 F-ING DAYS? I would call someone, but I have to be downtown in ten minutes, someone else surely will...  

In Aesthetic Theory, Adorno gives us a rich sense of how, in part, successful art operates.  Where "success" is to have use value, and to have use value as transfiguring and transgressing sensuous material that points in its negative articulation to a world that could be, to a future that isn't necessarily a worsening of present conditions, the liquidation of the subject, the person:

“Only by immersing its autonomy in society’s imagerie can art surmount the heteronomous market.  Art is modern through mimesis of the hardened and alienated; only thereby, and not by the refusal of a mute reality, does art become eloquent.”  (AT, 31) 

Stalk retains the contradictions of the crowd, which is to retain and amplify the contradictions of its own behaviors and effects, the conditions of its own production.  The stark reality of our alienation bubbles up to the surface in Elrick's Stalk (and does so in different ways if you--sorry Laura--turn off the sound, which, of course, also makes it a different poem).  The great love affair between capitalism and militarism is worn not just on our faces and in our gestures, but in the temporality of our behaviors.  We are walking the streets of New York; we are individuals given over to the picnolepsy of another's performance, and in turn, our own performances: of the rushed and pushed, and of the "something that waits" for an alternative social existence.  Our eyes project back the effect of our information gathering and dispersal, the beautiful delete button talk talk talk of cable news living.  Like they say, you are what you are (made to) watch. 


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