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After Image

Curator Jamillah James delivers another visually ambitious exhibition, even if its aesthetic armature is a little creaky

A still from Martijn Hendriks' "Untitled #2 (The Birds Without the Birds)"

By Bret McCabe | Posted 3/25/2010

Through March 27 at School 33.

THEY'RE ATTACKING. Well, something is attacking. Kids run and scream. Parents and adults chase after them, swatting at a seemingly invisible foe.

In Martijn Hendriks' "Untitled #2 (The Birds Without the Birds)," the Dutch artist has digitally removed the flying threats from Alfred Hitchcock's 1963 The Birds (visit his web site for a borderline comic shot sequence). In this case, the scene Hendriks uses is about 1 minute and 30 seconds long, the children's party where the first real en masse attack happens in the movie. (Technically, the first attack happes when a single gull strafes Melanie Daniel's [Tippi Hedren] head.) With the birds it's a scene of curiously awkward horror; without the birds, it's a scene of awkwardly curious horror—visually arresting but a little intellectually inert. And therein lies the good and the nebulous of After Image at School 33.

As curated by Jamillah James, After Image is an expectedly ambitious and refreshingly diverse group--diverse in media, nationality, and vision. The exhibition is ostensibly about how meaning is/isn't distorted by the intersection of memory, visual communication, and cultural context—an afterimage being the sensation of "seeing" something after the source of that image isn't there. That turns out to be a rather obtuse organizational throughline that only modestly unites the works, and it's the lone aesthetic quibble: After Image is an exhibition of often visually daring pieces that sometimes feels a little all over the place.

Which isn't trying to imply that the works don't have anything to say to each other, just that if you're trying to consider them together you're going to get a migraine. A genuinely inspired feat of creative ethnography like Alessandro Bosetti's "The Whistling Republic," is installed a few steps from Keren Cytter's video installation "Dreamtalk," and the brain instinctively searches for what they might have to say about the exhibition's larger themes. Bossetti has a number of sound pieces in which he uses language purely as a sound system, and "Whistling" is a recording of a whistled language still used on one of the Canary Islands: the whistled sounds are translations of texts Bossetti wrote. The piece takes one abstraction—the written word—and passes it through a series of controlled distortions until it becomes something the casual listener doesn't understand: the text whistled. It's daftly entertaining, and putting the piece's headphones on can subtly make you feel like you're waiting at some international airport, as your ears settle into the musical symphony of listening to languages you don't understand. In many ways, the piece is a literal—albeit audio—manifestation of the exhibition's thesis.

Cytter's "Dreamtalk," however, is more elusive. Cytter is an Israeli video and performance artist based in Europe who has become extremely prolific in recent years. And while she may work in video—"Dreamtalk" was included in the 2007-2008 Whitney Museum of American Art exhibition Televisions Delivers People—her work feels as grounded in the written as film language. Visual grammar and its deconstruction are as integral to this work as the visuals, perhaps more so: "Dreamtalk" maps out a romantic-qua-obsessive knot between two men, a woman, and a reality TV star. The creation of this narrative, however, is circuitously established: The setting is a rather ordinary flat. The characters speak, and often repeat, their lines in an affectless monotone. The content of that dialogue is obstinately self-conscious, often bluntly offering internal thoughts or stating an action seen onscreen. And the editing feel purposely inelegant, intentionally disrupting the establishment of a linear narrative.

The goal feels to be an ontological dissection of televisual reality and the manufactured emotions, feelings, and situations represented by traditional narrative film/television. It's an existential limbo Cytter can easily achieve quite handily—her 2009 show at Thierry Goldberg Projects was a minor revelation—but in the context of After Image, the cracks in the logic of "Dreamtalk" become problematic. By itself, the video feels like a highly mannered interpretation of reality TV's banal realism. But, really now, reality TV is already a cul-de-sac of flat visuals, redundant dialog, and visual incoherence, and giving the incoherent a kind of Brechtian artifice, surprisingly, doesn’t transform its banality all that much.

So goes much of Image: compelling works that kida/sorta have something to say about the show's organizing idea. At one end of the spectrum works blithely wrangle with how images shape notions of history and politics or play with time. Graphic designer/art director Joseph Ernst quite stunningly reduces print magazine to the content the industry really cares about in his six offset prints from his One Page Magazine series here: On a single sheet he prints all the advertising logos in a single issue of a magazine (The Economist, Hello, National Geographic, OK!, Time, Wired) in their exact page placement, making a visual impressions map of revenue streams


Left: one of Joseph Ernst's One Page Magazines (from onepagemagazine.com/time.html)


For "Digital Decay," Claire L. Evans takes the "after" part of the show's title literally and ponders what comes post-image. Evans' DVD piece takes a quote from Douglas Davis' essay "The Work of Art in the Age of Digital Reproduction", specifically:

But digital bits, compatible at last to the new generation of tools that see, hear, speak, and compute, march in precise, soldierly fashion, one figure after another. This means that any video, audio, or photographic work of art can be endlessly reproduced, without degradation, always the same, always perfect.

and digitally degrades the image from clear, crisp white on gray text to the noise of a dead channel. Evans creates this animation by saving the image in increasingly lower-resolution formats over time, and the piece not only cheekily undermines Davis' assertion, it offers a sobering observation. Very quickly in this 2 minute and 47 second video the text becomes impossible to read, suggesting the first casualty in digital decay is meaning.


Left: Wu Ingrid Tsang's "The Shape of a Right Statement"


At the other end of After Image's spectrum are works whose inclusion feels a tad tenuous. Wu Ingrid Tsang's single-channel video "The Shape of a Right Statement" is an admittedly moving piece of appropriation, but its inclusion here feels curious. For this video the transgendered Tsang repeats the computer-voiced text of autism activist Amanda Bagg's 2007 YouTube.com video "In My Language," a veritable manifesto for better understanding of different communication forms: Baggs cannot "speak" conventionally, though she can articulate in her own tactile, sensory language. Alone the piece reaches out in solidarity to the various communication systems of society's fringes; in the context of an exhibition that follows the extrapolations of communication distortions it feels opportunistic.

And then there's Hendriks' "Untitled #2 (The Birds Without the Birds)," a work that at first blush appears to tackle the show's themes head on. According the exhibition's notes, Henriks' digital erasures are ostensibly removing:

the source of hysteria for the characters within the film. The simple act of erasure renders inert the terror central to Hitchcock.s work, engendering a sense of confusion as to what exactly is happening onscreen.

The problem is that The Birds is already a terror abstraction, as what exactly is happening onscreen is never articulated by the movie it or its narrative and visual subtext. The birds are an arbitrary locus of terror, as confusing when they're there as when they're not there, and removing an abstract threat only makes it slightly more abstract—which makes the movie feel not so much transformed as renamed. As in, when experiencing Hendriks' work—what has to be one of the most time-consuming and meticulous of processes—you may start to feel as if you're watching The Gnats.

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