Chinua Achebe says that the English language, when altered, can be used to bear the burden of his African experience. I extrapolate from that and try to put it into painting.
Njideka Akunyili Crosby
Home of the Bill T. Jones / Arnie Zane Company
Artists are expected to participate in all sorts of conversations in a multimedia-interdisciplinary world but the shared language and historical highlights of specific media—even one as wild and wooly as video art—hauls out the funniest stories, the hottest arguments, and the sharpest insights. Recently, after watching Broadway Danny Rose for the 19th time, I was left fixated on the opening scene in which a group of comedians and writers are swapping stories over pastrami sandwiches at the Carnegie Deli. The scene inspired a flurry of emails that resulted in the first of what became a semiregular lunch date for a collection of NYC “video artists” (sounding as specific and dated as vaudeville artists with every passing year) to kvetch over ambitions, neuroses, hardware, and software related to our trade. The neighboring tables would never accuse Alix Pearlstein of being the loudest voice, but the serious eavesdropper would immediately notice the pattern: Alix says something quietly provocative and then the arguing starts.
While rarely glimpsed in her work, Alix consistently reveals herself as a quiet provocateur at every level of her productions. Across her videos and installations she describes a crucial and primarily visual arena in which familiar competitions, seductions, vanities, and judgments are both the subject and the object of scrutiny. The prospect of interviewing Alix initially struck me as strangely formal in contrast to our sprawling lunches until I realized how, for all the kvetching, I still had a lot of questions.
John Pilson Did you watch a lot of TV when you were growing up?
Alix Pearlstein Tons!
JP What’s your first memory of seeing an art video as opposed to TV?
AP When I was really young there was an Edward Kienholz piece with a live bird in it at the Whitney called The Wait.
JP There was a live bird and a video?
AP No video, but a live bird in the museum made a big impression! Video really made an impression on me in the early ’90s. The ’80s art market had busted, and suddenly there was a looking back on conceptual work and performance-based video from the late ’60s and early ’70s—a sense of a lot left undone to pick up from and reinvestigate from the perspective of a different time.
JP You’re an artist who has not become all consumed by video, but who sees the opportunity of it containing everything. I remember asking you for advice about how to edition things. I was feeling a little insecure about DVDs, thinking that I had to make nice boxes for them or something. You set me straight, “You have absolutely nothing to make up for. Everything you have to say has been put into that video. Nothing is required to make it more of an object.”
AP I’m glad I said that.
JP Those anxieties never exactly go away, but what you said really helped. It also seems completely in line with your work because it never points outside of itself. You rarely seem to be imitating anything: your videos don’t look like movies or TV shows, and they’re not cinematic, necessarily. Everything in them is active: the camera, ideas about performance, acting, figures, and space. Everything is competing for our attention. Anybody using the moving image has to contend with genre. With TV, you could measure in milliseconds how long it takes to know what you’re looking at: the news, porn, a documentary, or a reality show. Video artists have to contend with that, but they also have a great opportunity to question the assumed passivity of the viewer.
AP I consciously evade genre. Although, there are moments that may suggest a genre, say sci-fi in Light (2012) or suspense in Distance (2006)—but the suggestion is misleading, impure, and it doesn’t hold.
JP One does get the sense in your work that you’re scrutinizing something, or many things at once. I’m curious about what those things are?
AP The center point of what I’m thinking about right now is the affective space and the fundamental relationship between the camera, the viewer, and the subject—and what activates it. Camera movement, positing the camera as a viewer, and the gaze from the subject to camera can activate this. Light and sound can activate that space too. In both works up now at On Stellar Rays—The Drawing Lesson (2012) and Moves in the Field (2012)—a powerful light and a shotgun mic are mounted on the camera. As the camera nears, the subjects become very brightly lit, almost blown out, spotlighted, and you can hear their breath. These elements act to implicate the viewer.
JP Your work is filled with tension. It can be the camera as it looks at a person, but there’s also tension between what’s active and what is passive, what’s a performance and what’s not a performance, and what’s created by the camera and what’s recorded by the camera. Also, consistently, there’s literal tension—dramatic conflict seems to be one of your great themes.
AP The spectrum of tensions you identify is well illustrated in After the Fall (2008), a four-channel piece that was filmed in the theater and then shown at The Kitchen’s gallery. One impetus behind the piece was the synchronized choreography of four cameras, which a sequence of key narrative points propelled. There’s a moment of passion that’s interrupted. You know, you can always use an interruption. (laughter) There’s a psychological confrontation, a betrayal, and a violent, physical conflict in which someone gets hurt, which segues into a kind of—
AP A tumultuous gathering, an assembly that then falls apart. Whatever appeared as narrative just disintegrates as the cameras turn to scan, for quite a long time, each individual in the group. I thought of the narrative points as a ruse to move forward the more abstract, structural engine of the piece.
JP So how would you describe the evolution of your interest in theatricality, performance, and dramatic logic? Was it there before your interest in video, or was video your impetus to investigate them? And do you make a distinction between acting and performance?
AP Between acting and performance, yes. I picked up these Dan Graham interviews from ’94 and ’95 yesterday to get psyched for this. He’s asked a question about the relationship between the performance and the audience and he says, “Well, performance—I think—is a word that came out of the art world to describe something that was neither one thing nor the other.” I’ve wondered about this.
JP I feel strongly about that too—performance is neither one thing nor another.
AP Yes, and it goes to the art world as an umbrella. I performed in my earliest works, sometimes along with “artist friends who performed.” Then I became friends with some actors and included two of them in Still(1997) thinking it would be the same, but what they brought to it was so different. It took a while to move toward working with actors. I’d come to the limit of what I could do as a performer, since my orientation to performance came out of dance, working with a language of movement and gesture.
JP Interesting. The sense of an artist fascinated by actors in almost every aspect cuts through a lot of your work—by who they are as performers, as people, as workers who have to audition for a role. The idea of being in character, out of character, behind the scenes, in front of the camera …
I almost get the sense, in listening to you talk, that the idea of the actor, more than an interest in theater, was an introduction to these issues around the relationship between performance and theater.
AP Yes, the focus is on the actor, and that’s a focus on us—they stand in for us, for the viewer, for everyone. That focus animates the relationship between performance, theater, and film. These forms all trade places in my work: film acts like theater, performance acts like film …
JP You are a bit of a rarity in the art world. Usually artists are referencing cinema or theater, appropriating movies … any number of things. But to use trained professional actors is pretty uncommon. It goes against the amateurism that’s part of the tradition in video art—the ’60s and ’70s artists who got their hands on a Portapak.
AP I’m interested in how acting operates in a context in which there’s an expectation set up for performance as opposed to acting—so that acting is dissonant within that context. By performance I mean that the performer is not pretending: the artist is the performer is the artist. With acting there’s a representation of a character, an illusion of an inner life beyond that of the actor’s, such as backstory, psychology, and motivation.
Call it professionalism or a relationship to affect or presence that someone without training doesn’t have. It doesn’t always happen through conventional training, though. I’ve been watching some of Pedro Costa’s films, and he, like many of the so-called slow cinema filmmakers, is working with untrained actors—like you, working with your relatives. After working for a while with a really good director, though, they sort of become actors. I looked up one of the recurring characters in Costa’s films, and she’s not doing any other work, she’s not out there auditioning for commercials. She’s not living the life of an actor—that factor most definitely informs how I work with actors.
JP Do you think of your work as stripped down, or reductive, or even minimalist in relation to other kinds of narratives?
AP Yes, but varying from project to project. The Drawing Lesson is perhaps the most minimalist. I deliberately stripped out references to theater, to the life or background of the actor, and to narrative. Its subject is the affective relationship between the camera, the viewer, and the subject, while pointing toward portraiture. In Moves in the Field, I wanted to elicit rather than impose narrative out of a seemingly minimalist situation. I gave the actors a core set of directions: to walk, pause, turn, look at each other, and look at the camera. Now, that sounds like something right out of Judson Dance Theater, but “to look at each other” and “to look at the camera” would never have been used at that time, and working with actors shifts everything. It’s enough to bring out tensions or conflicts between people, enough for a protagonist to emerge. Everyone was there as him- or herself on that day in that room with these other people; they’re all looking at each other and at the camera. The camera is the viewer, and the viewer is going to be someone who goes into a gallery and watches that.
JP As a director, are you helping them understand what you want? Do they maybe misunderstand what you want?
AP They understand what I want. They’re working within a defined set of parameters, and then I see what they do to generate friction around the edge of those parameters. I’m gauging what makes the work dynamic, so that there’s development and, above all, a psychology that gets played out in relationships between people. One person may not want to interact with another person, so there’s that tension. It’s enough to ask people to really look at each other within a certain framework to bring out tension.
JP From the female nude photograph-puppet of Two Women (2000) and the charismatic leader’s portrait in Forsaken (2003), to the large cardboard blank canvas surrogate in After The Fall and the pointed reference to picture planes and figure grounds in The Drawing Lesson, it seems like the idea of two-dimensional art is always cropping up as a plot element and, more specifically, as something that ends up being damaged or violated. Are painting and photography being criticized to some degree in your videos?
AP I wouldn’t say that they’re being criticized but rather exploited. When I started using video in 1992, the image quality had a flatness that a lot of artists were working against. I was interested in exaggerating that flatness and thought about the videos I was making for the standard boxy black monitors as pictures, as pictorial within those boxes. My references were drawn from painting, photography, print media, and advertising—all two-dimensional. The violation of these two-dimensional “props” that you identify in more recent works does start to read like a narrative of violence, rejection, or negation—although I’ve thought of it more as the cathartic-tantrum trope. It’s quite explicit in Goldrush (2009), a postscript to After the Fall—the large white board reappears and is literally torn to shreds, quite violently, as if it were a valuable currency that everyone needed a piece of. I’m in this piece; it was truly cathartic. But I think you’re onto something, perhaps that trope does have a basis in a rejection of “the picture,” going back to the remark I made to you years ago that everything was contained in the video.
JP The work that I admire—at least some aspect of it—consciously exploits and celebrates the fact that it’s being shown in a gallery or a museum, in the context of other visual art. It’s pointing to that context. That’s what I think you do, and you also bring together traditions native to that context, for instance, Bruce Nauman low-tech tapes of tasks in his studio, versus Warhol; your work highlights the difference between that early video art where nothing much happens and Warhol’s screen tests. These things seem to come from such different places, and yet you very strongly bring them together. So when I was asking about you as a director getting what you want rather than what the actors interpret, I’m thinking of the great beauty and lesson of the screen test versus a Hollywood film or a Manet painting—to watch something fall apart and then gather itself up again in a moment of grace. You embrace awkwardness and things that are both out of your control and in your control.
AP This is exactly it. In each project, I try to juxtapose one piece that is super structured and taut, sort of doggedly structured, with a piece that is porous, that almost falls apart. Allowing for a kind of porousness can be very tenuous—
JP It’s a tightrope act.
AP People are human; in working with them, there’s so much room. When you know people very well, there are certain things that you can expect, but they’ll still surprise you. And then, when you don’t know them well, who knows? I’m often asked about the actors whom I’ve worked with regularly. People who have been following my work feel like they’ve been getting to know them. The ratio is always half new to half regulars—that has a tension, because there’s already a particular dynamic in place between me and the actors with whom I’ve worked repeatedly. I may need to pay more attention to actors I’m working with for the first time, which changes that dynamic. I recently worked with an entirely new group of actors, only one of whom I’d actually met in person before we started. It’s a project I’m making on site at the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center for a show that opens in January. I just finished the shoot on Monday. Today’s Thursday and I’m still waking up in the middle of the night thinking… . At one point, I asked one of the actors what he was going to do the night after the shoot. He said, “I’m going to go home, get stoned, and watch a football game.” Easy, but I wasn’t seeing that guy.
JP You would’ve used that.
AP I could’ve used that part of him, but he wasn’t giving me that. This really sounds like a director’s cliché.
JP This makes perfect sense and I guess it segues to my next question: What is the role of improvisation in your work? Somebody once said that the thrill of improvisation is the knowledge that it could fall apart at any time.
AP I’m not working with improvisation, but (in some pieces) with something that resembles improvisation. Even when there’s an allowance for a kind of disintegration, what I’m doing is super goal oriented, and improvisation isn’t necessarily so. With improvisation there’s a sense of making something up, and I’m never making something up. It’s about teasing out something that’s already there, and the potential for a range of responses within a defined set of conditions.
JP You often work with ensembles. I’m curious: Are you creating individual forces that then interact with each other? Is it important to you that everybody understands not only his or her own purpose in a piece but everybody else’s?
AP It varies from piece to piece. For example, in The Drawing Lesson actors are seated in very specific poses, in different configurations in relation to each other. As the camera circles, there’s a progression in how they shift their gaze from each other to the camera. Everyone had the same direction. This was the most rehearsed piece I’ve ever made; the camera movement and the actors in relation to it were equally rehearsed. In Moves in the Field, there was a core set of directions, which we talked about earlier. I also had compiled a list of extra actions for specific actors. So along the way I took people aside and assigned them an individual direction from this list. For example, I asked Valda Setterfield to stand in one spot while everybody else was free to move around. After the second time she did this she said, “Oh, I could do this forever!” It was dynamic for her, and there was a lot going on; the way that the others responded to her stability within that situation activated a range of tensions. This direction was tailor-made for her, thinking about her history and relationship to instructions.
The Drawing Lesson actually started with a piece from 1999 by Giulio Paolini called “Tre per tre” (Three by Three). In it there are three identical, human-scale plaster casts based on the figure of the artist in Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin’s The Drawing Lesson, from 1734. Two of the figures face each other directly, and the third is off to the side observing one of those two. I was struck by the strangeness of the configuration and started thinking about multiplying it to complicate the relationships. The circling camera is freehand (no track), so rehearsal was key to consistency in the use of repetition.
JP It’s striking that there’s a conversation about artifice versus realism, the stylized versus organic, that would be as familiar in an acting class as in a photography or video class.
AP Yes. For a long time, I’ve wanted to work with a range of performance registers within one piece. Another way to say that would be a range of approaches to acting, or between acting and performance within one piece. This can shift from actor to actor, or apply to one actor’s performance within a piece, which might range from a stagey theatricality to methodlike naturalism, or affectless performance mode.
Yvonne Rainer’s book Work 1961–73 has been in my possession for as long as I can remember. Before I ever saw her first film, Lives of Performers (a touchstone for me), I was struck by a film still of Valda Setterfield. I think of it as the first instance of glamour in the New York avant-garde. She’s wearing a black spaghetti strap gown, a choker, and false eyelashes. Everyone else looks like “artists who perform”: they’re wearing their jeans and nobody has thought about their look, their style, or their affect. But she, because she was also an actor, had that consciousness, and that made her iconic to me. She has an entirely different register from the others in that film, partly because of her glamour.
Certainly the No Manifesto was out the window by then because Rainer recognized that when you’re working with people, you can’t divorce their humanity from their objecthood. That particular juncture, the transition that Rainer made from choreography to film, has been very informative to me. Lives of Performers recognizes that subjectivity, and how to parse it within the context of minimalism, of conceptual art, and the geometry between them. So this desire to actively pit different performance registers against each other is at play in Moves in the Field—
JP —which also makes me think of how much your performers come through for you, because they hit those registers so accurately, whether they’re exaggerating or exploring a kind of overacting, or whether they seem psychologically complex and very much within their skin.
AP Pitting different acting styles or registers of performance activity against each other makes you very aware of what kind of actor someone is. It calls out skill, acting as a craft, and acting in relation to performance. It goes right back to: Who is this person? Do you like or are you attracted to this person? It’s two sides of the same thing. Who the actors are, what kind of actors they are, what they are drawing on, and how much attention they need. In Talent (2009), I repeatedly asked the actors to ask themselves how much attention they needed and to keep reevaluating that question.
JP And among the actors that you work with, do you find that you alternate between asking them to go against their training and asking them to go with their training?
AP Actually, the issue of training doesn’t come up that much.
JP They tend to have very open minds?
AP I’m always struck by the openness. A lot of conversation happens in these very intense, condensed, and heated periods of time. Most of the actors in my videos are working equally in experimental theater and what I would call conventional narrative theater, and also doing some television, some film. Steven Rattazzi and Christen Clifford have also worked with other artists.
I’ll just put it out there: I’d like to pull Gene Hackman out of retirement.
JP Okay! How would you describe the role of silence in your work?
AP It has to do with creating a space that’s contemplative, and working from histories that don’t necessarily privilege words. It’s not a rejection of dialogue. I’m not a writer of dialogue; I’m more an observer of people. It’s important to me that the ambient, diegetic sound is present. This goes toward a cinematic space—in between the theatrical and the cinematic, and toward what you’ve been saying about an art zone.
JP When people use the word cinematic in visual art, they’re usually talking about production values and artifice. Artifice isn’t something you normally consider in Hollywood-type cinema because it would be like spending the entire cowboy movie thinking, That guy is not a cowboy.
AP I use the word cinematic to refer to mise-en-scène and working toward the illusion of entering into the space. To get back to the question of silence, it can also be a question of comfort or discomfort, though really, it’s a question of scrutiny, the ability to scrutinize when you hear the silence.
JP I would say it foregrounds gesture, it makes it into a language.
AP There are some gestures and actions that I’ve used repeatedly in different pieces, like a language, yes. I keep an inventory of these. Applause is used in Forsaken, Arena (2004), Talent, and Finale (2009). And there is some dialogue that is scripted, and then some dialogue in which I outline parameters around what can be said. In the final scene of Talent, the direction to all the actors was to externalize a critical inner dialogue. As the camera tracks to the right, they critique the studio; as it tracks to the left, they critique themselves. The dialogue is overlapping, but as the camera passes an actor their words come into focus—you can hear “vagina” and “stopped working out.”
In relation to silence and scrutiny—the spaces I set these pieces in have an inherent emptiness. There are white cubes and black boxes, with their attendant references to galleries, museums, theater, or performance spaces, and cycloramas that are white voids used for photography, usually for advertising and commercials. Even with these references, there’s not that much in these spaces until people activate them. So the gestures that are off to the side of what seems to be the central action are often the most telling, the most revealing… . Every nuance stands out. Sometimes it’s in the detail of somebody’s shirt. I heard a lot of complaints from Christen Clifford about her pants after the shoot.
JP Her commenting on how those pants looked?
AP I wanted her to wear something more conservative, because she puts her sexuality front and center. I wanted to offset that from the waist down.
JP That goes back to this sense of you as a sharp observer of social dynamics and the power transactions between people.
AP These often circulate around sexuality and attraction. For an actor, the body, appearance is so central—that’s what they have to work with. So I want to see these issues upfront, they can’t be separated from their psyches or emotions.
JP We have both looked very carefully at the weird, circuitous histories of video art. This goes back to the Rosalind Krauss essay “Video: The Aesthetics of Narcissism” about first-generation performance artists such as Nauman, Acconci, and Joan Jonas. She talks about performance and the camera and her conclusion is that video is not a medium at all, but a condition: narcissism. That plays out in your work, for every performer there’s a witness. But we also see how the focus of attention can shift. When the camera is watching, someone becomes the center of attention, and that means that the rest of the actors lose attention.
AP My early work was very informed by the Krauss essay—by the self-reflective/reflexive camera loop she identifies. This is still at play in another way. I’m thinking about After the Fall again. Four cameras simultaneously circle the perimeter of the space, around which one group of actors is positioned as observers. They watch the other group perform in the center of the space, then turn to the camera as it passes by them, registering a response to what they have been witnessing, while we see the center stage action behind them.
Some of this thinking comes out of Brian Henderson’s “Toward a Non-Bourgeois Camera Style.” He writes about Godard’s use of the lateral tracking shot and circling shots from the “Action Musicale” scene in Weekend and the studio sessions in One Plus One. He writes: “His camera serves no individual and prefers none to another. It never initiates movement to follow a character and if it picks one up as it moves it leaves him behind as haphazardly.” There’s a constant reiteration of the point of view of the camera, a constant reminder that you are watching—you can’t be passive.
JP I don’t know whether this is necessarily more native to durational or performative work or not. There’s so much evidence of Godard’s influence in experimental film and video.
AP As soon as you’re working with duration, you’re working with contingency. Working with longer durations allows the sense of the immediacy of a live performance (that it’s never the same from one performance to the next) to be translated to a mediated situation. As opposed to the kind of heroic tracking shots of let’s say, the not-quite-final—though it’s always mistaken as the final—shot of The Passenger where the camera goes out the window, or the opening scene of Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil.
JP Like a magician showing you how a trick is done and then doing it anyway.
AP Yes. In Talent, the actors are lined up with their backs to a mirrored wall, and the camera and I, as the director, are reflected in the mirror. The exposure of process becomes part of the narrative, analogous to the exposure of the actor. It references A Chorus Line—an audition that’s like a therapy session. It also references Dan Graham’s Performance/Audience/Mirror, which premiered the same year as A Chorus Line, in 1975. Both, along with Talent, exploit the mirrored wall with wildly opposing goals: empathy and alienation.
JP You present these things as taking place in a void. The absence of a visible context makes the audience think about backdrops and wonder: Where would this make sense? Where would this not make sense?
AP Last week, for the first time, I shot outdoors around the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center. The location is typical of art centers in many cities: a recently gentrified neighborhood that’s a mix of industrial, commercial, and residential use. But it’s surrounded by an array of odd landmarks, like an overgrown, derelict bridge. It was interesting to transpose the approaches that I’ve used in controlled environments to the street.
JP Backdrop as character.
AP Exactly, sites in the vicinity became backdrops. The title of this piece, The Dark Pavement, is lifted out of Tony Smith’s account of driving on an unfinished portion of the New Jersey Turnpike at night. The remarks became a touchstone of minimalism, setting off Fried’s critique of the minimalist’s use of “theatricality.” My project springs from a response to an urban site and its landscape, and from the desire to tease out the idiosyncrasy and strangeness of that site with actors.
Chinua Achebe says that the English language, when altered, can be used to bear the burden of his African experience. I extrapolate from that and try to put it into painting.
Njideka Akunyili Crosby