The black figure has always been a subject of entertainment in popular culture, as well as an image to sell things. In some ways, that’s how people relate to us—because they’ve seen us on television.
To briefly describe Matthew Buckhingham’s work, one could suggest it’s a cross between the films and exhibition design of Charles and Ray Eames and Bruce Nauman’s sculptural video and performance works. Like Buckingham, the Eameses were obsessed with creating new ways of communicating information. For films like Glimpses of the USA (shown on seven screens for the American exhibition in Moscow in 1959) they carefully constructed systems of presentation in which the viewer’s participation was primary. Many of Nauman’s video pieces—from Walking in an Exaggerated Manner Around the Perimeter of a Square (1967–68), to Good Boy Bad Boy (1985), and Mapping the Studio I (Fat Chance John Cage) (2001)—explore how understanding might be both supported and undermined through extended viewing of a situation set up by the artist. The aftereffects of watching them are similar to experiencing Buckingham’s work. One could also invoke other examples—the cinematic works of Fernand Leger, Dan Graham’s instruction-based works, Walid Raad’s fictionalized archives, and Deimantas Narkevicius’s history projects.
Despite often having history, fiction, or narrative as their subject, each one of Buckingham’s projects reframes the question of experience itself, in Walter Benjamin’s sense: experience as the result and totality of a person’s perception, interpretation, and memory. The setting in which Buckingham installed Muhheakantuck–Everything has a Name last year is useful in understanding how his work encompasses the contradictions of knowledge and experience. Imagine standing in line on the most inelegant of piers, then boarding a boat made for very short commuting rides. Soon after the boat begins its trip on the Hudson River, the sun begins to set and a film starts. It describes the history of the Hudson—most significantly, what happened on its shores at the beginning of European domination. Images of the Hudson taken from helicopter are washed out, magenta-tinged, as if this was faded stock footage from the ’70s. A voiceover describes a horrible history of violence and economic injustice with measured language and tone. Here we are on that very same spot in which it took place, desperately trying to imagine or connect this landscape of skyscrapers to its much longer history.
Buckingham’s restagings can only unfold over time—by willful reassembly in the viewer’s thought and memory. He employs various strategies: multiple screens, split image and text, screens interrupting and reflecting the projection, projection rooms echoing the rooms depicted in the film, and so on. Taking history and memory and projecting them through a prism, Buckingham creates a spectrum of ideas that can only theoretically coalesce into a whole.
Josiah McElheny We were just were talking about the difference between the ideologies of a historian and of an artist; what interests you is that what you can’t do with history as a historian, you might be able to do as an artist.
Matthew Buckingham Yes, because of the limits that one agrees to. In a sense historians negotiate their own relationship to the limits of their discipline, and probably formulates this mixture of literature and science that history is differently. I can be unfaithful to a particular formulation of history, almost perverting it, in a way, by bringing it into the art context. By seeing what else is there, I can thereby bring it back into an indeterminate field, into the everyday, or into my own or the viewer’s experience, so that those limits must be renegotiated again and again.
JM You just referred to perversion—I think I understand what you mean. You are perverting, in some sense, the ideology or the methodology of history; but, on one level, history is perversion in and of itself. Historians begin by deciding—before we can decide—what should be forgotten and what should be remembered.
MB Yes, this is foundational to even the idea of the category of history. I want to somehow place the spectator in a position where they are aware of their own selection process as they are engaging with my work—or anybody’s work, really. That’s exciting because it puts that thinking process into real time.
JM The subjects that you end up being attracted to—would you say that you choose the subjects, or that the subjects choose you? Do you think that perversion is inherent in them?
MB There are two tracks in the work I’ve been doing, maybe even two broader subjects. One would be the general question of historiography. How do we make these constructions, or how is history used representationally, rhetorically, or politically? The other subject is the particular material within a given project—there’s definitely a connection between all the subjects that I have chosen, or, as you say, have chosen me. Speaking about the past we always face the problem of objective and subjective knowledge. Some practitioners assert that historical investigations should be objective or neutral. But how can we completely divorce our work from our interests and contexts? If scientists are ready to acknowledge the role of the observer in scientific method, then perhaps it’s more productive to look at history as always unfinished—as a field where we can make claims and debate the adequacy of different narratives by looking at their real effects without allowing the discourse to dissolve into relativism. As for my projects, I’ve tried to think of narratives or stories in terms of what they reveal about our desire to connect the present and past, or, in other cases, to deny a connection. Stories use memory to give form to the relationship we all have with the everyday. We could each see our process of waking up and recalling what we are supposed to do in the morning as a kind of personal, “domestic archaeology.” Our identity, our being “timely” or “untimely,” all hinge on the way we relate to others through our processes of memory. So I look at that more metaphorically in my work and try to understand bigger structures of so-called history and ideology, in connection with this.
JM When I’m choosing subject matter, it’s often the subject matter that finds me. It’s an instinctual process—not random, but still a chance-based occurrence. I often turn to footnotes or rare texts or historical objects, things that are considered distinctly unimportant or just not central to major historical narratives. The reason I do that—I think—is that these things seem more available to me; they seem more accessible to new thinking and new interpretations. They don’t have such a strong set of constituent interests and arguments—or at least those that they have aren’t so fixed that one can’t create new connections. Does this relate to how you decide to pursue a particular subject, for lack of a better word?
MB Yes, definitely. What you’re pointing to goes back to the question of selection in constructing history, to the elimination of contingency or of the quotidian. Excluded documents can reveal as much, and sometimes more, about a subject than privileged documents. Through the “castoffs” we get a glimpse of past moments before they were resolved, possibly reimagining them in their present tense, or even comparing or contrasting them with our own everyday knowledge.
The project I did some years ago on the subject of physiognomy was based on this type of investigation, looking at how the idea of reading character through the body, and especially the facial features of a person, entered the popular culture, saturated it, and then was discredited and discarded. Rather than begin by looking at physiognomy as a pseudoscience, I looked at it as something that was taken for granted for a period of time, asking what its repressed legacy might be today.
JM Do you think that as artists we might be able to, through example, grant people a sense of permission to look at things in a curious and open-ended manner? Hopefully with as few preconceptions as possible? Is the idea of giving the viewer a sense of permission an important aspect of your work?
MB Absolutely, and hopefully a permission that entails responsibility. The art context can be a chance for us to see our own responsibility or possibility for agency in a different way because it’s nearly always metaphoric, on some level. It interests me to see how or on what level an artist can turn their work over to the spectator, so that the viewer also becomes aware of their own process of interpretation. Choosing to work on a particular project is often based on what problems I need to confront myself, which I will, in turn, hand over to someone else. I hope this highlights the process of memory in relation to decision making, both personally and collectively, where we can question our value system.
JM The value system in terms of what?
MB How things get argued out and how we value or devalue social conditions or events from the past.
JM For myself, I often find that the idea of a small or forgotten aspect of history inevitably speaks to larger issues anyway. And I’m always looking for how to find a connection—is there some specific material aspect, or some particular narrative that’s associated with these backwaters of knowledge, that speaks to contemporary issues?
JM You suggested in an email that we talk about what happens if objects and strategies from the discipline of history are brought into the art context. Along those lines, I was thinking about the overlaps of sympathies in our respective work. There are a number of subjects there: questions about truth, accuracy, interpretation, narrative, pedagogy, memory, context, display methodologies, etcetera. You’ve touched on some of that, but when you speak about agency and responsibility it brings up what has lately seemed, to me, to be most central: questions about politics. I think that it is of utmost importance, in terms of art, to overturn the stereotypes about the relationship between art and politics.
To tie this to a specific project, I was thinking about my experience seeing Muhheakantuck– Everything Has a Name last year. Seeing that film on the boat at sunset last year, as we were traveling on the Hudson, while listening to you narrate the history of the clash of Europeans and the indigenous people who were already here in the New York City area was an amazing experience. Watching what appears to be aged, faded film of the Hudson shot from a helicopter, and at the same time looking out on the water, traversing the same landscape, but from a very different vantage point … For me it created a number of different levels of narrative, memory, and experience, and set out multiple viewpoints on history. Would talk about the film in terms of politics, agency, and responsibility. Also what would you say is your attitude towards memory in that piece?
MB We often partition time in these categories of past, present, and future, but it’s worth considering the possibility of the past not being over for many people. I once heard Jimmie Durham define the past as “What you wish you didn’t have.”
MB I don’t want to speak for Jimmie Durham, but in this statement I hear the desire, on the one hand, to not be overly burdened by one’s past and, on the other, to acknowledge injustice and see its connection with the present. “History is what hurts,” Fredric Jameson says. It can determine us and always challenges us. I connect this with the Frankfurt School and Max Horkheimer’s notion of history as the preservation of the memory of suffering coupled with the demand for change. The events we decide to record are often the negative ones, the ones we’ve really struggled with. This can also lead to the flipside of historical memory, which is also motivated by “wishing that we didn’t have a past”—the flipside is forgetting, or repressing, our experience.
With the Muhheakantuck project I wanted to look at the present moment. The film has been shown in different contexts over the past few years, so in a sense, that present moment has been elongated. The project began in 2001–02 out of a desire to rethink the questions of sovereignty, identity, and territory that became so urgent after the fall of the World Trade Center towers. I wanted to try to see the city on a longer time line, in relation to a longer history and the role that violence has played in defining New York, and even the Hudson River Valley, as a place.
If we make that impossible leap of language, thinking of a 315-mile-long river and a city of nine million people as a “place,” I believe we’re immediately confronted with the questions of: Who has lived here? Whose place is this? In what sense are the geography and the land identified with people? In the bigger picture, for 15,000 years or more the answer to that question has been the indigenous people of what are now New York and New Jersey.
JM Let’s talk a little about methodology. In a number of your projects there’s an effort to clarify the difference between what place is and what it’s remembered as. For instance, in your One Side of Broadway project you document every building on one side of the avenue between Bowling Green and Columbus Circle, incompletely reconstructing the images from an eponymous 1910 book that included every building on both sides of Broadway.
To me, what’s unique about your work is that while it functions in part to retell or focus on important historical and contemporary subjects, its central point is about a physical and psychic experience of knowledge. You often explore ways to present us with a disjunction between what we know and what we experience; you both separate and connect those things. I thought, for instance, that in your relatively recent piece Everything I Need that element was strongly felt.
In Everything I Need the text is on the right-hand screen and what appears, at first, to be unrelated footage of a ’70s airplane interior is on the left. The narrative is intense—in part it’s about the love life of a lesbian woman in Nazi Germany of the ’30s—but the film footage is very simple, colorful, and slow. Eventually one understands the connection between the airplane and the story of the narrator’s return to Berlin in 1978. The story is rich and evocative, so the relatively mundane nature of the film footage—mostly of the orange-colored fabric on the seats of this airplane—constantly grounds you and creates a sense of your own disconnection to the situation and era of the story. Was the disjunction between knowledge and the physical an intentional effect?
MB That’s something I do think a lot about. With Everything I Need I looked at the life of Charlotte Wolff and thought it’d be interesting to try to position the spectator at the exact juncture that you’re talking about: between the everyday or the environmental experience and the very complex process of constructing knowledge out of memory. In Wolff’s case, I wanted specifically to look at her reflections in relation to the decisions she was forced to make.
An ongoing strategy for me has been to juxtapose aspects of a problem so that they are left unsynthesized until the spectator agrees to engage them: in the case of Everything I Need, picture and language are physically separated on two projection screens. One displays a sequence of titles projected without spoken language, and the other, a series of images that have sound. The process of making a conventional film ends with the final edit, where the filmmakers have synthesized the material in a way they feel will convey the meaning of the film most effectively. I, on the other hand, try to leave things somewhat in the condition I find them, and prefer the experience to “end” in each viewer’s mind as they actively synthesize the material for themselves.
I’m interested in the different ways in which many artists work with problems by partly turning them over to their viewers. This is how I look at someone like Walid Raad’s work. I feel myself becoming part of the subject of his work as I make an effort to understand what I’m looking at. He often presents catastrophic events at the level of the everyday, but the events never become ordinary. I catch myself evaluating the difference, wondering how do I know what I think I know?
JM You describe a strategy for creating a temporary situation where the viewer has to mentally put disjunctive images and ideas together, but it seems that you’re not content to repeat any one strategy. Each of your pieces has a different way of approaching this problem. Your approach is very different from that of a documentary filmmaker because you are often questioning how the viewer is physically apprehending the image. You are not simply satisfied with trying to convince people of the facts, as a documentary filmmaker might. In one place you might use the strategy of projecting through a double mirror, as in A Man of the Crowd or, in the case of Everything I Need, a split screen that creates a disjuncture between what might be called subtitles and the imagery. Do you find the source material first and then develop a strategy for the structure, a situation in which to present your exposition? Or does this happen in the reverse: you have a notion or idea of how images and language can be perceived in space, and then you find a set of ideas that fits that particular system of display?
MB It’s a combination—like what we were saying about selecting material to work with, sometimes it selects you. Working with an idea will often suggest a form, or the reverse. The projects are very much based on an idea of an “investigator.” Enormous problems arrive with this model. Who is investigating? Who speaks and who doesn’t? I’ve consciously tried to get as close as I can to my imaginary viewer—physically and mentally—thinking about what happens to a moving image or an object when we encounter it in a real place.
JM I wouldn’t want to suggest that the main thrust of your work is in any sense structural or formal. But at the same time the history of art is a history of forms. When I think about your work’s effect on me, I remember the information and the narrative. But, even more, the particular space in which I experienced it and how the linguistic information was passed on. Each piece is a history told through language, but each time with new methods.
One could draw some parallel to the kind of structures that Bruce Nauman has set up in many of his works—they also create very specific effects. I’m thinking for instance, of Good Boy Bad Boy; after watching it all the way through, it ends up changing how one experiences language—language appears to dissolve.
MB What’s interesting about terms like the particular and the general, form and content, theory and practice, and so on, is their inseparability, and how they actually describe a relationship rather than a binary pair or polarity. These pairs can never collapse into each other nor can they exist alone. In a sense they are subsets of each other perhaps, or different dimensions of the same thing.
With A Man of the Crowd for instance, I remember coming across the story by Edgar Allen Poe, “The Man of the Crowd.” On first reading it, quite a long time before I was able to do the project, I recognized a lot of interesting conscious and unconscious things. Particularly, I saw it as an open-ended parable—a story from which we can make multiple readings, since it’s very ambiguous. What resonated so strongly was that it told the story of a person becoming fascinated by a stranger about whom he wants to know something, yet he wants to find this out in secret. This immediately reminded me of a model of nonfiction filmmaking—the idea that if we were able to totally conceal our means of observation, we would get at some kind of truth. In looking at the history of the story itself, I found that through Baudelaire’s translating it into French, it became a model of the flâneur for him, which in turn influenced Walter Benjamin, and so on. Suddenly I saw the story as an intersection of a number of concerns. This raised the question of what happens to a preexisting text when it’s adapted. Poe’s “The Man of the Crowd” was actually adapted by German and Austrian television at one point. In my case, I brought it into real, physical space. The story sent me back to a moment that I had experienced when I was in school working informally as a projectionist. Most cinema projection booths are constructed so that the small opening through which the image is projected is closed by a piece of glass positioned at an angle. The glass is there to keep noise from the booth out of the auditorium and it’s angled to prevent the projector light from similarly bouncing around. But at one school I attended, the glass reflected the film image onto the back wall of the booth. Two moving images were created from one. The Poe story, with its symmetry of one man secretly following another, reminded me of this experience.
JM I had the intuition that some of the strategies that you use to structure your works came from highly specific personal observations. I can see how A Man of the Crowd comes from seeing these doubled images inside the projection booth. Often at the beginning of your films there’s a clue about the overall construction—at the beginning of the loop in A Man of the Crowd, the camera depicts a Jacques Tati, Playtime-type moment, where we glimpse the man the main character will follow in a doubled image of mirror and window. The shot creates a mysterious image that echoes how the film is experienced; the viewer sees the film both on the wall and in a reflection due to the glass plane that hangs in the middle of the space interrupting the projection.
I was also thinking about the beginning of Sandra of the Tuliphouse—when she arrives at this little isolated house—when one is watching the film under a sound-isolation bubble. Sitting on the floor below one bubble you’re at the same time aware of the four other screens nearby, each with their own sound bubble. Each screen is showing the same footage, though at different points in the loop, but the clue is the overlapping isolation. You’re in this community in the gallery as the characters in the film are in a community—this ideal utopia in Denmark—and yet, in both cases, everybody is separated in their little bubble. And then I think about your recent piece about the invention of cinema …
MB Oh, yes, False Future …
JM Walking in, seeing the film—which is about the very first moving image—projected on a piece of cloth suspended in the middle of the room, it’s immediately clear that it’s referring to another recorded image—Veronica’s cloth in the Bible. Again, this setup appears to be key. The structure and its relationship to the story create a palpable sense of the physicality of making an image, recording a moment in history.
MB Those are registers of meaning that spectators must navigate as they try to work out what they’re seeing. I like the way David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson approach film studies by holistically asking: What am I looking at? Who made this? How was it made? It’s a kind of materialist approach that tries to take into account as many elements of the film-viewing experience as possible. I apply this to viewing and making visual art. In False Future, spectators discover they are physically in the space that is described in the work’s narrative, which turns out to be a sort of “primal scene” of cinema.
That’s what interests me about installation art, you know, thinking about the bigger field of experience that’s available to us as artists, not as a way of expanding our control, but maybe the opposite: to see art shade off into life. I believe the most interesting examples of installation work ask the viewer to negotiate this border as part of the meaning of the piece. And there is no shortage of ways to do this, from a single short length of string, in Fred Sandback’s case, to Faith Wilding’s miles of string.
JM As we were talking, I realized that I had never thought about you being the cinematographer; you being the body behind the moving camera. You also mentioned earlier that you’re fascinated by the meaning and history of the portable film camera. The piece about the found box of film, Situation Leading to a Story, is obviously speaking about the importance of the invention of the portable camera and the original development of home movies. In terms of your art, what are your thoughts on your being depicted visually or with your voice in some of your films as you, Matthew Buckingham the artist?
MB Those questions are there in everyone’s work, to a degree. The more one denies that, the more palpable that is. Situation Leading to a Story was one project where I deliberately tried to play quite a bit with the viewers’ relationship to my experience and theirs, both watching the film and in the installation itself. The voiceover is presented in such a way that spectators have to use their own memory very self-consciously. There’s almost no synchronization between what’s heard and seen at a given moment. The viewer has to “rewind” and compare what they hear and see at different times in order to evaluate the story they’re being told—perhaps even at a very basic level of what might be “true.”
JM In things that have been written about you, there’s often a discussion of what’s fiction and what’s historical. That question has been asked—reasonably—about my own projects as well. But the question doesn’t always make sense to me, because I can’t find the actual point at which the separation between historicity and fiction lies. I do not have a coherent intellectual argument for why that is so. Maybe the sense of fluidity of fact and history began for me when I read Jorge Luis Borges as a child. One intuitively knows that there is always doubt about the location of the border between fiction and history. Maybe doubt is a state of being. I was wondering if you could talk a little about your feeling about fiction versus history. Of course, in some pieces you’ve actually begun with a piece of fiction, but perhaps my question is most pertinent in those pieces that purport to be a kind of history.
MB History tries, in a sense, to get us to imagine something that no longer exists, but that once did. This is how historical narration relates to fiction, I think. In other words, to imagine the past we use the same mental space that we use for imagining things that never existed. Furthermore, what’s confusing, in an exciting way, is that both fiction and history writing make truth claims similarly. They argue their case, and we must evaluate, criticize, and react. Which stories are more adequate and why?
If we’re only interested in whether something happened or didn’t happen, without wondering why or why we should even I care, then simple yes and no answers will feel satisfying and seem definitive. A lot can be repressed when we stop at that level.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the popular notion of ghosts; of haunting, in a broad sense. What makes up the formulation of a ghost? For me, it’s the idea of unresolved questions—Salman Rushdie’s “unfinished business”—condensing in the form of a person. Ghosts aren’t satisfied with simple yes or no answers. That nagging feeling that comes from unaddressed things is what motivates me to do new projects and to look at other people’s work.
JM It’s as if it’s not the question of history haunting us, but us haunting history.
MB Exactly. In some of Henry James’ stories, like “The Turn of the Screw,” “The Jolly Corner,” or “The Sense of the Past,” that is literally what happens. The main characters, displaced in time or space, worry that they have become ghosts haunting someone else.
Josiah McElheny is an artist living and working in New York. His most recent exhibition, A Space for an Island Universe, based on the work of philosopher Immanuel Kant and astrophysicist Andrei linde, opened at the Museo nacional centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid in January. It included his third cinematic work, Island Universe, which was shot on location at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City.
The black figure has always been a subject of entertainment in popular culture, as well as an image to sell things. In some ways, that’s how people relate to us—because they’ve seen us on television.