I’m suffering post-holiday loss of bearings in relation to my work, and trying to get my head back into it by going to film screenings and talks. As part of this re-immersion drive I went to Ian Forsyth and Jane Pollard’s screening and talk at the Whitechapel, which showcased new work made for Nick Cave’s forthcoming DVD, alongside old work and videos that had influenced them, all focused on the talking head format. I don’t know their other work very well, though the event convinced me to go to the South London Gallery to rectify that, but from this selection it seemed primarily concerned with the foibles of human nature- obsessions, passions, attachments- filtered through the lens of music.
While talking heads are standard in documentaries and YouTube videoblogs, Mike Sperlinger, who was chairing the talk, pointed out that when utilised within ‘cheap’ TV clip-shows the people talking are treated as merely a means of content delivery- to say the things the progrmame editors require so that a coherent narrative can be pieced together from multiple voices. Jane pointed out how easy it is prompt certain answers, comparing this type of cynical interviewing to handing out a script- an instrumentalised mode of interview that their work is clearly in opposition to.
Their use of talking heads also differs from mainstream manifestations by rejecting name-titles, depriving the viewer of the framing device that identifies the interviewees, and thereby affords authority and prestige to them and to the interviewers, particularly when dealing with famous personalities as in the Nick Cave videos, for being able to secure such ‘big names’. Without names, everyone is leveled and hierarchy is eliminated, in a kind of gesture towards fundamental equality (unless they’re so famous you recoginse their faces).
Another interesting thing Jane said concerned their editing process, which is done according to the spoken word, much like a radio edit. This type of work is seemingly much more a literary/ writerly form of art since the text has primacy over the visual content, with the visual elements almost entirely determined by the text. One could argue that the individual speakers are similarly subordinated since their individual voices and stories are not as important as the overall narrative the artists construct from them.
My video Reality Life (2009), which featured teenage girls reading out a script written entirely from the titles of ‘unscripted’ TV programmes, attempted to foreground the potentially exploitative aspect of this practice; un-named and cut into wherever it suited the rhythm and flow of the video, the girls were simply ‘delivering’ their lines to camera for my use.
Of course the difference is that it was scripted beforehand, whereas documentaries are constructed from the (supposedly) unpredictable stuff people come out with. But- and this is something I’ve pondered a lot in relation to my own text-based work- where does carefully manipulating other people’s language leave the artist? Contrary to the positing of the work screened as oppositional, with their collaborator Nick Cave acting as a credible signifier of ‘alternative’ culture, the artists still have total authorial control and edit the content to create their own unique, individual response out of it.
It reminded me of something Steven Ball said at the curator’s talk at Banner Repeater in relation to one of my videos. He mentioned Marjorie Perloff, a theorist of conceptual poetics, who has espoused the notion of ‘unoriginal genius’, which as the name suggests, hardly destabilises the old romantic/ individualist idea of the artist as genius- albeit one who displays their virtuosity through re-using and re-ordering existing texts. She gives Benjamin’s Arcades project as a paradigmatic example but also champions the work of contemporary artists like Caroline Bergvall, who has worked with re-written found texts like lyrics and titles of pop songs, for example.
I think she is proposing this as a definitive break from the idea of ‘original genius’ in the age of the internet and simulacrum but I wonder whether using existing texts does anything to challenge the authority and control of the artist since what they formulate from them is still unique and individual – words often associated with ‘genius’, original or otherwise.
Reality Life (2009)