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23rd Reading: Spooky is as spooky does or why curators sometimes should keep their mouths shut

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Spooky Action at a Distance just opened in Australia. (For those who wonder; no, I don’t have magic teleporting powers, I live vicariously through eFlux and Art Agenda email announcements). Spooky is a double joint joint effort bring together artists Anat Ben-David and Martin Bell, and curators Adi Nachman and Andy Mac.

The title of the show is taken from something Einstein once said about Quantum Physics, “spukhafte Fernwirkung,” which the curators translate as spooky action at a distance. In the exhibition statement, the curators imply that the process of collaborating on this show was somehow like the “strange, instantaneous, connection between particles, that persist even when they are separated by great distance.” The title does not seem to relate to the finished works in the show; it somehow is trying to illuminated the work to brought the works together.

The lovely thing about many exhibitions these days is that they put video snippets online. Samples of Anat Ben-David’s collection of videos called Band was online, and so in a small way I got to experience a bit of the exhibit even though it is in Australia. I enjoyed the samples from the videos, but I am not quite sure that they live up to the curatorial hype or perhaps the curatorial commentary limits the possibilities of the work.

Ben-David basically makes 7 music videos for 7 different bands. She composed and recorded the music as well. Using the magic of splice and dice ‘em digital editing, she plays every role in the videos- sometimes two, sometimes three, sometimes four musicians.

Band represents an ultimate virtual experience in terms of the construction of an invented reality. The installation aims not only to show the finished results – the completed clips – but to reveal the artistic process of creating a fictional world integrating digital technology and the body. The members of Band are multicultural, multinational , multilingual and fictional. The characters serve as vessels that absorb culture and regurgitate a new language. Different national identities and cultures are mixed up. The intended effect is that of a parallel universe, where things seem familiar, but are nevertheless strangely and slightly rearranged.

That isn’t quite what I got out of it. There were many lovely moments, and some sections that worked really well in terms of being art that is like but not quite a music video, and there was no small amount of humor, which I appreciate. This may seem catty, but I actually am not trying to be catty when I say that overall it wasn’t particularly strange or unfamiliar, rather Band seems a bit like European music videos from the 80’s. It reminds me of the part in the Kate Bush video for Running up that hill where the head of the male dancer is pasted on a bunch of women’s bodies. Ben-David’s splicing and dicing is much better than that, though one of the joys of watching the clips is to notice where the splices are quite working and the images are not perfectly aligned. The aesthetics of the videos almost seem like a crazy cross between of the 1980’s film based on Tama Janowitz’s Slaves of New York, which I loved in high school, and PJ Harvey’s look in the early 90’s.

Her work isn’t in an alternate universe: it is firmly situated in our own universe where video and film before video from early on in their histories has played with editing that allows a single performer to play multiple parts in a shared frame. We are accustomed to what used to be uncany cloning and duplication. At a base level, what Ben-David is doing technically and aesthetically is not particular new, innovative or original. The annoying curatorial chit chat about how Band is the “ultimate virtual experience in terms of the construction of an invented reality,” (it isn’t), gets in the way of our seeing what the work might be beyond its fancy dancy tricks.

I would have to see the works in full (and watch them many, many times) before I could really begin to formulate a reading that gets us out of the dead end of the curator’s conclusion that digital tricks are kind of spooky. In the second video clip, which may be my favorite, the artists plays two almost but not quite mirroring characters who stand behind lighting stands that obscure most but not all of the time the characters’ heads and faces. Instead of their faces, we see giant circles of brightness almost like after images from looking at the sun, presumably from the lights themselves, though we cannot be quite sure that that is the case. Lights normally turned on an object to be photographed are turned out to, in some senses, shine on the viewer. It is glaring, enough to make us squint a bit if we look at it long enough. (I’ve been looking at it for a while, and my eyes hurt a bit). In some sections, her head is close to even with the bright circle- the circle could be resting on her neck, but in other images, her head is behind the black canisters that hold the shining light- so if we consider the bright circle her face, then she becomes an insect with head protruding forward from the neck. This is repeated but shifted in the last section where the circles of light rest on the characters’ necks, but the lighting canisters extend backwards behind the circle like the elongated head of an alien or bug. The splicing as the piece progresses becomes purposefully uneven, one side of the image is taller than the other. Ben-David creates and points to an imperfect doubling.

I do not yet know what all that means, but it adds up to much more than spookiness. I am too tired to suss it out now so I turn it to you. What might all that mean besides “wow, digital doubling (tripling, etc) is sure damn nifty and far out?” If I sound snarky, it is because in writing this I realized how much content in just that one selection was getting washed out by the glaringly bright curitorial framing. We have to squint to see what is there.

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