Thursday, September 27, 2012

BABYSITTER, or, Flopsy, Mopsy, and Autopsy @ Lumière 2012

BABYSITTER, or, Flopsy, Mopsy, and Autopsy is a tableau depicting barely-employable burrman Max Klinger's first gig as a babysitter for three kids.  How hard can it be?  Children are easily entertained because everything is new and novel to them.  Inexperienced Max has brought with him only a thermos of homemade blackcurrant juice and a pack of smokes.  At the house he finds nothing but a dollar store dvd with three old public domain horror movies on it and a Harlequin romance, so he plays the video and reads the book out loud.  Mission accomplished. 

Before the twentieth century a lot of art framed the world in terms of large old mythologies.  Artists painted the aristocracy hobnobbing with the gods.  Today this kind of maximalism is still profitable when it's done by Lucas, Cameron & Spielberg.  If gallery artists do it, the mythologies tend toward the scientific-cosmic-quantum sort, since we're coming to terms with being made of star dirt, space water and sunlight.    

Throughout the last century until the present a key notion about what art can and should do is ostranenie, or defamiliarization.  A lot of current art focuses on looking at things we don't usually notice for any number of reasons.  As humans we've evolved to size things up quickly in order to avoid being eaten, and we've only gotten better at living by instinctive, left-brained looking.  Today's art often uses the ordinary and banal not just to encourage slow, contemplative scrutiny --that's a good thing to do now & then but you don't need art to do it-- but as an instrument to uncover the infinite connections that make up the world.  Try to follow the lifeline of any object, a mug, say, from your house to the store to the factory to the raw materials to the natural processes that gave rise to the materials backward as far as you can into deep geological time to the big bang.  Now do that with the whole world.  You're cultivating a mental muscle-- the imagination.  Not the imagination of fantasy, but of the real.  That's what art does.  
A big problem for artists is finding a subject or referent that everybody --well, a lot of people-- will recognize and 'get'.  In the nineteenth century Greek and Latin myth and literature were common currency at nearly all levels of education.  A poet could use classical references to construct resonant new ideas, confident that the audience would drop their buckets into the well.  Today a lot of our common sources come from the movies --say hello to my little friend-- and gags from The Simpsons , but their shelf life is iffy and only time will tell.  
A few years ago I found a dvd in the dollar store with the Babysitter's three movies on one disc.  All three are in the public domain for different reasons. The Wikipedia articles linked below explain why.  Since no one has to pay out for rights & royalties in order to market them, they've been around since the earliest days of VHS & Beta video in the late 1970s, then on dvd, and now on streaming video on the web.  They were sold individually, then as double features, and finally all three started travelling together on one disc that cost a dollar.  It played for almost six hours, so it was the perfect perfunctory diversion for latchkey children.  This is where the premise of this piece came from.  The kids' minds are left to marinate in images from various levels of hell.  Anyone born since 1980 is as likely as not to have seen all of these movies.  That'll do for a big shared referent until one comes along.

The promise indicated by the titles and poster art of movies like these is irresistible to 92.3% of the world's children, because horror movies are a revelation or warning of secrets from the adult world, maybe even the universal unconscious.

All three films on the dollar store disc (which I've transferred onto VHS because it lends itself better to six-hour loops) are horror movies in mounting levels of intensity.  They're scruffy.  By now, half a century after their release, billions of people around the world have watched them.  Maybe it's truer to say that they've been exposed to them, because the earliest two, at least, are so dull they resist any real scrutiny, and the last one is such a nightmare you can't forget it even if you wanted.

The House on Haunted Hill, 1959, is aimed frankly at a juvenile audience.  It was one of  William Castle's --'the poor man's Hitchcock'-- gimmick films.  When it was first shown in theatres a skeleton on a pulley flew over the audience during the climactic scene.  The story plays like a child's puzzled dream of adult life, as if the scriptwriters had been six years old.  Despite of or maybe because the dramatic ideas are so naive the movie metamorphoses into a surrealist fairy tale.  It's full of odd dislocations: the exterior shots of the house are of Frank Lloyd Wright's grand, modernist Ennis House.  The interiors are shot on a small soundstage that looks like the Addams Family place.  In one scene, Vincent Price operates a skeleton-marionette mechanism that could be a precursor to a Rebecca Horn body-modification machine.

It's a movie that would have a hard time scaring anybody, even a six year old in 1959.  But it contains some genuinely uncanny moments.  It's not scary, but it's in the Tradition of Scary.

The Terror, 1963, is teenage drive-in theatre product.  Its formal interest lies in how it was made by the seat of the pants.  Producer-director Roger Corman took advantage of some impressive gothic sets from a just-wrapped film and a deal with actor Boris Karloff for some extra work.  Five 'directors', including a young Francis Ford Coppola and a young Jack Nicholson, were sent to shoot as much atmospheric footage as quickly as they could.  The coherence of the (non-existent) story mattered less than that it all looked like it fit into the Tradition of Scary.  Over the course of a year they cobbled a story together.  It's a true Frankenstein's monster of a film, stitched together from a harvest of moody signifiers.  That it works as well as it does is an object lesson  in the nuts & bolts of collaborative creativity.

Night of the Living Dead, 1968, was conceived to be a provocation as well as an entertainment.  Maybe it was an oblique protest against the Vietnam war, or racism.  Its sequel was certainly a satire of consumer capitalism.  What is for sure is that it's the ground zero, the seed of today's all-purpose zombie apocalypse metaphor.  When actor Bill Hinzman appears, startlingly early in the film, you're seeing the first modern brain-eating zombie.  

Today images of gore and violence unthinkable even in 1968 are part of our everyday visual culture.  Night of the Living Dead hails from the dewy morning of this evolution, but it still carries a traumatic charge.  And compared to the other two films it still looks modern, and it feels like art.   As Clement Greenberg said in 1953, "Every fresh and productive impulse [in modern art] has repudiated received notions of finish and unity, and manhandled into art what until then seemed too intractable, too raw and accidental, to be brought within the scope of aesthetic purpose." 

Watching three movies at the same time is a simple exercise in art alertness.  It's easy to do but nobody ever does it.  When you watch two or three films simultaneously you can observe your mind pulling together connections from your inputs.  It's a way of generating ideas by looking out for the gestalt.

The juxtapositions among these three films are amusing and mysterious.  They reveal something about the often unquestioned presuppositions underlying the structural format of art or entertainment.
You can reproduce 'Babysitter' at home by setting up three computers side by side by side (or simply opening three windows) and watching the full versions of the films on Youtube:
The Terror

The films are of unequal lengths.  In this public installation they run for six hours, and juxtapose differently over the course of the evening.  In the chamber version, you can watch them juxtapose once only and then run out one by one.  You can get a strong sense of the dynamics that make up the framework of thriller movies by watching it this way.  It repays an investment of an hour and a half.

An excellent next step is watching Hitchcock's Psycho side by side with Gus Van Sant's 1998 shot-by-shot remake.

Max Klinger is made of burdocks picked at Point Edward, Lingan Beach and South Bar.  It's hard to find burdock bushes these days.  Their numbers have diminished dramatically over the last twenty years.  An earlier version can be seen here.   The book he reads is 'A Day Late and a Bride Short' by Holly Jacobs, Silhouette Books, 2003.  It took five hours to record on GarageBand, so it fits the evening's running time.  It's instructive to investigate occasionally things you think you know, especially if you think you disdain them.  Harlequin-style romances are still as predictable and standardized as they ever were.  They're also supremely effective at evoking feelings of gratification and promise.

note to self re: Lumiere 2013    Read Harlequin romance out loud while eating chocolate, shopping online.  Measure dopamine levels.   

BABYSITTER, or, Flopsy, Mopsy, and Autopsy will be installed in the front windows of Timeless Moments, 306 Charlotte Street, Sydney, Nova Scotia on Saturday, September 29, 2012 from 18:58 to 23:58, for the Lumiere 2012 Downtown Art Festival.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

BABYSITTER or, Flopsy, Mopsy & Autopsy: a video piece proposed for Lumière 2012

Three monitors on a couch, each showing a different film, accompanied by a spoken text broadcast by speaker.  The installation is programmed to loop for as many hours as is necessary.

A concern for the artist is finding common references that everybody will get.  This is impossible, of course.  But I've found three disreputable movies that everybody in the world has seen.  More to the point, these three scruffy films have served as babysitters for literally billions of children since the early 1980s.  

This is because the films are in the public domain; anyone can market them without having to pay royalties to their creators or producers.  They have been marketed on video since the beginning of the VHS/Beta era to the recent past of dollar store DVDs.  Now they abide as streaming videos on the web.   Over the years they were released first singly, in invariably subpar dupes.  Later they were delivered as double features.  Finally, all three turned up on a single disc, effectually providing four to five hours of hands-free babysitting.  

All three are horror movies in mounting levels of intensity.  They have always existed outside of approved standards of quality.  By now, a half century after their release, billions of people have watched them.  The earliest is aimed frankly at a juvenile audience.  The middle is teenage drive-in product.  The last was conceived to be a deliberate provocation, and has indeed proved to be the seed of one of today's key cultural metaphors.  The promise indicated by their titles and poster art is irresistible to 92.3% of the world's  children, because horror movies are a revelation or warning of secrets from the adult world.  

House on Haunted Hill, 1959,  was originally a gimmick film ( a skeleton on a pulley flew above the theatre audience ) which despite or because of its naive dramatic ideas can be watched as an extremely satisfying surrealist fairy tale.  The exterior shots of the house itself, for example, are of Frank Lloyd Wright's modernist Ennis House.  The interiors, with wonderful cognitive dissonance, look like the Addams Family home.   Late in the film Vincent Price operates a skeleton-marionette mechanism that could be a precursor of a Rebecca Horn body modification machine.  

The Terror, 1963, was collaged together from footage shot by five directors (including Francis Ford Coppola) over a weekend to take advantage of days left on Boris Karloff's contract and some impressive gothic sets by the sea.  It is a true Frankenstein monster of a film, an Exquisite Corpse-piece from the fringes of Hollywood.  

Night of the Living Dead, 1968, is the low budget Pittsburgh trifle ( an oblique critique of the Vietnam war ) which implacably swept the world (translated into more than 25 languages) and forms the seed of today's ubiquitous all-purpose zombie apocalypse metaphor. 

Two slight films and a corker, which end up travelling together in an unforced way on a single DVD which can be popped on while parents and babysitter have better things to do.   The first is silly but genuinely uncanny.  The second is a moody bore.  The third still has visceral power and stands at the beginnings of the desensitization to film violence (in North America at least).  

In this piece, three monitors on a couch show the three films simultaneously side-by-side.  Occasionally the images display arresting juxtapositions among films made a decade apart.  The films have different running times.  In a gallery setting it can function as a chamber piece:  the films run out one by one.  In a public setting they are burned to disc on a loop so that the work continues for six hours, with different juxtapositions.  The sound volume is set to a level that approximates white noise:  equal, self-cancelling stimulation from all three sources.

The visual stream is accompanied by a spoken narrative that continues throughout the six hours.  The voice stimulus acts as a Scheherazade mechanism meant to arrest a passer-by's conscious attention with an interesting story while the collage of images soothes or stimulates while denying an anchoring narrative thread.  The story to be used will be chosen after more experiment with the film loops.