Growing Up Stupid

January 2010, catalogue essay for curatorial screening with same title, as part of the Curatorial Incubator Residency, VTape, Toronto, ON, edited by Michelle Jacques. Copyright Mireille Bourgeois.

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“This is so stupid.” This dismissive phrase is often used to veil the confusion felt at the sight of something that seems banal or talentless in the traditional notion of the word, that seems to want to humiliate itself or others, or that seems almost congested with meaning, unable to focus on one distinct thought. We have a deep need for social order or structural analysis of recognizable visuals that speak to us; this need sometimes creates a barrier to the reading of an artwork that takes a different approach. The kind of dare-to-act stupid seen in some current experimental video artwork follows in the footsteps of early 1920s Dada, Avant-Garde films, and conceptual art of the sixties through to the eighties. It is usually described as performative, experimental, and abstract. The videos in Growing up stupid could be described as all – or none of these occasionally interchanged terms. The four artists in the program employ non-narrative forms of video, using disorder, chaos, or the ridiculous to subvert and revolt against overbearing structures such as war, mass-produced culture, and the rhetoric of power. The work of Penelope Buitenhuis, Istvan Kantor, Jennifer Reeves, and Ryan Trecartin each in their own way, derive from an eighties aesthetic. Their videos are digitally multi-layered; some are abrasive and loud in visuals and in sound. They use dynamic editing tricks or MTV music video-type formats, and also critique the alienating outburst of pop media culture, sometimes capitalizing on the political tidings of previous decades.

The original intention of the dunce cap was to funnel knowledge into the mind of the wearer.[1] This made the dunce a powerful thinker, one that would allow him/herself carte blanche to conceptualize anew — free from existing histories. In today’s terms, the dunce is lazy and ignorant, not bold and willing to act ridiculously in the name of innovation. However, Avital Ronell, contemporary theorist and author of Stupidity (2004) states “That which disrupts understanding” is what is the most feared by hierarchical structures.[2] Stupidity is an act so powerful that it can interrupt the very foundation of thought. It can be a tremendous momentum for revolt, and is very pertinent to the videos in Growing up stupid. Perhaps the shared principle linking the following videos together is that they lift out an essence of humanity usually hidden within a mainstreamed quality of life, and they propose to bring forward an awakening to our daily actions. Acting outside the bounds of social behavior is a way to at once distance oneself from society and history, and bring oneself closer to humanity, by communicating in a way that does not need language to be implicit or shared. Artwork that disrupts understanding like the Dada films of Hans Richter and Man Ray, Nam June Paik’s digital collages, or Valie Export’s performative videos can also be seen as anti-social where clear communication of an idea to a collective of people is impossible, since it creates a kind of tunnel-vision effect when considering the individual. Reeves’ Skinny Teeth (2001), Trecartin’s What’s the love making babies for (2003), Buitenhuis’ Drawing Attention (1984) and Kantor’s Black Flag (1998) use non-narrative methods of video making as a way to express a kind of protest that otherwise would be too difficult to convey using conventional structures. The unconventional act – the act of stupidity – has the power to reclaim motivations that brought the Avant-garde into important histories, and a contemporary conceptual freedom into a (at least meager) kind of renaissance. [3]

Unforgettable idiot

Jennifer Reeves’ Skinny Teeth (7 minutes, 2001), in which two teenage punk girls disrupt the stepford stale air of an Ohio shopping centre, challenges the expectations of social class and normative behaviour. Reeves filmed the original footage in 1988 (the two teenagers were her friends at the time); it is a reflexive look at the angsty environment of her past. The girls are dressed in oversized flannel shirts and have grungy hair; they perform the proverbial misbehaving pubescent persona. A handheld camera shoots in slightly polarized color (deteriorating footage from a VHS tape – so eighties) and has a feeling of pixellated security camera footage or an instructional video following subjects who perform menial actions. The audio track contrasts the teens’ dark humor with peppy instrumental music, sex phone chatter, heavy breathing and clips from motivational videos such as the following:

America is a great nation where boys look like boys with one head of hair and girls look like young ladies with proper length skirts and wear them to be respectful for God, for church, for their parents…

Here, teenagers are the irrational characters wasting time, and acting out ridiculous dialogue with each other, slogans they’ve most likely heard from so-called rational adults:

I cannot go against society any longer, you’ll realize it someday! Someday you’ll become an adult.

Other than the familiar cringe factor of teenage-hood, the sarcasm (and bite) in Skinny Teeth is a reminder of the gloomy subtext in the rebellious antics of youth. Boredom in this video provokes a disengagement from an unfulfilling environment, and acting out — even in an impulsive or automatic display — is a form of protest masked in idiotic gestures. The young women infiltrate a hierarchical structure that even if accessible to them is ultimately unbreakable (i.e. words alone wouldn’t change their world, so why not misbehave in the midst of order? Reeves says they were eventually kicked out of the shopping centre). There are also questions on pubescent boundaries of sexuality; a psychoanalytical view of the girl’s appearance would read as “confused” due to their androgynous dress and their interaction with each other (i.e. the suggestive audio clip about “boys looking like boys” and the use of phone sex sound clips teamed with a later scene of the girls making prank calls from the mall phones and making sexual noises). The unremarkable and idiotic disruptions caused by the young women’s status in conventional society are anti-climatic even if the memories are steeped in drama – much like average teenagehood. We might ask ourselves why the actions of idiots are worth considering as markers of humanity. Reeves describes that there is more to the video than can be seen at face value: “I kept the tone of the piece true to my perspective of the world at the time. The time period depicted in Skinny Teeth was by no means as fun as this particular day captured on video.”[4] During a public open video lecture session given at the European Graduate School in 2000, Ronell considered Walter Benjamin’s statement about the unforgettability of the idiot:

“…the idiot has no testimony or memory… but is completely downtrodden, exhausted as a being and yet unforgettable.” Benjamin’s observations offer an insight into a figuration of that which is so simple and unaccounted for, refuses monument or testimony, the predicament of the idiot.[5]

The banality of Reeves’ day at the mall doesn’t literally account for the entire vacuum of adolescence (i.e. as a monumental day), but it refuses to be understood using conventional communication, by creating ambiguity surrounding the reason for the slight uproar as a conduit of expression, preserving the era as unknowable, at the same time; unforgettable.

Humiliated earth

“I’ve given you this world, with the understanding that you are phallus.”[6]

Inducing controlled chaos is meant to bombard the viewer with information that uses familiar signifiers to bring about subconscious thoughts. This is obvious in Ryan Trecartin’s What’s the love making babies for (20 minutes, 2003), where language takes the form of disjointed sentences based on media advertisements and popular music lyrics. The premise of the video is ironic: girl God gave boy God earth to “exercise my penis influence”. Boy God wants to make a commercial to “address his people, using penetrative techniques”. Girl god says there is no point since she is working on new genetic sexes that will take over the universe and make the earth’s people feel inferior, turning them all into “faggy gay.” Girl God gives boy God an assignment instead: to “find out where you’re going and make a note of it.” This sets off a whirlwind of ridiculous digressions. The 20-minute video is an entanglement of chaotic storylines interrupted by moments of lucidity. The piece is separated into two parts. The first sets up the relationship between the girl God and boy God, and eventually presents the commercial he’s made in spite of girl God. The second portion is entitled “Let’s talk about it” and is dedicated to a backyard audience questioning sexuality, reproduction and morality through characters that are physical manifestations of these topics. The dialogue takes the form of text messages, propagandist statements, ad slogans and trash TV quotes:

Moral female performer: Reproduction is the lure that drives productivity, and that is the will of nature.

Angry female performer: Shut your fucking look fuckhole!

“Preggers” female performer: We take the viewpoint that all people are created gay unless notified by Jesus.

Trecartin’s videos can be maddening at times, leading us through storylines that never conclude, pummeling us with color and nauseating but masterful computer graphics. It screams for us to turn away, to escape the insanity. Surely, Trecartin is only trying to embarrass us, or question our intelligence… Despite its disorder, the artist’s work is precisely scripted and determined in its meaning. In What’s the love making babies for, we face a very nasty human condition; the video operates as a portal from Alice in Wonderland, connecting us with the morbid reality of earth’s chaos. What is the love making babies for? (Or perhaps, what is the point of reproduction?) Disenchanted with the world, Trecartin reflects nonsense much as Dada performance did after its practitioners had witnessed the horror of war and technology and renounced anything infiltrated by empirical power.[7] But instead of renouncing it from his performance, the artist shows it to us face on, and adds just enough humor to make it digestible. In theory we should all be able to understand his pattern of thought, his material being the stuff of life we encounter everyday. As with Dada, Trecartin’s predicament is better understood in his disorder.

First I said less, then I said more, so I’m bashing my head against the wall

Penelope Buitenhuis’ Drawing Attention (20 minutes, 1984) and Reeves’ Skinny Teeth could be kindred spirits; they both speak from the position of youth in critical interaction with a world from which they want to liberate. Over four days in West Berlin 1984, Buitenhuis gathered artist friends to shoot a film. They set up some chairs and used the graffitied Berlin wall as a backdrop for six short mises-en-scènes. Due to the complex phrasing of simple poetic words that lure us away from linear narration and into an underlining web of meaning, the characters take the form of punk Shakespearians. They are set up in pairs for the most part and speaking to each other within a script devised by Buitenhuis.

One scene is set around two strangers in a subway station, one expressing a deep anger towards a situation where she feels powerless. The scene is caught between English and German language as the stranger listens and tries to consol or respond but ultimately the women leaves the scene, undramatically, to catch an imaginary train. The high intensity of the emotions surrounding the political contention of West and East Berlin is folded into everyday life scenarios in this piece. The dialogue seems to speak to the claustrophobia experienced in regards to the social repercussions of a divided Germany, despite never clearly naming it as such; the wall is the elephant in the room. The film is a visual illustration of tumultuous times; the actors’ faces are blurred by film grain and some of the audio is also a little difficult to hear and pulsates with a guitar base weaving in and out of the audio track. Their clothing also has a painterly look, colorful and geometrical to draw attention, although sometimes it blends in with the graffiti as if speaking the same message. Though the presence of dialogue may imply that we can follow a certain thought pattern, the script is cut up into word games:

Woman: Hey close that fucking window!

Man: Ja, gehen ins auto. What does that mean?

Woman: What do I mean by that? … all talk.

Man: that’s it, too simple. Talk is only good for the bottom of rat cages. Different opinions and all that.

Woman: If you were to ask me, I know you believe you understand what you think I’ve said. But I’m not sure if you realize that it’s all inside your fucking head.

Man: I seem to be saying less.

Woman: What you’re trying to tell me is not what I need to hear, considering that you want my conscience to come out clear.

Man: My friend and her friend and her friend’s friend and his friend and our beers… Then we seem to be saying more.

Woman: What you saw me writing down was something else instead; just my mind and not what my feelings said.

Man: first I said less, then I said more, so I’m bashing my head against the wall.

 

Woman: the awful secret of his doubt. Chewing thoughts and then spitting them out. Like tobacco. Hey, where is it anyway?

Man: how long have I been here? I mean days go by day by day…

Woman: what you heard was not quite what I wanted me to say. Maybe it should’ve stayed unsaid, it’s easier that way.

Man: hey look at these people with their lives that we know nothing about.

Woman: something’s gotta change.

Man: the radio.

Woman: come “in” Peter.

Man: how “symbolic”.

Woman: I doubt it.

Man: do you?

Woman: how symbolic?

Man: I doubt it.

Woman: Do you?

Man: Silence is guilty.

Woman: watch out, he said so. [points at wall]

 

While a second reading may prove that the dialogue isn’t performed at random, it is still up for interpretation. Should we place ourselves in Buitenhuis’ film as the oppressive wall? Is our silence guilty? Or are we the rebels subverting the relative passivity of the monument (the wall is in the backdrop but never far from thought). The theme of them versus us is strong and is symbolized by the overall attempt to “draw attention,” all the while not being able to “get through”. The artist describes that these politics even entered the filmmaking process:

As we were shooting Drawing Attention, East German soldiers suddenly appeared above our set on ladders informing us that the Berlin Wall is East German property.  We only had the right to shoot within 10 feet of the wall.  We responded defiantly, asking if they were going to breach the wall to arrest us?  That they couldn’t do, so we continued shooting and they eventually left.[8]

Despite the rebellious appearance of the young punks, their demeanor may be better linked with a beat-poet aura, witnessing injustice, embodying the “down-and-out” persona and speaking in a language departing from literary tradition. Their performance is presented as a guerrilla theatrical performance for their own entertainment, but doesn’t quite cross over the line of protest or confrontation (as did many others who attempted to climb the wall to “freedom” only to suffer severe consequences). The young performers don’t need the audience to validate their position; instead, their protest is built in.

Set as a world stage, the Berlin wall is alone only in object form, but immediately politicizes the youths’ actions and script as it stands behind them, a backdrop for the telling of personal accounts through humorous retort. Though the spirit of the eighties is mostly characterized by Pop aesthetics in art, fashion, film, the creation of the “music video”, the rise in video game culture, glam metal, synthesizers and big hair, its response to the preceding decade is visible in monumental events such as the beginning of the end of the Cold War, significant population increases, the AIDS crisis, the onset of the digital age and of course the fall of the Berlin wall. Drawing Attention offers a glimpse into how an era steeped in geopolitical growing pains manifests on the ground level.

The monument, the myth

In Istvan Kantor’s Black Flag (9 minutes, 1998), text rolls across the frame as if a latest update on the 24-hour stock exchange screen. The text feels authoritative, the catchall slogans one of the very few ‘narrators’ in the video.

The government that makes war on the poor is the enemy of the people and should be charged as criminals of war.

The green lettering at once impedes and acts as a didactic to our view of either a woman repeatedly smacking a piece of black fabric against a wall, or a table surrounded by hungry kids tapping feverishly on steel plates and bowls with steel spoons and butter knives. Black Flag’s audio rhythmically conveys the visuals of anarchy. The only subtlety is the separation of the three sections: “The Ambience” (which sets the context of his political interests at the time), “The Song” (a type of chorus strung together from various influences), and “The Concert” (the “call for revolt”).[9] Texture is important in Kantor’s video work, he uses three-dimensional boxes of text often closing in on the characters and quick-paced editing that often lets in tiny psychological synopses through fragmented body movements cutting across the screen. From the primary slogan of the video “Down with the government that starves us”, a phrase used in Jorvis Ivens’ (at one time believed to be a communist) propagandist films we could say that Kantor’s concepts are rooted in ideals of Anarcho-capitalism, often subverting objects like the flag, the monument, and the political slogan as means of disruption.[10] Kantor includes characters (similar to Trecartin’s actors) performing as media zombies either reflecting the over consumption and hypnotic effect of technology, or citing poetic manifesto statements:

The morning was still as death, not a whisper of wind was stirring. The lake was like polished glass. Down with the government that starves us.

Are we starved of food, or humanity? What can we do after all your choices have been taken away? Kantor’s work very literally suggests we can create chaos out of what has been forced onto us; television, concrete, machines and shiny objects meant to distract. I would venture to say that chaos is a monument within itself, filled with rejected ideas, and used as a weapon against a system that seeks to drown society. At a crucial point in the video Kantor is seen standing nude, folding and unfolding his body at the waist and on a small platform as if being displayed in a museum. Steeped in dark-humor, Kantor’s ridiculous actions (i.e. squealing into a loud speaker while convulsing on the floor) are disorienting. He can at times appear as if a monolith and at other times a misbehaving clown. In The origin of Monty Cantsin(s), a biblical novel the artist writes about a monument he made:

I piled up all the junk he left behind, put his armchair on a table and stuffed it with all the junk I found, typewriter ribbons, photos, a mirror, broken polaroid camera, video reels, audio cassettes, letters, scrapmetal, lots of neckties, guitar strings, children toys, books, bottles, a broken clock, some of my masks, made a red graffiti on the wall “MYTH” and “MONTY CANTSIN”[11]

Kantor’s body is standing in as a mythical statue in Black Flag. If we all were to revolt and adopt the persona of Monty Cantsin – or the monument – there would be no empirical monolith. The irony is that Kantor’s version of the monument is a relic of nothing, made up of every ridiculous piece of scrap in his immediate surroundings. Much like the dunce cap, knowledge is not retained in the object itself, but in the mind of the wearer. The suggestion of revolt is always present, and perhaps simply needs to be awakened through the freedom of a ridiculous act.

Buitenhuis’ theatrics, Kantor’s relic of nothing, Reeves’ dysfunctional teens, and Trecartin’s humiliation of earth’s characters can be read as reflecting that which is not defined as a failure to uphold conventionality. These artists use boredom, anger, and chaotic nonsense as a productive method with which to work out ideas. All ideas are stupid until they become purposeful, in a sense we’re all growing up stupid, the history of the so-called experimental, non-narrative, and avant-garde continues to grow through video making of today. Being innovative is beside the point; the guts are in the process. Penelope Buitenhuis, Istvan Kantor, Jennifer Reeves, and Ryan Trecartin’s videos are complex works that deserve multiple viewing. They offer a kind of protest that is for the individual, not for the masses. They challenge the viewer in a way that would suggest total stupidity of the one who is willing to get close to the work only to become alienated by it. But they also offer a subtext completely visible – perhaps even progressive – if we choose to see it.

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[1] Historically, the Dunce cap was strongly related to the fool, or to the ungodliness of curiosity. As a strike against it, curiosity implied a momentary decision, a rash, and somewhat unfounded choice based on assumptions. Theories around the theme of curiosity are linked to philosophers from this time (John Duns Scotus, 16th century theorist and inventor of the Dunce cap) because man-made knowledge and innovation threatened the theological concept of “truth”. Subverting the status of the Dunce as an Avant Garde him/herself.

[2] Avital Ronell speaking at the Public open video lecture session given at the European Graduate School, Media and Communication Studies Department Program in 2000. EGS, Saas-Fee, Switzerland, Europe. http://www.egs.edu/

[3] Most often the motivations were to revolt against patriarchal structures detrimental to humanity. i.e. The dada and the Fluxus movements are marker examples.

[4] Video description, Jennifer Reeves, 2001, V Tape online Catalogue

[5]Avital Ronell speaking at the Public open video lecture session given at the European Graduate School, Media and Communication Studies Department Program in 2000. EGS, Saas-Fee, Switzerland, Europe. http://www.egs.edu/

[6]Quote from video What’s the love making babies for where girl god is talking to the other dimension boy god.

[7] I.e. this included language, which is most noticeable in Dada sound poems or the Cabaret Voltaire.

[8] Unpublished email correspondence with the artist, December 7, 2009

[9] “The Ambience” chapter refers to the Mike Harris years and the artist’s confrontation with “the oppressive forces of the machinery”. “The Song” is performed by artist Jubal Brown and inspired by the writings of Kathy Acker and Jorvis Ivens films. The artist describes “The Concert” chapter as a “call for revolt”. These chapter descriptions come from an unpublished conversation with artist.

[10] Quote from unpublished conversation with artist: Kantor specifies that the origins of the quote is from activists. The artist has also completed a major work dedicated to the lifework of Joris Ivens which was commissioned by MonteVideo in Amsterdam in 1995. Anarcho-capitalism is an individualist anarchist political philosophy that advocates the elimination of the state and the elevation of the sovereign individual in a free market.- Wikipedia source

[11] THE ORIGIN OF MONTY CANTSIN(S) a biblical novel: Chapter 4, The Monument, Aug 25

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