Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Living Variables: Stephanie Barber's "Daredevils" (2013) and David Gatten's "The Extravagant Shadows" (2012)

by James Hansen

On Sunday, as I wandered through David Gatten’s monumental feature The Extravagant Shadows for the second time, my mind kept returning, quite unexpectedly, to Stephanie Barber’s Daredevils, a new feature-length video premiering this Thursday at the New York Film Festival’s Views from the Avant-Garde sidebar.        


On the surface, Gatten’s video perhaps appears as the polar opposite of Barber’s work. In The Extravagant Shadows, Gatten utilizes different types of paint and a number of colors, which he layers one on top of the other across the digital 16x9 frame. Over the three-hour running time, the layers of paint react to one another, seeping from background to foreground ultimately revealing the dense surfaces of paint, the accumulation of sensuous, decaying materials across the motion of time.

Just as distinctively, The Extravagant Shadows features numerous texts which appear on screen punctuated by an additive layer of paint across the sheet of glass, filling the cinema screen. The texts establish a narrative of two young lovers exchanging letters and attempting to make another connection over the course of time. Incorporating writing from Henry James, Wallace Stevens, Maurice Blanchot, and others, Gatten’s written narrative personally and philosophically echoes the conceptual operations behind the abstract, mutating paint – the reemergence of colors and ideas once buried or forgotten, the animating spirit of earlier inhabitance, the appearance of sometimes violent shadows, open wounds, that cannot be fully covered even as they disappear or reappear before the viewer’s eyes.

As viewers read the words and absorb the images, connections can be made (and missed) between previous texts and earlier images. The repetitive vertical brush strokes are matched by the return of certain predominant questions – contingency, presence, absence, shadows, and ghosts. Still, even when the images or words are familiar, there undoubtedly remains some confusion. Haven’t I seen this before? Haven’t I read this already? Will we meet again? How will it be different next time? As a text in a section entitled “The Useless Resistance” suggests, the more one recognizes a sense of being “here” – of presence – in the viewing experience of The Extravagant Shadows, the more one is lead elsewhere or somewhere far away – to the crackling paint, to the screen, to our seats, to the heavens, to the disappearing past, to the anticipated future. Each individual viewer acts as a variable in dealing with language, processing words internally, and responding with their own thoughts in a personal, intimate direction.

In this way, The Extravagant Shadows initiates an interior dialogue with the viewer who negotiates text and image, space and screen, the introduction of ideas and the manifestation of their potentiality. Gatten provides something of a “circuitous route” for individual viewers to feel their way the video – through time and history – and bring it back to our lives, our words, our language, our existence. The Extravagant Shadows is an act of supreme reflection, which drifts through language – visual and textual, representational and abstract, thought and unthought – hovers at the borders of living and dead, remembered and forgotten, and reveals the disappearing emergence of the past, present, and future through the connectedness and embodiment of time, history, and the written word.

While abstract imagery and the written word are central components in the history of experimental cinema, Stephanie Barber’s Daredevils operates in a different fashion and would seem to indicate a sharp contrast to work like The Extravagant Shadows. Daredevils features three sequences: an interview, a monologue, and a song. Barber constructs the long interview sequence, nearly two-thirds of the running time, with a typical three-camera setup. The artist and the writer talk continuously and the actors naturally perform Barber’s eloquent script. If there are hints of artifice, they come, first, in the form of high-definition images saturated by pastel green walls and a backlit window in the center of the frame, and, second, in the presence of the writer’s recording device set on the center of the table. Nonetheless, while similarly engaged with questions of language, Barber incorporates representational images and speech rather than abstraction and text.

Why then do Daredevils and The Extravagant Shadows feel like strange companions, a pair of distant acquaintances speaking to one another across form and across time?

Daredevils opens with the image of a man rhythmically clicking sticks together in the woods. Nestled in the deep space of the forest, he goes almost unnoticed in the frame. Throughout the film, small breaks in the interview sequence are punctuated by shots of the man creating and recording various sounds: a pair of feet stomping on blocks, metal wires scraping over rocks, etc. With this, Barber introduces the question of sound beyond speech, abstract acoustics beyond human language. Here, though, we see the sound in the process of its creation. We know it is diegetic. We recognize its component parts. Still, it functions as a narrative digression, a cutaway from the central story, a seemingly random interruption.

As the title card appears, we hear a voiceover of a woman discussing the butterfly’s cross generational migration, first through Canada, then through the United States, and then Mexico. “It is barely a risk. Just a journey.” Later, the voiceover continues, “There is small and large extinction. The extinction of an idea, of a hope, of a life, of a species.” These statements hover over the scene as the writer takes her seat at a round table awaiting her subject’s arrival. 

Once The Artist, Dora (Flora Coker), arrives, The Writer, Louise (KimSu Theiler), begins the nearly hour long interview. The conversation ebbs and flows through an examination of Dora’s work as an artist. Louise seems somewhat over-eager at the start, connecting Dora’s practice to those of several female artists – Marie Menken, Maya Deren, Peggy Ahwesh – who are likely familiar to Daredevils’ audience but not to Dora herself. Importantly, Dora ponders the question of scale in relation to gender, to her role as a female artist, as a response to the historically dominant narratives of large scale, abstract works by male artists. It is impossible not to think of Daredevils, Barber’s first feature, in terms of these same historiographic problems.

Slowly, though, the conversation subtly slides from artistic discussions of Dora’s work and toward personal experience: Dora’s decision to quit smoking, her move to the Everglades, her “forgetting” to have children. The formal interview process transforms into an interpersonal conversation initiating a role reversal between artist and writer, director and actor, distant observation and active participation. Here, Dora’s aesthetic concepts filter not through her own thoughts and experiences, but rather through Louise’s engagement, as a character, and through Barber’s audience, as thinking participants in the game Daredevils creates. The situational variable is how much one engages with what is before them and how much of themselves they bring to the table.

Time and again, the interview returns to similar concerns: risk, chance, scale, smell, musicality, and representation. Dora and Louise’s questions – and Daredevils as a whole – hinges on a clash between personal/private experience and a constructed engagement with art, with the public display of someone else’s thoughts. This dialectical impulse unfolds on multiples levels. First and foremost, it plays out as a narrative between Dora and Louise. Louis is clearly affected by Dora’s questions, as is made clear in the final two sequences.

Just before the interview ends, Dora raises the issue of connectivity in conversation and the joy and sadness that comes with connectedness. Just as quickly as their connection has been made, Dora and Louise’s interview abruptly ends. Louise seems somewhat shocked and confused. Has she been discarded so soon? Has the burden of connectivity been lifted or is it an existential need? What happens when a deep connection suddenly disappears? What mode of extinction is this? Daredevils makes clear the burden of connection – through language, speech, and art, that is, through personal internal experience – requires both participation and risk, the risk of being a participant, of playing the game, of winning or losing what you have, of migrating away from the things you love.            

The next, extraordinarily powerful sequence shows Louise running on a treadmill listening to an interview with a daredevil, a stunt woman. As she listens to the daredevil, something hits a nerve. She runs faster and faster, but goes nowhere. She is simultaneously moving and not moving; her inner experience physically manifests itself in the gym. A brilliantly constructed shot, Louise is pinned between the horizontal and vertical lines of a racquetball court directly behind the treadmill. The static grid fixes Louise in the center of the frame, while a racquetball game takes place in the background. Louise is alone, boxed in. As she (and we) hear the daredevil’s stories of risk and potential death, it becomes clear that the risky variable in any situation, in the world at large, is the human, the individual, the body in motion. Louise’s jogging, and the racquetball game, disturb the static, mathematical, objective grid. Like the crackling paint in The Extravagant Shadows, Louise and the game players are animating spirits – the historical, artistic, and personal variables – who both cover and seep through the transparent sheet of glass, the canvas of time, the moving embodiment of abstract connection, personal experience, and the simultaneously representational and abstract spoken word.

Yet, more than just a narrative construction, it is hard not to consider Daredevils to be Barber in reflexive conversation with herself through her characters. If her recent work suggests an interest in individual responses creating new, interactive dialogues with cultural texts – as in Tatum’s Ghost, which pastes various YouTube comments on top of the source video, an episode of Unsolved Mysteries; or her book Night Moves, a poetry collection of YouTube comments from the music video for Bob Seger’s “Night Moves” – Louise and Dora’s dialogue indicates a similar mode of participation with given texts, that is, they approach artworks as Artist and Writer and, through a process of abstract and representational thinking, they come to simultaneously occupy both positions.

It is a daring move for Barber to conduct such a direct conversation with her own work, but it would be specious to suggest Daredevils is artistically hermetic. More than anything, Daredevils invites its audience to be a participant in its game. For both the characters and the audience, Barber structures a narrative process of taking an external dialogue, a spoken conversation, that is to be read internally and filtered through personal experience before finally taking up physical, embodied form. As Dora says, mimicry becomes something social and experience is transferred to the audience. If the final scene reveals the connective process as something of a “song-and-dance,” it does so with playful seriousness of a child’s game. While strikingly different in form, Daredevils, like The Extravagant Shadows, provides something of a “circuitous route” for individual viewers to experience their own migration through the video – through time and history – and bring it back to our lives, our words, our language, our existence. It is barely a risk. Just a journey. Tag! You’re it. 

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