Friday, December 11, 2009

Artists Reviewing Poets: Adam Simon on Laura Elrick

There are a considerable number of examples of poets reviewing artists. Frank O'Hara and John Ashberry immediately jump to mind, even Peter Schjeldahl, the New Yorker art critic was a poet (and still may be?). However, it is rarer to find an artist reviewing a poet.

Last night, we launched a new format at the SEA reading. It mimics the format of Human/Nature, a visual arts series that I have co-curated with Amy Lipton, co-founder of ecoartspace (and at one time with Molly Northrup and Jake Kheel too): Laura Elrick read her poetic text to accompany her film Stalk, which was followed by Jess Levey, a visual artist in the America For Sale exhibit, and Adam Simon, an artist and founder of Four Walls, Fine Art Adoption Network, and most recently AVATAR (A Visual Artist's Temporary Actor Replacement) responding to Laura's work. They both had many thoughtful things to say about didacticism in political art, alternative economies, and other aspects of the work, but as a final gesture Adam brought out his written response to Laura's work. I have pasted it in its entirety below because it is a very apt reading of her work and this rare example of an artist reviewing a poet.

For all of you who missed the reading last night. It will give you a little taste of what's to come at future SEA readings.

I joked with Laura when I met her that this is the second best work I know on the subject of how a citizenry is dissociated from the political realities that shape the conditions of its existence. My choice for first prize went to the play Aunt Dan and Lemon by the playwright and well-known character actor, Wally Shawn.

But Stalk offers a lot that the Wally Shawn play doesn’t. It offers a kind of invention that a playwright doesn’t get to partake of. For one thing it is almost impossible to define. Tonight it is being defined as poetry which I think is completely legitimate and yet an aspect of the work that I became aware of only after first identifying it as performance, then as video.

To say that Stalk is layered sounds almost ironic, it is such an understatement. It is incredibly complex. I tried to describe it in a single sentence to a friend as a video documenting a person dressed as a Guantanamo detainee, handcuffed and shackled and hooded, walking through Union Square and other locations in New York while almost no one reacts, and my friend responded by saying, “I hate that kind of art.” It reinforced my feeling that this work is much more than what a single sentence could describe.

For example, my description did not take into account the delicate tapestry of voices that Laura has woven, from an interrogation log appropriated from the U.S. Department of Defense to actual quotes from a collection of thinkers that manages to include Baudelaire, Vito Acconci and Herodotus, to the voice of the artist herself as performer in the role we are in the process of watching.

And then the layering gets deeper. The Interrogation Log is a particular voice in the tapestry because it is written with an extreme degree of detachment. Given that the detainee referred to in the log is identified in our minds with the walking subject of the video this affect of detachment becomes transferred in our minds to the passing crowds, heightening their apparent obliviousness. But wait, the Interrogation log is transmitted to us in a voice that seems to contradict its content. This voice is female as opposed to the beauracratic male voice we associate with this type of text. It is modulated, soothing, almost seductive. The affect is disorienting. Uncomfortable.

Or, consider the camera. The camera is curious, much more so than the people it passes. It lingers on objects, buildings, the sky. It sometimes seems to find its walking subject almost coincidentally and is happy to allow it peripheral status. The camera is also intelligent. It dissembles. A view of the sky reveals itself to be a reflection in a car windshield. A woman entering the subway repeats, a visual hiccup, and only on the third hiccup do we see our detainee behind her.

And there is another aspect of this piece that I am not even sure was intended. There is a way in which it is not only about gitmo or bringing uncomfortable realities home to a complacent citizenry. I realized at some point that I was identifying with this walking detainee, not through political awareness or empathy but because it reminded me of when I first came to this city as a 17 year old and spent solitary weekends and evenings walking the streets, wondering why no one seemed to notice me.

--Adam Simon