Stripping Away The Visual

» Database
Egle Obcarskaite talks to Carrick Bell

Reconstructed ROV Video 12
1m excerpt from 2m30s single channel video (projection)

Reconstructed ROV Video 1
2m15s excerpt from 8h25m single channel video (projection)

Egle: Hey, what’s up?

Carrick: I work now on pieces that are based on the oil spill images. I started capturing still images, in sequence of them. And I became pretty obsessed with it. I’d sit for three hours, and screen capture over and over, and I take the still images, and get rid of all of the textual information in the video, for instance, depth details.

E: When you think of working with these images like that, this kind of working, capturing, deconstructing them and then putting them back together — in your perspective, what does it bring?

C: It was a reaction to my first response when I saw the videos, way back in May, when it was on a single channel live feed of the oil that was erupting. It was really visually stunning. So I ended up sitting there for several hours just watching it, not knowing what to do with it. I stayed like that for a month, just looking at a shot of the really banal metal pipe leaking stuff. And I was also doing it in my old apartment, where the internet connection was really bad. I was interested in what at the time was actually super high quality imagery that people nearby could see, and for me it was super jumpy, grainy, pixelated. What interested me also, was the difference between the pure unfiltered view and the one that is totally mediated by the infrastructure in between the camera and me. So that is why I started taking stills. My seven year old computer could not even handle doing video captures, so I was  trying to reconstruct the fullness and smoothness of the image from something that was totally disconnected, jagged, and not so much old. And you don’t get that smoothness in the finished product. You get smoothed over pixelation I guess.

The one thing that interested me was also distorting duration a lot in these. So this is a two minute clip. This video would actually be a little over eight hours, but this is only a two minute clip, and it only is dealing with two still images and it is just a very long, animated fade between them. So all this content is just the result in attempting to combine these two still images. There are others that take the opposite approach to duration. So it’s a series, but they’re always going to be installed in the context of each other and always in the exhibition format, not the screening format. In addition to these videos, there are also videos of a sort of a failure to transmit any of this information, which for some reason they communicated by black, gray, and green screens.  Those are actually captured with video, set up still, and sort of a video degree zero clip, which always goes with one of these, so they’re always going to be in the context of each other.

E: What about the context? You took images from the actual situation. Do you totally detach them from it, or what kind of role does it still play in it?

C: All of my videos for the last couple of years have always dealt with cinematic narrative. Removing key path plot sequences out of the narrative structure and presenting them on their own. So I have always been interested in this question of how the context is either made legible or is totally ignored. Like these — the only signals of their origin is the title, which is Reconstructed ROV videos, which is not helpful. But I’m interested in that because I don’t know that having them in their proper context, which is this, actually contains anything more substantive than information. But it’s not something that I have a thesis on. It’s more a speculative gesture of mine. To see what function those images have when they are abstracted from their context.

E: How did you move from literary theory to your artistic practice?

I was interested in the percentage or the ratio of language that didn’t have the communicative function. So that could be whatever. If you want, you can call it poetic share.  The part of language that either resisted communication, or gave false starts to communication. Or looked like it was communicative but was actually empty speech. I started focusing on the materiality of the letter as one way of dealing with that. So instead of dealing with strings of words and sentences, I was dealing just with the material components of the letter as it means playing with the language.  I started writing theory papers that were illegible. Not because of the way language was used, not because of any syntax, but because they were literally visually impossible to read. The typography was so manipulative to an extreme degree, that you could not make out words. It would start start as a paper on Derrida, but you could not read it. Just visually you could not read it.

I did it for a year, while staying a literary theory major.  Then I slowly moved off of the page, but still was using text as the key component.  I did large-scale installations that continued to play with that question of legibility, and slowly moved from language to objects. However, I was using the same structure of legibility and illegibility, and was focusing only on time instead. I had a lot of process-based sculptures that were interested in how you could interpret and dig out the origin of particular marks.  I was rebuilding Corbusier’s modular form into miniature buildings and then impressing my body on them, and setting that singular object out.  I was interested still speculatively in how much of a narrative and the history you could write from those traces.

So it was interesting that you said — let’s talk about poetics…

E: You know we came up with this topic almost randomly. And out of sort of nostalgia for those moments when we just started experiencing all the magnitude of creation through language. To talk of it now is rather a romantic and even a bit banal gesture. But then again — why not? To me the problematics of it was always interesting, as it for instance comes from the philosophical discourse, where poetics was considered a way of saying the unsayable. From here I started thinking, maybe poetics in art might be considered as showing the unseeable…

C: I feel that a lot of that language in art is usually used in a negative way. When somebody says somebody’s work is poetic, it’s a way of saying it is literary.  There is a whole of mid-century American criticism of literary art. So if somebody’s work is metaphorical it is a weakness, because it is not dealing with what is present, its own materiality.  It’s trying to be about something.  That is an existing prejudice for me. Because the people that want to make work about something are maybe going to say that maybe it’s practice-based work. In some of my old papers I wrote how much I hated video.

E: But you do make video now.  How long ago was that?

C: Six years ago. And I started to make videos two and a half years ago. I was writing it when I was doing all the text-based work. I didn’t like that video presented this image of itself as being about speed, and especially the internet-based video. As something opposed to language. I was interested in language having all of those characteristics. And I didn’t like video because it set up the false opposition between something analog and situated and relatively permanent like language in its functioning referentiality, how it concretely referred to states of being.  As if video would add to it something broader and would be capable of more connections and less sort of being about that… down in more fluidity, and those were all things I wanted to attribute to language. So I hated video for certain usurping that I thought ought to be attributed to language.

E: What happened? Did you discover something else to it, or did your position change?

I think I still am operating in the same framework, just with some shifts. A lot of times I make video that is hyperactive, or it is very much about its mode of distribution on the internet.  That’s a specious thing.  So maybe some of my more recent work will look hyperactive, but actually it would be a single play [that even when the work looks hyperactive, it is only the result of slight manipulations of a single scene that actually remains the same, in spite of its apparent instablitly]. And I am always inclined to group all of my work together and to say that no matter what, it is a continuation of the same investigation, and it ends up getting me into a lot of difficult positions.

E: Taking video images, cinematic footage looks like tracing something, and I can’t help thinking of that something as some story lines, that it is narrative. Sorry for that…

C: It’s OK, I talk about narrative. I’m really interested in it. You can’t tell it from my work maybe, because I try to radically exclude narrative from my work, but I do it because of how interested I am in it.

E: I have to admit that one of the first things I looked at when I browsed through your website was your artist statement. Because when I am interested in an artist’s relation to narrative, I always think of how are they position themselves contextually (or maybe linguistically), which is what a statement ideally is. And many, many artists declare statements nowadays. And thus they create a language-based framework, or package of what they do. And for me this contextualizing oneself, whether consciously or not (that might also be merely a marketing move), provides a paradox. Because no matter what you do, your work just does not escape a context.

I think the way you write about your work it is negotiating between ideas of the work being able to be autonomous or not.  Maybe you can do an interesting little genealogy of the modes of narrative about the statements, because they do stand in the junction between whether the work has to be entirely situated or ought to be entirely self-sustained.  I don’t know that I have put a huge weight on statement, but I think they probably receive a lot of weight. Am I satisfied if someone never reads my statement and never looks at my work?  That’s totally fine!  It’s a hard thing to talk about because it is along this line how much your statement has to do with your work. And how much having a statement has to do with whatever professional practices.

E: What do you think of if someone has this necessity to read the statement before even looking at an artist’s practice?

Maybe. I usually try not to do that. Not dogmatically, but out of curiosity. And when I see the statement completely abstracted and which doesn’t try to situate the work at all, I am usually very suspicious, and if I see the opposite, if I see that it really tries to nail down every position of the work, which ends up meaning that you prefer a sort of compromise between the two.

E: Right.  Because I think that you can see two ways of taking up and reading an artist statement. You can use it functionally, technically, as a tool of reading also an art work. Like a translating, decoding tool. Or you can actually think of the very fact of two levels — a figurative and a textual — appearing next to each other, and you can try to get to perceive the body of work, its nature, its becoming, its issues through thinking around what this being-placed-next-to-the-contextual-statement brings for it, or what kind of impossibility it represents. But one has to put effort into such an understanding.

That is to keep using literary figures, but it’s like setting artist statements as a decoding tool.  Or setting up something parallel and analogical, maybe that is how your work functions.  That is an ideal type. I don’t know if it is coming here, but I know definitely in the States there is so much research-based art, that the writing ends up being an abstract of the research that has been undertaken. It is also the way of contextualizing, but it is also a way of avoiding having to be prescriptive about how the work’s received, and also avoiding not talking about it at all. So there are two poles that I am really suspicious of.

E: I was interested that in the first sentence of your statement you talk about both narrative and abstraction. I thought it goes pretty well with the given context of addressing poetics, which in some cases might be considered as a way of making abstraction from an explicit, literate narrative.

C: I think I write a new statement every couple of months.  I am sort of insistent (maybe in a reactionary way) of claiming sort of relationship between everything I do. Every time when I make a piece, I end up writing an artist statement.  Because what I did this week casts all what I did six years ago in a totally different light.

But the narrative and abstraction thing is really interesting to me because literally the way I produce my abstraction isn’t by pulling it away from material, it is by keeping too close to it, if that makes sense.  I make a lot of abstractions in my work, but it is always from spending too much time on concrete details of the material I have.  So I think it is a reversal of maybe the everyday use of how abstraction is created, namely by pulling away.

E: What if you were not writing statements at all?

C: Well, if you take out statements entirely, then you have to take out titles entirely.

E: Right, titles — yet another dimension of poetics in art.

C: And then I don’t know, once you start pulling out, then I cannot be there either. If we’re starting to peel things away from this contextual framework surrounding the visual work, on the one hand assuming that the visual work is the center of it all, and if you’re going to start stripping things away from it, you have to strip away all the statements, its titles, its association with a concrete producer, you have to get an anonymous YouTube account, and have no name. Which is of course something that people do.

E: I could say I am a terrible viewer/perceiver of art. I always get lost. When I end up in an exhibition, let’s say a group exhibition, with no exhibition plan, no names or titles of works placed next to them, I feel totally disabled. Maybe it is because of my discourse-related background, but I always look for texts. So when I don’t even have names of artists, I really feel disabled.

C: Yeah, the name.  I guess there are a couple of different takes that you have on the name.  Sometimes the name may just be a way for somebody not to look at something.   But knowing that one thing is connected to another can make an awful some good.  Only in the context of a previous body of work, or objects in the series. So what context objects need. Do they need to be seen always in relation to other components of its series?  Like a sentence, maybe it doesn’t make any sense if it does not refer to a sentence before it.

E: That’s what I’m saying — so often I feel this need to have this knowledge so I can relate it to pre-existing context.  But what?  Does it mean I am failing as an art spectator because I don’t have the ability to perceive an art work per se?

C: But even in this scenario of work with no title and no name and no language anywhere around it, it is still contextualized in other ways. Not least by other work that it is surrounded by, but just by being in the gallery in the first place. So this is still nothing else than talking about the autonomy of an art object.

E: Which I cannot perceive — an art object as purely visual.

C: But who can do that?  No, I’m not asking rhetorically, I’d really like to meet the person who gets into the context as pure visual something that they see.  But why would you want that?  Yes, I am trying to separate images from their context, but then what I am actually interested in happening, isn’t necessarily visual.

E: May I ask you about painting?  This very old dichotomy of either script, or image, either writing, or painting.

C: I think painting is tricky.  The guy who finally made me feel comfortable with painting, was Hamza Walker from the Renaissance Society in Chicago. He is a great curator and teacher, and he runs this seminar once a year, only on painting. The head of my department was the curator who now only curates community-based and social practice art. In that background you always see social project-based artists. And you are supposed to dig deep and find whatever was behind the subject. But Hamza Walker he was the first I heard saying, “No, you can just look at it and stop there.  You can just look.”  It was so liberating to feel that I can look at the painting and stop there.  That was the first “teachable” moment he had.  The second one was that he was talking about painting and drawing.  He tried to explain to one artist who was doing drawings, that he was bringing too many references to other artists, and that it had not enough of him. And he said, “Think of all of the painting and drawing you can remember. All painters and drawers are in a slide file, in a library.  What you need to look through the slide drawers, and see where maybe a slide is missing between two, and maybe there is a tiny gap that you can squeeze into.  And then you go there.”  So this was his advice.  Subsequently, the kid he was talking about did that.  He found his little niche, and now if you see his work you know instantly who it is.

That little drawer goes too for abstraction. Because it is styles and references to somebody else, ways of paint and color handling, whatever.  And it is a syntax  of abstraction, which is exactly what abstraction resists.  It is coming into language and legibility before you take the structure of language, which is a nice way to understand how abstraction–which can seem so taste-based– can also spit into something that is close if not identical to the structure of language.  And I think painters are the best people to approach talking about painting, because they know so many references, in order to find their own niche.

E: So what would you say are the first associations when I say ‘poetic art’?

C: I would ask you to clarify what you mean by it.  I don’t know if it brings any information.

E: Of course. But the idea of this game was to give this vague term and find out what are spontaneous associations that people have to it. Almost like on a shrink’s couch 🙂 …

C: Late ’90s, American slick minimalism.  Ann Hamilton, not in a good way.  I cannot give any follow-up to that, because you never explain such responses. But it’s hard for me because when you talk about poetics I go to specific time and place.  I go to French theory in the 60s.  So I immediately talk about literature and literary theory, and all these degrees have analogues in visual criticism at the same time. It feels like a little trip to the street.  And then the question is what relevance it has. We end up talking so much about how to approach a singular piece of art, and I don’t know if you actually approach art as a singular object ever anymore.  So I don’t know how to map that question on to actual experience of art now.