[Curatorial essay for the exhibition Attack (Retreat) at Argos in Brussels in 2000. The show also included a two-channel piece by Emily Vey Duke and Cooper Battersby. As it is not mentioned here, I imagine it was a last minute addition to the show. There must be a later version of this essay that includes it, but I have not found it.]


Attack (Retreat)


Nostalgia is one of the most effective means mass media has of interpolating us — its loyal and eager subjects — into our relatively cohesive social fabric as consumers. Now that the entertainment will never stop — the laughter, the tears, unceasingly rolling down the Hollywood conveyor belt — our only recourse, our only possible means of escape from these insidious interpellating forces (which, moreover, are the only things standing between us and boredom, and without which life would be unbearable and possibly meaningless), is to temper the nostalgia. But with what? Nostalgia can withstand all forces, break through all tropes to exert its little tug at our heartstrings and remind us that even if such a place as "home" does not exist, its existence is conceivable, and its apparent loss significant. Where no attack is possible, one may always retreat.

Sighting Elvis by Carry Kim was originally performed in 1999 at CalArts, where she was a graduate student. Kim hired three Elvis impersonators to spend five hours in a little room. They could be seen through a peep-hole in the door, as well as through a closed-circuit television system whose signal was fed to a public lounge three floors away. The room had a couch, a table with food and a karaoke machine. The three Elvis's lounge, snack, perform. The fixed-position black-and-white surveillance camera doesn't transmit sound, and the karaoke machine is off-camera. Nonetheless, it is an indispensable tool for the impersonators. Sometimes they are "on" (Elvis) and sometimes they are "off" (not-Elvis), thereby constituting the two choices for human existence in this universe. On : Elvis ; Off : Not-Elvis — a simple binary code. They are seemingly content to perform/enact their Elvisness in the semi-private confines of the little room, which serves as a kind of green room where performers wait and relax before going on-stage. The actual performance/spectacle — the stage show — is endlessly deferred, until it becomes almost beside the point.

The condition of celebrity (of which Elvis is truly sovereign) is one in which existence is mediated to such an extent that individual celebrities can be said to simultaneously exist and not-exist. We can all be Elvis. Okay, perhaps not early Elvis — that takes balls and porcelain skin over perfect cheek-bones and tight, perfectly rounded buttocks — but we can all aspire to the Vegas Elvis: bloated, endlessly sweating, merely imitating a younger version of himself as his ass sags into the sequins and the endless sweaty towels an assistant flings to the audience are laced with improbably high levels of various pharmaceuticals. In the Quebecois film Elvis Graton, M. Graton is a working class, middle-aged man whose hobby is impersonating Elvis. In a room full of Quebecois Elvis's, he sees an Asian man and is incredulous. "Un Elvis chinois!!!???" An excellent joke, which demonstrates, via a characteristically Quebecois xenophobia, the marginality of Quebec — and by extention all of Canada — within North America. But a joke that also points out that every Elvis is Elvis, and everyone can be Elvis. Truly the kind of statement that could hitherto only be applied to certain conceptions of Christ. (At the climax of the movie, Graton dies onstage at the televised finals of an Elvis impersonator contest, suffocated in his too-tight jumpsuit.) Which is to say that to impersonate Elvis is to burlesque Christ and King. Carnival time. Kim's installation is the perfect evocation of limbo.

As a student in Toronto, Jubal Brown came to infamy by vomiting coloured paint on two paintings — one in the Art Gallery of Ontario and one in New York's Museum of Modern Art. (A third performance is threatened for the future — Brown's idea involved repainting with each of the primary colours.) Although these performances were not pure vandalism — the additional paint was meant to enhance and improve the originals and the act of vomiting meant to comment on their original, apparently loathsome, state — I was little impressed by the gesture, which seemed merely derivative, bratty, attention-getting. So I was surprised to come across a large and varied body of video work Brown has produced in the last few years, which constitutes a truly exciting, protean exploration of the medium.

Operation (10 minutes, 1999) documents a performance. The camera is too close to identify the performer, but it is Brown. He cuts little wounds in his side, tweezes out bits of fat and flesh, smears it on a stick, and burns it over a candle. Despite my interest in all things medical, I find it impossible to watch straight through. My gaze averts itself and I am not sure why. Certainly it is something other than revulsion. But my gaze is also drawn to the masturbation-like ritual. (No money shot, and the proceedings are eerily bloodless, but the sizzling of the fat provides a satisfying resolution.) Brown positions the performance and its subsequent video as an act of nostalgia, as a restaging or homage to various body art performances of (especially) the seventies. Initially, this rhetorical positioning seemed to me primarily apologetic — the artist admitting its been done before. Quickly though, I realized Brown's claim was apt, and captured some of the paradoxes of being an artist at this point in time. Can an act that is directly transgressive and abject (even if derivatively so) constitute nostalgia? And if so, nostalgia for what exactly? A time when it was possible to be transgressive, when transgression was not merely a gesture, an exercise?

Are art students everywhere now compelled to acts of self-mutilation in the same manner that, in earlier days, they were compelled to imitate analytical cubism or constructivism? Operation is homage tinged with parody. It reveals, sadly and with regret, that the transgressive act is always recuperable, impurely transgressive. Yet it remains adamantly and viscerally (and we are getting close to being able to use "visceral" in its most literal sense) an extreme performance. Unlike the original performances, it is something of a formal exercise, anti-psychological and, by extension, anti-autobiographical. It demonstrates that while the personal may be political, the political need not be personal.

The video Sheik Attack (14 minutes, 2000) by Eddo Stern combines Israeli pop songs from the late sixties — optimistic, nation-building songs — with violent, militaristic scenes from computer and video games. An earlier single channel work, Rock Attack, serves as precursor. It documents, by simple screen capture, a single misplayed militaristic computer game. Instead of following the usual rules of engagement, the player (Stern) has his squadron gather around a large rock and attack it until they are all dead from ricocheted bullets and other friendly fire. The audio is taken from the game as well, and includes a female dispatcher who announces each casualty.

Sheik Attack is a much more complex work — multiple games are played and sampled, sound from the games is mixed with the Israeli songs. Rather than documenting a single instance of a single game, the video is cut together in a face-paced cinematic style, forming a narrative that, while never quite cohering into a recuperable story, engages completely. The complex web of appropriated sources — despite the fact they fall into two easily recognizable, very specific categories (pop song, video game) — problematizes how audience members might situate themselves to such an extent that interpellation, as a process, goes haywire. Although the narrative drive is strong and seemingly simple — all the action is from the point-of-view of the player/protagonist who attempts to kill people while not being killed, and the titles and songs provide a geo-political context in which the action takes place — no actual story emerges. Or rather, the story that emerges is a meta-textual one which must recuperate the artist/game player as ersatz protagonist and ask of him what political meanings he is attempting to generate. But on this issue I will plead ignorance as a gentile Canadian and pursue it no further.

The video opens with a blank screen and a complete song — a happy, folksy song from the mid-sixties sung, of course, in Hebrew, the text translated into English as subtitles. The song is innocent, optimistic, Utopian even — it talks about cooperatively labouring to build houses, cities, a nation. Innocent until the final verse in which it is declared that if anyone should enter uninvited they will "drop a beam upon their head." Sheik Attack begins, then, as an examination of nostalgia, an apparent loss of an innocence which never actually existed.