review by Keith Sanborn

Being There,
A few of my personal obsessions superimposed on "closerthantherealthing,"
curated by Caspar Stracke at the Thing office.

Sometimes one just has to be there. Not everything travels; some things just appear and disappear. Such an ephemeral event was "closerthantherealthing," curated by Caspar Stracke at the offices of the Thing. It opened on January 31 and was gone by the following Friday. The exhibition adapted several works which have appeared in other formats into installation formats especially designed by Stracke for the Thing office. I liked all eight pieces in the show, but I will write about only three of them.

Since I saw the work a few days after the opening, the first installation I encountered was what most people would have seen last, because of it position in the back of the Thing offices, near the windows. But, as Vertov's Kinoglaz amply demonstrates, beginning at the end is often the best way, the most defamiliar way to apprehend something.

What I saw and heard first was Roberto de La Torre's "Las Twin Towers." I didn't need a name tag to decode the connection between shaky telephoto hand-held shots of passenger jets and documentation of someone-presumably Torres-seated outside a museum I imagined to be located in Mexico, intoning with deliberate monotony through a megaphone in English: "Oh my god… oh my god… oh my god…" These endless looping pseudo-ejaculations reflected at once the anxiety of the events of September 11 and our brutalization by the repetition compulsion of their media translation. Once I connected the tiny monitor encapsulated in a transparent video cassette taped to the windows with the name of the artist and the title of the work, it was easy to see why, having a name like de la Torre ("of the Tower"), he rose to the Duchampian bait of such an occasion.

The title of the piece nicely reflects the translated aspect of the event-its recontextualization in Mexico via the media-but from my perspective, this title loses as much as it gains. For the spectator, it also presents itself in less elegant Spanglish as: "Las Twin Torres." For we see de la Torre-or his surrogate-in the installation video, perched on a stool in front of a museum with a video camera in one hand and a megaphone in the other, giving a kind of exploded view of the dual aspects of the event. Through a sort of reverse eye-line match, the images of the planes are constructed as the ones seen through the camera de la Torre is holding, as he shot and squawked. De la Torre becomes a surrogate for the missing Twin Towers at the same time that he is a kind of pseudo-witness to their destruction.

The effect of the piece was oddly gripping for me, as the shaky handheld shots of passenger jets evoked the nauseating dizziness of that September. It was also irritating because of the emotionless, demonstrative repetitions, evoking a bored carnival barker. The piece appeared on a tiny monitor inside a transparent cassette -- a nice summing up of the transparency and opacity of the events, their intimacy and distance, their personal impact and vast, impersonal scale. One could listen to it on headphones hanging nearby. But whether one chose to interiorize the experience via the headphones, or not, the cries reverberated in contained distress throughout the room.

About 15 feet back from the windows was David Larcher's "Ich tank." In this version, especially concocted by Stracke for this show-according to Larcher-we encounter a sequence of Larcher's longer and even more unruly philosophical meditation on the porous invisible foldings of electronic and "real" space. At the Thing, a looping DVD provided an image projected from the ceiling downwards onto a translucent screen, the entire apparatus hanging somewhat ominously over our heads. On the modestly sized screen, we see an image, slightly larger than "life size." What we see is a shot apparently taken through the bottom of a fishbowl held by Larcher. Refracted through the fish tank and the water, we see Larcher in black and white and a goldfish in color. We hear Larcher's slowed down voice intoning a series of rumbling, syballine phrases, addressed perhaps to his fishy surrogate self. (Their slower speed translating by inversion the greater refractive index of water (than air) for light if not for sound.) Though it's impossible to decipher these eerie sounds, we can at least ascertain their disconnectedness through super-imposed subtitles which seem to give their English equivalents. My favorite was: "She gave her psychoanalyst a blow job." Or so it remains in my recollection. The vast majority of these oracular pronouncements have a similar quality of paradox, shock value, ominousness and humor.

We encounter here more translation effects in this elegantly multi-lingual, multi-national and multi-dimensional show. This time, through an extremely visual pun. The title suggests to me at least three meanings: "I think" ("Ich denke") as well as I thank ("Ich danke") and finally: "a tank, or container for the self, the 'I."" Larcher's work typically combines all three aspects: suggestive meditations on the history of philosophy, the notion of gift as poison or potlatch, and an exploration of the self in the envelope of the media.

A few feet to my left, as I stood under the Larcher piece, I noticed a much smaller piece on a monitor: a looping quicktime movie by Masaki Fujihata, "Impressed Velocity." This presentation of the work was also a translation by Stracke, in this case, of a more complex interactive piece into a form congenial to this nearly no-budget but exactingly assembled show. The effect of the piece is paradoxical: it is at once preposterous and silly; hauntingly intelligent and beautiful. The question I kept asking myself was "Why would anyone want to do this?" The how is pretty straightforward: First, the artist shot footage through the windshield of his car during a drive down a small winding road in a densely forested area. Then, the artist texture-mapped a quicktime movie of the drive onto an unruly crystalline structure, which moves and mutates in 3 dimensions. The calculated 3-d object has a kind of uncontainable exuberance which dominates the 2-d movie footage. In the original version of the piece, there was a more complex interactive aspect: the viewer/interactor could control the velocity of the movement of the vehicle. The virtual "speed" was then mapped onto the rate of change of the crystalline structure. The higher the speed, the more wildly fluctuating the crystal.

I cannot answer the "why" and clearly the "how" is only "relatively" more straightforward. But the "what" of it, the experience, is certainly engaging. Being addicted to 2 dimensional moving images, I felt a kind of sad nostalgia to see their edges ripped and forms dashed to pixels as they were constrained to follow the dictates of this external 3-dimensional will. Perhaps the sadistic pleasure of speed in the interactive form would have transformed their destruction into an experience more ecstatic.

In returning to my original question of "why," I am left with the immortal observation of Professor Irwin Corey when asked why he wore tennis shoes to give his lectures: "I consider this a two part question: First, 'why' is a question which has puzzled man for ages. Far be it from me, to add my paltry offerings to such a rich philosophical banquet. Second: Do I wear tennis shoes? Yes."

Keith Sanborn 2-20-03, New York