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Tuesday, November 09, 2004

“Backpack, Give Me a Neck Kink”

Regular readers may have guessed this, but let me make something clear: I like to laugh. I like to look at art, too. But most of the time I don't laugh when I look at art.

Most artists just don't have much of a sense of humor. Sure, you can come up with counter-examples. But for every Maurizio Cattelan, there are a hundred hard working, competent artists who take themselves and their work way too seriously.

A couple weekends ago, I attended the Elizabeth Foundation for the Arts open studios event. Most of the studios I visited belonged to hard working, competent artists. There was one studio, though, where I found work that made me laugh. Not polite little chuckles either. These were good hearty belly laughs.

Noah Klersfeld's (website) thirteen-minute-long video project Pay Roll (on display in his studio that day and screened at Spark Contemporary Art Space in Syracuse on November 6) is funny. Damn funny. But it's much more than funny.

As the video opens you realize that you're watching raw footage from a complex action sequence. Three cameras focus on the intersection of Broadway and Fulton Street in downtown Manhattan: one at ground level on the northeast corner, one on the southwest corner, and one on a building high overhead (see the still at right).

There's a voice--or maybe two--providing direction to the pedestrians and vehicles in the frame and instructing the editing booth to switch between the three cameras. The voice tells police cars where to go, taxi cabs which lanes to use, pedestrians when to move into the crosswalk, and traffic lights to change from red to green and back again.

There's a hint of narrative to the video but only in the way that there's a hint of vermouth in a good martini. It's there and makes the thing better, but it's not what the thing is all about.

The work's narrative aspect unfolds as the director's commands make clear that this tightly choreographed, complex shot is building to a crash scene. When the actors miss their marks, the director has to call in a "slow man" to meander through the intersection to buy some time to get everything synched up again. He's only got a limited number of slow men to use, and he gets pissy when he has to call one out.

You buy the concept for a while, but then you make a realization. This work isn't what it led you to believe it is.

The voiceover, you begin to see, was laid down after the video was shot, and the video is classic Warhol. It's nothing more than three cameras pointed at a street corner and turned on to capture the flow of time. You realize you've been taken. You're not getting a behind-the-scenes view into how a complex action scene is set up. You've been suckered into getting excited about watching the banality of everyday life play out on screen in real time.

This is when the piece becomes funny. You start noticing the details the director is calling out and you start looking at the footage as an anthropologist would. At one point the director instructs a pedestrian to adjust his belt pack. What the heck is a belt pack anyway? Where did the idea come from to stick a little bag on a belt? When did people start using these things? How does their use mark the wearer? (You'll never see a guy in a well-cut suit wearing a belt pack, right?) What does this guy have inside his?

Pay Roll makes you take a fresh look at the world around you--at the things that you look at everyday but never notice as you walk the streets. The work is powerfully life affirming in this way. It shows the novelty, beauty, intrigue, and interest that surround us everyday but that we look right through as we rush back to the office after grabbing a quick lunch.

But then things start to get weird. While you're reveling in the detail of life that you typically overlook, you start to question the difference between the real and the artificial. Klersfeld's work is all reality to a painful degree, but at the same time what's causing you to look at the real with heightened awareness is the artificiality of the voiceover that is trying to turn mundane footage into something as glamorous as a major Hollywood production.

The piece also raises issues of power, control, and human agency. These people may think they are living their lives according to their own plan, but the director makes clear that he's really the one in control. His voiceover, in a sense, is the soundtrack to God's or Fate's direction of human action--direction that is provided down to the smallest detail. Why, other than the fact that the director has said, "Backpack, give me a neck kink," would that guy carrying the backpack make such a weird motion with his neck? He couldn't possibly have chosen to do something that strange of his own free will, could he?

Pay Roll is a serious work of art built up from the mundane experience of everyday life as it is lived in real time. Or maybe it's not. Maybe it's just a good joke on the viewer, designed to get a self-deprecating laugh. It certainly got one from me. But after seeing it, I'm looking at life on the streets around me with a fresh eye. And I'm not laughing anymore.

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