Friday 14 February 2020

Pausing a while for Camille Auer’s Seepage

To come up with an idea you want to film, then pause whatever it was you were in the middle of and fetch the camera, make sure it works, set the angle, and then proceed filming yourself executing a daily chore is to measure how long it takes to do both a thing that compose you and one you compose yourself.  
Or is there any difference? Are there any categorical - or felt - differences between doing art and living, when your life equals making art, and the art you make seems to consist of the life you live? Can the act of becoming and making really be set apart? I'll get back to this later, because it relates to feminist physicist Karen Barad.

An artwork might not be a trustworthy witness to its author’s life. In a review of Karl Ove Knausgård’s My Struggle: Book 2, Sheila Heti shares a conversation she had with him. Heti queries the Norwegian author if a scene in one of his autofiction novels really took place. ‘No no, I made it up.’, he responds. Later, Heti considers her disappointment with this newfound knowledge but find solace in the act. ’We continue to invent, because the past eludes us all; it’s past, it’s gone, even for Knausgaard.’ Heti concludes.  
The fictionalization machine that is memory takes hold of everything eventually. Filming yourself is an act of optimism, then, because it reaches out to the future by way of acknowledging the present moment's inevitable pastness that’s always already present in the act of recording. Seen this way, a selfie, for example, is nostalgia for the present you might’ve not been sure you wanted to experience but would ended up living through nevertheless. Since many of us record ourselves so much nowadays, it figures some people claim we’re less present because of the ability-cum-obsession to document our lives. But doesn’t it run deeper than that? 
Hyperbolic claim incoming: recording is perhaps the single most important tool by which we’re beginning to manifest the lived reality of quantum physics. A mirror tells us we can be in two places at once and that our outlines are arbitrary; a recorder or a video camera confirms this to a remarkable extent; an artist working with such media is naturally inclined to blur the boundaries of the supposed self and others. A recorded self is always a multitude. The invention of recording paved the way to the collapses of both Cartesian logic and binary worldviews; philosophy and physics merely document the crash. 
(That Knausgård bit has perhaps nothing to do with the topic at hand, but let’s see if it could lead us somewhere.) I didn’t manage to move past first few hundreds pages of the first volume of Knausgård's My Struggle series. I feel uneasy around autobiographical novels. It doesn’t help if they’re sprinkled with highbrow quotes and hot theory (Maggie Nelson), or have a pleasingly loose structure (Jenny Offill). Perhaps my aversion can be explained with my love for video art. The magic of moving images is that they give me more headroom. An inspiring video work won’t leave me passively admiring the life of its author, like in the case of reading the stylized chronicles of literary celebrities. Narrow-minded? Yes. But this gambit did leave me towards what I wanted to write about.
Moving image as a medium comes equipped with less pressure. An author is prone to compare themselves to the canon of fiction, spanning from Ancient classics to the latest idols, because what you’re doing - writing down words - is the same thing as the masters did. The idea of writing a book carries the same potential as buying a lottery ticket. The chances of win are slim, but you never know. Maybe I’m the next great author, maybe I'm holding in my hands a Great American Novel. Whoever won last week did nothing different, just bought the ticket to this literary lottery like the rest of us. Someone one told me their sister, upon reading a novel by Knausgård, immediately declared "world literature." It made me realize I prefer local art.
When you’re a contemporary artist living in Europe and working with video without gallery representation, big budgets, or institutional commissions, you’re keenly aware of how your work will likely not mean much to the hegemonic version of cultural history, i.e. the one with the big names and prestige that plays out in New York and London. For this reason, looking at video art is less exhausting. The work rarely demands you christen it as our latest pick for the role of lord saviour. Video art, in general, is not interested in being interesting, and in times when everyone demands we shower them with attention, this quality makes video art deeply alluring.  
A montage with an iceberg in the background and three smaller screenshots from the video Seepage, depicting the artist
Image courtesy of Camille Auer, from her web page. See:

Camille Auer’s latest work, a single-channel, half-hour long video titled Seepage, which was on display at Third Space, Helsinki, for only five days in February 2020, is that kind of video art. It’s not in the business of trying to sell you something, or convince you of its author’s capabilities, even ideas, for that matter. Seen this way, the size - or amplitude - of the work might throw you off-balance. It has no big gestures. It was there for five days and now it's not there but living inside the people who witnessed it in that space in Tarkk'ampujankatu. 

(Before I continue, I get that there are books that are written like one does a video of this size, just as there are video artists whose bold ambition - the kind that gives stuffy institutions and various go-getters their raison d'être - all but alienates me.)
Watching, and listening to, Seepage (there are four sets of headphones in front of the wall projection) is akin to picking up the Erstwhile record label back catalogue after a steady, high-carb diet of ultra-saturated, action-packed EDM. If you’re unaware of the said label, imagine making yourself a salad for lunch from kale, zucchini, walnuts, hulled hemp seeds, tempeh, black pepper, and olive oil. Now imagine preparing and putting those ingredients together as slowly as humanly possible. Your kitchen space would reverberate with a distinct-yet-abstract-due-to-its-distance-from-the-audio-event-preceeding-it sound, every now and then. Mostly, there’d be a static hum. The breaking of walnuts into small bits would sound like the sonic climax of your culinary labour. The gentle sprinkling of hemp seeds on top of the salad would nourish your ears like sea waves. Finally, adding the olive oil as seasoning would count as an elegant coda. 
Auer’s video shows us the artist doing everyday things, like taking a shower or plucking her eyebrows, calmly and quietly. There’s a flickering dance scene that juxtaposes a shaky shot of an empty road at night with footage of Auer twitching and dancing at a small pier with the dark night behind her. It’s very Lost Highway, and very affecting. With a jangly bouncing bass drum acting as the soundtrack for the scene, you are unexpectedly transported from the self-care routines set against bathroom tiles to more expressive milieus.  
The surreal-noir scene doesn’t feel like a juxtaposition to everything else that’s taking place in the video rather than a horizontal shift. These are all things of equal weight. On a bad day, you might take the video’s strategy to signal meaninglessness and nihilism, but really you shouldn’t. The artist seems to trust you’re better than that. I can’t but admire her power of restraint to not fill the video with action and movement. It reminds me of the oft-quoted exchange of words between two avant-garde composers, Karl-Heinz Stockhausen and John Cage, where the former asks the latter if he really doesn’t ”push” the sounds, not even a little bit, and Cage just keeps saying politely no to the German behemoth.
Where Cage made a whole thing about indeterminism, Auer presents us with a vision borne out of conscious choices. There’s nothing random about her video piece. It’s neither high-horsing over its own minmial execution nor avoiding saying anything at all, but rather the work is a manifestation of ice-cold and big-hearted modesty. Does that make sense? As in, the work looks at you with this cold stare that is completely non-judgemental, but it’s not trying to artificially make you feel better, either. The gaze from within the video back to you spells brutal honesty, while making the viewer feel silently understood. This dualism - of plainly stating your case (or your life) with all the time it requires, while being empathetic of your own possible shortcomings or the viewer’s anxieties - pumps the work its tranquil, low-humming yet sustaining energy.  
The handout note brings up Karen Barad and her concept of intra-agency, which in a very stripped down sense means ”we make each other possible” or perhaps that ”our relationship precedes us”, and that the limit between self and others is an unfortunate myth. I’m at first unsure if the background information is necessary for the video work. Unlike in some other exhibitions where Barad has been brought up, in Auer’s case the theories have really seeped through the work. It's there already, deep in the trenches of the moving images and close-miked sounds. Another Finnish artist, Jaana Laakkonen, comes to mind. Her paintings gracefully re-negotiate their conditions before and after and during the fact of being set in space. Something of this negotiation is reflected on the plastic cover that almost entirely blocks the view to the street from Third Space, with a poem about seeping through written on the surface. Helsinki, humming outside and blurred by the plastic, becomes a soft component in the becomings and negotiations taking place in the gallery space.
Barad for Auer is clearly more than an academic reference. Although that’s not a bad thing in itself, either; I think it’s wholly worthwhile to point your audience towards research you care about. Not everything has to be embodied. Things left on surfaces, say, on a countertop, can be just as inspiring, as any amateur chef would tell you. OK, sometimes it’s a little maddening to see people leaving their stuff all over the place. Surface or depth, then? Somehow, this age-old dynamic that dominated the field of painting for centuries exists in Auer’s video, too. There’s a scene where you’re literally not seeing the forest from the trees. Seepage has substantial depth but it considers its depth a state of things that’s neither random nor remarkable. It’s as if Albert Dürer had written a chapbook called Perspective & Chill, instead of Four Books on Measurement.
The last thing I’d like to bring up about Seepage is that the length of each shot is absolutely crucial. This length is a way of showing consideration towards our need to have enough time during which we can leave ourselves and our addiction to consume and experience. The issue of length in Auer’s video work can’t be satisfyingly explained by way of genealogy only, i.e. by bringing up Andy Warhol’s Sleep, or Bruce Nauman pacing around at his studio, or waxing on Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman. All those artists had their respective contextual reasons to pursuit lengthy shots of bodies living through everyday events. Auer’s reasons seem different; for now, I don’t know what they are exactly, but I feel there might be an atmospheric rationale behind - or around - it; that today, these languid shots of plucking your eyebrows, or of a snowy forest gently reshuffling itself, causing some snow crystals to hover down from the branches of the pine trees, are sorely needed if we want to negotiate with all the you’s and it’s and I’s and heavens know what unknown quantities that exist within and through the situation in which we find ourselves. Auer is undeniably onto something and what a pleasure it is to witness that measured search. I left the small, one-room space of Third Space gallery thinking how badly I needed to see this. Barad must be right: my relationship with the video did preceed us both.

 All mountain lions are one. You are just one example of a lion. Mountain-lionhood is strong and immense and goes beyond the individual. Each lion is a part of a continuum, and privy to everything good and bad that happens to other mountain lions. You tough things out on your own, but you’re linked to the pleasures, pains, and drama, the leap and recoil and lonely deaths of others.’ -Lucy Ellmann, ”Ducks, Newburyport”