Earthquake | Video Installation | 2013


Part Three: “Don’t stop the flow” Monitoring Disaster

Earlier, I wrote about the use of monitors and clocks in terms of mastery and intimacy. But for those of us who have lived through a disaster, tv monitors also evoke memories of spatial disorientation, an unwelcome distancing from the landscape of an event.

In 1989, the Loma Prieta earthquake destroyed much of Santa Cruz, California, where I lived. The downtown area was hazardous. Many of the buildings had been tagged for demolition and in the early days of sizeable aftershocks, we were not allowed into the area at all. So for most of us residents, the first glimpse we had of the disaster area –the first view of the rubble that had taken the place of the once- thriving commercial center—was on television.

There was an intimacy, of course, as the images came into our homes. But there was also a profoundly de-stabilizing aspect to getting the images this way. As I watched the T.V. reporter standing by once-familiar street signs, the absence of recognizable buildings and landmarks meant that I couldn’t get a geographic handle on the downtown area at all. Knowing that Walnut Street ran a certain direction did not, in the final analysis, help me to visualize where the reporter was standing. It did not help me to read the geography, or to really process the fact that it was downtown.

It was not until I was finally able to go there, to walk the length of Pacific Ave, that I finally felt some geographic equilibrium had been restored.

To some extent, this is a function of the severe shock that attends sudden total destruction (everyone I met during that first walk wore the same dazed expression; everyone said the same thing: “it looks like a war zone.”). But to some degree it is also, I think, an effect of the Brechtian distanciation that accompanies the mediation of real (actual) disaster.

This is very different from the way we relate to fictional disaster on film or on television—to the kind of thrill we have in watching films like Towering Inferno. As Stephen Keane points out, “the common dismissal of disaster movies of the 1970s is that they were formulaic and spectatorial.” 17 But there is nothing formulaic about the mediated images of disasters unfolding in real time, close by. Real disasters cause a rupture in the everyday fabric of life. And the images of such disaster—especially when they take the place of physical access to a nearby site—tend to alienate us from our surroundings. They represent a kind of breakdown of indexicality. In a way, mediated real disaster lays bare the end-limits of the apparatus and perhaps the end-limits of mediation itself. Certainly mediated, real, proximate disaster makes familiar landscapes strange.

Peggy Phelan uses the term “unmarked” to reference an attempt to locate subjectivity within an unreproducible ideology of the visible, within a nonindexical media scape.18 And, as she points out, it is very difficult to invoke that “unmarked” quality, that kind of real-time geographic disorientation in a gallery work organized largely around tangible objects and fictional media artifacts. But I think Lowther does invoke it here through his use of performance. The media pieces are re-creations of the original films, not reenactments but rather performances of analogous scenes written specifically for New World Disorder. In part, this use of original material is designed to invoke memory. That is, the piece derives from Lowther’s experience and memory of the original films rather than from an objective attempt to replay the original films themselves.

But for those of us who have different memories of the films, or who have perhaps seen the films recently and have new ideas about them, the performances can be a bit unsettling, disorienting. This would be the case with any well-known film, but it is especially distancing here. As noted above, Allen’s films relied heavily on excessive star-studded casts, and made that feature an important selling point of each movie. So it feels strange to hear the familiar song, to see the 70s décor, and then to see an unfamiliar actor in the part; an unfamiliar actor who is, moreover, reciting unfamiliar lines. At the very least, such repurposing calls our attention to aspects of the original text that we might not remember in quite the same way that Lowther does. But it can also rub against the grain, particularly if Lowther’s memory and affective response to the original film is substantially different from our own.

At the same time that unhinging performance from star bodies enables a certain audience estrangement, it also makes it easier for us to look at the story. It makes it easier to focus on disaster, to see disaster itself as a major player in the films. There is no star persona to distract us (no expectation of the role Paul Newman, for example, might be expected to play), so we see the characters as players in a larger drama (larger than the domestic melodramas I discussed earlier). The fact that many of the cast wear such evocative clothing (a brown dress with fault line patterns, a shimmering evening dress that has a fish-scale quality), underscores the effect.

The mise-en-scène, the actors, the performances serve a very different function here than they do in the films. In Towering Inferno, the dramaticappeal is in watching Steve McQueen and Paul Newman deal with raging flames. As Richard Dyer notes, “casting both Paul Newman and Steve McQueen is a masterstroke. Throughout the film we see pairs of dauntless, piercing blue eyes. They come to constitute a central motif of the film.” Much of the narrative line is driven, he notes, through “meaningfully exchanged glances between men.”19

In contrast, New World Disorder places the emphasis much more on the way characters are acted upon than on the way they take control. No piercing blue eyes drive the storyline. Rather, the installation stresses the way in which disaster impacts relationships between characters who do not exist as larger-than-life heroic figures for us. The driving force is the disaster here, not the hero. And this is reinforced by the palette and the costuming. These are people who are caught up in disaster, and, once they are, everything about them becomes disaster-linked. They merge in some ways with the background (certainly the costumes lend themselves to this), become part of the elemental motif; they are players in the larger theater of crisis.

Crisis itself is also foregrounded through the use of clocks and their concomitant allusion to time. Much of what is written about the cinematic in art stresses seriality and time—what it means to introduce movement into otherwise static installation pieces.20 Certainly, seriality and time are central features of this work, also. The installation plays with the seriality of the disaster films themselves (the fact that one followed another in rather quick succession) as much as it does with the seriality of images within the films. But time is the more critical term here. Not only does each crisis film stress the importance of time—the need to think and act quickly—but, as I tried to show at the beginning of this essay, the historical time frame of the films is itself important. That is, New World Disorder invites us to look back at a specific moment in time through clothing and style that specifically references the 1970s. At the same time, however, it stresses the unfolding of generic disaster images, in a temporal sequence here and now.

French philosopher Jean Paul Sartre calls this kind of time use “hysteresis,” because such a work “must unite within itself a number of contemporary significations and certain others which express a state recent but already surpassed by society.” For Sartre, such hysteresis is important, not only because it enables a certain amount of complexity within an artwork, but because “it accounts in turn for the veritable social reality in which contemporary events, products, and acts are characterized by the extraordinary diversity of their temporal depth.” This is slightly different from simply acknowledging that representations of past (mediated) events always reflect on the present. Rather it seems to suggest a continuum in which multiple time frames coexist, in which the past lives on in the present—not as some kind of memory trace—but as a real tangible artifact. Hysteresis, for Sartre, is a way of introducing an archaeological sedimentation into the narrative flow of history, a way of seeing the continuing physical relationship of one time meld with another.21

In New World Disorder, this physical relationship is emphasized through the presence of the clocks. Clocks from different times and places, these are not functioning pieces; in a sense they are all frozen on disaster time (in fact, some of them serve as additional monitors for the continuing disaster unfolding around us). They remind us of history, of time passing, of relics from the past. For Lowther they are an important reminder of how quickly time passes and also of the effect that disaster has on relationships. But they also seem to mitigate against change. They are non-functioning pieces, stuck on a particular image. As physical artifacts, they form a nice counterpoint to the media and also introduce a kind of rupture that is mirrored in the performances.