text-and-communication-based poetry-and-performance video shorts

Lettrétage, Berlin, 17th February 2010

An enthusiastic and growing European audience for the work of U.S. intermedia artist Barbara Rosenthal was treated to an evening with her last month at Lettrétage: Das junge Literaturhaus in Berlin. Included in an hour of about 30 of her quick-paced language and communication text/performance/poetry video shorts were many Berlin premieres, introduced by local film curator Klaus W. Eisenlohr. The full solo programme itself was curated by art historian Nicole Mittenbühlen to include key Rosenthal early videos such as How Much Does the Monkey Remember (1988), Nonsense Conversation (1988),  and I Have a New York Accent (1990) plus three world premieres:  Feet Handoff, Rules, and Secret Codes.

In Rules (2010), 1min 59sec, a stern series of white and gray onscreen texts in English and German crawls rapidly by to each line’s own grating, but haunting, compelling, menacing sound, created by German sound artist Brandstifter and reprocessed by Rosenthal. Rule 1: There are no rules. Rule 2: Rule 1 may change without notice. Rosenthal lives in Kafka’s world. As the video runs along, the English and German try retranslating each other, try extracting other meanings, try seeking clarification. Her work draws us into interpretation; she shows us what she sees and feels: that rules get imposed on us even when we’re told we may operate in trustful innocence without them, that things are never what they seem, but saying so threatens violence.

Secret Codes (2010), 4min 35sec, is a text-and-image video that employs familiar Rosenthal graphic techniques such as split screens, stills, color mixed with black and white, patterns, trapezoids, and what she calls “reprised imagery” or “logo images.” In this new video, she uses a grayscale collage of palmprints from a multi-panel print edition she made in 1990, Poodle Dog/Oz House/Aberrant Palms, and a new color collage of her own hands pressed tight against a scanner (as if pressing from behind the screen), and a repeating Yiddish, German, and English text: That which on first glance is alike, on further inspection tells us apart. Here again she has collaborated with a German, Berlin musician RoBeat Schmidt, for a compelling, pounding, rising audio-track. This is surely an investigation into the nature of individuality and its co-valent relationships with language and culture. There is a probable theme here about Jews in Germany, but also about Americans in Europe, and artists in the world: that they may look like everybody else, and seem to fit in, but… This theme, of individuals recognizing their groups, has been investigated by Rosenthal before, such as in Dog Recognition, which for this programme, appeared in English, Russian, and German. In Beijing, she showed it in Chinese.

The curator, Nicole Mittenbühlen drew our attention to the links between these two works Secret Codes (2010) and Dog Recognition (2005-10). Although they both show onscreen text and use a series of stills and somewhat abstract sound (her dog barking in Dog Recognition), they are very different from each other in mood and technique (Dog Recognition is made with line drawings). Yet both demonstrate Rosenthal’s relentless consistency and the continued relevance of her existential subject matter: the struggle for meaning within human existence, the assertion of individuality and personality (even more than ethnology) as identity, and things like handprints and brainscans, images she calls “the markers” for and balances between our differences and our kinships.

There is perhaps no better place than here in Berlin, just down the road from Humboldt University, with its esteemed history of philosophical and psychological discourse, to parse the work of this Jewish New York artist and to define our own. A dedicated pioneer in the medium of video, and especially in the combined media of performance-text-installation-audio-video, her works from the eighties, despite preserving by (although perhaps through the enhancement of) digital remastering, pulse with the urgency and excitement of the cut and paste, stop motion, the controlled directedness of placing image with text, and of skewering literal meanings, that are the procedural hallmarks of Rosenthal’s a practice known for its life-art mix. When asked at Lettrétage about life-references, she said that the inspiration for both Rules and Secret Codes came during a stressful personal relationship. In Klaus W. Eisenlohr’s introduction, he made the point that Rosenthal’s ideas, personal/social politics, mix of media, and early combination of print and electronic forms, are all fresh and immediate, and speak of contemporary issues to a contemporary audience.

This exhilarating selection of communication and text-based videos by Barbara Rosenthal spanning three decades offered both retrospective and preview in which her time-line of works rolled out and back upon itself, twisting dates and techniques and laminating innovation with revision. Working with sound artists rather than with appropriated music, as she had in the past, adds a new murmur of dialogue, as well. The flame-haired avatar now makes her work world-wide, so her life-based scenes and casts are changing, too. The gradual disappearance of her now-grown family and of the New York audial backgrounds ubiquitous to her earlier works is now replaced by new places and relationships, less easy to identify. Unrevealed or even named, they nonetheless act as ignition for works that seem more open to her audience, that now invite us in and encourage us to recognize ourselves as much as we do the artist. Although it’s always fun to guess the autobiography behind the art, it is not necessary to know her inspiration for it in order for us to be inspired by it.

As piercing in their observations as anything that has gone before, such as Rosenthal’s set of aphorisms, Provocation Cards, which she showed earlier this year in Prague, this video selection reaches us more personally, like her You & I Cardgame, recently purchased by the Tate. Europeans are feeling very connected to her work. The trajectory of it is directly from her-self to we-self. We enter her mind-set: her art insists that we engage, question, think, act!  She says we have always been in this together, now it feels like we are.

(by Clare Carswell)

photo by Klaus W. Eisenlohr

Full Solo program: “EXISTENTIAL WORD PLAY”

34 language and communication text/performance/poetry short videos in 68 minutes
Lettrétage: Das junge Literaturhaus in Berlin
Methfesselstr. 23-25; 10965 Berlin (Kreuzberg)
tel: 030.692.45.38

Full Program, in Order: Lettering Too Big, Secret Of Life, Nancy And Sluggo, Boy And Father, Boggle, Paths To Follow, Words Backwards, Quotation From Paul Gauguin, This Is A, Dog Recognition, Postcards, Rules, Space And Time, World View, Names And Faces, Siddhartha, Black And Silent, Whispering Confession, Secret Codes, Burp Talk, Daily News, News To Fit The Family, I Have A NY Accent, Lying Diary/Provocation Cards, Semaphore Poems, News Wall, Nonsense Conversation, Society, How Much Does The Monkey Remember, Feet Handoff, Pregnancy Dreams, Handwriting Analysis.


Directors Lounge screening:
3 shorts | Barbara Rosenthal

Fri 18th 8 pm
Barbara Rosenthal
Rules 1 min 2009
International Garbage 03min 38sec 2010
Secret Codes 1 min 30s  2010
In attendance of Barbara Rosenthal

HAIRS, Milos Tomic, Czech Republic, video to music performed by Ridina Ahmetova

The proliferation of patterned birds on fabric held in pre-ordained proximity to one another seen in erratic motion in his film Clay Pigeon return here in the form of patterned blue roses on porcelain. Tomic’s works have a distinctive stamp to them. In Hairs, accompanied by a layered female voice soundtrack, he cuts and rearranges hair, in tresses and individually, with camera trickery to form shapes reminiscent of the patterns he shows on teacup saucers, with the distinction that the hair has an unsettling quality: alive, but dead. In bundles, we see them as attractive and stylish; individually, they seem nasty and repulsive, like strange creatures coiling themselves up in this arrangement and that out of some sense of instinct. Occasionally, they play with images on the crockery, encircling painted-on heads of innocuous-looking birds, taking on actual intelligence. Lending them heretofore unexpected qualities is like taking Hitchcock’s The Birds to the next level, where other omnipresent but largely ignored “creatures” reveal unsuspected and individual behaviour; this time, it is inanimate “beings” that answer a call to “life”. What works best here is the uncomfortable appeal that pulls in two directions: are the hairs beautiful (as when seen together) or rather off-putting (as when seen separately, playing on surfaces meant for eating)? The influence of fellow Czech Jan Svankmajer is strong; as well, something here shares a quality with Dali’s more erotic paintings. A concisely-executed visual treat.

Kenton Turk

DROMOSPHÄRE, Thorsten Fleisch, Germany, 10 min 02s, HD, 2010

shown in German Premiere

A visual study of speed. The ephemeral phenomenon becomes palpable as a speed sculpture begins its relativity dance along space-time avenues lined with uncertainty trees.

It could be that the “Bravo!” calls that were heard from the audience as the title shots of the film came up were based on anticipation of seeing something by a filmmaker whose work has included the visually and conceptually astounding Gestalt (2003) or the slightly less riveting but nonetheless interesting Energie! (2007). Dromosphäre, however, doesn’t live up to the promise the maker of these two films invites. At the start, a black screen is marred only by beams of coloured light like an incomplete prismatic breakdown in a small portion to the right of the picture. The lightplay takes shape slowly before our eyes to the sound of an electronic beat, which scales a crescendo as the image claims more and more of the screen. The dominant colours are blood-orange and white, and seem to resemble a car, which the evolving form in fact turns out to be: a model of a white-paneled sports job circa 1960’s. The problem is, once the identification is confirmed, the film seems overlong in its exploration. Unlike the aforementioned films, this one seems to have a goal of sorts, i.e. the slow revelation of a recognizable form, which also gives it a finite quality that has to be observed. Considering the anticipation shown, the applause afterward also seemed less than wildly enthusiastic. Surely Fleisch has more to offer in the future. If this had been a debut or early work, he would have nothing or little to live up to. As it is, one expects progress or at least the maintenance of a certain level of inspiration.

Kenton Turk

NATURE MORTE, Juha van Ingen, Finland, 2007, 4min 30sec 2007

This short film is a series of beautiful, black and white images mirrored from a central line of division, like a simpler version of a kaleidoscope. Mostly, we see portions of zebra skin, the stripes forming and reforming themselves according to the camera’s position. Later, a full head, doubled as in the earlier shots, appears, as does that of a gazelle. While the film is greatly pleasurable on an aesthetic level, it loses what it might have built upon through the extremely repetitive soundtrack, a few bars of (albeit fittingly dream-inducing) melody that are looped rather than developed. Oddly less than the sum of its parts.

Kenton Turk

GOOD MORNING AMERICA, Director: Dikran Janus Kadagian US Poet: Carl Sandburg 6min 43s 2007

The sight of American children reciting the Pledge of Allegiance always has the feel of a strange rite of induction into a society that demands obedience from very early on, before one has the chance to sort out for oneself how close to the national flag one wishes to stand. The film opens with late 50’s or early 60’s shots of this ritual in close-up shots of individual children’s faces, all with eyes that seem devoid of any expression, as though brain-washed, and moves to a classroom shot of the same children singing “My Country ‘Tis Of Thee” to the ominous sound of extended bassoon tones and a gentle music-box melody. Rural scenes at dusk follow, and we are reminded that “In God We Trust” in stamped into every U.S. silver dollar over shots of helmeted soldiers preparing their tents in the warm glow of a sunset. From the poem we hear that “we” is “you and me and all of us in the United States of America” while we see diverse scenes of disparate people in varying situations: a baby in a park, newlyweds leaving a church, a “man of the cloth” walking on a congested urban street. The sped-up vintage shots of crowds making their way through traffic are a forerunner of Koyaanisqatsi (as are later scenes of industrialization). “Trusting God means we give ourselves, all of ourselves, the whole United States of America, to God, the Great One,” we hear, followed by, “Yes, perhaps… is that so?”, upon which the title “Good Morning America” appears, and is seen by the viewer not as a greeting, but as a wake-up call. The film moves to scenes of automated mass production, seeming no less alienating or alienated than the children’s faces seen earlier, while the poem continues: “Speed, speed, we are the makers of speed.” Both man and machine hold a strange fascination here, for, whatever the intent, the repetitive nature of both recitation and mass production are hypnotic. Intermittently, we see the products in their finished and ready-to-display form, as if being reminded what all the industrialization is for. The unconscious connection is that the children seen earlier are similarly “processed”, made into shiny, normed products that serve a selected purpose. Speed was also involved in reaching children before it was too late; it came from “us” the reader emphasizes over and over again in a forceful reading of the poem. “Put the blame on us”. The foreboding tones offset by a sweet, aimless melody continue as we see the final shot, sheets of dollar bills being removed from presses for quick inspection. Speed meets value meets values. A good recitation and a well put together short film.

Kenton Turk