image : Repetitive Stabbing Device (neon, in motion)
The female voice asks "What is it like where you are?" The male voice does not reveal the location in question, but describes the plainness, the greyness, the metal bars and dim lights. Her reaction, "How do you cope?" The male voice responds, "You learn to differentiate between inside and outside quite quickly. You accept the fact that there is no more outside in your life. And inside, you try to forget ..."
The dialogue takes place inside Mark Laliberte's installation The Suspended Room; deep inside a labyrinth of gallery rooms, and inside yet another labyrinth, a suburban Windsor shopping mall. But these "outsides" are temporarily absent. Inside the narrative continues to expand, circulate and rise, and we are caught in the jet streams of fiction.
Several years ago I made the bold proclamation that the presence of rooms is not clearly understood. By that I meant we think of rooms primarily in the context of our daily routine; the living room, the bedroom, the bathroom, the classroom, and so on. In conversation we may also allude to forms of subjective resonance -- the condition of being 'in the waiting room'. But common use language does not adequately allow us to address the subconscious characteristics of rooms which are not tied to function or ceremony, their connective social fabric. Rooms can however, be transformed into perceptual spaces, if time and money permits for the luxury of minimal means. Here, we can savour the emptiness as a refuge, a place to imagine an internal dialogue or ponder what takes place outside, hence a 'waiting room'. The perverse extension is the isolation chamber -- 'the box' or 'the hole' -- a room which has the sole function of depriving the occupant of sensory stimulation. Solitary confinement is a state of suspension or stasis -- waiting it out -- but image and sound recollection can take place. Memory and imagination provide a survival mechanism for the corporeal being.
Rooms have had a presence in visual arts since the Renaissance, allowing ways to cross the boundary between the real and the imagined within the science of perspective.1 Artists of this century have initiated the phantasmagoria of the unimaginable/uninhabitable room; Kurt Schwitters' Merzbau (1923-1943), the bedroom ensembles of Claus Oldenburg (1963) and David Buchan (1980), Iain Baxter's Bagged Place; (1966), and George Segal room simulations with plaster occupants, which he started in the 1960s. A full accounting of rooms in contemporary art would, indeed, easily fill a room. The outcome of such exploration into the near-real is the immersive environment whereby the viewer can enter into the sublime space or high irrationality. Not to be overlooked is Richard Hamilton's collage fabulation, Just What Makes Today's Homes So Different, So Appealing? (1956), which is generally regarded as the baptism of Pop Art. Hamilton's room shudders with absurdity and vulgar spectacle. The occupants are a Tootsie Roll Pop-totin' male body builder and a female stripper lounging under a lamp shade. The harbinger of technology as a modern window to the world is punctuated by the presence of a television and tape recorder in the room. If Hamilton's medium sits silent, the pictorial fabulation strains to be LOUD.
These precursors are offered as evidence of an avant-garde tradition in examining Mark Laliberte's room. In turn, his sparse appointment and poetic non-location conjures up a multiplicity of other references -- the surrealist montage, film genres, contemporary theatre and dance/performance, and even quotations of hybrid art-practice. In the Suspended Room are four wall-mounted speakers, each with a different back-lit photograph as facing material. 2 A non-operating electric floor fan with a speaker mounted on its protective grille sits in mid-space. At one end of the room is a wall-mounted neon sign -- an arm holding a "bloodied" knife repeating a two stage cartoonish stabbing motion. The dialogue of the two characters is broadcast in four "scenes" corresponding to individual speakers -- a dialogue which disjointedly recounts episodes alluding to a murder which has taken place and its aftermaths. The background sounds include wind, storm, crickets, birds and what may be traffic noise -- the natural world counter posed with the artifice of theatrical dialogue. 3 The experience of sound sources is simultaneous, a heavy layering on the brink of overload, forming an immaterial but inescapable presence. The sound influences what we see, what we may imagine, and what we understand of the narration and physical elements. Not to be overlooked (but possible as nothing is seen in sound), is the synthetic audio fingerprint, a consequence of Laliberte's use of technology, left as a deliberate clue to the construction. The two voices are in fact one -- Laliberte has digitally altered his voice: one higher to indicate the female and lower to fortify the male character.
The Distant Rumble
Sound sets Laliberte's room apart from the quiet temple we are accustomed to in the art gallery, a sound which seeps out to other spaces and co-opts them, as in the AGW; voices in the otherwise sterile aural gallery environment. Whether we like it or not, we are eaves-dropping. So too with the background effects --the sounds of the outside world smuggled inside. Laliberte's constructed sound environment is not entirely a device of his own making, as we live in a seamless and discontinuous aural environment. Sound enters the ear without our consent and at any given moment we may be aware of many sources: insects buzzing; a passing car; a telephone ring; snippets of conversation drifting from passers-by or though a neighbour's window. Unwanted sounds are blocked out or ignored through selective hearing because they constitute noise, but we accept other ambient sound. 4 Radio and television are part of the discontinuous aural environment but also micro versions of it. In the latter, broken syntax is rarely questioned because we are accustomed to having information and cultural experiences delivered in disjunctive bites.
"Where does a good man store all his secrets?"
(The man speaks, The Suspended Room, Part Three)
The dusk blue walls of The Suspended Room are in sharp contrast to standard gallery white, intensifying the threshold impact. There can be no question that this is the site of something out-of-the-ordinary, crossing from perpetual day to perpetual night. We also step out of a rational space -- the connoisseurship of the framed object carefully hung to eye level standard -- into a space where walls have no presence and everything is at ear level. It should be noted that the "suspended" title came about as a consequence of Laliberte's preliminary design. He imagined two audio characters represented as 'figurative speakers' dangling from the ceiling. Laliberte scrapped the idea of a direct body/figure presence but the title remained -- suspended as it were from his first literal thought, and the characters now represented by disembodied conversation.
At its apex, film noir constructs a world of shadows -- the extremes of lingering long shots mixed with jump cut hyper-intimate close-ups -- and fugitive sound, the breathy anxious voice and dialogue in an enclosed space. Plots are intricate orchestrations. Many comparisons have been made between Laliberte's work and the genre of film noir and B-grade horror films, and there is no question that he has drawn upon cinematic allusion. 5 Laliberte states that his work "is a broken narrative play that explores life and death, mental instability and issues of human intimacy." It is a noir-themed glimpse at the complexity of human behaviour where characters are submerged in circumstances beyond their control. Yet on several counts his drama is quite different from that of a film play, and more akin to radio drama (in keeping with the "broadcast" action described earlier), and underscoring the importance of evoking that which cannot be seen. Even here the similarities are not consistent; The Suspended Room is not a conventional narrative. Character development is absent -- even names -- and the scripted sections of dialogue leave huge gaps in the story. There is no motivation for the murder, only an inkling of regret by the male character, and no evidence of justice delivered. In their stead, Laliberte interjects dramatic textures and brings them to the foreground; sexual difference, the force of instinct and emotion. And even though the exchange takes place inside -- however we may imagine it -- there are many references to the outside, the forces of nature and the city. So too for the ambient sounds. In radio convention background "sound effects" establish locale and texture for the narrative, but in Laliberte's installation they are amplified and portentous, as if on equal footing to the narration.
image : Repetitive Stabbing Device (installed, both positions visible)
The "all is not what it seems" does not end there. The neon Repetitive Stabbing Device is inspired by a still sign in the background of a B-grade horror movie (it is impossible to ignore the connection to the shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (1960) which spawned a genre of stalk and stab films). Rather than a background prop Laliberte's sign is an active agent in the narrative setting up waves of flickering light and acts as a counterpoint to the waves of sound -- in audio terms, a phase cancellation and oscillation like "impact waves"of small retinal shocks. As Laliberte writes, "you can't escape the presence anywhere in the room, even when you are not looking at it ... it references the edge of the city, the connection of neon and hotels, the flicker of red and blue flashing lights like a police car at a murder scene." It is a continual reminder of this murder which hasn't been heard or fully described. 6
Likewise, Laliberte's other visual elements act as joiners rather than stand-ins for cinematic props. The fan has a unique 'role' as a straight man, and when, in the third narrative scene, we hear "something is coming, I think it's a storm," the storm sounds issue forth. Laliberte gives the photographic images of the speaker boxes a painting nomenclature -- the meatscape, the landscape, the cloudscape, and the cityscape -- but they may be scenes from another world. The 'black hole' speakers "suspended" in the illuminated scenes can be read as portals or orifices, the stand-in for the characters. 7 Precise times are given for each scene -- 12:13 am, 1:57 am, 3:10 am, and 5:23 am. Each is past the bewitching hour for the average and honest citizen, and before dawn breaks, when all will be revealed in the objective light of day. Thus, suspended time.
From a central point in the room, the hypnotic repetition of phrases, their digital orchestration and tonality, the dialogue forms a back beat texture, like waves pounding a shoreline. The lines "our desires will define us" and "something is coming, I think it's a storm," for example, are transformed into hypnotic-comedic overstatement through looping. All bathed in the neon's nervous twitch of perpetual urban night.
How Does it End?
No matter how obtuse or unresolved the plot, films have a beginning and end even if the cue/clue is the credit roll. We get up and leave. There is no obvious end or beginning to The Suspended Room, but there is more to Laliberte's intention than deconstructing narrative. Otherwise he could have simply made a film on the subject. Laliberte establishes a chain of references (and forms of appropriation), and allows for circulations within aleatorical possibilities. In searching for other cultural sources and sites for The Suspended Room, Laliberte's involvement with techno music cannot be overlooked; he grew up with industrial and experimental music and cites it as being responsible for his strong interest in sound. Concurrently, he is involved with a sound-as-language collective, Thinkbox. 8
Techno/industrial music is not so much the stepchild of avant-garde precursors -- noise as music -- but the actualization of iconoclastic behaviour of its creators -- all noise is music, to quote from one of Laliberte's curatorial endeavours. 9 Out of its voracious appetite for sampling diverse sources, hybridization, and repetition (the back beat), emerges the possibility of a new language without the burden of composer-angst (and where the beginning and end is expressed through song conventions), or a governing manifesto. At its commercial edge there is a 'loud and brave new world you can dance to,' one that is transgressive simply because it does not claim transgression.10 As a point of comparison, one example is a 1998 Aphex Twin track track titled Come to Daddy (Aphex Twin is a nom-de-plume of Richard D. James) . 11 Sampled clips of children singing are include which -- as with Laliberte's "characters" -- are home-studio distortions of James' own voice. A demonic voice screams 'Come to Daddeee! I want your Sooouuuull!" Is this an internal dialogue exchange, inside the fiction and fabulation of the music track, or a command to the listener? Not surprisingly, a form of narration and story telling appears in the accompanying video (which James claims is not unlike his dreams). It features a gang of children in realistic Richard James masks, smashing up cars and attacking old ladies -- a black and white horror-gothic, a form of rage without anarchy. Typically, videos are not produced by the composers, but once created serve as a pictorial conjunction or joiner for the music. Images are often edited in relationship to the music tempo and rhythm -- in graphic terms, a sympathetic contour.
By different routes Laliberte and James explore undercurrents of the modern world without the dramaturgy of the cautionary tale -- the traffic of association between sound , image and narrative -- skipping the banalities of in-between moments where characters stop to tie their shoe laces, or a song slips into a bridge, chord change or refrain. Their methodology also reflects the exploration of technological language, its side effects and unmistakable imprints -- and to turn the imprints into expressions experience through altered duration, the velocity of a sound to create rhythm or a subliminal rumble and then layering on something else. One thing leads to another, informs the other, gets buried in the transformation, and a new text, or language, appears.
"... all we can do is wait"
(The woman speaks, The Suspended Room, Part Three)
Returning to the foremost question -- what a Suspended Room could be -- may be answered by the collective experience of another non-place, the cabin of an airplane (the experience of music is also a non-place as it fills the contours of whatever place and space it is played). There are elements of a movie theatre, fast food franchise, hospital (we are interred and in a helpless state), and of course, the waiting room. Time is measured by planned events and the diversions of in flight entertainment -- visual and audio -- often interrupted by flight announcements or by cabin attendants hawking blankets, beverages, duty free goods or landing documents. The jet stream is its own fiction, yet related to the "outside world" (the irony of the airplane cabin experience is that one is inside and outside). Umberto Eco writes "if fictional worlds are so comfortable, why not try to read the actual world as if it were a work of fiction?" 12 But much can happen in the traffic between one state and another (and the same true for inter-dependent sound and image as in Laliberte's installation). Umberto continues; we can be swept up in the elements of paratext, that is, the external messages that surround any text, without it being directed by the author (or the composer). The outcome is not the decision to enter a fiction world, but by happenstance (or immersion) finding oneself within that world, and mapping the fictional model is mapped onto our reality. 13
Comparable to cabin time and the track time of James' Aphex Twin, Laliberte's The Suspended Room offers an experience so fluid that it threatens to become a torrent, as if being on the edge of everything, the brink. You can walk into the room, and return. It is different and the same. The difference, as the opening dialogue excerpt suggests, is learning to differentiate between fact and fiction, yet fiction (written and composed) continues to fascinate because it offers limitless possibilities. We enter our own suspended room through the detailing of another space. Eco recounts entering a planetarium -- in essence, a room of cosmic fiction through technological reconstructions: "Suddenly the room was totally dark and I could hear a beautiful lullaby by de Falla ... the sky above me began to rotate. It was the sky that had appeared over my birthplace. ... I had the impression that I was the only man, since the dawn of time, who had ever had the privilege of being reunited with his own beginning." 14
Back in The Suspended Room, the man utters, "for a few hours, there were no bars. There was fresh air, to breathe, and an open sky above my head ..."
1. Da Vinci's The Last Supper is a view into another room and the illusionary extension of a monastery refectory. For the "period diners", as time has altered the function and cultural meaning of that room, it is not simply the depiction of Christ and his Disciples, but a means to partake of "that" meal in their everyday meal.
2. The reverse reading of Laliberte's speakers reveals a variation of a contemporary sub-genre, four back-lit photographs with speakers inserted.
3. If isolated, the scripted dialogue has a portentous and unnatural quality. Some examples; "And if we hunger, we shall eat"; "I know not what you speak of truly"; "Am I a monster? Is that what I am?"
4. In the 1997 film, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, Kevin Spacey plays a New York writer who, on a research trip to Savannah Georgia, falls into a murder mystery. Before going to sleep one evening, he turns on a tape recorder which plays city sounds (noises), a pun -- can't take the city out of the boy -- and paradox. How can anyone sleep through the cacophony. Awake, we associate sound with source and image, even if we do not bother to verify the source. But such sound does not enter cultural recognition unless there is some form of syntax, as in music or songs, reinforced by repetition in our discontinuous audio environment. Songs tell stories.
5. By genre classification, a horror or noir film can only be B-grade regardless of the film's budget, although a distinction can be made between high craft and true exploitation films. Nonetheless, an A grade category is reserved for lofty aspirations of the human spirit.
6. Granted, some may find the image-action of the 'neon stab' objectionable, but without the sound (the verisimilitude) of screams and "knife cutting the air", can it be anymore terrifying than neon pigs on the street or a giant neon cowboy, cigarette in mouth, waving his arm -- or any of the hundreds and thousands of perplexing mixed-messages signs which give cities an hallucinogenic allure and unintentional irony and absurdity. It's all relative.
7. One element from an earlier work entitled "Pillow Scenes" 1997 is a black and white photograph of a "sleeping head" with a speaker in the mouth.
8. One of the current Thinkbox projects is a vinyl "Loop album" of very short compositions as a series of "locked grooves". Anywhere the player arm is dropped, it is stuck in a repeating rotation. To quote Laliberte, "It's like making content for the culture without actually forcing the full structure of the complete track on it. We hope that people will look at this disc as source material, to mix with it and play with it (and be) absorbed into dance culture in a different manner."
9. Detachable Music For A Collapsible Culture, Detroit Artists Market, 2 - 30 October 1998.
10. As a consequence, techno-music has generated obtuse categories -- acid, house, trip hop, jungle, beat -- as slippery as any concocted by the art world.
11. Richard D. James is an under-30 British ambient-techno composer who started "serious sound composition at the age of 14. He has also released music under his own name, Polygon Window, Caustic Window, Soit: PP and AFX. James works exclusively with computers, is purported to live at home, sleep only one hour a day and "compose" his ideas/inspiration during sleep. He has also been quoted as saying that he prefers to work in his bedroom rather than the conventional recording studio, not uncommon for 'techno composers'.
12. Umberto Eco, Six Walks in the Fiction Woods (Harvard University Press, Cambridge) p.117 Eco continues and cites from author Andrea Bonomi, that we do not need to apply categories of truth and falsehood in order to grasp the content of an account or story.
13. Ibid p.125
14. Ibid p.140
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