Welcome to the first installment of my regular series dedicated to exploring the avant-garde video stash at UbuWeb. In case you’re unfamiliar, UbuWeb is a completely free and independent archive dedicated to all strains of the avant-garde, ethnopoetics, and outsider arts curated by Kenneth Goldsmith. The name “Ubu” comes from a 19th century play called Ubu Roi, written by the inventor of ’Pataphysics, Alfred Jarry. If you’re interested in learning more about UbuWeb, check out this lecture Goldsmith delivered at MOCAD last year entitled “If We Had To Ask for Permission, We Wouldn’t Exist: A Brief History of UbuWeb.”
For me it’s a tremendous resource. Aside from spending countless personal hours winding my way through the catalog, I use it in the classes I teach at Florida State nearly every day. So I was thrilled to learn that earlier this year artists Marie von Heyl and Joao Flux created a randomizer called Ubu Roulette that selects for the viewer one of the many video artworks hosted on UbuWeb. Such an exciting tool seems ripe for using in a series such as this one. So, let me explain my plan by starting with a little backstory.
In my first semester of film school at UNLV, back in 1997, we had a professor challenge us to give up watching movie trailers. He argued that trailers served only to establish preconceived notions and prejudices about a film. As well, trailers extinguished the mystery not only of plotlines but more importantly camera work, lighting, and mise-en-scène. I accepted the challenge and stopped watching trailers for about ten years. Nowadays, I still typically avoid watching trailers for movies I intend to see, but sometimes I can’t help myself. Recently, for example, I saw a link to a trailer for Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin and gave in to temptation. As is usually the case, I regretted it. Nine times out of ten, I am still happier if I approach a film for the first time completely unaware of its content.
When I tell people about this habit of mine, I often get asked, “Then how do you pick what you watch? How do you know if you’ll like it?” In film school we were taught to pick movies based on the director, screenwriter, or cinematographer. When, for example, Eyes Wide Shut came out in 1999 we didn’t need to know what it was about or who was starring in it; all we needed to know was that Stanley Kubrick made it. Likewise, when P.T. Anderson’s Magnolia came out that same year, all we needed to know was that the guy who made Boogie Nights made a new film. Sometimes this process has paid off, sometimes it’s backfired. Either way, the experience has given me a perspective on movie watching that I hope to use in this series. Since I am accustomed to viewing films without any prior knowledge, and am comfortable with this experience, I feel particularly suited for this experiment.
Here’s how it’ll go:
Once a week I’ll click the Ubu Roulette wheel. Whatever it gives me, I’ll write about it. No do-overs. No re-spins. First spin, best spin. The idea is to foreground the randomness, to watch things I wouldn’t choose to watch. Thus, this will not be a series where I write about films I love or would recommend, or “the best” films. Instead, it’s a series where I’ll write about whatever Ubu Roulette gives me that week.
The film it gave me this week, for the inaugural entry in the series, was Jordan Wolfson’s Basics (2008). A two channel video. I had never heard of Wolfson, and therefore had absolutely no context for what I was about to watch. I purposefully declined to read the paragraph-sized description provided underneath the video, and instead clicked to make it full screen on my laptop and then played it once I had turned off all the lights. No introduction. No idea of what I was about to see.
It opens, split screen, with hands on the left and a cursor arrow on what appears to be a computer screen on the right.
Soon an audio track begins. A young man’s voice. “Hey, this is Captain Awesome. Your religion sucks…” Words begin appearing on the right screen accompanied by the sound of keyboard typing. The hands on the left screen move out of frame. We see the person gesturing; he’s a white male wearing a pink and white striped shirt. MORE AND MORE COUPLES ARE COOKING TOGETHER, the script reads on the right screen. We watch the typing as it happens in real time, including all the errors and corrections.
Pleasurably, I am lost in cognitive dissonance. It seems impossible to simultaneously take in all of these elements. My mind scrambles to figure out where to focus. Should I listen to the religious audio and try to watch the pantomime on the left screen, or should I read the text on the right screen? Can I listen to one thing and read another at the same time? I feel as though I am going to miss something no matter what.
By the time we get here:
one minute and nine seconds have elapsed. The excitement begins wearing off as I am learning how to deal with the onslaught of these various elements. I realize that the text seems to be about cooking and that interests me less than the audio and less than the pantomime. So I decide to pay the least attention to the text.
The audio consists of an obnoxious rant against Islam. I wonder if the speaker is Wolfson. I wonder if the sentiments are Wolfson’s. I find the rant uninspired and sophomoric. It’s the typical thing you hear from young angry semi-educated atheists. If there is a silver lining, I suppose it succeeds in illustrating a particular type of ignorance and hatred.
The text on the right screen never resets. It continues for the duration of the video. I wonder if Wolfson is the person typing the text. Is he making it up as he goes along, or is he typing from another source text, or perhaps he’s typing dictation to something he’s listening to like a television show on the cooking channel. The pantomime on the left screen, however, repeats itself a few times. I wonder if the white guy doing the pantomime is Wolfson.
What is the pantomime pantomiming? Seems like a photographer setting up a shot; or, maybe a scientist setting up a microscope?
And what is with the camerawork? What is it doing roaming around like it’s a thriller or something? Seems like the camerawork is unsuited for the subject.
While I am only viewing about fourteen minutes worth of footage, supposing this would run on an endless loop in a black box at a gallery, after a while—I’m thinking maybe an hour or so—I wonder if the syncopation would take on a new life. I try to imagine sitting in a darkened room for two hours watching this video. I think it would be unbearable. Makes me think of that scene in The Clockwork Orange where Dr. Brodsky performs the Ludovico technique, that eye-gaping media flooding aversion therapy, on Alex the main character. I wonder if I would exit the black box brainwashed or “reprogrammed” into being a Muslim hating mime that obsesses about cooking.
One of the problems I foresee this series presenting to me is exemplified by the present situation, which is to say I’d really like to spin the Ubu Roulette wheel and write about a different video. I’m struggling to find a perch with this Wolfson piece. Usually, I only write about things I find interesting. Wolfson’s Basics doesn’t meet that criterion. Juxtaposing a mime, a transcription of cooking instructions, and an anti-Islamic screed seems to beg for some type of symbolic interpretation, which I am uninterested in producing.
Maybe it’s interesting when we find out that the audio is appropriated?
But only because it answers my question about whether or not it’s Wolfson’s voice. Even if we find out that all three elements (the mime, the cooking instructions, and the audio) are appropriated, it doesn’t strike me as particularly thought-provoking. Sure, we could then ponder the reasoning for his choices, ask why he chose what he chose; but truth be told I’m never interested in bringing reason into my engagements with art. Following a Kantian aesthetic paradigm, I enjoy confusion for confusion’s sake. Perhaps that’s why I find this Wolfson piece unimpressive. It’s not confusing enough. At first, the overwhelming layers of sight and sound intrigued me. But soon it became manageable. This act of becoming manageable disappoints me. As a spectator, I look to artworks for bafflement. And at the end of the day, I’m just not baffled by Wolfson’s Basics.
Hopefully next week the Ubu Roulette will offer me a more interesting, puzzling, bewildering video. Until then…