The Bends

Excerpt from "The Bends"
Glen Helfand
Camera Work, Spring/Summer 2002

Disorientation is a primary component of the warp condition. Call it the bends. It is a symptom accompanied by the feeling of being trapped in some kind of bubble where the air is different. A warp is a space or, perhaps more accurately, a convergence of space and time. You could say the very enclosed space seen in Barrett Langlinais' videotape Revert is just such a location. The piece presents a perplexing self-enclosed universe, a place where things move in curious ways. Inside a decrepit apartment, a male figure in coveralls (the artist, it so happens) moves through rooms that are apparently undergoing some kind of home improvement. There are still-wet pools of paint on the floor and windows covered in clear plastic tarps - you can almost smell the chemical odors that alone might make one feel light-headed.

Something seems terribly wrong in this place. Furniture has been toppled; the potting soil from a fern has been strewn about the floor. Things move strangely - the white paint is sucked back into a spray pump, a floor mop sloshes bloody stains on the kitchen linoleum, a telephone dangles from its cord precipitously - although our silent guide seems to continuously move forward. His gait, however, is curiously slow, as though he were walking through water. It's as difficult to know if we're in the past, present, or future - it feels more like murky dream time - as it is to tell what exactly happened in this abode. Has someone been murdered or has he or she just had an accident with a putty knife? It doesn't really matter, as what is most salient about this vision is the sense of space/time oddity.

Somehow it seems instructive to note that Langlinais enacted this elusive narrative backwards and then digitally flipped the footage in postproduction. This double-reverse process creates the illusion of normal progression, of moving forward. The walk through the site is seamlessly looped, making it very much a self-enclosed universe. It is its own packet of time, a mobius strip that never ends or begins, it just goes on and on.

It's also intersting to look at this piece in context of film, a medium that we all know is durational--a feature film is a ninety-minute filler. Like the cinematic depiction of warp speed, Revert employs low-tech special effects, a classic attribute of time-based media such as film. In the early days of moving pictures, directors were using such techniques to simulate a trip to the moon or some other dazzling vision. In the twentieth century, film in general created new concepts of time and narrative in the form of flashbacks and crosscutting from one locale to another.

Being able to control time has proven to be a basic component of film language and an enduring cinematic fantasy. Think of all the movies that find people stopping time and reviewing their foibles--in It's a Wonderful Life, Jimmy Stewart lives in a total time bublle--and sometimes go back to correc their romantic or mortal mistakes by taking different trains or opening alternate doors. Think Run Lola Run, where time accelerates and repeats, fueling the fantasy that time is of little consequence. We can always remix, rewind, and replay. And who wouldn't want to be able to revert to a more innocent moment before they made that big mistake and things went horribly wrong? It's the dream of undoing, only in Revert there is no exit.

Studio View

Kathryn Hixson on Barrett Langlinais
New Art Examiner, July 1998

Contemporary consumption of the photographic representation of reality has become so sophisticated that everything from the personal snap-shot to the slick computer advertising montage is considered to be fluid in meaning, oscillating between fact and fiction. But the pleasure to be gained in ascertaining the true from the fake continues to be relished, even if the truth is considered even more true when faked in photographic recreation. For example, the televised spats on "The Jerry Springer Show", which have been amplified from real events, rehearsed and play-acted for the camera, have caused enough consternation that some Chicago clergy have protested the airing of this popular tak show beacuse the violence is too "real". The visual image carries the veracity attributed to our own sight: seeing is believing. But even if it remains imaginary, such as the O.J. Simpson bloody glove or the Unibomber's messy mountain shack, the image still manages to carry a truth value that affects our moral interpretations of people and events.

The truth is in the details. Sight, mimicked by the photograph, is a perception that easily absorbs complexity and chaos - refusing the abstraction of language. So it is the endless details in a picture that make it believable, the represenation of a true scene.

Barrett Langlinais proves this in his new group of large color photographs of interior domestic corners, the triangulated space in which two walls meet the floor. Anticipating our expectations that these corners are usually empty, miniature wastelands that merely reiterate the mundanity of everyday life, Langlinais presents them as a blurry morass. But in each picture a glistening horizontal slice is in the height of focus, startingly crisp in its contrast. It is as if a hyper-sensitive eye with microscopic ability were racheting in to peer at a bit of detail. But, the natural eye doesn't work this way - its focusing ability is too fluid and could never fix such a specific area with such fixed clarity. Langlinais's pictures are obviously the work of a camera and fancy lens. The tension created by pitting the vagueness of the overall image against the cordoned-off area which is in focus heightens the staged, fictive nature of the photographic medium.

But the viewer is still drawn to the focused portions of the pictures, looking for clues, for there must be some reason these areas are so clearly apprehensible. In previous series, Langlinais photographed living rooms, bathrooms, and portions of floors and walls, in the style of police documentation of a crime scene. The harshly lit photos, placed around installation spaces liked tossed-off Polaroids, as if documenting previous circumstances of the locations in which they lay, bared details of bloodstains and evidence of violence hastily covered up.

In the new series, Langlinais ups the ante. The viewer cannot merely wink and nod, sharing with the clever artist an acknowledgment of the fabricated nature of photographic truth. The degradation of the photographic image has become an easy ploy of late, as artists use the process to symbolize the degrading of cultural or aesthetic meaning. But even in Uta Barth's completely blurry photographs or Richard Billingham's grimy domestic scenes, we still have an out - either through the remove of abstraction in Barth or a relieved abdication to the subjective in Billingham. Langlinais sucks us into his corners with that sliver of in-focus-ness that, because, even with its extreme stinginess, still gives us enough information to be lured into the game of representation. It is still a picture of something. Looking at Langlinais's images lays bare our continued belief in photographic truth, so that we are veritably forced to examine the ways in which we ascertain or assign meaning. Like Lacan's central vacuum, which invites the fulfillment of language, or Hitchcock's McGuffin, a highly charged but meaningless black box that drives the plot, Langlinais's empty corner holes magnetically attract the urge for symbolic representation.

Langlinais's scenes complicate matters further, because they are not pictures of "real" corners, but are of small-scale models of interiors: small pieces of Fome-cor and fabric pieced together, photographed with micro-lenses under extreme flash. Again, the clues are in the details: bits of fiber and grains on wood paneling give away the scale: that these are very small bits of materials, and that the photograph is blown up to be much larger than the "actual size". But the photographs' titles are specific times of the day: for example, 12:30, 1:05, 6:15, seemingly alluding to real events in real time. The polite oscillation between the real and the faked starts to wobble out of control, as expectations of coherent representation are dashed at every turn.

I think that in these new photographs, Langlinais has moved from depicting the scene of the crime in a conventional "C.O.P.S." or "America's Most Wanted" style-with murder, rape, and drug trafficking, etc. - to depicting a different kind of violence. By radically shifting scale, using tiny, scruffy models, but still managing to get us to read these images as domestic interiors in which something bad may have happened, Langlinais is depicting the violence of the photographic medium itself. Taking a three- or four-dimensional reality and freezing it into a two-dimensional photograph is more like a wrenching jerk from life's continuity, or maybe even the blow from a silenced pistol, than a sweet remembrance fondly plucked.

Langlinais's shiny surfaces invite close perusal, and he wants our suspicion's to be aroused, our paranoias piqued. This is achieved on a superficial level quite well, as bits of hair and dust take on the potential of great significance. But prolonged scrutiny invites a meta-paranoia, a suspicion of our suspicions. In the end Langlinais's pictures are so empty that it doesn't really make any difference if they are fake or true, for they are about that forever blurred distinction, that crime scene that will never yield a conviction.

But we are still thrilled by the attempt: for the photograph to mean something, for the bits of hair to implicate the criminal, for the picture to cohere into a unified field. So Langlinais implicates us in that violent grip of the photographic fiction, complicit in making the paths into his wastelands of emptiness, enjoying his yawning nothingness the whole way home.

Kathryn Hixson is editor of NAE.

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