Monday, January 06, 2014

It's Not Polite to Stare – interview with Shelly Silver

In conjunction with the exhibition “It’s Not Polite to Stare,” on view in the Alonzo and Vallye Dudley Gallery from January 7 to March 20, 2014, Shelly Silver graciously provided the following interview. In it, she offers excellent insight not only into her own work, "April 2nd," but valuable commentary regarding the other two works in the exhibition and the themes of the exhibition in general. Many thanks to Shelly for taking the time to provide such thoughtful analysis. Please enjoy this excellent read!

Shelly Silver, “April 2nd,” 1994. Courtesy Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI), New York.
Laura Valeri: How did the idea come to you to do this?

Shelly Silver: In 1969, Vito Acconci did a work called "Following Piece" where he followed people every day for a month in NYC. I knew about it because the performance was documented with black-and-white photographs. I heard about this piece in the early eighties. At the time, I was interested in the aggressive yet vulnerable quality of his videos and installations, which usually centered on himself. Acconci pulling out his pubic hair, one by one. Acconci confronting the viewer with a baseball bat. Acconci trying to pry the eyelids of his girlfriend open, trying to convince her to tie herself up. His mixing of the private and public made sense to me when related to television, that tightly controlled but seemingly harmless box that brings the outside in, to the living room, the kitchen, the bedroom. It was the outside coming in, so why shouldn’t the inside come out?

Acconci was an intense, odd, not particularly attractive man (who appeared half-dressed or naked, who dressed up his penis). When I got to know him, in my very early 20s, he seemed deeply middle-aged. I remember thinking that he was a more interesting role model than many of the women who did performance at the time, who were thin and young and attractive. I thought that when I got older and fatter and less attractive, I would try. I never got much fatter but I did get older. In the early 2000s, I had decided I had Acconci-ed up sufficiently to be the central performer/crazed heroine of my film "suicide" (2003).

In 1993, I found myself living in Paris at the Cité internationale des arts, spending 10 hours a day editing a film about Berlin ("Former East/Former West," 1994). One day, probably to get away from my editing table, I decided to repeat Acconci’s performance. I wasn’t thinking of it as a performance; I was thinking of it as an experiment whose outcome or excuse would be a video.

The actual shooting was both stressful and excitinga mixture of nerves and adrenaline. I rushed back to my studio to dress for a dinner party where I remember holding a glass of red wine, hands shaking, recounting my afternoon adventure to the artists Lynn Hershman and Gary Hill and the curator Stephen Sarrazin. I remember this even though it probably didn’t happen.

LV: I’m curious about how much of the process of creating this work was calculated and deliberate versus organic and accidental. Did you develop the idea over time and then take to the street to execute it, or was it more inspired by just being in the public sphere?

SS: The machinethe conceptual frameworkwas set deliberately, but not with a calculated result. What happened afterward was accidental or organic, depending on how you define life. It grows out of the experiment.

The idea was simple. I didn’t ruminate over it or develop it. I just did it.

The project was definitely influenced by my experience in ParisI don’t think I would have done it elsewhere. The narrow winding streets which push people together on the sidewalk were more conducive to following. There were more people on the street, in cafés, hanging out in doorways. And in Paris people look at each other more and flirt more. There is an awareness and acknowledgement, or at least there was at that time. And everything seemed much more genderedthe way people dressed and acted.

Would I have done this in NYC? No. Why not? The simplest reason, it was easier to do this as an outsider. Being a foreigner can be liberating. This small distance, this shift in culture, probably made my behavior possible.

I’ve had both the paranoia and the actual experience of being followed by a man. It’s awful. During the filming I started to follow one woman and stopped immediately. I physically couldn’t do itI became nauseated.

LV: Did you follow other men that did not make it into the final video?

SS: It’s been a while since I looked at the footage, but there were definitely other people who didn’t make it in. There were at least several men, the one woman, also a couple. I followed the policeman who appears towards the beginning, twice. The first time he tried his best to ignore me. You can see him repeatedly looking to his left. I’m sure this was so he could see if I was there and still there. Finally he turned full around and looked at me. The second time he angrily stopped me, almost shouting at me, wanting to know what I was doing. I pulled the tourist card saying I was filming the beautiful buildings and people. He told me I should just stick to the buildings, like normal tourists. Then he let me go.

LV: Your work as a whole reveals an interest in other cultures, and in many cases public spaces in these foreign places.

SS: I’ve always traveled a lot and most of the nineties I spent circulating, on artists’ residencies (DAAD/Berlin, Cité/Paris, Japan-U.S. Friendship Commission/Tokyo), to make money or to show work. This really blew my way of thinking wide open, directly influencing the films I could and wanted to make. The position of the outsider is an interesting one. You know less but sometimes can see more, if you have the time and curiosity. Outsiders often ask the basic questions, like “Why is it this way?” about things that residents take for granted. Of course it’s also very easy to be the stupid outsider.

LV: I’m focusing on two main themes in this exhibition: 1) the public vs. the private sphere, and 2) how gender roles affect and determine the “rules” of looking.

One cedes a certain amount of privacy when in public, and it’s common for anyone acting in an “abnormal” way to draw stares. Unlike Atlas’ video of Leigh Bowery strutting around New York, in many ways performing and soliciting stares and giggles, the subjects in your video are having their privacy bubble breached by you and your camera.

SS: Cedes is an interesting word. To give up power or territory or control. The assumption would be, then, that the positive, most empowered state would be private, right? That’s a huge assumption. Under capitalism, I think we’ve ceded, psychological and physical (in terms of the actual real estate) control of public space. This control has moved from the actual public (us) to corporations and the government (not us). We no longer identify this space as ours. The way we think of and use public space has changed. Rather than seeing it as a positive, jointly owned place where the community comes together to see and watch and talk, it’s now a place to be passed through, on one’s way from personal space to the semi-public, but highly controlled space of stores or work. It’s not surprising, then, that you talk about it as a place that is compromised, that is not ours.

I agree that there’s a sizeable difference between "April 2nd" and the Atlas video. In "Mrs. Peanut Visits New York," Leigh Bowery (did you know he was born in Sunshine, Australia?) is the spectacle, and others are the observers. We look at him, and we look at the passersby reacting or not, but mostly at him. And he is performing for us. We’re in the position of the camera, but I’m not sure we think so much about it. In "April 2nd," when I followed these men, I was not the spectacle; it was either the men, or both of us, as a unit. And I was protected by the camera. It was this temporary relationship, the three of us, that was on display. “He” perhaps was the most implicated. And this could be seen as transgressive or downright impolite on my part. “He” wasn’t asked to be part of this performance or couple. I didn’t ask permission and each “participant” had to actively do something (run away, duck into a shop) to escape.

LV: Could you talk more about these boundaries? Do you think public and private overlap, or is there a fine line separating them?

SS: Public and private always overlap. They’re always shifting and moveable. We like to think that there’s a line separating, and sometimes there is. Even talking about these terms this way, almost as positions on a map, is interesting and questionable. And these words aren’t fixed objects. Their definitions/interpretations expand out. Are we talking about designated public and private spaces? Historically? Currently? Legally? In perception? Psychologically? One of the reasons I’m so interested in these issues is exactly because this spatialized idea of ownershipwhich impacts so directly the way we think of I/you/us/them/weis ever-changing, ever being renegotiated. The last decade has seen people intervening around the world (Tahrir Square, Zuccotti Park, Puerto del Sol, Gezi Park, etc.) in the hopes of reclaiming these spaces, and the response to this reclamation has often been violence on the part of the (democratically elected or otherwise) home governments.
LV: What is your goal in "April 2nd" in these terms? To explore the boundaries and find where the limits lie, invade and destroy the separation? Something else?

SS: Experiments don’t have goals. They have outcomes and surprises.

I had an idea to follow people with my camera. Certainly I was aware that this was not typical, that it did push against the limits of “personal” space, though I always left a very comfortable physical distance between myself and the person being followed. But a camera collapses that space.

So it started with “What will happen if…” Watching the video, you can see some vestiges of how the people being followed reacted, and you can see some reactions from people who watched the process. One of the things that hits me now is this almost random aspect of someone being chosen, and then becoming a recipient or target, depending on how you look at it. It could have been anyone, but it was he. And him. And him. This definitely rubs up against an idea of “passivity” and the idea of a “victim.”

During the act of filming, as well as when I was putting the film together, I came to see each interaction as a failed relationship. That one didn’t stick… that one ran away… I completely lost track of him as soon as I turned the camera on… someone or something got in the way… until the last man. He was the one who entered the game. He toyed with me as I toyed with him. He walked. I walked. He stopped to buy bread. I stopped, filming him do so. He continued, and then paused to look in a store window, perhaps checking if I was still there. I was both relieved and wrenchingly sad when he turned the corner and my battery ran out. It was over.

LV: Regarding these failed relationships, it seems like you were trying to achieve a balance of some sort in the end. It’s interesting that you weren’t looking to completely control the situation, or have complete power over the men you were following.

SS: I wanted to put myself in another place, in another relation. I was thinking about Acconci, a particular artist and man. So somewhere in my mind there was a gender swap. The project is gendered again, in my later decision not to follow women. There was a curiosity about what it would feel like to be in this position. But what I was finally looking for was a call and response, a communication. The back speaks.

If you describe the mechanism of the film in a certain way (a woman follows men with her camera on the streets of Paris), I could see how you could come up with words like control, power, triumphant. But when you watch the film, do you come away thinking these words? I don’t at all.

At the end of the film, when my camera stopped before turning that last corner, I felt the sadness of a connection that was broken. That I had somehow gotten to know, in a small but intimate way, this man. We fell into a rhythm; there was a call and response; I waited; he surprised. And when that was broken, there was this feeling of loss, of ending. The game, within the structure I had set up, was endless, or wasn’t for me to end. If it weren’t for the end of my battery life, I would have continued until… and so there was a sadness, and also a relief that happens when you brush up against another and then part ways, of the game being overand I imagine he felt the same.

LV: You add a somewhat aggressive element by not just looking at the men, but pursuing them, similarly to how EXPORT adds an aggressive element by ensuring that the men participating in the public performance are themselves being watched. Could you elaborate on the function of the aggressive/invasive nature of pursuing the men? e.g. Was it to make them acutely aware that you were invading their privacy/space?

SS: Consciously, it was to run the experiment. When I went out on the street to film, I wasn’t angry. I’m trying to remember my state of mind. I was nervous. Eager. It was tiring. I didn’t feel triumphant (except perhaps when filming the cop). I didn’t think of them as men, but as people. But of course I only filmed men.

I can remember when I was young and saw the short documentation of VALIE EXPORT’s "Touch Cinema" I was ambivalent, as there was a part of me that thought, “Oh, there’s another attractive woman giving men what they want.” It’s true, that they had to pay a price for their pleasure, the price of being filmed. (I’m very aware of my early opinions now and wonder if part of this was an unconscious identifying with men…)

There’s another work of VALIE EXPORT’s from around the same time, "Aktionshose: Genitalpanik" ("Action Pants: Genital Panic"), which interested me more because it was more aggressive/transgressive. In the performance, EXPORT walked into an experimental cinema wearing crotchless pants, confronting the audience to engage with a real woman in a closed auditorium where it would be hard to escape. People were seated, she was standing, and her crotch was eye-level. I thought she also had a gun, but this was only in the posters she flyposted around the city. "Touch Cinema" was outside and seemed cuter, more scaled down. Although there might have been an ambivalence, the men participate freely. I imagine that they felt that they were getting what they wanted, for free even.

LV: Earlier, you said, "I was protected by the camera." What did you feel protected from?

SS: When you use a camera, especially one that’s pressed up against your eye, you become part of a greater unit. While shooting, the unit was me, my camera, the person being followed. The water we swam in was the passersby and neighborhood around us.

It’s also a question of acknowledgement. When I look at other people with my “naked” eye, and they look back, we acknowledge each other. We exist in the same time and space. When I am in a space next to you, and I’m talking into my cell phone, you are probably not in my perceived space. I am in another space, perhaps not even a visual one.

In each of the three works you will show, the camera functions as a kind of protection and raison d’être. It brings in a different sphere and focus. In the Atlas, Leigh Bowery is performing for the camera. The performance would be different, would look different and feel different, without the camera’s presence. It would also look and feel different if shot in a studio. In the VALIE EXPORT, the camera is an integral part of the projectthe mechanism that reveals, that captures the participants, more than the box (which is the experiment, the trap and the bait?). I imagine that it would have been different and even scary for VALIE EXPORT to go out on the street alone with her mini-cinema. EXPORT’s "Aktionshose: Genitalpanik" ("Action Pants: Genital Panic") was much more dangerous, both for the audience (even without the gun) as well as for EXPORT. It was direct unmediated human contact, albeit in a quasi-performance/theatrical space.

The direction of the eyes offers great protection or exposure. The “I see you” or “I don’t see you, I’m not looking at you.” I’m thinking right now of that famous scene from "Taxi Driver," where de Niro repeats the same sentence with different inflection to his image in the mirror: “You lookin’ at me?” Or that’s how I (want to) remember the scene. His actual line of course is: “You talkin’ to me?”…

In "April 2nd," I am part of this inexplicable unit. I am in this other world, which is the world of making the film, so I can function with my apparatus as a different unit. People didn’t talk to me; they’d shout out to the person being filmed. It was almost as if I didn’t function as a person in their space. Perhaps I was protected from being judged. I was protected from my own vague feelings of doing an insane act, of acting insane (outside of the realm of normal behavior).

LV: Did carrying the camera make you feel more aggressive or empowered? It sounds like you were fearful or at least hesitant at times. Were you concerned about a specific consequence?

SS: I didn’t think empowered or aggressive. It was a big rush, like doing a dare. When I was following, there was a pleasure of not knowing what was going to happen; there was the pleasure of reaching out, of making some kind of contact. The pleasure of making a rule and following it regardless of sense. There’s something exhilarating about this. The pleasure of the unknown. Where it got complicated was the small rejections, or the feeling of the irritation of the person being followed.

It was also physically exhausting and somewhat dangerous in that I’m surprised I never tripped or bumped into anything. My focus was forward, sometimes on the far distance. I had to walk quickly and hold the camera steady, while maneuvering around people, walls, curbs. There was adrenaline, a low-level danger, both interpersonally and physically.

LV: The Electronic Arts Intermix summary of "April 2nd" mentions the “female gaze.” Do you think this term is accurate? What does it signify to you?

SS: That’s a good question. By definition I suppose it was coming from a “female” so in this way, sorta kinda. But as this was a replay of the Acconci, it certainly wasn’t a traditionally female point of view. If we go to the Mulvey of “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” the gaze could only be male, though she’d probably not say that now.

So here too we’d have to take some time to define what these terms mean/might mean.

LV: It’s fun for people to see conventions about looking overturned and the power shift between observer and observed. I think many viewers will find all three works amusing. Do you think there’s a humorous element to "April 2nd"?

SS: I’m not sure that it’s fun as much as funny, because it rubs up against something uncomfortable, a bit dangerous or uncanny. I did certain things in the editing to attempt to relax people into it. Jo Privat’s tango music was to signal “playful” rather than “mean” although I used it only in brief spurts. The video does, especially the last half, which is one long shot, have a feeling of real or even extended time. So humor, yes. Entertainmentcertainly not what I was aiming at. But this is a question for the audience.