Harry Dodge and Stanya Kahn

Videos, hoods, a ‘period eye’; surrealism and surveillance

harry-dodge-and-stanya-kahn_ps.png

Harry Dodge and Stanya Kahn, Masters of None, 2006, DVD still

Harry Dodge and Stanya Kahn, Masters of None, 2006, DVD still

Watching The Ugly Truth (2006), a three-channel video installation that features Stanya Kahn in various green screen environments, snarling and glowering at the camera, head-banging maniacally and contorting her body with admirable endurance to the dulcet tones of the inimitable US rock band Journey, a series of incongruous descriptors springs to mind: hilarious, unguarded, performative, disarming, bracing, endearing, beautiful, analytical, intimate. In isolation none of these words does much to illuminate the video, and in combination one is left staring into the impassive face of interpretative failure. Kahn’s repetition of poses and gestures and the ubiquitous green screens suggest that we are witness to a rehearsal, perhaps for a music video, but the main event never materializes. Instead we are asked to accept Kahn’s process as her product. Fortunately, camera operator and director Harriet ‘Harry’ Dodge is there to provide some reassurance. While offering Kahn direction and deftly recording the action, Dodge comments, often with bemusement and awe, on her collaborator’s improvisational alacrity and on the strange magnetism that attends her sometimes quite feral performances; Kahn’s head-banging, for example, is worthy of vintage Metallica, while her studied snarl belongs to the theatrical Norwegian black metal tradition. Even Dodge, the co-producer of this video, finds herself at a loss for words, resorting instead – and quite understandably – to familiar colloquialisms such as ‘weird’ and ‘fuckin’ funny’.

Dodge may be one of the two artists responsible for The Ugly Truth, but she is also a viewer, and a surrogate ‘I’ – the disembodied voice of our ‘period eye’, as the late, great art historian Michael Baxandall would have it. In studies such as Painting and Experience in 15th-Century Italy (1972) Baxandall was able to show how the related acts of perception and recognition are structured by the precise social circumstances in which viewing takes place. What is seen and understood is, according to this formulation, a matter of familiarity and habit. In recent years, artists such as Olafur Eliasson have gone to great lengths to create other-worldly viewing environments where spectators are supposed to ‘see themselves seeing’; in other words creating unfamiliar situations that systematically deconstruct the act of looking, offering the viewer a fleeting (and flattering) sense of false mastery over the complex, hermetic worlds they behold. Far less heady and polished in their approach, Dodge and Kahn have developed a mode of video-based performance art that caters to a different ‘period eye’ entirely, one informed not by the legacies of Modernism and 1960s’ phenomenology but by the ad hoc, improvisational, behind-the-scenes aesthetic conventions shared by reality television, docudramas and mockumentaries. The basic enticement offered by this eminently familiar mode of address has allowed Dodge and Kahn to explore a wide range of challenging, topical subjects while in the process revealing – even redeeming – popular (some might say compromised) documentary modes.

One of their most ambitious projects to date, All Together Now (2008) is a jerkily shot docudrama that examines the nefarious activities of various opposed contingents of hooded figures whose shared goal seems to be survival in a lawless, post-apocalyptic landscape. Although the narrative – if such a thing exists – is discordant and fractious, the basic thematic preoccupations and gritty documentary aesthetics will be familiar to many from films such as The Blair Witch Project (1999), 28 Days Later (2002) and Cloverfield (2008). All Together Now does not presume to be the avant-garde antidote to these frivolous productions; rather, Dodge and Kahn rely heavily on the viewer’s presumed familiarity with such films – on their ‘period eye’ – to address a range of radically disquieting possibilities in a familiar contemporary language.

The ubiquity of the hood motif throughout is the first and most sinister suggestion that the violent anonymity of extremist terrorist practices and the random abuse of human rights à la Abu Ghraib have become standard operating procedure for all sides in this new world order. The prevailing political myth of good versus evil that provides the basis for the so-called Bush Doctrine is here turned upside down and inside out, with all factions rendered ethically and behaviourally indistinguishable and interchangeable, all equal contributors to their shared chaos. These insurgents and counter-insurgents also share a pathological investment in surveillance, a hot-button topic that embeds Dodge and Kahn’s surreal tabula rasa even more firmly and vitally in the present. Yet, even as these splinter groups cling to the competitive advantage of technology, the video returns again and again to images of dead animals and to looming, watchful birds of prey, suggesting the slow, inevitable return of humanity to a purely primal state or, perhaps, that our dominion over these beasts is soon to be at an end.

Kahn belongs to a hoodless tribe whose composition still resembles the conventional nuclear family. Minus the surveillance apparatus, sinister camouflage and anarchic survivalist character of their hooded counterparts, and living cheek by jowl in a small apartment when they aren’t outside foraging for food, this family is presented as a vulnerable anachronism. All Together Now, like much of Dodge and Kahn’s work, is not without optimism – moments of co-operation between tribes, for example, instances of human ingenuity or scenes of children smiling and gallivanting – and the temptation to see the cues for a positive reading in these passages is considerable. But to cling to that interpretative thread would be to discount many of the most resonant scenes in the video, the most striking of which occurs near the end. We see Kahn playing on a beach with two impeccably outfitted children when the scene cuts abruptly to a view of the artist standing shirtless and alone in the centre of a lake, scrubbing blood from her bruised and battered body, with no indication given of how one moment gave rise to the next.

Christopher Bedford is Curator of Exhibitions at the Wexner Center for the Arts, Columbia, USA.

Issue 119

First published in Issue 119

Nov - Dec 2008

Most Read

Royal bodies, the ‘incel’ mindset and those Childish Gambino hot-takes: what to read this weekend
In further news: women wearing rainbow badges beaten in Beijing’s 798; gallerists Georg Kargl and Richard Gray have...
‘Coping as a woman in France is a daily battle: the aggression can be subtle, and you always have to push harder to...
The rapper and artist have thoughts about originality in art; Melania Trump tries graphic design – all the latest...
The dilapidated Nissen hut from which Rachel Whiteread will take a cast
Yorkshire residents complain that the concrete sculpture of a ‘Nissen hut’ will attract excrement, vandalism and litter
Poul Erik Tøjner pays tribute to Denmark’s most important artist since Asger Jorn
Toyin Ojih Odutola’s portraits of a fictional aristocratic Nigerian family push toward an expanded definition...
Photographer Dragana Jurisic says her account was deactivated after she uploaded an artwork depicting a partially naked...
In further news: open letter protests all-male shortlist for BelgianArtPrize; Arts Council of Ireland issues...
From Sol Calero’s playful clichés of Latin America to an homage to British modernist architect Alison Smithson
Everybody’s favourite underpaid, over-educated, raven-haired art critic, Rhonda Lieberman, is as relevant as ever
‘Prize & Prejudice’ at London's UCL Art Museum is a bittersweet celebration of female talent
The curators want to rectify the biennale’s ‘failure to question the hetero-normative production of space’; ‘poppers...
A fragment of the brutalist Robin Hood Gardens will go on show at the Venice Architecture Biennale
‘Women's role in shaping the history of contemporary art is being reappraised’
Three shows in Ireland celebrate the legendary polymath, artist and author of Inside the White Cube
The legendary performance artists will partner up again to detail their tumultuous relationship in a new book
An open letter signed by over 100 leading artists including 15 Turner prize-winners says that new UK education policy...
Naturists triumph at art gallery; soothing students with colouring books; Kanye’s architectural firm: your dose of art...
Avengers: Infinity War confirms the domination of mass culture by the franchise: what ever happened to narrative...
The agency’s founder talks about warfare in the age of post truth, deconstructing images and holding states and...
From hobnobbing with Oprah to championing new art centres, millennial crown prince Mohammed bin Salman is following a...
A juror for the award last year, Dan Fox on why the Turner Prize is and always will be political (whatever that means)
The argument that ancestral connection offers a natural grasp of the complex histories and aesthetics of African art is...
One of most iconic and controversial writers of the past 40 years, Tom Wolfe discusses writing, art and intellectual...

Latest Magazines

frieze magazine

March 2018

frieze magazine

April 2018

frieze magazine

May 2018