Photograph of left opening with video projection upon the surface of the box
A critique of the work of Riah Buchanan(2D 2009) written by Mark Heggen(2D 2008).
Down the Barrel
Riah Buchanan's work, Mark Heggen's thoughts.
Suspended by straps from the ceiling, is a light colored wooden box. 10" x 10" and 3' long. One end has a small square peep hole, the other end is wide open. Layered regularly throughout the box are somewhere between 7 and 15 sheets of waxy paper sandwiched between clean sheets of glass. The paper has been blasted clean through by a shotgun (or at least multiple bullets). While there was possibly some compression between the shooting and the presentation, the blast seems to have originated from the side with the peephole and exited out the open door side, and the holes line up showing that all the sheets were ripped by a single blast. Hiding here and there within the grid of blasted paper are small LED lights that glow red on the peeping end and move to yellow/orange on the open side.
The whole thing is highly mysterious even upon close inspection. It is extremely difficult to count the layers of paper, and I was convinced that some system of mirrors was involved for a while. The lights glow but no power sources or wiring is ever visible. The assembly of the paper pressed with the glass walls is very slick, and looking down the tube of holes is quite a compelling and mysterious experience.
Projected on the outside of the box is a video. Riah's family (I suspect) sits around a dining room table after a meal. The frame cuts off most of the people involved, and it appears that the camera was casually set directly on a bench or chair. At one point Riah even moves the camera (to make room for her Mom to put down some vegetarian enchiladas or something) and puts it back down in a different position, proving how little she cares about the nuances of the shot. The image quality is pretty bad, and the sound is totally flat, mixing all the conversations together into a cacophony of small talk. Riah and her sister-in-law (maybe) talk about romances between their friends while Riah's boyfriend's dad (maybe) chats to Riah's dad (maybe) in great length about the bureaucratic process of transferring health care benefits in the case of the death of the policy holder in the event that the person holding power of attorney isn't available. The two people most visible are wearing very similar striped shirts, which closely matches the stripes on the table cloth, which vaguely matches the stripes on the crystal dishware. This repetition of pattern blends these people together like a pack of zebras. On its own it is a patently inaccessible, cluttered and pedestrian video.
Detail showing interior from the left opening
The mental pleasure of this piece starts to come out when you subject it to a clean linguistic break-down and read it like a sentence:
Within the calm there is a commotion Within the commotion there is a calm
Within the calm (the clean crisp box, true cuts and strong joints) there is a commotion (the merciless violence of a blasting shotgun) Within the commotion (faceless chatter, layered over and over to the point of clamor) there is a calm (relaxing diner conversation between friends and family)
I would argue that the piece simultaneously making another (very similar) statement:
Within the meaningful is the meaningless Within the meaningless is the meaningful
Within the meaningful (a carefully crafted box, a beacon of intentionality) is the meaningless (the uncontrollable paths of the red hot pellets dictated only by the laws of physics) Within the meaningless (faceless chatterings jumbled together, the broken small-talk of strangers) is the meaningful (a perfect demonstration of family-ness, this is one of the central elements of each of our beings)
What these Zen-like statements do is to call on us to engage in transformative shifts of view; we are asked to envision the erupting force of a shotgun blast within those peaceful pages of wax and we are asked to see our own (extremely important) families within these random headless chatterboxes. (tangent, or not) There is also a strong connection to bees within this piece. The waxed paper full of holes looks very much like the honey comb within a bee hive, and the wooden structure looks not unlike a human-made bee hive box. This read fits tightly into the above statements as a redundant echo of video: if you found yourself peeking through a hole and into a buzzing bee hive, that would probably strike you are as chaotic and topsy-turvy experience. Upon deeper (and calmer) investigation however, bees are of course a marvelously organized and capable of amazing levels of "meaningfulness" as the only non-mammals known to be capable of symbolic language. Within the random (buzzing and crawling around of thousands of dangerous insects) there is an order.
Detail showing interior from the right opening
By running the statements forwards and then backwards (that is, they currently say "this peaceful box contains chaos, while conversely this chaotic video contains peace" as opposed to saying "in the same way that this peaceful box contains a secret chaos, my peaceful family also contains a secret chaos") Riah moves beyond simple metaphor ("woe is me, my family is like a wooden box full of shooting") and into a very interesting terrain. While the circular spirit to the piece's statement moves it away from trite metaphor and towards a complex rumination on the nature of perception in doing so does run a real risk of entering a new danger zone; it flirts with becoming an edgeless and oblique statement, dancing dramatically with itself like a hippy at a street faire. While the argument I am extracting from this piece (Within the meaningful is the meaningless. Within the meaningless is the meaningful) may teeter on the edge of bumper-sticker Buddhism or New Age holistic mumbo-jumbo (or even existential grumpiness), I must admit that it has a certain something that I enjoy. It is philosophically alluring yet dangerous. The experience of looking into (and at) the box involves some interesting pulls. The piece emphasizes in the viewer's own abilities to understand and learn; looking into the piece for the first time involved moments of being totally unable to count the (relatively small number) of paper sheets, wondering if mirrors were involved, trying to figure out how the lights were being powered, and so on. It also emphasizes an introspective feeling of investigating yourself as the viewer's face is reflected and repeated countless times at they look into the open end of the box. Finally it places a drastic emphasis on the mental construct over the physical construct: we don't see a shotgun blast at all, we only see it "frozen" here, and even the blast is only understood by where it is not. The primal physicality of the thing has been killed, cast and embalmed in a bath of psychic formaldehyde.
Detail of still frame from video projection
This philosophical emphasis of the perceptual would please the cognitive psychologist who broke from behaviorism in the 1950's. Prior to then much of western psychology was dominated by behaviorism, which focused on observable behaviors as the important focus of study. Cognitive psychology focuses instead on how people acquire, process, and store information, which is different from (though not totally unrelated) how they actually behave.
The most interesting aspect of the cognitive psychology suite of concepts with regards to this piece is the concept and study of metacognition. Metacognition is in essence thinking about one's own thinking. When you strategize how you can best remember your multiplication tables, that is metacognition. When you realize that you have always (incorrectly) thought that people in Belgium spoke Belgish, that is metacognition. When you try to come to terms with the fact that you have been thinking racist thoughts for years, and can't fully understand why you would have ever had those thoughts, that is metacognition. This piece really clicks into place when it is viewed as an exercise in metacognition. That slogan I plucked out earlier (Within the calm there is a commotion, Within the commotion there is a calm) (Within the meaningful is the meaningless. Within the meaningless is the meaningful) slides back from the edge of Bumpersticker Canyon. It isn't meant to be life advice, but instead a tool; a mental exercise demonstrating dramatic shifts of perspective, and then a offering a moment of metacognition.
Detail showing right opening with video projection upon the surface of the box
As you peek into the glowing box and realize that you are looking at a magically frozen gunshot blast and not a bee hive, you also see a thousand reflections of your own face. If everything goes according to plan, you float above your own perspective for a moment and become aware of that process that just happened. As you realize that the meaningless chattering of the people in the video is really the exact same table talk that you will soon have with your family, you realize that that process of mental self-insertion exists outside of yourself (because surely Nick and Mike and Melissa are also seeing their own families with those conversations) and you see that process in the new light. What was first seen as a heart-warming "Mr. Miyagi" quote now serves a new purpose.
Similarly, Sol LeWitt's Red Square, White Letters (fig. 1) invited an internal recognition of how our minds generate and maintain meaning. Stan Douglas' Overture (fig. 2) takes a monotonous video and forces it to interact with an enlivening second layer (an audio track in his case) so that the viewer can reach new levels of comprehension while watching an obviously dull video.
I find the conceptual underpinnings of this piece truly enjoyable. Regardless of the artist's specific knowledge of cognitive psychology, she has clearly built a piece capable to leading me through a nice mental journey of metacognition. There are a handful of issues in the presentation that seem very troublesome. The LED lights could have been better hidden/disguised, there are some odd numbers visible in the corners of the wax papers, and then there is the shockingly janky assembly of the projector equipment and the black tape that crudely sticks the straps in place. Also, I can't think of a single good reason why the whole thing shouldn't be moved out of the corner and away from other pieces. Beyond those technical issues I am still slightly haunted by an undergrad-Buddhism sort of vibe behind the central statement of the piece, but I think I can move beyond it by going down the road of cognitive investigation. Overall Riah has crafted a hell of a piece. Whether your train stops at the moment of peeking down the crazy tube of wax paper, the Zen-like circular statement or pushes onward to a level of mental self-reflection there are interesting sights to see. This is how multiple layers ought to be done; more to see if you keep moving, but something interesting right there wherever you are. Cleverly avoiding many tired conceptual pitfalls, the piece rewards the viewer with a nice experiential moment and then multiple layers of cognitive depth. There are zero reasons why the odd craft moments couldn't be very easily fixed, and the conceptual core of the work is quite impressive.
Detail: Process photograph of Riah Buchanan at the range
Watch Riah discuss her work (and this project) in more depth here....