‘Out of their places’ was selected to represent Ireland at Estudio Abierto, Buenos Aires, Argentina’s leading contemporary art festival. won joint first prize at Claremorris Art Open and was shown at Videologia, Russia.
It suggests our anxiety about a world where we are increasingly estranged from our sense of place, home and where we belong. Humankind’s place in the world is assumed to be as a higher life form in a position of dominance in the world. However, the work contends that our place has become totally unstable and destructive to the environment on which it depends. Additionally, as we become more technologically and economically advanced, we increasingly lose sight of ourselves as members of species within a complex ecology that includes all of the world’s flora and fauna, which have their own right to place and existence. The work suggests that perhaps humankind is not at the apex of the pyramid after all and that so-called lower life forms such as fungi and tadpoles are more important biologically. If humankind disappeared, not too much would change, whereas if fungi disappear everything might collapse. Even if we do everything to destroy this period of the world, nature will continue without us. This ‘losing sight of ourselves’ is suggested by the light gradually obliterating the facial features and blinding the subject. Normally shining light on a subject clarifies it, however, in this case the opposite happens suggesting that so-called progress may actually disguise regression.
At the beginning of the twenty first century it seems that we are out of place all too often. We travel more than ever for work and leisure pressured by a mobilized capitalist economy. Miwon Kwon suggests that the more we are called upon to provide institutions in other parts of the country and world with our presence and services, the more we are made to feel wanted, needed, validated and relevant. She contends that we are culturally and economically rewarded for enduring the wrong place.
“It occurred to me some time ago that among many of my art and academic friends, success and viability of one’s work is now measured in proportion to the accumulation of frequent flyer miles.”
Miwon Kwon, The Wrong Place, 2004
What is a ‘wrong’ place as distinct from a ‘right’ place? Indeed, what is place? This question has been asked since the times of Plato and Aristotle but its importance, in recent decades, has been emphasised in almost all areas of human activity such as architecture, urbanism, globalism, engineering, ecology, sociology, psychology, art, music, literature and anthropology. Today, we retain a strong sense of place, even if we find it hard to define with any satisfaction.2 A place that instigates a sense of instability and uncertainty that is unfamiliar and foreign may be deemed ‘wrong’. By extension, a place that feels like ‘home’ may be deemed ‘right’. However, in this age of accelerating economic and social change and spiritual uncertainty we have become increasingly estranged from our sense of ‘home’. Somehow, we seem to have lost the feeling that this world is our home.3
While, this notion of right or wrong place is inherently flawed since it indicates a subject’s relation to it and does not indicate an autonomous, objective condition of the place itself4, it is commonly used to express conditions of alienation and placelessness in contemporary life. The modern condition is described as one of ‘existential homelessness’. According to Martin Heidegger’s phenomenological philosophy on dwelling and place, the world hasn’t been the ‘right place’ for humankind for a very long time.5
This idea is central to “…out of their places”, a video/sound work by Gwen Stevenson. Humankind’s place in the world to assumed to be as a higher life form in a position of dominance in the world. However, the work contends that our place has become totally unstable and destructive to the environment on which it depends. Additionally, as we become more technologically and economically advanced, we increasingly lose sight of ourselves as members of species within a complex ecology that includes all of the world’s flora and fauna, which have their own right to place and existence.
The work suggests that perhaps humankind is not at the apex of the pyramid after all and that so-called lower life forms such as fungi and tadpoles are more important biologically. If humankind disappeared, not too much would change, whereas if fungi disappear everything might collapse. Even if we do everything to destroy this period of the world, nature will continue without us. This ‘losing sight of ourselves’ is suggested by the light gradually obliterating the facial features and blinding the subject. Normally shining light on a subject clarifies it, however, in this case the opposite happens suggesting that so-called progress may actually disguise regression.
The barbed wire shots suggest the manner in which humankind inhabit and experience spaces and places. Place is perceived in some sense as ‘bounded’, particularly in relation to the seemingly endless extension of space.6 Barbed wire continues to be used for the management of space and it has become a powerful metaphor for domination and political violence. The shots suggest that nature is all-powerful. Even when the politics change, as seen in Northern Ireland, the barbed wire remains blighting the landscape. However, over time, nature subsumes the wire as it becomes embedded in trees and overgrowth. The juxtaposition of wire and nature raises questions about what we conceive as natural versus what we conceive as manmade. Perhaps, humankind’s domination and scaring of the landscape is gradually being reversed by nature.
The soundtrack of the work comprises womens’ voices, both natural and transposed, whispering the Biblical passage from Revelation 6:12-17 about the opening of the sixth seal, the destruction of Heaven and Earth, and the vain attempts by the survivors to hide themselves from “the wrath of the Lamb”.
One voiceover and some of the sound effects are taken from Andrei Trakovsky’s 1979 film Stalker, from the scene often referred to as “Stalker’s Dream”. The men rest after the “waterfall scene” before they enter the “Meatgrinder”. Stalker is seen lying full-face almost entirely surrounded by water, with a waterfall visible behind him. After a brief cut to what looks like quicksand and a background of trees with wind spouts, an off-screen woman’s voice begins to whisper the biblical verses. A brief shot of Stalker in close-up is followed by a cut to black and white and another extreme close-up on Stalker’s sleeve and then his face before the camera tracks away over a collection of debris lying in shallow water: a syringe, a bowl, a glass dish with goldfish swimming inside, rocks, coins, fragments of an altarpiece, a coiled spring, a torn calendar, a clockwork mechanism and other detritus. The voiceover is occasionally spoken in tones of uneasy laughter and gives way to soft pulsating electronic melody.7
Like Tarkovsky’s Stalker, “out of their places”, reflects on a world dominated by transitory material concerns in which spiritual and environmental harmony has been forgotten or discarded. Additionally, the mixture of Russian and English language suggest that these concerns are not local but global. Processed sounds are mixed with sounds from nature to create a soundtrack that reflects conflict between the manmade and the natural. The sound builds and falls and, without ever being particularly loud, it creates a sense of pressure and intensity. Ultimately, the work poses the question “ who shall be able to stand?”. In the face of environmental destruction, the suggestion is that humankind shall not stand and that the so-called lower life forms will reclaim an elevated place in the world.
With the references to Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker, Gwen Stevenson’s work clearly draws from a cinematic tradition. She positions herself as a ‘Digital Filmic Artist’, a term coined by Michael Rush in his book ’Video Art’.8 It refers to the generation of video artists of the ‘90s and ‘00s, who unlike their predecessors of the ‘70s and ‘80s are not concerned with preserving video’s unique characteristics. Examples are Shirin Neshat, Tracey Moffatt, Eija-Liisa Attila, Lynn Hershman, Matthew Barney Willie Doherty, Francis Alys and Fiona Tan. They combine new digital technologies with film convention and technique to create work that has high production value and is accessible to wider audiences through TV broadcasting and DVD production.
There is a collective appreciation of the fact that only some people go to galleries but everyone watches TV. Accordingly, Gwen Stevenson has chosen to make her work available through the distribution of catalogue DVDs and to broadcast her work on Northern Visions TV (NVTV), a free-to-air television station broadcasting in the Belfast area. Northern Visions rejects the myths that poetry, drama and visual arts are for the elite or that community arts cannot be widely appreciated by an international audience.9 This work provides an opportunity to consider how we place ourselves in the world from the comfort of the place that we consider home.
1 Miwon Kwon, THE WRONG PLACE, Contemporary Art: From Studio to Situation, (Ed.) Claire Doherty, Black Dog Press, 2004, p. 30
2 Tacita Dean and Jeremy Millar, PLACE – THE FIRST OF ALL THINGS, Place, Thames and Hudson, London, 2005, p. 17
3 Christopher Manes, MAKING ART ABOUT CENTIPEDES, Conversations Before The End Of Time, Thames and Hudson, New York, 1995, p. 87
4 Kwon, op. cit, p. 35
5 Kwon, op. cit., p. 31
6 Dean and Millar, op. cit., p. 18
7 Vida T. Johnson and Graham Petrie, The Films of Andrei Tarkovsky, A Visual Fugue, Indiana University Press, Indianapolis, 1994, p.145
8 Rush, M. Video Art, Thames & Hudson, London, 1992
9 As stated on NVTV website: www.northernvisions.org/nvtv