By Billy Rubin
Published in Vox Vernacular
Feb. 25, 2014
Inspired by the history of Nordic telecommunications and specifically by the pre-historic ruins at the Ekebergparken site in Oslo, Norway, Klang erupts vertically from the ground to the stars in an imaginary arch connecting to three other elements in the park produced by Oursler, to form a high-tech son et lumiere. The artist stated, "Visually we travel through the performative human formation of runes to the geometric optical telegraph, continuing on with cellular technology and the ever present information cloud represented by the projections into the trees." Inside this cavern covered with local vegetation, complex video images are embedded and silhouetted through blackened steel apertures. The trace of human mark making can be found here, revealing early coalescence of language. Images glow in layered iconic loops, in gestures, signs, diagrams, formulas, and inscriptions. Performers of all ages interact with symbols and a variety of signals, metaphorically moving language from the hand to mouth and finally to telecommunications. The frenetic pictorial plane appears ever-changing, interacting not only internally but also with the natural surroundings of its permanent home, the woods of Ekeberg, rich with plant and animal life, human heritage, and omniscient history.
Strawberry Ecstasy Green, 2013
This work was created in direct dialogue with the painting of Pompeo Marino Molmenti, The Death of Othello, on the occasion of its restoration by Louis Vuitton in 2013. The project is the product of a chain of events. The original story Un Capitano Moro by Cinthio was transformed by Shakespeare, inspiring the painting by Pompeo Marino Molmenti, which fell into a state of decay before being restored and becoming the protagonist of Strawberry Ecstasy Green.
Oursler began with the formal emotional/color coding in the painting and the play: the fresh strawberry as genital icon, the misty-black, trance-state seizures of Othello, the suicide reds and the sickly, cuckold green. The artist worked with colored glass projection screens inhabited by a chorus of three Desdemonas-bubbles of isolated psychological space vying for dominance and power. The flow of the painting, layered with the narrative structure of morality, blood, pain, jealousy, and misunderstanding all woven together, is so thick that Oursler chose to distill from this a landscape, a few sculptural elements and six characters. Othello appears simultaneously in three forms, each corresponding to one of the three facets of his character.
The play, with all its dramatic twists and turns, is pivotal, and its unique use of language has a particular relevance, with the stream of veterans returning to America today. Oursler chose to carry these themes into a contemporary post-traumatic landscape, addressing the impossible reconciliation of disparate masculine and feminine forces, the "beast with two backs": violence and peace.
Oursler says of The Death of Othello, "The painting compresses the narrative into a single moment; everything is understood at once. I wanted to capture that in my installation. The wonderful language of the play and its radical slang inspired me to write a humble script for my installation. Key to the work was the degeneration of Othello's character in the course of the play from great orator to disjointed non sequiturs; it is almost as though Shakespeare predicted Burroughs and the beat poets."
The term fugue, though ambiguous, is a significant indicator of the character of these large-scale installations. Oursler refers to the cyclical aspect of the musical term, applying it to the editing strategies adopted in these works, as well as to the repetitive quality of the character traits and personal habits that comprise identity. Alternatively, a fugue also refers to a psychological state brought on by mysterious causes and characterized by identity amnesia or nullification, resulting either in reconstruction of a former identity or the formation of a new one. In short, the notion of a transformative quality of looping is at the heart of this project.
Oursler continues this exploration of relationships and identity formation with Iced, Bound Interrupter, Bitch Cycle and Determinist Dilemma. Struggles between free will, agency, biology and self-stagnation are at play in these works. Iced fuses frigid landscape with iconic personality, matching two related characters: one pop-cultural, the ice queen, and the other mythological, Narcissus. Bound Interrupter is a cascading, snake-like form of shuffling characters under the spell of sunsets and oxytocin, the love hormone and neuromodulator. Bitch Cycle takes the form of a broken loop or string of charms that seems to mediate between two characters, the hiding Man and the falling Ballerina. They are divided by a crumbling wall covered with various signs in painted and animated graphite. Determinist Dilemma is a totem- like structure densely stacking events and a host of characters atop one another. They argue the merits of determinism, volition and chaos, asking if choice is illusory or if all life is preordained.
Formally, these organic works refer to the structure and schematics of flow charts and diagrams, informing the way that characters are linked sequentially and graphically. A wide variety of materials are combined in these "living sculptures", including found objects, mounted computer prints, colorful blown glass, welded metal and cast resin. Layers of video figures, which serve to animate the work "as though it is some sort of system attempting to reach stasis", inhabit the resulting amalgam, notably printed graphics and painted sculpture. Projected characters haunt scrims, dwell deep inside a transparent sphere and are multiplied by reflective screen shapes produced with dichroic plexiglass and mirrors. Most of these materials have a dual identity and are transformed by the way they receive the moving image. They are neither the video nor the object, but a third thing that "is really made by the viewer."
These worlds need to be observed closely to see and hear the activity within the small-scale, sculptural elements. This series of micro installations reveals complex, miniature domains populated by tiny figures that "embody poetically-layered thought patterns." Roughly the size of a cranium and often displayed at head height, each of these works is a contemplation on "aspects of relationships and the implicit existential struggles unfolding within." Inspired by ontological operations of memory, the works suggest the aggregation of past experience into one moment: the present. In other words, consciousness is formed by referencing myriad characters and situations from one's past. The sketchy veracity of memory dictates a skewed cast of characters, some mere ghosts, others frozen in time or action. Yet they remain, informing the viewer's every decision. These microcosms are memory constructs made physical in flotsam and jetsam. Onto the material precise images are projected, forming a stage for the characters to mingle with each other and address the viewer.
Each world is an amalgamation of materials and painted color fields, inhabited by tiny flowers, crystal balls, caves, gems and all manner of found objects. In this landscape, the light-projected figures are complemented by numerous carved, cast, polychrome figures and animals, suggesting a mnemonic relationship. Oursler developed a cast of stock characters that are "somewhere between thought and memory." Orator, manager, tightrope walker, thief, fool, lover, family, interrogator, explosions, drunken dancer, bullet, crawler, clown, poet, death head, hobo, devil and businessmen-a cast of projected light figures from disparate origins illuminate and colonize these worlds. Although there may be clusters of talking heads herein, many of the performers combine physical gestures and actions such as hammering, falling, spinning, running and signaling, as they speak.
The figures are combined with other elements using computer composition with as many as a hundred layers in a single projection beam. The resulting locomotions suggest a chain reaction and interconnectivity. The looping, interlocking actions are at once comical and sad, suggesting unbreakable habits and Rube Goldberg-like systematic self-regulation as they play across the varied and detailed surfaces.
Lock 2,4,6, 2009
LOCK 2,4,6 was developed over a number of years in conjunction with Eckhardt Schneider and the Kunsthaus Bregenz. The installation was in part inspired by Peter Zumthor's provocative architecture. Oursler converted the entire building into a meta-installation, using synchronized projections, supergraphics and shaped flat panels to form a maze through which participants navigate.
The title of the exhibition is derived from the psychologist Peter Wason's study on hypothesis testing. He challenged subjects to analyze the number sequence 2, 4, 6 and to produce a rule that fits the sequence. His subjects came up with many theories but very few worked out the simple, correct solution of ascending numbers. His results are important in the study of confirmation bias or how we tend to skew the facts of our world through the filter of our own preconceptions. The work opens a discourse on the bias implicit within one's personal perspective, questioning the relationships between thought and action, biology and belief, fear, strength and vulnerability. Oursler takes an intuitive approach to the mind-body problem, linking three systems roughly defined as mind, body and the unknown. Each occupies a floor of the building: the top floor is pervaded by consciousness and remote control; the second floor is dominated by physical or haptic control; and the first floor is under the influence of compulsive risk-taking and chance-stochastic, out of control. A struggle between volition and fate plays out across these zones as the viewer is asked to question his or her position in this scenario.
The installation is designed to capture an epistemological, social, anatomical and linguistic feedback process that connects the interrelated systems. Soliloquies and ritual performances are captured in video and projected onto an array of set-like screens. The overall effect is a labyrinth of uncanny processes that seek an impossible balance among competing drives, compulsions and substances in a never-ending struggle to arrive at homeostasis. Viewers become part of the art and the analytical process by moving from element to element, tracing the flow of cause and effect through the various floors.
On the third floor, viewers are confronted with the first of three choruses-one of virtual, human- scale women-and are asked to position themselves in relation to a series of questions and poetic proclamations. These performances combine with others to humorously reflect varying approaches to categorizing consciousness from Freud to functional MRI technology. Oursler collaborated with Dan Lloyd, Brownell Professor of Philosophy at Trinity College, Hartford, Connecticut, to generate musical compositions based on functional MRI readouts of psychological test subjects. The composition is a real-time auditory and visual unfolding of synapses being activated in the brain. Here Oursler depicts consciousness as a head perpetually drenched in slime, surrounded by undifferentiated, meandering systems of juxtaposed images, actions, language, electronic devices, neurological diagrams, masks, wallpaper, and a bottle perpetually draining down through each floor of the installation, splattering onto the first floor.
On the second floor, viewers are heckled by the Unwanted Thought Chorus comprised of colorful drag queens emphasizing the mutability of identity as they sing, "You never had a good image of yourself." A monolithic female singer inquires in a lilting tone, "Who turned off the lights?" This comical, nagging thought may be easily dismissed by most, yet provides the viewer with access to the obsessive mind-the one person in fifty who returns to the room and must repeatedly turn the lights on and off. A stocking-masked criminal peeks from behind a large rotating bouquet of flowers, as a cigarette lighter sparks rhythmically.
The first floor is characterized by chaos. Here the systems break down and gravity comes into play. Liquid pours from above, resulting in a violent splattering fountain of randomness. In stark contrast to the disturbing subject matter and the landscape of low-level addictions, a group of innocent-looking children confront the viewer with a chorus of screams. A large mask-like, ghoulish head attempts to mathematically define randomness, to describe and transcend entropy. A giant cigarette rapidly burns down and reverses, its smoke passing through each floor to collect on the ceiling of the building. In an attempt to beat the odds, giant lotto scratch cards endlessly reveal their losing combinations. A virtual wall is built brick by brick-a projected documentation of a mason's meticulous work that is subsequently smashed by a sledgehammer, only for the building to begin all over again.
Other versions of the work have been produced in a linear structure and exhibited numerous times since Kunsthaus Bregenz in 2009, most recently in 2013 at Pinchuk Art Centre in Kiev, Ukraine.
This is one of a series of "choral" works written to be performed by groups. Involving chanting and speaking in unison, they possess a musical quality. AWGTHTGTWTA is a cellular texting abbreviation that stands for: Are We Going to Have to Go Through with This Again?
Oursler worked with a group of junior high-school students in Chelsea, Manhattan, some of whom were learning English as a second language. As part of a creative writing class, he gave the students a writing assignment: what is your notion of a utopian state? The script was developed in part from these statements, as well as from Oursler's research into the use of gaming technologies, the ubiquitous language of acronyms, and abbreviated texting popular among youth at the time. The work was designed to be displayed in the public playground of a housing project where children gather and near the school where the video was recorded. Projected onto a brick wall, it took the form of a video billboard. The work reflects the children's optimism and the future use of technology as envisioned at the time.
In 2009, Oursler embarked on three video theatricals acted out in miniature. Three architectural models displayed as cutaways act as stages for projected characters. Each theatrical is a loose half-hour of dialogue between two protagonists. Live-action footage moves preternaturally from room to room, floating, flying, and shifting in scale and speed with the assistance of computer manipulations. Digital alterations enable the characters to act out interiorized themes, and evoke the purgatorial mise-en-scene of the text. Oursler has generally shied away from linear narrative but here the longer form seemed to offer a different way of entering the material and drawing out the interconnected themes of phobia, tortured love and addiction.
In Flood or Fear of Bugs, performer Erik Aalto-doubled through the magic of computer animation- argues with himself about his inability to face his phobias. The title refers to the flooding synapses when adrenaline is released, triggering the "fight or flight" response that is at the core of all phobias. Set in a classic split-level tract home, the protagonist moves from room to room as he battles myriad fears-including computer-animated bugs (of ambiguous reality) which eventually invade the home. The house mirrors Maslow's pyramid chart of human needs in which the character attempts to ascend to a position of self-actualization, yet finds himself hiding in the eaves.
In Vacuum, Tony Conrad and Constance DeJong clash in an gender-defining battle between male and female constructs. The title refers to the nature of the void, which is endlessly disputed in the dialogue, vacillating between the life-giving womb and a stifling cave, located below the basement of their model home. We find the characters in the midst of an intervention: the woman is attempting to address the man's compulsive hoarding habits, which have filled every room in the house. She then chides the man for his inability to give birth, a possible dialectic equating the two genders with political systems, specifically communism and capitalism.
In Fog or Friends Helping Friends Save the World with Mirror, performers Tony Oursler and Candice Fortin inhabit a dysfunctional and delusional world within the boundaries of the architectural model. They live in myopic bubbles of narcissism, which they share with a mysterious talking mirror that occasionally offers God-like advice in computer tones. After being dosed with a mind-expanding drug, the woman physically expands to the size of the house, convinced she is becoming one with the universe, yet paradoxically remaining in complete isolation. A few rays of hope punctuate the scene as they roam from room to room searching for lost objects and broken dreams, all during an endless wait for the "ice cream man". The model is set within a dioramic landscape, complete with tree and glowing sunset. Only visible through a haphazard hole in the gallery wall, the theatrical was held at a remove from the audience.
Continuing Pop art's exploration of high-low via the magnification of everyday details, Oursler adopts a forensic approach to the current state of consumption in his series High. The artist asserts that one can see day-to-day existence in America as a series of self-regulating states with an abstract goal of "high". Sculpturally, this series illuminates details of fetish objects such as cell phones, scratch cards, cigarettes, ice-cream, and mood-altering medication, by producing iconic resin templates which are animated with video skins. Oursler edits the video, sound and language in a metrical fashion in order to infuse the space with interlocking rhythms of inhaling and exhaling smoke, abrading scratch cards, and droning interior commands.
The line between compulsion and functionality is blurred as individuals tap into electronics, sex, money and medication seeking self-realization and better living through chemistry. Shunning tabloid tales of addiction and redemption, Oursler created this series to explore the possibilities of a new biology replacing the old "hunter/gatherer relationship overlaid upon global, techno- replete civilization". Oursler states, "Reuptake is inspired by the derailed fight or flight syndrome. It is a common side effect in the modern world, a vestigial psycho- somatic phenomenon. Something scares you-say a wild beast. That is known as the trigger, and it makes you want to flee. The body helps out by splashing your brain with hormones such as adrenaline and you run very fast. That works fine in the jungle but today the beast is both highly corporate and personality defining. Triggers are branded, environmental and interiorized; there is finally no place to run. You can't escape the ubiquitous."
In his Spaced series, Oursler conflates the highly technical and abstract history of space exploration with equal parts anxiety and wonder. Collectively, these works comment on our attempts to transcend the quotidian through science, revealing the comic and tragic aspects of human nature in the process. Characters projected in the series include a cosmic cloud lost in space, a crashed rocket ship, a meteorite, a black hole and a burnt out star, Combined they create an installation that uses the gallery floor as a symbolic earth and room volumes as outer space/free space. While parts of the installation fall victim to gravity, others take the form of celestial bodies, smoldering stars, or space dust on the edge of black holes. Outer space becomes a personal reflection on the desire to leave primitive consciousness for another -higher-level. The individual is in play against the forces of the universe, as mundane existence often triggers escapist tendencies manifesting in multiple forms of experimentation and often ending in futile attempts at personal evolution.
Gravity is seen as a metaphor for the banality of day-to-day existence and the inherent responsibilities of work, death and taxes. In the context of the petty problems of daily life, dealing with the vast complexity of the universe takes on an almost transcendent perspective. Spaced evokes the spirit of heroic exploration, real and unreal, whether it be science fiction or the space race itself. The series contains actual music gleaned from NASA's recordings of Deep Space.
Million Colors, 2006
In 2006, Oursler was commissioned by the state of Arizona to create a permanent public work in a convention center in a newly revitalized area of downtown Phoenix. The work is projected in four spaces throughout the enormous generic, utilitarian meeting-place.
While researching this project, Oursler discovered that locals boast the canyons and desert are graded in more than a million different colors. Aurora sightings and surrounding mountains evoke the lawless and anarchic past of American culture, abandoned goldmines and violent desperadoes of the Wild West. Near Suspicion Mountain, where temperatures reach 110 degrees Fahrenheit, mirages are everyday occurrences. These distinct visual elements generate vivid accounts of UFO sightings and industrial-military conspiracy theories. Oursler steeped himself in the allure of the place and tried to give voice to the arid desert landscape. Narratives unique to the mysterious desert are reflected in the spoken texts of the installation, and the resulting collage of scripts performed by Arizona locals and immigrants is an attempt to let the colorful sedimentary history speak for itself.
Thought Forms, 2006
Inspired by the book Thought Forms and trance paintings by C.W. Leadbeater and Annie Besant, Oursler took three natural elements as his source material: dust, mercury, and water. Oursler painted the faces of his performers and continued to manipulate facial features through intensive computer manipulation and animation. The artist worked extensively with the New York non- profit organization Eyebeam to produce these images, and designed a 5.1 surround sound mix in each room to highlight the three-dimensionality of this combination of poetry and sound effects.
Oursler describes Thought Forms: "Nix, the water sculpture, has a slushy, melting appearance, while the background projection creates the impression of light reflecting off water at night. Mythological and environmental references are included in this personification of the element that covers most of this planet: water. The title refers to Nix, a water spirit that, by playful seduction, lures people into the water at night for the sinister purpose of drowning them. The myth is a departure point for speculation: is water taking revenge on humanity due to the stresses on the natural resource that we do not protect? The often quoted statistic that we are made of roughly 90% water is only one of the ways that we are all united by the element: drinking, sweating and waste output. Water is a sad salty teardrop and a vast oceanic expanse. As distasteful as it may be for some to realize, water is constantly traveling from body to body. The neutrality of water, which is odorless, tasteless and colorless, allows us to bend it to our will. Personified it would be a vulnerable pushover with no personality, yet it is capable of causing enormous natural disasters. This duality is captured in Nix.
"Mercury exaggerates our obsession with self-image by highlighting the naturally toxic and reflective mirror-like aspect of the element. Facial features have lost logical connections and are drifting, occasionally coming together only to fall away again. Rich in metaphor, it is a volatile element that is easily broken yet highly poisonous and often associated with madness. The background of the work is a starry night in motion, calling into question where exactly we are: On this planet or another? In a fantasy or hallucination? The scattered appearance and contra- dictory text refer to the complexities and banalities of daily life and mental illness. Brain chemistry shows that sometimes a few molecules make all the difference in the world. The phrase from dust to dust is a reminder of the temporal nature of life. Indexically, dust represents all man's endeavors ground down into bits and pieces, to be clearly read by anyone interested. Dust is suspended from the ceiling with projections on the two walls behind it. The dust cloud is floating in a barren landscape of suggestive rising smoke. As the sphere rolls, arms, eyes, legs, and mouths appear and disappear in the cloud of dust that swarms above our heads. It is in every breath we breathe. "All three installations share the state of flux, a point at which formation or dispersion could take place. Dust played an important part in the creation of this planet over millions of years, but could have just as easily never solidified. We still receive stardust, residue from the Big Bang, at the rate of one particle every few meters per day. These mix with a multitude of particles in our atmosphere from industrial waste, cremated bodies, bits of human skin and hair. To look at the small helps us to understand the larger picture. It's a mighty element generating thunderstorms in a continual cycle of building itself up to explosion, then depletion, only to repeat the process again and again."
Blue Invasion, 2005
Blue Invasion was envisioned as a son et lumie?re show with special attention given to interaction with the environment of Sydney, Australia. The war memorial, adjacent church, exotic tropical vegetation, and large flocks of fruit bats flying silhouetted against the rose twilight became the setting for this absurdist science- fiction drama. It is inspired by War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells as well as by numerous occult belief systems, such as aura reading and chromotherapy.
Oursler chose a staged meteorite strike as a starting point. This transparent multi-colored resin stone is filled with video light and smokes, glows, and crackles with off- planet sounds in the center of the city park. A large decorative fountain houses a series of projections and becomes a liquid screen for video and texts. Voice- synchronized chromatic lights wash the lush plant life and projected faces glide across its surface. Released from the meteorite, seven "entities" deliver a series of soliloquies revealing an alternative universal language based on light wavelengths. Oursler wrote, "We greet a vastly superior intelligence on our planet. We are sorry to say that after what some estimate may have been 10,000 years spent wandering in space the creatures are confused. The creatures of the rock have received media signals in space in the form of radio and television fragments as well as SETI (NASA-sponsored Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) signals over the last 70 or so years. They have mastered our language and can take on the guise of these signals and communicate with us in the form of reverse broadcasts in a slightly different way to us: directly into the mind of the viewer."
Seven colored booklets of the texts were distributed in the park, as well as a CD mix of the vocalizations and musical elements culled entirely from Deep Space recordings. Tony Conrad designed and produced an elaborate multi-channel sound track for the park landscape using his "invented" instruments.
FX Exothermic, 2005
In FX Exothermic, Oursler's ongoing interest in deconstructing Hollywood tropes takes the blockbuster as a point of departure. The action-movie syntax calls for deafening incendiary interruptions that add an abstract element to the escapist action genre. Appropriating elaborate special- effects stock footage, Oursler creates a doppelganger of the ubiquitous Hollywood explosion in the form of a perpetual, anthropomorphized, cherry-orange blast. In this work, Oursler gives a dark and nuanced voice to the spectacle that, although generally humorous, suggests a juxtaposition between fantasy and escapism and real-world anarchy and terrorism.
Mirroring the experience of watching an action film in the cinema, multiple projections and rumbling 5.1 surround sound expose the pleasure the viewer takes in destruction. By placing the viewer in close proximity to virtual danger Oursler highlights the irony of the fantasy of violence versus its reality.
In 2003, after reading about Japanese children feeding pets on the internet, Oursler grew increasingly interested in the way technology serves a surrogate friend. How did this empathetic bond develop between machines and humans, and how could it potentially evolve in a digital space?
Using new image-processing technology, which at the time allowed for sophisticated photographic, high- resolution manipulation, such as stretching, bowing, and twisting, Oursler began to shape a cast of digital pets or companions. Based on the notion of a caricature, this series references a wide variety of sources, from Harvey Ball's 1969 smiley face, to the fertility goddess Venus of Wilendorff and Japanese manga. The often overtly humorous, somewhat grotesque characters attempt to seduce the viewer in various ways. As Elaine King* wrote, "[Oursler's] position on the exploratory edge was again evident... when he introduced a new brand of mutants. Stepping inside, viewers could imagine that the toons from Roger Rabbit had taken up residence in the gallery. Eight animated, phosphorescent, biomorphic creatures, varying in size and shape and displaying human characteristics like eyes, teeth, and mouths, occupied three rooms. Oursler used his own or friends' body parts for the projected human anatomy. At first glance, these bizarre alien beings might appear entertaining. However, one realizes all too soon that behind the blinking eyes, fluttering lashes, big beaming smiles, gleaming teeth, and puckering red lips, this pageant of projected images aglow with endearing virtual faces is not a funny affair."
For the texts, Oursler listened carefully to the way people speak to pets as well as to "pillow talk" and attempted to fuse the vulnerable, often embarrassing, private language of intimacy into the performances. Monosyllabic and moronic, the caricatures are often unsettling and provoke embarrassment in the viewer. The video editing programs of the time allowed Oursler to stretch and bend human features, exaggerating some and minimizing others, to suggest a cartoonish evolution which could only happen in a digital space. Michael Amy** describes the technique: "Playing with the face in the way initiated by Picasso, and further explored by the Dadaists and the surrealists, is something Oursler engages with in a psychedelic series of heads of abstract biomorphic shape, with roots in surrealist practice seeking to reveal the workings of the subconscious. Unlike Picasso, however, Oursler has the nerve to give us faces without noses, and thus, lacking the point of gravity around which the other facial features are arranged. Oursler's nose-less faces are highly disturbing- evoking, at times, disease, accident, mutilation, altered states (including noses melted off by too much heroin or cocaine intake), and aliens (Ello and Rubio, both from 2003)."
* Elaine King, "Tony Oursler's Uncanny Drama", in Sculpture, The International Sculpture Center, Hamilton, January / February 2005, pp. 50-55.
** Michael Amy, "Making Faces", in Tony Oursler. Face to Face, ARoS Aarhus Kunstmuseum, 2012.
In 2001, the transition from analogue to digital was imminent in all forms of communications and media. The artist saw this transition as yet another variation in a long chain of encoding and decoding of information. In an interview with Michael Kimmelmann, Oursler described the Antennas/Pods series, "Although in many ways they allow us to communicate better, all systems of information, whether semaphore, Morse code, or basic encryption, degrade the signal as well as the quality of communication. Herein lies the contemporary dilemma: although we are flooded with information and in constant contact, we are also more isolated and somehow less informed by our environment. All humanity is forced to conform to the strictures and engineering specifications of current technology, although flesh and blood can never be translated into signal and noise. The beautiful structure of the TV antenna is determined by its ability to capture signals out of the sky. These soon-to-be-obsolete, found objects seem to be reaching into the sky for significance." The antennas, typically displayed on a roof, were modified and placed in the gallery context to receive projected signals. Around the edge of the gallery on the floor were the pods, reflecting the light of the projections. Exposing the skeletal structure of the antennas, Oursler equates their mechanical function to certain aspects of human nature, which grasps needily at this escapist experience. The disembodied characters slide through the metal, glass, and plexiglass surfaces of these artworks in a state of transition, eluding bonds of permanence.
Projected onto the Lake Constance-side facade of a Peter Zumthor-designed building in Bregenz, Austria, Flucht is one of Oursler's largest works. Comprised of a shuffling grid of facial close-ups, the video illuminates the frosted glass panels of the building as though they were giant pixels. Each face is further animated by a special moving-light technique which, as Oursler states, "forces a multidimensional chiaroscuro" as the forms are continually rebuilt with light.
The work was performed in local Austrian dialects. A large precision-speaker system, originally used for a papal tour, was used to direct the sound of these voices across great distances at unusually low volume. The mountainous area of Bregenz is a nexus of numerous national borders in constant cultural flux, epitomized by the large telecommunication antenna complex which dominates a section of the skyline. Visible and invisible divisions and transformations implicit in this network inform the work.
Influence Machine, 2000
At the moment of invention, every new technology is an unwritten story. An awkward time of experimentation precedes the eventual codification of usage assigned to any given technology. Numerous forces govern this process, which is largely economic in nature regardless of cultural ramifications. Histories of scientific and technological progress often expunge the failures and embarrassing pseudo-science in an attempt to purify the scientific method. At the same time, techno- logical development can be viewed as the by-product of complex human desire. This fine balance between desire and invention is the crux of Influence Machine. For the structure of the work Oursler lays out a series of telecommunication inventions and shows how each was used to speak with the dead. He sees this impulse as analogous to the experimentation strategies of the avant-garde.
Influence Machine is named after two key concepts: a psychological condition and the nonsensical precursor to the cathode ray tube popular in the 1700s. This large spherical glass vacuum tube glowed when spun and generated much interest but no practical use, although it was said to help procreation and was set up at fairs to facilitate this for a fee. "Influencing Machine" describes a condition discovered in 1919 by psychoanalyst Viktor Tausk whereby the patient sees their body as an ever- changing machine.
Oursler's work is intended to inspire an alliterative reading of technological history and question the uses of telecommunication from the telegraph to the internet. When the telegraph was first used in 1884, it collapsed space and time and permanently altered human perception. The shock of telegraphy had an obvious communicative function, allowing people to send messages instantly over vast distances at the same time. The theory is that this disruption of space and time encouraged the new American Spiritualist movement to use the "spirit-telegraph" to communicate with the dead with a knocking alphanumeric code. This of course was preceded by the invention of photography and the practice of spirit photography. Following this logic, Oursler was able to link the formative moments of photography, film, video, and the computer with the age-old mediumistic impulse. In Influence Machine he approaches this not at paranormal face value but as a creative impulse or model for personalizing technology outside the economically prescribed norm. Although we are surrounded by elaborate mimetic technological systems of all sorts-sound systems, computers, flat screens-they are strangely anonymous and disconnected from their origins. Influence Machine gives voice to various protagonists, taking the form of a sort of seance dialogue between: Philo T. Farnsworth, the inventor of the electronic television; John Logie Baird, the inventor of the mechanical television; Etienne- Gaspard Robertson, the purveyor of the pre-cinematic magic lantern spectacle (the phantasmagoria); Kate Fox, the teenage medium who employed a faux Morse code as a means of contacting spirits; and Konstantins Raudive and the television studio Spicom, which broadcast from the Dead Zone. While researching this work, Oursler traveled to Lilydale, NY, to visit a spiritualist community in order to explore current methods of speaking to the dead.
Presented in various urban park settings Influence Machine utilizes moving projection systems to link nature to the urban atmosphere. Video characters roam the landscape and are projected onto trees and buildings. A "talking light", which is linked to a messaging system on the internet, gives remote participants the chance to contribute, their words being converted to sound and light. Oursler collaborated with Tony Conrad on a multi-part score for the installation, featuring the glass harmonica and found spirit voices. At the center of the installation is an ephemeral projection onto smoke created by two machines operated by live performers.
Influence Machine was co-curated by Louise Neri, James Lingwood, and Tom Eccles, and co-commissioned by Artangel of the Public Art Fund.
The Darkest Color Infinitely Amplified, 2000
In 2000, Oursler had just completed writing the first version of the Optical Timeline, a shadow history presenting a chronology of virtual/mimetic production from the early uses of the camera obscura up to the invention of the internet. As a multimedia artist, Oursler felt there was an important shadow art history yet to be appreciated that was of great significance to contemporary cultural production. Linking disparate activities such as telecommunications, the occult, failed scientific devices and vernacular parlor amusements, this timeline allows the reader to easily recognize patterns of significant trends across time, all involving the construction of a virtual world. For example, as observed by Erik Barnouw*, the moment when ritual space was displaced from religion to the spectacle coincides with the Enlightenment and has parallels with the development of phantasmagoria and early cinematic practices. Likewise, the camera obscura, which functions by focusing light from one space- generally outdoors-into an interior dark space to reproduce an inverted image of nature, highlights the themes and tension surrounding the polarity between light and darkness.
Just before the invention of the movie camera, the practice of the magic lantern phantasmagoria was brought to a high art by Robertson and became very popular. This form of entertainment can be described as a ghost show, involving mechanically-moving magic lantern projections, eerie tones of the glass harmonica, automatons and all manner of smoke and mirrors. The impulse to release tortured interior visions into physical space to be contemplated, inspected and safely consumed by the viewer, as seen here, has long been a staple of virtual-image production/entertainment.
In The Darkest Color Infinitely Amplified, Oursler explores the intersection of the transition from religion to spectacle and the presentation of horror from the Enlightenment to today. Maxwell Anderson, then Director of the Whitney Museum of American Art, commissioned the work for the museum and, as part of the project, introduced Oursler to DMA, a company that was developing and marketing a volumetric projection system. Volumetric projection uses a concave mirror system to project three-dimensional, transparent images into space. Children may be familiar with this technology from magic tricks involving a concave mirror that allows the image of an object to float above it. This system has its origins in pre-Victorian optical devices and was engineered for the 21st century by DMA's optical physicists, whose work facilitated this installation.
The Darkest Color Infinitely Amplified separated the audience from the mechanics of the projection system by a large wall with an aperture of approximately five feet in diameter. A four-foot diameter precision concave mirror was used to reflect/project video images and glass objects from behind the aperture into the gallery space. In the work Oursler combined glass devils, based on Athanasius Kircher's drawings of the magic lantern, and depictions of actors and demonic performers in early magic-lantern displays. These transparent devils refer to Lucifer, the bringer of light, and function as lenses. They reflect virtual images alongside video screens, which are also suspended in midair.
Three performers were involved in the video: "The Astonishing Velma Queen of Illusions", "Steve Rodman Bewitching Magic", and Tracy Leipold. Male and female magicians go through the paces of sleight of hand for the camera and the main protagonist, Tracy Leipold, is meticulously transformed by a special-effects makeup artist into the possessed character from The Exorcist. Actual casts of the makeup used in the film were employed as Leipold slowly transforms into a demon.
The viewer is put into the position of decoding various levels of illusion (the makeup, the simple magic tricks and the apparatus of the installation) and then engaging in a willing suspension of disbelief. For all its artifice, the installation reveals the mechanics of its own production.
* Erik Barnouw, The Magician and the Cinema, Oxford University Press, 1981.
The Blue Dilemma
The electrical and mechanical processing of a light image is the central function of any visually mimetic device from a 3D widescreen laser projection to a simple point-and- shoot camera. The camera obscura, in its simplest form, uses an aperture to focus on an image, then the lens was introduced and so the complications began in the long-evolving history of the moving image. Blue Dilemma takes the form of a fantastical machine, metaphorically incorporating numerous inventions from this history. Set out in a line suggesting the passage of an optical image from one end to the other, the installation strings together the historical characters and image events involved.
Oursler states, "It's essentially a whimsical machine for image processing. The image enters the system and is transformed as it moves through, and so too (hopefully) is the viewer. There are elements from the major inventions in the history of the moving image, notably the camera obscura, the Nipkow disk, the rainbow, the vacuum tube lens, the television and John L. Baird's ventriloquist dummy, Stooky Bill, the first figure to be teletransported... I should also mention the devil and the color blue. Blue is the media color for me, the flickering cold glow which one sees at night when passing the window of a house where someone is watching television: the corrosive, deadly, beautiful color of electronic waves washing over flesh. The devil too, and the different forms in which it has been depicted, kept appearing during my research with alarming frequency. I had to include this controversial figure that crops up whenever there are any new technological inventions.
"The Nipkow disk was the first mechanical image scanner invented by a 19-year-old German engineer, causing Hitler to claim television as fundamentally German. It is a device for dissecting images and has its roots in early animation machines such as the zoetrope. The spinning disk with its spiral of holes chops an image into smaller parts to be encoded, transmitted, decoded and finally reconstructed in another location. The scanning process says something about contemporary landscape, picture-space and fantasy space. Physical space was to change forever in the light of this invention.
"A large black box, or room, stands in the center of the installation, inviting viewers to enter the mechanism of the camera obscura. The outside serves as a black projection screen on which two out-of-focus figures struggle in the void. Once inside, through the glass darkly, viewers find a lens which separates dark from light, in from out, and up from down. It is a physical representation of the eye, the camera and the movie theater. On top of the box or near the work is a small blown- glass devil with a blue electric light, based on a devil from Kircher's drawings of the camera obscura."
Dummies / Dolls
Oursler's variations on electronically animated effigies, or "dolls and dummies" as they are sometimes known, began in the 90s and allowed him to explore a relationship of constantly shifting hierarchy between text, performer, installation, and viewer. Within this huge project there are numerous overlapping categories of investigation: lingual, sub-lingual, psychological and cinematic.
Inspired by vernacular figurative work from outside the art history canon, such as scarecrows, voodoo dolls and political effigies, these figures suggest a do-it-yourself level of craft, and are hand sewn, sometimes including second-hand clothes. The body morphology is intentionally approximate and is completed by a white cloth screen of appropriate size and shape onto which a face is projected. The performances range in delivery and content from deadpan to emotionally charged, and are designed to engage the viewer in numerous modes. Oursler interrupts any emotive response to these situations by revealing the mechanical apparatus of the projectors and the materials of the simple, hand-made figures, while the language provokes the distancing effect that Brecht called the V-Effekt. Illusory fields are constructed and deconstructed, allowing a wider understanding of the implications of the works. Many of these figures stand alone, but dummies and dolls, speaking or not, became key elements within larger installations such as Anne/Dais, System for Dramatic Feedback, Sonic Basement and Private.
The artist's interest in the face as the locus of communication and meaning through oration, sound and expression is central to these works. They appear first as solitary figures and later in combination with sculptural and found objects, like suitcases, mattresses and furniture. The figures range in scale from a few inches high to well over human scale. A number of singular, diminutive figural projections question the significance of scale in relation to self-image. Impossibly small adult entities scream or cry endlessly, causing the viewer to investigate their empathetic responses. These works, which Oursler refers to as "sub-lingual", adopt a reductive approach to emotional states, isolated in performances often delivered by long-time collaborator Tracy Leipold. The recordings sometimes lasted for 45-60 minutes and focused on one or more mental states: crying, horror, orgasm, hysteria, laughter and anger. While these works are marked by non- linguistic, aural communication and the absence of spoken language, Oursler and Leipold embarked at the same time on a series of works involving glossolalia, or the trance- like, spontaneous invention of language often associated with of speaking in tongues. Other scripts are rich in language and often take the form of empathy tests and psychology tests in which the viewer is the subject.
Oursler produced a sub-series of works involving the vocalization of internal voices and utterances, such as Getaway, along with the cacophonous, conflicting and competing internalized selves given expression in Flock. At times the audience is implicated in the action through direct address. The installation may threaten or chide the viewer with invectives: "Get away from me!" forcing a move from the contemplative aesthetics of art- viewing to direct involvement in a psychodrama, thus creating the possibility for new perspectives and analytical engagement.
Another important series for Oursler links two key themes within his work: psychology and moving-image technology. Telling Visions, Keep Going and Director are part of this series, with figures that deliver omniscient, megalomaniacal scripts involving word-building activities, ambiguous juxtaposition, widely shifting points of view, camera positioning, editing, landscape, settings, hallucinations, effects, relationships, plot and characters. One is never quite sure whether this is all a delusional perspective or a cinematic event. The performer, distilled into a moving face on a deflated body, is the primary site of drama within these installations, a vestigial cinematic experience where escapist spectacle is inverted from trance to hypnosis. Rather than a passive party to narrative consumption, the viewer is always asked to place him or herself at the center of the psychic action, becoming part of the fantasy or production of a film event.
In his science-fiction novels, Philip K. Dick depicts simulacra that are occupied or controlled remotely. He suggests that this idealized technology separated from the fragile human form, which he perceives as a collective vessel of desire, will also carry the many flaws of its creators. The stuff of science fiction is now commonplace, as evidenced by the internet, surveillance systems, cell phones and drones.
For Switch, Oursler drew his inspiration from Dick's interpretation of technology, based on the novelist's premise of the gap that exists between idea and reality. Created to be installed modularly within the liminal spaces of the Centre George Pompidou, the different elements were positioned in the hallways, on the ceiling and under the escalator. Two small projected twins perched in the metallic eaves, the Philosophers, relentlessly query truth in language and logic. Positioned atop a wall, the Director, a figure with an oversized projected head performed by David Bowie, issues omniscient commands to the passersby, involving them in a hallucinatory, cinematic process. The public becomes the subject of the work: as people move through the building and wait in endless lines outside at the entrance they are recorded in real time by cameras and projected onto a block-like screen inside the Centre. Oursler also created an interactive element for the visitor, a "poor-man's simulacrum" fashioned out of simple pan-tilt surveillance equipment and audiovisual gear to control a dummy. This device allows the viewer to "switch" location by speaking and seeing through the simulacrum and to operate simple, rotational movements on two axes. Switch thus conflates architecture, art viewing and the problematics of technology, their tools enabling us to modify our day- to-day existence but also permeate and expand our cultural field of vision and our notions of culture itself.
Talking Lights, 1995
Oursler made his first "talking light" in the early 1990s. The artist's interest in son et lumiere and the reductionist quality to the moving image is taken to the extreme in this work: it consists only of sound and light.
Television and film rely on the persistence of vision and break the world into frames-per-second, which pale in comparison with actual perceptions of reality. If one looks at the apparatus of mimetics involved in moving-image production, for example the shaded and colored points of lights aligned in rows on the TV screen, it is evident that the viewer is engaged in a willing suspension of disbelief. Or one could infer the inverse, that the viewer is involved in the production of belief through the act of seeing a mimetic image. Following this logic, Oursler arrived at a simple sound-modulated light, a basic electrical circuit that anthropomorphizes light with a basic equation-the louder or softer the sound, the brighter or dimmer the light.
These works are installed in various ways, sometimes in relation to other light sources and architecture. Although physically small in scale, their ephemeral quality extends over large areas, illuminating the space and viewer with a chiaroscuro effect.
In 1995, Oursler presented Talking Street Light for Munster, in which an actual street light was modified to house a "talking light." At first, the viewer might mistake the flickering lamp for a technical error, but in closer proximity a voice can be heard in synchronization with the seemingly random pulses of light. This particular lamp was loosely based on the warning signs and illogical leaps of faith involved in the conversion to fringe cult belief systems.
Organ Play, 1994
These repulsive yet endearing chimera are animated by video, projecting talking human lips onto animal organs preserved in specimen jars. Oursler produced numerous works in this series, including a range of animal organs from cow hearts and pig kidneys to bull testicles. All contain simple, humorous dialogues and interactions that are rooted as much in Frankenstein's melancholia as in Beckett's resigned introspection. Schizoanalysis and identity aggregation are the implicit subject matter throughout these dialogues. Their sterile presentation is a fusion of the biological laboratory and the theatrical stage. The glass jars become an isolation chamber as well as a magnifying lens for focusing on the frozen platform of these confused characters as they attempt to discover themselves, one another, and their particular sort of twilight existence. With the casualness of a phone conversation between old friends they discuss the division of labor implicit within the body.
Multiple Personality Disorder, a pseudo-scientific term never accepted by the American Medical Association, is at the core of this installation. MPD has an important position in Oursler's oeuvre: he links its historical arc to popular culture, the mass media, psychosomatics and identity. Although the Bible referenced multiplicity and possessions -for example in Luke 8:34 when Christ casts numerous spirits out of men into a herd of pigs- the modern notion of more than one identity existing within a person has its origins in psychoanalysis with Pierre Janet (1859-1947) and his theory on duality (de?doublement). Multiplicity, always negatively valued and associated with trauma and diminishing of the self, continues to proliferate in the US in medical and pop cultural contexts. In 1957 the thinly veiled tale of liberation The Three Faces of Eve won an Oscar. By the late '80s, psychiatrists were beginning to use the terms "switching" and "channeling" when discussing MPD, and patients claiming to possess as many as a hundred personalities now regularly appear on talk shows.
The growth of this phenomenon parallels the development of home multimedia, the women's liberation movement, and the internet. In a famed 1997 lawsuit against psychiatrist Dr. Bennett Braun, in which a patient was falsely convinced through hypnosis that she had committed hundreds of murders in satanic rituals, the process was proven to actually provoke and trigger multiple personalities within the patient and the entire phenomenon collapsed. Although MPD is often associated with victim culture, Oursler is attracted to the feminist perspective of MPD, which saw the phenomenon as a break with the patriarchal archetypes of Freud and opened new territory for malleable or flexible identity formation evidenced by the internet. The artist studied the method of hypnotic abreaction practiced by many therapists and used to communicate with those affected by 'multiple' syndrome. Many of the scripts written in this period are derived from those transcripts.
In Judy the protagonist is always positioned diagonally, bisecting the exhibition space and forming a schematic for the various facets of a multiple personality. Linguistically, the performances are based on testimonial and first-hand accounts of published abreaction cases. In line with the concept of the 'multiple', which often inhabits inanimate objects, aspects of the Judy character are not restricted to human form or scale. A unifying factor in this work is to be found in the clashing layers of floral patterns and soft domestic materials which become camouflage screens for the performers. Set out in a line, the installation begins with a "little" horror doll in a corner, followed by abstract lumps, a curtain, a bouquet of angry flowers, an upended couch sheltering a hiding figure, and a dress with a naked figure returning to the womb. It ends with an interactive section. Here the viewer is invited to sit in a comfortable armchair, to look and speak through a simulacrum and to operate a surveillance camera and sound system inside a dummy located on the exterior of the building; the effect is to draw the viewers' eyes and ears into a new perspective, and the work into the public sphere.
White Trash / Phobic, 1993
Tony Oursler and Mike Kelley collaborated for many years after forming the legendary protopunk music/performance group the Poetics at California Institute of the Arts in 1976. Importantly, Oursler invited Kelley to participate in his early 1990s dummy series, an invitation that resulted in White Trash/Phobic. Recorded in NY and LA in 1992, the starkly dramatic installation confronts two contrasting figures who interact as much as they interrupt one another, bisecting the room diagonally, droning ever on.
A comment on the sprawling, chaotic, intoxicated and escapist landscape of suburban America, the two scripts take distinctly different approaches. Kelley strings together a series of tales, each culminating in a claustrophobic, anxiety-drenched dilemma. His performance causes the viewer to empathize with the conditions of the phobic through a form of direct address, specifically using the pronoun "you" to provoke and to beseech the viewer to identify with his psychological state. Oursler points out the fusion of the generic suburban domestic setting with the harsh narrative structures of media culture that permeate the underbelly of the American landscape.
Police chases, drug abuse, criminal and paranormal activity, and family psychodramas blur the boundaries between reality and screen space. Behind the emerald lawns of cookie-cutter suburban America is revealed a decaying American dream. Reality and fantasy become confused in a vapor of hallucinogenic scenarios as the text, written with transformative attention to detail, allows the viewer to move fluidly through this world, identifying with the different characters with the omniscience of a floating camera.
In an interview with Elizabeth Janus, Oursler states, "I was thinking a lot about how movie time, media time, the camera and narratives have really punctured our world, how it is the fourth-dimensional space of our time. I tried to make figures that could exist in between the interior and exterior worlds, literally like seers that we can't see and can't see us. You can begin to see this in White Trash and Phobic."
The Watching, 1992
At the time Oursler stated, "Sex and violence are the engine of the American media machine, yet precious little is known of our attraction to it." The Watching is a contemplation of the cold consumption of hot subject matter and the friction between the the sex drive and the death drive. Oursler continued, "It has been said that we have an almost anatomical need for repeated exposure to tragedy and violence as a means of avoiding it. Learning and narrative-play structure are linked, and visions of gore and mayhem function positively. There is much evidence to suggest that we spend more time in fictive states than we do in reality."
Combining some 15 elements, The Watching was designed for the staircase of the Fridericianum, allowing viewers to move between the basement and the roof of the building. They could spiral up or down through the space, lending a cinematic effect to the experience. It was in this work that Oursler introduced his signature cloth figures with projected faces, along with numerous sculptural, kinetic and interactive elements.
Starting at the top of the space, viewers sit in the Control Room and speak through a dummy two floors below, then watch the reaction to their words. Moving downward they pass through the gaze of a reclining figure with a mechanical eye tracking the synchronized projection of a burning effigy on the opposite wall. They then pass the Reflecting Face, a painted television set playing random broadcast TV, as well as a large Fiction Release Form, a legal contract drawn on red cloth that defines the terms of release of one's life story. Next, a dummy with an oversized projected face, FX Plotter, hangs in the top corner of the room. At the foot of the dummy, scattered on the floor, is Instant Dummies. These are various effigies and latex body parts squeezed into three large glass capsules. Descending further, viewers find the second half of the Reflecting Face and then a Model Release Form, a contract outlining the exchange of one's likeness for remuneration. In the next large vestibule, the suspended Hanging Dummy is animated and gives voice to the viewers/ participants in the Control Room. In the far corner is Bucket of Blood, named after a startlingly violent quote from a horror movie and comprised of a decomposing human form in a gray suit in a deep pool of blood-like liquid. Below it, Biting Lens is embedded in the wall-a camera obscura with cartoon teeth followed by the shriveled, diminutive visage of Sex Plotter. Finally, in the basement stands a ghostly form in lingerie, coiffed with an electronic wax candle.
MMPI is an acronym for "Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory." The notorious psychological test, introduced in 1939 in the US and later restructured in 1989, is widely in use today and is considered to be the gold standard for psychological assessment. It is ostensibly an egalitarian test used to diagnose the entire spectrum of psychological states from normalcy to deep psychosis. The test was designed to use a simple true-or-false response system. Oursler appropriates this test to confront and call upon the viewer to take a position, while at the same time highlighting its poetic nature. This strategy carried through much of Oursler's work at the time, which is preoccupied with psychological states and the use of installations as a method of testing the viewer. He also used variations of this test and wrote numerous alternatives in later works, mostly in his installations involving dolls and dummies.
Window Project, 1991
Invited to produce a project at the ICA Boston in 1993, Oursler wanted to create a situation that would extend art outside the Institute and into the street. The front window of the ICA was ideally situated just above eye level on Boylston Street and was visible from a good distance. The act of converting a window into a screen aimed to counter the passivity of video viewing, breaching the wall between the street activities and those of the white box. A speaker was placed on the outside of the building allowing passersby to hear the soundtracks.
This is the first of Oursler's many public art projects. He invited numerous artists to participate and produce tapes for this setting. His contribution comprised three videos featuring three colleagues and longtime collaborators: Model Release performed by Constance Delong; the PS Position or Be Very Careful performed by Kim Gordon; and Test performed by Karen Finley. At the time Oursler processed his video by means of an "electronic ground-down feedback process." This was achieved in the studio with a kind of rescanning: the entire video was played back and reshot numerous times off the television, allowing the image to electronically degrade and become luminously distilled. A nocturnal piece, the program ran from sunset to four in the morning. The work predates video billboards, but being advertisement scale it is interchangeable with this type of signage.
The dispersal and transformation of toxins is a central preoccupation within the contemporary psyche. As borders are dissolved or rendered permeable, almost anything can be exploited excessively and has the potential to become toxic. After World War II, the war machines wound down across the globe and their innovations were adapted, notably to peacetime agriculture in the form of pesticides. Yet the sanctioning of "better living through chemistry" ignores the chaotic effects on nature. This story has often been repeated in various contexts where numerous technological "advances" have had disastrous results, most notably in the story of DDT.
Kepone outlines the effects of one of these "bad actors" in documentary fashion, the typical story of the post- WWII military-industrial machine refitting itself for the agricultural industry. Oursler uses a combination of materials to achieve this. An exemplary 55-gallon drum, stenciled with its chemical name, Kepone, and hand-painted in the early American fracture style, leaks poured glass onto the floor at its side. The shiny black spill becomes a reflecting screen for the videotext and images to appear, as though the chemicals were testifying to their own history.
Produced in New York and Japan in 1987, Spillchamber is bilingual and was later reworked numerous times in Europe and America. Languages as a palpable, corrosive force and as an element of sabotage are the central themes of this work. The installation is a free-floating narrative space, where corporate sabotage, rumor, and mythology combine in a toxic web of language. At the center of this immersive installation stands a towering pile of refuse illuminated with black light and splashed with day-glow paint, as are many of the walls. Unwanted, discarded, invasive words, objects and moving images are variously trapped and embedded within pools, lenses, crystal balls and infinity chambers.
Spillchamber is divided into five sculptural forms: Psychometric Crest, The Contents, The Dump, Mutation Molecule and The Moon. Each of these forms is a source of modular narratives culled from interviews, psychic readings, modern folk tales, industrial misinformation and propaganda, and associated with a specific object or area according to their subject matter. In Psychometric Crest two psychics, performer and collaborator Karen Finley and the anonymous Christina, were recorded "reading" a number of figurines and collected refuse: a lottery ticket, beer and perfume bottles, pottery shards and objects of unknown function. The Contents, a generic rectangular box with large barcodes on four sides, is a composite product consisting of various household consumables. Piercing its center a scrolling videotext of collected contents is reflected to infinity within a mirrored shaft. The Dump is the centerpiece of this installation, a cone- like pile of refuse stacked to the ceiling with a video- reflecting pool of stagnant, bubbling water at its core. A number of vignettes taking the form of short reenactments from memory, movie reviews, computer graphic animations and dramatizations are played out on the pool's surface. Mutation Molecule is made up of transparent spheres that are set into the wall and act as fish-eye lenses focusing on a number of talking heads. These forgetful oracles contribute personal accounts of mass-media events, such as the Chicago Tylenol murders and a similar case in Japan, while viewing the movie The Exorcist. Finally, The Moon, a circular projection, was made in collaboration with writer Constance DeJong. It consists of a game-like structure devised to rename the geographic features of the moon.
Spheres d'influence, Diamond the 8 lights, 1985
In Spheres d'influence, Oursler created a theatrical fusion of painted structures and video light of shifting scale and intimacy designed to engulf the viewer in an installation energized by a cascading light show and the cacophonous waves of voices and electronic music. Combining hand- made and electronically produced images in a mesh of hi-tech and expressionistic tropes, Oursler maps the topography of the individual's struggle to remain within the social fabric. As the title implies, the installation seems to form a network of influences across the structure. Depending on the viewer's course of motion through the space, his physical perspective is altered-he might be dwarfed by a large, megaphone-like horn, "the voice from above," a conical vortex with video lips at the center that shouts across the installation in dialogue with the volcanic, crater-like "voice from below". He is caught between persuasive competing moral perspectives. Wandering through a Murnauesque* cityscape glowing with television-monitor windows he becomes a larger- than-life voyeur, observing the activities in these private spaces. Humorous tableaux can be seen in the luminous windows as characters fall under the spell of home electronics, ranging from a video-game maze of architectural plans to the vegetative state of watching television. A ziggurat-like form occupies the center of the space, topped with a rotating mirror that reflects a video- animated dissection of astrological designs highlighting the characters' use of the horoscope as a means of predicting fate, the future and sexual activities. Finally, a faceted, diamond-like construction with numerous video images reflects a poetic interpretation of eight types of light, including firelight, night light, stop light, divine light and black light. The video uses a mixture of live-action and stop-action animation effects and small- scale props to form an elaborate, spectral narrative. The scripts reference various sources, including personal advertisements, film noir, pop songs and Jean Genet. Oursler designed the multi-channel installation to have no beginning or end, to "phase with itself" and to take on a life of its own.
The installation was commissioned, produced and presented by curator Christine Van Assche at the Centre Georges Pompidou in 1985.
* F.W. Murnau (1888-1931) was a highly influential German expressionist film director whose unique cinematic vision combined the moving camera with action and place to magical, poetic effect. He was an unrivalled master at documenting the emotional/visual landscape surrounding the narrative.
Oursler was primarily involved with painting when he was introduced to the Portapak, the first portable video recording device, while at Cal Arts in the mid-1970s. He immediately saw correlations between the two activities of painting and video recording and began to combine both mediums. Indeed, keenly aware of how the black-and-white visual medium can transform our perception, he often painted and modeled artwork while looking at it live through the camera and video monitor. Oursler discovered that in video space he could use two- and three-dimensional planes compositionally as well as graphically in order to expand his visual ideas to include performative, kinetic and sonic elements. Adopting a simple form of shorthand, he produced a number of short, distinctly punk tapes, bearing witness to influences from Mad Magazine, actionists, television, conceptual art, George Melies and expressionist film. Oursler has often commented on the hypnotic quality of the moving image and our desire to confer on it both narrative and emotive status. Although these works sometimes include narrative or poetic elements combined with voiceovers and sound effects, they often take the form of installations, visually playing with the basics of optical literacy and shunning traditional TV and film grammar. From his earliest video work, Oursler explores our fascination with entering a trance-like state via cinematic and television screenspace. The viewer is invited to engage with characters that are simply formed, using almost anything from a hotdog to a tiny speck of dust, hands and other body parts, animal or insect. Yet in the painted sets all notions of character and location are called into question by the shift in scale, gravity and photographic space. Through the immediacy of the works, marked by Kabuki theatre, the artist strives to activate the viewer by making them constantly aware of their willingness to suspend disbelief. Kenneth White described Oursler's early works: "Oursler anthropomorphizes a clay mound with a light bulb as a head and two wires for arms. Another character is embodied by twisted pipe-cleaner and two C batteries: breasts bound in steel wire. The artist in voice-over: 'Bad things had happened to both of them. Empty, life goes on... until... they needed each other.' The television is an analogous trap, all the more horrifically fraught for its bare explicitness, for its open view turned paradoxically claustrophobic.
"Sadistic humor and exploitation underlie Oursler's crude exaggerations of social interaction. The artist stages scenarios of perversion, distress, and exhaustion. Performances of distorted etiquette within irreverent contexts highlight the arbitrary logic of cultural norms. His early experiments are similar in form to the vignettes produced throughout the 1970s by William Wegman with his Weimaraner dogs and Terry Fox's The Children's Tapes (1974). However Oursler's work exhibits a more sustained tone of aggression than that found among his contemporaries. His early videotapes are bound by a preoccupation with the sinister possibilities of interpersonal relations. Oursler asserts dysfunction in the diverse situations encountered by his raw avatars. Dissonances between interior and exterior spaces of the home, the mind, and the television dominate Oursler's work."
L7-L5 was Oursler's first large-scale immersive installation, presented at The Kitchen (New York) and the Stedelijk Museum (Amsterdam) in 1984. L7-L5 is a cryptic title which conflates the name of the orbital point between the moon and earth where an object would stay perfectly in perpetual orbit around the earth (L5) and the colloquial 1950s slang for a "square" (L7), a mildly derogatory term for a conservative or unhip person. The work is a contemplation of science fiction and how its narrative holds a unique position in culture, blending fantasy, science and belief systems. When coining the term "sci-fi" in his pulp magazine Amazing Stories, Hugo Gernsback suggested criteria for the new form, which should be part- narrative, part-speculation but also real science, in the hope that it would inspire and provoke inventive thought. The flurry of activity among science-fiction writers provided an entertaining way for philosophical ideas to enter mainstream culture.
This immersive darkroom installation masks all evidence of the TV monitors, embedding them as sculptural elements and using the screens as light sources. Oursler reflects his images in broken glass, mirrors and pools of water as a way of connecting the moving images to the physical space. A shattered glass house is the central image in this work and reflects a translucent video image with holographic effect. Inside we see a hand drawing diagrams of disturbing accounts of nightly violations by vaporous aliens, all vocally recounted by an off-screen woman, the anonymous Gloria. While preparing for L7-L5, Oursler took out an ad in the Village Voice, stating that "first-hand accounts of engagements of UFOs or extraterrestrials" would be remunerated at the rate of $15/hour. In the resulting videotape Gloria describes in horrific detail her numerous encounters with an extraterrestrial entity in her bedroom. The veracity of the account and Gloria's mysterious state of mind and motivation add a personalized documentary perspective to the science-fiction narrative.
Nearby, a faux video game parodies Hollywood marketing of movie byproducts. Through a peephole in the game, we see children playing with toy laser guns and figurines; the video is reflected in an agitated pool of water. A small skyline of buildings flanks one wall and above it mirrored stars reflect broadcast TV, suggesting that such transmissions act as messages to possible distant life forms. In another area an inverted flag-like construction in green and flesh tones is animated by a television featuring humorous claymation scenarios, exploring some of the ideas that all life on earth is in fact alien, even the mold on the bread in your kitchen. Densely layered voices and sounds combine as the viewer moves from one pool of light to the next. Each element plays back and recombines randomly to give the installation an ever- changing, organic quality.
"Love" spelled backwards is the title of this work. EVOL also refers to the word evolution and the contradictory aspect of the relationship between individual and collective experience. Each person must evolve within his or her own lifespan-metaphorically crawling out of the swamp-yet we are all part of a larger chain of events. The cultural construct of love as unique and highly personal yet a shared and common fantasy is emblematic of these two coexisting perspectives. EVOL charts the territory between our passion-charged personal narratives and the near impossibility of representing that desire visually or linguistically, the end result often being nothing more than banal cultural cliche?s. The imagery of this tape is densely layered, as Oursler demonstrates his theory that narrative is multidimensional and non-linear. Hallmark Valentine's cards, the Madonna and Child, pop songs, newspaper advice columns, super hallucinogens, sex tourism, sperm donors and a primitive high-school play blur together in a cauldron of personal desires and obsessions. EVOL was shot on an enormous soundstage in Buffalo, NY, allowing wild shifts in perspective and scale as actors and figurines become interchangeable. The camera moves fluidly through colorful sets constructed and connected in sequence for filming multiple scenes continuously, thereby minimizing edits. This work has a relatively large cast featuring, among others, Tony Conrad, Constance DeJong, Tony Labat and Mike Kelley.
Son of Oil, 1982
The title Son of Oil is a play on words evoking a low-budget 1950s monster movie and a notorious serial killer, Son of Sam, who terrorized NYC in the late 1970s. The free association begun in the title continues throughout this video/installation. In the early 1980s Oursler sought to represent the prevailing contemporary dystopia as reflected in the conspiracy theories that abounded at the time. The free- wheeling plot links two distorted narrative lenses: petro-politics and paranoid personal perception. Oil, the dark flowing protagonist, surges relentlessly to the surface leading us on a tortuous path from dead livestock in a farmer's fields, Howard Hughes and the skull of a murder victim found in the La Brea Tar Pits, to a gas-sniffing teenager, an assassi- nation attempt on the US President and The Mummy. As Lori Zippay writes, "Son of Oil is a cautionary tale about the decline of Western civiliza- tion, as only Oursler could envision it. Oil is the central metaphor around which he constructs a burlesque critique of the cults of money and power that fuel economic and sexual systems, social pathology and cultural mythologies. Allusions to terrorists, the Son of Sam killer, the oil crisis and John Hinckley locate the dense narrative text in the media- saturated vertigo of early-1980s America. The grand dimensions of this subversive drama, in which Oursler employs actors in addition to his usual puppet-like props and objects, are played out in a deliber- ately claustrophobic, fantastically rendered theatrical space."
The video was partially produced and presented as an installation at PS1 NY. After filming, the expressionistic Gas Station/Graveyard set was converted into a screening-room installation.
The Loner, 1980
The Loner is a collection of scenarios held together by the gravity of the condition of isolation. Oursler's stated premise is that a unifying story could be told by moving around the planet from one person to the next, showing a connectivity of shared experience. Everyone suffers from loneliness at one time or another, so the protagonist of the video would not be one person, but a series of different people who experience a similar state of mind. Oursler conceived of the Loner as different protagonists sharing the same forlorn, youthful, existential state of mind. The Loner is found in various tragicomic scenarios and locations, such as a bedroom, a park, a drugstore and a bar. Visually the main characters appear in different physical forms throughout, including a rag, a chin, a singer with huge Keane-like eyes, a spoon and a person enveloped in their own clothes. Although the Loner morphs from scene to scene, he retains certain visual characteristics, notably a general rounded form and the color white. Characters shift in age as well as location; at one point we find the Loner is a lost child separated from his mother in a crowd and in the next scene, he is leaving a pickup bar, drunk and rejected. Most of the action takes place before a static camera, although at times the camera becomes an active point of view or a subliminal tool, spelling out the word LOVE. Although Oursler's voiceover dominates most of his tapes, the musical element in The Loner is particularly important, complete with a keyboard-based electronic score by the artist, as well as a song inspired by Alan Vega and the band Suicide. The Loner also features a love poem by the artist's brother Mark Oursler.
Diamond Head, 1977
Diamond Head sketches a portrait of banal, middle-class family life in stark black and white, spray paint and clay. The tape opens with "She" coming of age, looking for lovers, all of whom "She" rejects until the right "He" catches her eye. The attraction is stylized, crude and comical. The episodes that unfold are symbolic, tongue-in-cheek, paranoid and romantic. Humanity stands nearly helpless as fate and our subconscious, cultural assumptions follow us to the grave. A shuffling cast of anthropomorphizations struggle to coalesce as identifiable characters, such as clay fetal children, a diamond-shaped cardboard cutout "She" complete with sparkling diamond teeth, a spray-can Salesman and a burning hairpin Girl. Oursler's cardboard scenarios offer microcosms of our own reality. A series of rather loosely linked, chronological events form a life scheme, a literally moving image or drawing containing dramatic components. Each vignette is a kind of generic, refracted scenario, a possibility the viewer is asked to accept or reject, such as marriage, an aneurysm, loss of beauty or material lust. In an uncanny locomotion of scrap materials, subsuming themes of family, courtship, shopping, sudden illness, greed and mishap query values and meaning. Oursler strings these fragments together by way of an associative entrance into to his material.