The Multimedia Is the Message
Miranda July, a waifish Portland native whose main claim to fame is a video chain letter called Big Miss Moviola, makes interdisciplinary art so fresh and full of promise that it’s tempting to overpraise her now for fear of missing the hype train. An enfant terrible of the punk scene, at age 27 July has already directed a video for Sleater-Kinney and collaborated with Wayne Wang and Paul Auster. Her new video-film-theater piece, The Swan Tool (the Kitchen), wears its influences on its sleeve, most of them great women artists of the previous generation.
By accident of birth, July has the same blank features as Cindy Sherman. So when she dons a wig and headset and appears on a platform between two letterboxed video screens to narrate this live movie, it’s hard not to think of a shy, whiny Sherman pretending to be Laurie Anderson. The Swan Tool tells the anxious, fractured story of a girl who buries herself in a garbage bag in her backyard, but somehow then goes to live at an insurance company, moonlighting by unlocking cars for people who’ve left their keys inside. At work, there’s a man who comes by every day with a “special instrument” called a “bag” to determine whether or not the employees are still alive.
The details suggest metaphors for the experience of gender that resonate mysteriously and powerfully through this episodic piece. As much as the piece brings up Repo Man‘s wry, phallocentric displacement, there’s something IUD-ish about the “swan tool” July brandishes each time she fishes around inside the car door in search of the “sweet spot.” There’s something feminist about July’s indecisiveness about indecision, and something Sylvia Plath y about a girl burying a part of herself to keep up appearances. The precisely choreographed interaction between the live July and the filmed segments is delightful to watch, particularly as she rounds corners Muppet-style while office cubicles move behind her on video. By literally inserting her upper half (the unburied part?) between the video screens, July brilliantly and simply solves the usual multimedia focus problem and gives The Swan Tool the unity of form and content that a piece by Elizabeth LeCompte or Diller + Scofidio would have. July’s ultra-dry performance, on the other hand, can sometimes be alienating in a bad way, as it muffles the material’s dark humor. July could be warmer, but she’s a potential trailblazer. —James Hannaham
Mighty, Mighty Boss Tones
The windowless office hallway where Aaron Landsman’s site-specific Desk (Chashama) resides brings to mind “Bartleby the Scrivener.” Melville’s clerk, who refuses to work or to leave his cubbyhole, effects profound changes on the helpless employer who narrates the story. In Desk, the character Aaron (Landsman) recounts his stint at a hot dotcom and his obsession with the high-flying boss who crashes and burns. It also means to be a tale with social import.
Landsman’s short piece alternates between Aaron’s confidences to us and scenes with two other characters: Tanya, the coworker who got him his job; and Rick Winnick, who runs the website, Fashion500. Standing in for us as the bemused newcomer, Aaron wonders at the outrageously high pay, the $11 lunch sandwiches, and the giddy excitement of hoping to get rich. We see him at first skeptical about the jargon and pretension of the joint. But in no time we watch him gain his boss’s favor by artfully manipulating the company’s marketing hype. “I want to have an effect on the collective memory,” he boasts. “I want to have Gore-Tex, seersucker, titanium.”
Aaron takes a wittily detached stance, and Desk is often amusing. Landsman’s laconic style makes him an engaging guide, and he handily takes on other personas as needed. His scenes with Tanya (Julia Jarcho) play out in a flat, uninflected way that reproduce the real-time sense of office life: staring into space, rifling through drawers, taking a coffee break (at a real coffee station in the empty office where we also sit). But at potentially dramatic moments, this understated affect undercuts the story.
Throughout, Desk reflects director Tory Vazquez’s strong vision. She cleverly exploits the space, with its several office doors. In a gesture reminiscent of The Wizard of Oz, she magnifies the boss’s aura by rendering him unseen. When Aaron and Tanya enter Winnick’s office (to the accompaniment of spooky music), we see the pair through the door, but only hear Winnick (Landsman’s booming recorded voice). When Aaron, newly promoted, gives a pep talk to the troops, he walks out of sight to deliver it. A neat touch.
What Landsman offers is likable. But it’s missing a heart, something to make this 50-minute sketch a real play. What’s at stake? Is this a coming-of-age fable where the young man loses his innocence? A portrait of the driven executive? Does its core lie in the relationship between the two men? Aaron describes himself as obsessed by what makes Winnick tick, but never shows us what that is. At the end, Winnick is not only unseen, but—in any profound way—unknown. —Francine Russo