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Early Performa 09 Wins: Guy Ben-Ner and Ragnar Kjartansson

November 3, 2009. The current edition of the Performa biennial, just a few days out of the starting gate, has already produced two winners: a video by Israeli artist Guy Ben-Ner (of Moby Dick and Stealing Beauty fame - the latter reviewed here) and Icelandic artist/musician Ragnar Kjartansson, abetted by Alterazioni Video from Italy, who premiered the drolly anarchic Symphony No. 1.

I was lucky to catch both events on Monday night, as they were scheduled a scant hour apart and threatened to overlap. Fortunately there were just a few blocks separating them in the East Village, which is shaping up as ground zero for Performa 09. An embarrassment of riches is planned over the next three weeks all over the city - exhibitions, screenings, panels, musical performances, poetry readings and spoken word, alchemical experiments, pamphleteering, street interventions, dance, new media, food and fashion shows - and can be followed on the biennial website.

Guy Ben-Ner

Ben-Ner's video is screening at the Performa Hub, a temporary multi-use space, quickly built from floor to ceiling with funky wood-on-wood-on-wood construction. It functions as an information center, WiFi lounge/hangout, bookstore, gallery, amphitheater and screening room, all wedged into the yawning, vacant shell of a retail space that is itself wedged into the East 6th Street corner of Thom Mayne's brave new academic building at 41 Cooper Square.

The new eight minute video, alternately titled Untitled or drop the monkey (depending on who you believe, the Performa map or the artist himself), is theoretically being shown continuously at the Hub, although some technical kinks still need to be ironed out. But it was the subject of a dedicated screening and talk between Ben-Ner, artist Jon Kessler and Performa founder RoseLee Goldberg on Monday, November 2 at 7 pm, to an SRO crowd.

The video features an extremely peripatetic Ben-Ner in spirited telephone conversation with himself as he bounces between Berlin and Tel Aviv. The defining structural conceit of the project is that all editing has to be done in the camera. In other words, after a scene is shot, the camera is closed and is only reopened to shoot the next scene, is again closed until a third scene needs to be shot, and so on. Each scene is tacked on to the preceding one by the simple act of turning on the camera. There is no other editing principle at work: no interventions, no changes, no backtracking, no shuffling.

This would seem to be a simple, raw but effective mode of art film production. Warhol used an analogous method in many of his early efforts, notably Sleep, Eat and Vinyl, which string along unedited film segments, back to back, with nothing but an occasional strobe effect for punctuation. But since Ben-Ner's scenario requires him to conduct a conversation between his two alter egos, one distinctly in Berlin (with Mitte street scenes in the frame to prove it) and the other just as obviously in Tel Aviv (with similar identifying cityscapes), the artist had to constantly fly back and forth, from city to city, in order to complete his project. Each edit is not just a cut to a new scene; it represents a journey of some 1700 miles (2800 kilometers). This not only transformed Ben-Ner into an able and willing ping pong ball; it also required the input of Performa and Artis Contemporary Israeli Art Fund, who supported the project and allowed the artist to rack up all those Frequent Flyer miles in pursuit of his vision.

One might imagine a more "reasonable" way to encompass the proceedings: shoot half the scenes in one city, then travel to the other and shoot the second half. But that would be another video, not the one envisaged by Ben-Ner, who wanted the call-and-response rhythm to impose its own necessities and wrinkles on the action and the script. He wished the video to proceed "organically", if you will. And while it cannot claim an Aristotelian unity of time, as it took a full year to shoot yet only lasts for eight minutes of projected duration, the alternating presence of the filmmaker (who is also the protagonist), first in one location and then in the other, creates a strong formal rhythm and an undeniable reactive expectancy.

The video serves as an extended meditation on the history of cinema, on the formulation of film syntax and narrative convention, on shot/counter shot and the illusion of continuity, on the fundamentals of physical comedy and slapstick, on sight gags and visual puns. The purposely "ungainly" production strategy of having to schlep a single camera back and forth for a solid year, rather than using the synthetic properties of associative montage, is a self imposed limitation that reflects on the very process of filmmaking, bringing us back to a proto-cinematic moment, establishing its own stubborn integrity of process and location.

As if to further "prove" this integrity, Ben-Ner irregularly shaves his head towards the end of the narrative. Over the course of several scenes, we see his coif devolve from city to city as more patches are removed, until he appears in his familiar close cropped persona. It is a fascinating choreography of the scalp, a particular Tale of Two Tonsures, enabled by the transport of a single camera from A to B and back again, over the course of many months.

In conversation with Kessler, Ben-Ner admitted his personal impetus for undertaking this project was to visit his girlfriend in Germany - the only country, he wryly observed, where a Jew can still feel like a victim. And sure enough, while in the course of completing the video, his girlfriend decided to leave him. In this context, the head shaving can be viewed as a ritual of bereavement, a realization of mortality, a self abnegating embrace of fickle fate. So can his interposition of several lines from T.S. Eliot's Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock - "I grow old, I grow old, I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled. Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?" - the only text not written by Ben-Ner himself, and one which seems to mock the uncertainty and vulnerability of a spurned lover.

His girlfriend, apparently, felt trapped by the very structure of the project that was supposed to bring them together, to facilitate their frequent meetings. Ironic? To be sure, but very much in keeping with the artist's typical strategy of using what is close and readily available - family, children, apartment, friends, big box stores - to construct his narratives and examine larger issues of consumption, identity politics, commodity, property, the personal basis of the political. Ben-Ner is a wily practitioner as well as scrupulously true to his initial premise. If his girlfriend decides to depart mid-film, then THAT will become the subject of the narrative.

The element I find most fascinating, in a project that is nothing if not stunningly idiosyncratic, is the script, which proceeds entirely in rhyming couplets, both in the original spoken Hebrew and in the English subtitles. By the way, this ability to simultaneously rhyme in two languages is hardly a negligible effort. But to take it one step further, Shakespeare employs couplets in a strategic and structural manner, to signal the end of a scene. He periodically marks his plays with heroic couplets in iambic pentameter, the two successive rhyming lines signaling a cap on the action. After the couplet, everyone exits the stage and a new scene begins.

Ben-Ner's reductive strategy is to limit each scene to just two lines, which by default become the exit lines. No sooner are they uttered than the scene invariably shifts to the other city. When I asked Ben-Ner about this, he demurred regarding any conscious lifting of a scene defining structure from Shakespeare, although admitted to frequently consulting the Bard. Still, I prefer to believe in his unconsciously borrowing the heroic couplet format, and regard his use of Shakespearean antecedents as adding a certain frisson to a project already fraught with intellectual elegance and conceptual brinkmanship.

Alterazioni Video and Ragnar Kjartansson, Symphony No. 1

It was a short trot to P.S. 122 on East 9th Street and First Avenue, the 30 year old East Village space (housed in a former public school) that produces great theater and performance all year round. As part of Performa 09, they devoted their upstairs room to the premiere (one night only) of Symphony No. 1, Alterazioni Video and Ragnar Kjartansson's neo-Dada music/action piece which was presented in four movements. Or as the wags might put it, four acts, all of them unnatural.

Kjartansson himself is a bit of a Nordic polymath. He sings for Trabant, a popular rock group in Iceland, and produces art videos, installations and live painting performances. He is cut from the same cloth that Finnish filmmakers Aki and Mika Kaurismaki have essentially patented (both in their own personae and the characters they portray in their films) after many years of practice: the exaggeratedly sad, operatically suffering, dour, absurdly deadpan, fleshy, yodeling, alcoholic man of the north.

One of Kjartansson's defining installations was God, 2007, a musical video in which he fronted an 11 piece band on a stage decorated with pink satin curtains, and warbled the single phrase "Sorrow conquers happiness" continually, to exuberant if hypnotic effect.

He did not arrive in New York for the premiere of the Symphony due to his continuing involvement in the painting performance he conceived for the Icelandic Pavilion of the Venice Biennale. But his image was decidedly present in the four videos that formed, each in turn, the backdrops for the four movements of the piece. (He was also available, via Skype, to speak with well wishers at the end of the evening.)

Each video had him performing a discrete action in the half nude (from the waist up). In the first, he wore pasties over his nipples and attempted to get the tassels to rotate together, stripper style, but his exertions merely served to color an already pinkish and slightly hairy chest. In the second he repeatedly smacked the same naked torso, as well as his tortured brow, with a VHS tape and a computer keyboard, accentuating the redness. In the third he assiduously consumed a long, thin sandwich. In the fourth he strapped on an acoustic guitar and hummed a high and lonesome tune. (Roy Orbison is obviously enthroned in Kjartansson's personal Valhalla.)

Meanwhile, on a stage littered with many microphones, metronomes, balls of all sizes and colors (from ping pong to bowling to soccer), ramps, ladders, buckets, a microwave, a laundry drying rack and other such detritus, the five male members of Alterazioni Video, wearing tuxedos with white ties, and sporting beards in seeming homage to the absent Kjartansson, engaged in absurd, mechanical and eventually frenzied repetitive actions. One "played" the laundry rack, either in a percussive manner or bowing it like a violin. Another tossed ping pong balls in various directions, seemingly aiming for a large bucket. (The microphones in the bucket and ramps made this a noisy event.) The third climbed a ladder and poured the various ingredients for a highball sour (orange slices, ice, sugar, vodka, soda, etc.) from on high into a large mixing bowl. A fourth made a totem pole out of the bowling balls. (Many people think magnets were employed.) The fifth Alteraziona (the leader?) recited nonsense Italian words from notecards (all seemed to start with the letter "p") and at one point immolated a light bulb in the microwave.

Alterazioni Video and Ragnar Kjartansson, Symphony No. 1

Their repetitive actions were initially self contained, but culminated in the fourth movement with soccer balls being kicked into the audience and with everything on stage being gleefully demolished. The audience, of course, defended itself and kicked the balls back on stage. And when the mayhem was finally over, we all got to drink the punch.

Until I have the time to weigh in more profoundly, or in case the material absurdity and pent up aggression of the performance is not yet apparent, I could hardly do better than to reblog Roberta Smith's tart post from the NY Times:

Viewers may have leaped intermittently to their feet at the finale of “Symphony n.1” at Performance Space 122 on Monday night, but it was mostly to fend off dozens of careering soccer balls. Part of Performa 09, the performance art biennial, the piece was a collaboration between the Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson and Alterazioni Video, an Italian collective. Mr. Kjartansson was present only on video while he continues to represent Iceland in an extended painting performance at the Venice Biennale. The Alterazionistas turned out to be five young men wearing tuxedoes of erratic fit.

At first, the four-movement piece promised little more than dreary Dada cliché. Noise was made by bouncing Ping-Pong balls against or into amplified surfaces and vessels; by using a laundry rack as percussion, then as a stringed instrument; by reciting Italian words beginning with the letter P; by building and then tipping over a tower of bowling balls; and by mixing an alcoholic punch from a tall ladder. (Drinks were served after the 40-minute performance.)

Mr. Kjartansson’s short videos determined the length of each movement while showing him — or at least his bare torso — suffering for his art. He attached pasties to his nipples and made them twirl until his neck turned pink and he ran out of breath. Then, with a videocassette in one hand and a computer keyboard in the other, he banged himself relentlessly and forcefully on the forehead and chest, turning his skin bright red. Taking a break, he ate a burrito, and finally he donned a cowboy hat to improvise a wailing country-western melody while plucking a guitar, smoking a Tiparillo and, as the song didn’t progress, dodging volleyballs thrown by unseen listeners.

Meanwhile, back in New York, the Alterazionistas shifted from playing at music to playing at soccer (with the audience as goal) and everyone cheered up considerably. The conversion of mood from resentful captivity to elation spurred by self-defense seemed to be the point. It was music of the spherical. Participation was the only option, and it felt good.

Ragnar Kjartansson