by Kelsey Halliday Johnson
“Such a publication was madness. The book is a shapeless mass of contradictory rough drafts… the hero dies in the third chapter, while in the fourth he is alive.”
– Jorge Luis Borges, The Garden of Forking Paths
Eve Sussman and Simon Lee’s latest, No Food No Money No Jewels, is a “four-dimensional film”– an ambitiously complex video installation-cum-labyrinth laden with references to literature, mass media, and political/social histories amidst its fictional plot. Taken as a whole, the work is Borgesian story telling at its best– abrupt, layered, filled with both esoterica and historiography, simultaneously mysterious and straight-forward, all while walking the line between the fantastic and realistic. A close reading of the devices used in the physical installation and within the structure of the different media channels places the viewer in the world portrayed by their allegory, allowing us to assess our relationship to systems of labor. Sussman has championed collective labor in her video practice, shunning the mythic status of a solitary author. Over the years she has worked primarily in different modes of collaboration with a group under the moniker Rufus Corporation on many of her large-scale media projects. For this latest piece, she works in tandem with her partner Simon Lee (alongside a talented group of actors). Together they portray a poignant, yet foreboding, tale of interpersonal dynamics in the workplace while simultaneously pioneering an alternative mode of (artistic) production through their personal studio practice.
Experiencing No Food… evokes one of Argentinian author Jorge Luis Borges’ most emblematic stories, The Garden of Forking Paths (1941), in which a young German spy seeks to send an important war message and finds himself sidetracked unwinding the unresolved story of his famed ancestor’s life work. His ancestor claimed to be the writer of an epic (indecipherable) manuscript and builder of the ultimate labyrinth (whose location has been lost). Through what seems to be an elaborate literary detour to this wartime espionage story, the protagonist discovers a man who contains a garden labyrinth named after that of his storied ancestor. This encounter unravels how the the illegible story and bygone labyrinth are one in the same, each intended to play out through time by those trying to navigate it. All the while the reader of Borges discovers first-hand the makings of a literary labyrinth; as the story spontaneously concludes, we realize the winding events of the story deceptively lead to the inevitable conclusion of the spy’s mission. The act of reading plays out through time and space, and according to the decisions initiated and experienced by both the protagonist and reader, not unlike a maze.
In the Sussman/Lee labyrinth, we likewise find ourselves disoriented in both physical and narrative space. The installation is riddled with large-scale photographs that subvert the open architecture of the room, sculptures hang on the walls between the photo-panels, mirrors with painted text on their frames pose questions to the viewer/subject, and video pieces throughout tell us the fractured story of a group of fictional factory workers who have lost one of their own. Through original narrative and material appropriated from media sources (fed to the actors through visible ear pieces, with the source occasionally acknowledged elsewhere in the installation), a series of characters slowly takes form via disparate but interwoven video chapters. Sussman/Lee’s actors only refer to themselves by name as the animal protagonists featured in A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh, even as many wear factory uniforms with other human names. Evoking Milne again, each chapter is introduced with Pooh-like titles (e.g. “In which Rabbit and Donkey have an intimate conversation.”)
“Chapter 15: RABBIT RECIPES or in which we learn what Bear and Bear keep in the garage” Two-channel looping video, by Eve Sussman & Simon Lee
The chapters range from character studies to choreographed dances and television trial/crime procedurals, while the installation employs vintage televisions, a diverse array of projections, and modern monitors. A range of listening devices are used, including directional sound-cones, headphones, and ambient speakers, making unique sonic spaces for the visitor, where one can become lost and found again within the multi-channel sound bleed. The sets we see within the videos are built with the large-scale photographic panels and floor-mounted vinyl photos that are reused as architectural interventions within the exhibition space. New sculptural works that evoke the characters are quite engaging, notably the character mirrors we find lining a wall in one side of the exhibition (formally echoing the vertical stripes of a character overview that shares the same wall) and the kinetic sound sculpture Rabbit Record, a wax rabbit head spinning atop a record player. The narrative scenes are peppered with scripted quotations from beloved pop cultural icons (e.g. Marcel Marceau, Lance Loud, Princess Diana), and notorious televised liars (e.g. drug-trafficking Teamster Jimmy Hoffa, and doping-scandal cyclist Lance Armstrong). And the many chapters allow us to quickly get to know the characters, their suspicions and paranoias, and the fraught relationships with their boss, Rabbit, and the foreman, Owl.
The news of a missing worker, simply known as “Small,” disrupts the work environment, bringing to the fore tensions over the social conditions of labor, privacy in the workplace, classist assumptions, individual work ethic and collective responsibility. Eventually this event leads the viewer to a multi-channel tribunal where everyone is implicated and yet no one is found accountable in a cacophony of conversation and suspicion. The majority of the narrative video work for the installation was made via a residency/commission for Rochester’s monumental and cutting-edge EMPAC (The Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute) theater; the work partially debuted as part of the SPRING/BREAK Art Show in 2015 and recently in early 2016 as a media installation Philadelphia at Locks Gallery. The convoluted and savvy installation is primed to live other lives in distinctly different architectural and screening iterations.
“Chapter 2: In which we witness the start of the night shift” by Sussman & Lee
The physical labor of the factory is revealed through a central video projection, a quasi-absurd but hauntingly beautiful full-stage scene from EMPAC where the workers, on various layers of scaffolding, transport water with ladles, buckets, bowls, and other vessels between large water-filled plastic storage containers. Almost all of the figures are obscured and reduced to silhouette behind frosted translucent sheets. The stage lights move around the figures and in doing so hypnotically cast their shadows, as if in transit. The scene evokes the monochrome grace and order of early cinema footage of the first mechanically-aided assembly lines. Despite its elegance, the water factory work is a messy procedure, emphasized by spills and sloppy execution. The lone figure we can see without a screen (one of the two older janitor characters named Donkey), hobbles between the scaffolding on the ground level with the smallest of cups to transport water between halves of the stage, punctuating the factory’s greater action as neither monumentally productive nor efficient. The factory as setting for allegory seems especially timely for an art world fraught with the politics of artistic labor raised by W.A.G.E., along with renewed global attention to the super museums appearing out of the desert sands in in the Persian Gulf region. The Sisyphean task portrayed in No Food… takes its choreography from the real world: walking into the installation the viewer is greeted with an animated set of still photographs taken by Lee when the duo visited Dubai, of workers with shovels moving a pile of sand. Here, the labyrinth of human performance that Sussman/Lee have have immersed us in can finally be seen from above: reanimating found performance from the world and media around us, emphasizing the imperfect labor of performance (in the factory and the repetition and mirroring of spoken lines), and placing the audience as actor (winding through the installation-cum-stage set and within the reflection of the mirrors).
It is worth noting that the filmic portions of the installation seem purposely riddled and blurred: for example, actors both play and embody different genders. Their name tags sometimes indicate a name opposite their portrayed gender, and in speech they take on non-specific animal names. There are two donkeys and two bears, sometimes separate characters, and at another time, mirrored in seemingly the same scene with two different actors. This non-fixity seems to further the anonymity of the individual laborers within the greater system. More politically, it signals a shift from the hyper-rigid and purposely stereotyped gender roles featured in Sussman’s 2007 epic (made with Rufus Corporation) Rape of the Sabine Woman, making for an exciting and radical break for Sussman as an artist. Perhaps we can now consider her update of the Roman myth an exorcism of sorts for the gender roles of classical art along with the gendered archetypes of the mid-century family; in No Food… the characters seem free to exist in a post-gender economy where they fluidly move between behavioral roles without question (but equally oppressed by the pitfalls of capitalism). This also operates as a plot device: in “Transformation (Chapter 1),” we see two characters, Tiger, the instigator of conspiracy theories within the group, and the new (missing) worker Small, dressing up (complete with prosthetic breasts and wigs) for their enacted roles, harkening back to the behind the scene perspectives that also peppered Sussman’s Sabine Women. However, this crucial component inserts doubt into the overall storyline, as one realizes they could just as easily be switching characters to hoodwink us – has the character Small actually disappeared?
“Chapter 1: In which we meet Tiger & Small and the new girl gets a job” by Sussman & Lee
Mirroring and repetition happen in both physical movements and spaces, spoken word, through multiple screens in the installation, and with the duplication of characters. An appropriated quote from a historic figure referenced its original found media clip, is later repeated as a line in the story voiced by one of the animal characters, and eventually shortened in the sign-painted typography in the character mirrors. Each character’s doubts and identity are fossilized within the text framing each mirror, harkening back in aesthetic to a specific found object and prop within the films. We briefly get glimpses of this object in the films, some type of factory break room mirror that oddly asks both “Do You Look Sharp?” and “Are you satisfied?” Yet painted down the left side of the mirror it insists: “Clean Shave / Clean Uniform / Shoes Shined.” This found object greeted viewers as they climbed the stairs into the second floor installation at Locks Gallery. The act of gazing in the mirror, comparing oneself to others, and the judgment that comes with one’s self-image, amplifies the most personal theme in this story- the weight of human pride that is irrevocably bound with our labor. Sussman and Lee smartly bring to the fore the way that power dynamics within our labor systems can quickly erode one’s sense of self. At the top of the factory we see this with the adoption of the distinctly inhuman corporate jargon and hyper-professionalized interpersonal skills of Owl and, at the other end of this painful power dynamic, through the suspicion, judgment, and scrutiny faced and produced by laborers.
The mirrors, repetitions, and duplications are the very foundation of the collaborative duo’s layered narrative and physical maze. For a tale that might be patience-trying for some (at least a full hour or more must be spent to thoroughly watch all of the components of the installation), it helps to approach the work of Sussman and Lee as one might a literary experimentalist like Borges. His great legacies are the vivid content of his fantastical stories as well as how his play with structure, form, voice, and references warped philosophical meaning and perceptual experience. By giving oneself over to the interrelated labyrinth of both the No Food… installation and the layered factory-narrative, is to appreciate how the factory’s social forces are shaped. And like the German spy of Borges, if we follow the twists and turns we quickly arrive at an unusual conclusion about the mystery we first set off on.
A walk through of the interdisciplinary installation “No Food No Money No Jewels” by Simon Lee & Eve Sussman at Locks Gallery in early 2016.
Kelsey Halliday Johnson is a curator, writer, and artist based in Philadelphia. She is currently the Curatorial Fellow in Photography and New Media at the James A. Michener Art Museum and a member of Vox Populi.