For her first show as research curator at the Washington Project for the Arts (WPA), Ceridwen Morris sought to organize “a conceptual show in D.C. using mainly D.C. artists.” Although D.C. is predominantly a painting-oriented town, Morris was sure that there were enough young object-based conceptualists in the area to make “Hostile Witness: Taking the Methods of Media and Surveillance Into Your Own Hands” possible. They just weren’t being shown by the usual outlets.
In the two years since she moved to D.C. from New York, Morris had become aware of a burgeoning artistic underground that embraces art forms other than music. The long-established DIY ethic of D.C. post-punkers (“They jar their own jam,” says Morris) has spread; the idea of “making it happen, doing it yourself, is starting to trickle over into different scenes like the art scene, or making film, video, performance, poetry, a number of different things,” she observes.
Faced with a lack of supportive venues, artists have begun mounting their own shows. “There are groups of artists who put things on in their own houses or they have these impromptu things that pop up here and there,” Morris notes.
Among the “unusual contexts” for exhibitions are ultratemporary shows in odd locales. “I saw this great show the other week,” Morris says, “that someone organized…in a law office that’s abandoned….They’re redesigning it or something, so for one night for four hours, they had a show that looked like it took a few days to install….I heard about it through word of mouth.”
When Morris began to mount exhibitions in Bookworks (her first position at WPA was as the store’s manager), she adopted a similar bare-bones approach. “When Cynthia Connolly had her show in the bookstore…we put the show up one day and the next day we had an opening. We told people about it on the phone one night. And we got apples and peanut butter for the opening, so the whole thing cost $22the whole show. She sold six pieces and there were over a hundred people at the opening. That’s a huge success.”
But Morris is ambivalent about such informal means of publicity. “It was word-of-mouth, and that’s great because it proves that there is this nice community and that things can happen, but it’s also terrible because it means that there are a lot of people who don’t know about it.”
When Morris’ plans outgrew Bookworks, her methods became more organized. She formulated the show’s theme, then announced it in a call for artists, asking several deliberately open-ended questions of potential respondents: “What did you see? What did you do about it? Who controls the information?” She judged submissions, selected work, collected artists’ statements, and publicized the show.
The seed of “Hostile Witness” ‘s theme was planted, ironically, by 1995’s most ubiquitous hostile witness, Kato Kaelin. His argumentative demeanor led Morris to ask herself what it meant to be a hostile witnessin a general societal context, outside the courtroom. “It’s a number of things,” she says. “It’s witnessing something and then representing what has been witnessed and then distributing that representation. And the distributing part, I think, is just as important as the others, because we all see different things and we have different ways of reflecting the world.”
The 14 artists selected for the show refract the social critique of ’80s art through the lens of a generation that has grown up in front of the television, aware that most of what it knows as the real has been mediatedand conscious of the history of media art and its late-’60s/early-’70s genesis.
The result is a show that is scrappy, thoughtful, witty, at times unshapely, but always more provocative than anything receiving the imprimatur of the traditional commercial galleries around the corner. It still means something in D.C. to be an “alternative” art space, and Morris has taken full advantage of it.
Although “Hostile Witness” is a show of conceptual art, as the exhibition’s subtitle would suggest, the work it contains remains rooted in experience, not theory, even as it evinces an understanding of contemporary art history. Shailish Thakor’s It’s Alright consists of a small eye-level slot in the gallery wall from which a person (not the artist) peers out at the audience. (The piece is staffed intermittently throughout the show’s run, including the Jan. 5 performance in the gallery.) Thakor appears to owe a debt to aggressive performance/body art pioneers such as Vito Acconci (whose 1972 Seed Bed involved the artist, hidden beneath a ramp in the Sonnabend gallery, audibly masturbating to his fantasies of unseen visitors) or Chris Burden, who, for White Light/White Heat (1975), took up residence on an elevated platform in the corner of Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, out of viewers’ sight, altering the space with his silent, palpable presence.
But Thakor was in fact inspired by an unplanned real-life occurrence. “He came up with the idea,” Morris relates, “because one time he was doing construction and he somehow ended up in this column in a building…this little column that he just fit into, and there was actually a hole right where his eyes were, that just showed his eyes….People would look and they would seem angry, they would never really look for too long, or they would clear out, or they would come up and be really mystified. But the most compelling response was this one woman who came back four times and was just looking and looking. And then she came back the fourth time and she just started telling him all these intimate stories. It was very intimate and she was just letting it all flow.”
“Witness”‘s most powerful piece, however, modifies reality little in bringing it to the gallery. Constantine Roumel’s R. Bud Dwyer with Eleven features televised footage of Pennsylvania politico Dwyer killing himself at a press conference. Dwyer pulls out a pistol, then, as if to assure the shrieking crowd that he intends harm to no one but himself, he almost gingerly places the barrel to his palate and pulls the trigger. He collapses to the floor. The camera zooms in. Blood streams from his nose. A man rushes to the stage, arms outstretched, calming the crowd. The tape loops and Dwyer begins again.
Morris notes that Roumel intensifies the horror by stripping the footage of the comforting framing devices commonly employed by newscasters. “There’s something about that piece,” she says, “the thing going over and over againjust the act, [as if to say], ‘Sorry, we’re not giving you any context….’ [With typical coverage], you feel there is a narrative that this is a part of, and there is some sense to it, that it’s not just this horrible thing that no one can understand.”
Morris notes that we’ve grown so accustomed to fictionalized violence that “real death, even shooting, is just quieter than you think it would be after seeing television and movies…and that’s a very surprising thing.” For Morris, however, Roumel’s piece only reinforced this view, which was formed when, one night, she witnessed an actual killing.
“I saw someone get shot six times in D.C. from my car window. I saw the chase. I knew he was going to get shot. I could just feel that he was running for his life and then he runs up to this doorstep and the guy [chasing him fired] six times. And the thing that was so amazing about it is that it was totally unremarkable….This person just died and it was like (softly) pah, pah, pah, pah, pah, pah.”
Askedas she asked her artistswhat she did about it, Morris responds, “I drove away. And I didn’t call the police….I’m the irresponsible citizen, but I felt, ‘What am I going to do?’ Call up and say…’I just saw this kind of thing that happens every day in D.C.’? And no description of anyone’s face, no description really of what anyone’s wearingblack guy, black clothes, Otis Street….I thought, ‘Oh, I’ll have to go through all this hassle of going to identify [the gunman].’ ” Despite Morris’ awareness of her irresponsibility, I couldn’t help wondering if she wasn’t the most hostile witness of all.
To retreat from the commonplace of urban violence, many of us turn to television. The power of TV to create comfortable fictional worlds, to transform the fantastic to the familiar, is expertly illustrated by Mark Bennett’s Town of Mayberry. Observing that Andy Griffith’s stomping grounds are as real to us as many places we’ve actually been, Morris confesses that even her dreams are populated by TV characters. When she recently recorded her waking thoughts, Morris found herself writing, “then, Julie, your Cruise Director….” But “it’s not even pathetic or absurd that we would dream in television characters,” Morris insists. “You can’t even make a judgment. I’m sure this happens with books that you read, and watching TV is [just another] experience that you have.”
The importunity of the televised medium is the subject of Interference, a video installation by Jamie Panzer. When the piece is rewinding, Morris observes, some viewers are duped into thinking that a screen filled with static was what the artist had intended. “Oh!” cries Morris, “Conceptual art has such a bad rep!…Audiences will accept the cheapest gimmick.” But Panzer gets the last laugh, making digs at both his video-addled audience and the intentionally “boring” video art of the early ’70s. Viewers move on, soon to be badgered by a persistent audible tapping. Looking back, they see a finger struggling against a tiny screen, as if imprisoned by it.
Other “Witness” works include a 4-foot-square glue trap by Michael Udris, part of a piece called, in another neoconceptual wisecrack, How I Learned to Love Photography Again; Peter Quinn’s simulated surveillance photos of supermarket shoppers and flying saucers, which link the mundane site of tabloid-launched UFO fancies with their “actual” subjects; and a spy microphone hidden in the belly of a pigeon, which S.a. Zollinger gassed, gutted, and stuffed in her own bedroom.
Morris, 27, intends “Hostile Witness” to be the first in a series of shows in the WPA’s newly rededicated White Box Gallery (named not for the room’s modernist geometry, but for a suggestion box Morris plans to install) focusing on work by local artists. Morris has been approached by Ian MacKaye about the possibility of mounting a show of Dischord album cover and poster art in celebration of the label’s 15th anniversary. Also among her plans is a video exhibition by Baltimore’s Margot Starr Kernan. But the WPA’s uncertain finances may put her plans in jeopardy. (Talks that will determine the institution’s future are currently under way with the Corcoran.)
Morris remains convinced, however, of a need for the type of work she wants to show. Noting that only three of “Hostile Witness” ‘s 14 artists are not in their 20s, Morris says, “I feel like there’s no shortage of talent, there’s no shortage of work and ideas, and it’s just really important to keep that alive and keep the visual arts as much an important part of the whole cultural young scene as the music is.”
“Hostile Witness” has been extended through Jan. 20. On Jan. 5 at 8 p.m., the WPA hosts an evening of performance, poetry, and film in conjunction with the show. See listings for details. CP