Essay by G. Douglas Barrett: Echoes of Narcissus, Erin Gee’s “Voice of Echo”
By G. Douglas Barrett, 2011
My mind is bent to tell of bodies changed into new forms.—Metamorphosis, Ovid
Presented as the centrepiece of Erin Gee’s exhibition at Contrary Projects is the artist’s work for single channel video, Voice of Echo: Song of Love for Technological Eyes (2011). A viewer is confronted with a portrait view of the artist staring directly into the camera while solemnly donning a white latex head garment, a cap which covers her head and appears to extend to cover some of her lower neck. Sternly, though in a thoroughly relaxed manner, Gee begins to pull small objects from her mouth—miniature circular mirrors varying somewhat in size—and attaches each of them to her face. Eventually the artist’s face becomes nearly entirely covered with the small reflective surfaces, each resting at a different angle and reflecting presumably light from inside the artist’s studio. Occasionally bits of her own body are visible in the mirrors—a glimpse of the underside of a finger, for instance, as she finishes affixing one of the circular surfaces. At other times it’s unclear exactly what is reflected in the tiny mirrors: Do we see more revealed of the artist’s studio, a view of the video camera, or, if only for a split-second, perhaps a momentary fragment of my own image as viewer?
While nominally invoking Echo, the musical nymph found in Greek mythology who looses all ability to speak except for the imitation of the speech of others, Gee’s video clearly refers to both main characters in Ovid’s tale of Echo and Narcissus. Voice of Echo: Song of Love for Technological Eyes: Gee’s title contains at least a couple of non-sequiturs: the voice of a mute character; a song which is silent intended only for the eyes. The small mirrors we see in the video perform a role that is both reflective and yet foreclosing. Foreclosing in the way in which the performer’s face is gradually masked, converted from an object of the viewer’s gaze to an object which reflects it’s own state of technological mediation.
Further still, the mirrors point to video art’s alleged “narcissist” history, its mode of hermetic “self-absorption,” which “enclose[s] the body between two machines, camera and monitor.”(1) In discussing seminal video works of the 1970s such as Vito Acconci’s 1971 work Centers—in which the artist stands with his forefinger outstretched pointing to the center of the video frame—art historian Rosalind Krauss comes one breath away from positing narcissism as “the condition of the entire genre” of video art.(2) Of course Krauss was writing this in 1970 when the widespread use of video technologies gave to physicality the novel dimension of teleportive mobility. When bodies gained the ability to move freely through space and time, art seemed to have shifted its focus from the referential category of the icon to the phenomenal—the “here-and-now,” present quality of the body. Dan Graham’s Performer/Audience/Mirror (1975) and John Cage’s famous silent piece 4’33” (1952) are two examples of this aesthetic presence. The latter presents the “bare essentials” of a (musical) performance scenario, while the former involves the reflexive component of Graham’s phenomenological descriptions of his own gesticulations and the observations of spectators as he stares at their reflections. Perhaps a more direct counterpart to Graham’s work is Joan Jonas’s Mirror Piece of 1970 in which the artist used body-sized mirrors to convert individual audience members into momentary spectacle, thereby turning the performer/audience relation on its head. These works stand as historical “presence works” par excellence.
The issue now, however, is that not only have the categories of icon and phenomenal presence been shown as doubly embedded—the icon contains its own presence, while the phenomenal functions iconically—but what it means to simply be present in contemporary life has been radically overturned through technology. In our digitally-mediated daily lives we are consistently both “here” and somewhere else. (I’m writing this essay while I check my Facebook, write an email, and think about doing laundry.) Presence is divided and multiple.
Over the course of Gee’s eighteen-minute performance the artist gradually “becomes” the icon of Narcissus and returns full circle to bare presence, all contained within the technological frame of video. Voice of Echo synthesizes the characters of Echo and Narcissus into a single body and enjoins the iconic with the physical. Gee’s video presences the body as technologized while marking it as signifying and gendered. Noting that Freud himself had located a majority of his examples of narcissism in women, writing in her classic essay titled after Narcissus’s feminine counterpart, philosopher Gayatri Spivak had intended to “give woman” (back) to Echo.(3) By virtue of a kind of synaesthetic remapping, Gee enacts a series of givings: icon to presence, sound to sight, Echo to Narcissus, image to music.
While in Gee’s work sound and vision are counterposed and crossed, music and image are presented as interconnected. In Voice of Echo, music works as an intermedial site, a nexus of interconnected media within which sound is present only as absent referent. (As we have learned from Cage, music does not need sound as such.) Sharing the medium of video, music and image are framed together as a single entity. As a mute song, Gee’s wordless performance refers to not only Echo’s inability to speak, but perhaps also to the historical expulsion of language from music, the modernist conception of music as absolute and autonomous. Not only does Gee’s video re-inscribe language into music, it argues for “the condition of the entire genre” of music (Echo) to include Narcissus (video) as well. Or perhaps Voice of Echo points to the always already entwinedness of the two media.
In addition to presenting Voice of Echo as a single-channel video installation, Gee presents (rough) sonifications—digital equivalents of synaesthesia—of the video track of Voice of Echo. Gallery visitors are provided with iPods containing several digital sound files, each track a unique drone texture, a set of “buzzy” soundscapes which generally change subtly, though occasionally jar the listener’s attention with a burst of noise. Also included on the iPods is “album art” created by further manipulating and translating the audio tracks into images that appear on each small iPod screen.
Gee’s use of the iPods is interesting. She explains a wish to “emphasize the [visitors’] technological bodies,” bodies forming a core of the socio-cultural exchange occurring within the context of an art exhibition. While the iPods by no means completely disrupt the normal ebb and flow of schmoozing, the digital playback devices remind us of the less than subtle solipsistic character of the contemporary musical experience: to each her own musical world. Think of a crowded subway. Each passenger sonically insulated from the crowd, isolated within her own “media universe.” The lowercase pronoun—Does the “i” in iPod stand for (mass) Individualism?—echoes Narcissus’s own turn away from the collective musical experience and, as though caught in a feedback loop, his endless fixation upon his own reflected image.
(1) Wagner, Anne M. “Performance, Video, and the Rhetoric of Presence.” (p. 68). October, Vol. 91. (Winter (2000), pp. 59-80.
(2) Krauss, Rosalind. “Video: The Aesthetics of Narcissism.” (p. 50). October, Vol. 1. (Spring, 1976), pp. 50-64.
(3)Spivak, Gayatri C. “Echo.” (p. 17). New Literary History, Vol. 24, No. 1, Culture and Everyday Life. (Winter, 1993), pp. 17-43.
G DOUGLAS BARRETT is an artist, composer, and writer. Drawing equally from the contemporary gallery arts and the performing arts traditions, he has exhibited, performed, and published critical writings throughout North America and Europe. He has presented work at the Incubator Arts Project (New York), Diapason Gallery (New York), REDCAT (Los Angeles), the Wulf (Los Angeles), Theater Perdu (Amsterdam), Universität der Künste Berlin, Phoebe Zeitgeist Teatro (Milan), Galerie Mark Müller (Zürich), Université de Paris-Est Marne-La-Vallée, the Sonic Arts Research Centre (Belfast, UK), and Neutral Ground (Regina). In 2009 Barrett received a DAAD grant to Berlin. He has obtained advanced degrees from California Institute of the Arts (MFA, 2006) and a Ph.D. from the State University of New York at Buffalo. His writings include essays published in the interdisciplinary literary journal Mosaic (University of Manitoba) and Contemporary Music Review, along with “A Text Score Manifesto,” in Word Events: Perspectives on Verbal Notation (John Lely and James Saunders, Eds., New York: Continuum, 2011).