Zoe Leonard and Cheryl Dunye
Ilya an Emilia Kabakov
Case Study 1: Susan Hiller, Witness (2000)
Witness is a sound installation, but also an archive. The installation consists of 350 speakers suspended from the ceiling, in a darkened room, lit by artificial blue lights. Each speaker plays different audio recordings of people from all over the world recounting their experience of witnessing a UFO or similarly unexplained phenomena. The recordings are in multiple languages, and create a cacophony of voices, at times going quiet and allowing just one voice to speak. The work was initially shown in an abandoned Baptist chapel in London and has since been exhibited at multiple national and international museums and festivals. The stories, though some are read by actors where written accounts have been found or provided, are not presented with any bias from Hiller, or with extra dramatisation added for effect; they create an almost factual, documentary account.
Susan Hiller’s Witness has many archival elements. It consists of a large number of different audio recordings and is presented not just as a playlist but in a constructed way to add to the meaning of the clips. They have a common theme around UFO stories. The archive tells a very specific curated story. The room it places the archive in a context, the room is dark with artificial blue lights to add to the atmosphere of UFOs and otherworldly experiences. The way in which the clips are presented also adds to this, they aren’t just one at a time but there are multiple languages being spoken at once, with periods of silence. This adds to the chaos and slightly spooky unsettling feeling.
By presenting this work as audio rather than text, it places the people behind the stories at the root. This is about the people as much as the stories they tell. By having the recordings by people or actors we get that human element.
The work is multilingual to show the global impact of these stories, I think it helps to unite humanity as one against UFOs. It acts as a unifier as it doesn’t matter what language you are speaking, it shows these stories span cultures and nationalities. Another example of how we often have more in common than differences. I think it also adds to the sense of chaos, that it is difficult to pick out just one character, as you listen you flit between people, accents and languages. We are encouraged to listen to the overall hum and not the individuals.
Exhibiting in a chapel builds a sense of atmosphere. There is a strange effect of having the piece at the top of a spiral staircase in a chapel. Almost like you are descending to the UFOs themselves. The space also allows shadows to play a role. Of course, it being a chapel evokes religious and spiritual feelings, are these UFOs or a calling from the heavens? In Jonathan Jones’s piece in the Guardian about the experience, he describes that “a babble of voices talk at once, muttering like the voices of the dead or the legion of the damned” (Jones, 2000).
I don’t think the work is trying to make us believe in UFOs. Rather telling the stories of those who have had an experience. There is a certain conviction in the number of stories, that how can this happen to so many people if UFOs aren’t real? However, I think this is an unbiased piece that allows us to make our own judgement.
This is different from a documentary as there is little of the artist’s own views in there. There is no narrative to go along with, just the pure experiences of the voices and the atmosphere. We aren’t informed, we are left to make a judgement.
Case Study 2: Zoe Leonard and Cheryl Dunye, The Fae Richards Photo Archive (1993–1996)
Work was made to accompany a feature-length film by Duny called The Watermelon Woman. The film follows Dunye trying to find out about the life of a black actress who has an unrecognised or uncredited role in a film called Plantation Memories, and is referred to only as ‘the watermelon woman’. Dunye’s film follows the fictional life of Fae Richards, an African American lesbian blues singer and actress, who Dunye images as the person that played the watermelon woman. This fictional film is used to highlight the fact that next to no archival information about black actresses (and no information at all about black lesbian actresses) was kept or recorded in archives, and so the artists created their own archive, The Fae Richards Photo Archive, in lieu of any actual archival findings. The work consists of 82 black and white photos that have been staged and enacted by Dunye, Leonard and other actors, alongside a cast list, and photo captions that were typed on a type-writer to give them an authentic appearance.
The archive was made to give a voice to a marginalised group of people. That no information about black lesbian actresses was kept meant that this was imagined.
It is made to look like an old archive to give it a sense of realism that this is to represent those voices that have been lost. The idea that these could have been real photos and text lifted from a real person from history.
In making this as a film, a book and an installation it helped to spread the word of this story. Like a real person from history may be celebrated in many ways, this gives them dimension. As though you could look up the different media to corroborate the story and make them seem more real.
There are still clues that this is fictional and that is important. As it highlights that this has had to be faked due to no real images or even knowledge of who these actresses were.
Case Study 3: Ilya & Emilia Kabakov, The Man Who Never Threw Anything Away (1988)
This work is both a piece of creative writing and an installation. The text was written in 1977, and was used to accompany an exhibition in 1988 of the same name, though it’s also known as The Garbage Man. The installation is in a small, narrow room, which, apart from a small bed, looks like a kind of museum with glass cases, cabinets and shelves filled with jars which all contain items that would usually be thrown away, like buttons, tin cans, old boots etc. Each item has a label on it with a catalogue number and a description.