Oscar Wilde famously suggested great art “reveal beauty and hide the artist.” For the 2017 BLACK MIRROR exhibition at SPRING/BREAK, more than 100 curators will feature artworks that explore the dance of identity the artist undergoes—between showing what’s unseen and hiding in plain sight—especially in the face of modern technology, political unrest, and glimmers from ghosts of Art History’s past.
ArtSlant will be exhibiting the ArtSlant Prize 2016 Winners at SPRING/BREAK. In expectation of this uniquely site-specific, curatorial fair, we’re featuring four interviews with participating curators and artists, asking them what they see reflected in the black mirror.
In a previous life, Jack & Leigh Ruby worked as confidence artists, cleverly fabricating portfolios of fake evidence to perpetrate insurance fraud. Today, the sibling duo makes tangled artworks that capitalize on an uncanny ability to complicate film, photography, gestures, and surroundings that might otherwise read as “true.” Their enigmatic debut, the two-channel video Car Wash Incident (2013–2015), produced by fellow artists Eve Sussman and Simon Lee, was a circuitous tour de force in staging, choreography, editing, and sound recording.
For SPRING/BREAK the Rubys are back at it, putting on what they’re calling a “surveillance theatre piece,” inspired by CCTV scams they did in the 1980s. Barbershop, which is curated by Sussman and Lee, will feature anonymous actors operating in and out of the art fair’s Times Square venue. As these performers chat into their cell phones, viewers—some clued in, others unsuspecting—will be party to their one-sided conversations. Whether casually overheard on the street, or monitored from a surveillance control room hidden behind a “barbershop,” these eavesdropped half-dialogues are part of the contemporary landscape, familiar to us all.
It’s hard to know when the Rubys reveal their hand, but we can expect them to urge us on, pushing us to question: What’s hidden and what’s divulged? What’s fact or fiction? Who’s on the other side of the reflective cell phone screen?
Leading up to the exhibition, curators Sussman and Lee gave us a preview of Barbershop and shared the artists’ conception of the Black Mirror.
Barbershop has a lot of moving parts. Can you briefly describe the setup and premise of the performance?
Barbershop is an installation with live actors. The barbershop itself is subterfuge. The premise is that we are engulfed in a myriad of private narratives going on around us as mobile phone conversations proliferate in public. Jack & Leigh Ruby’s Barbershop involves a control room hidden at the back of a barber shop, through which the viewer has to pass in order to experience the piece.
A rotating cast of characters on cell phones wearing ear buds are being recorded as they speak and follow choreographed routes around the small plaza outside the entrance to the building. A multi-camera surveillance app streams the overheard conversations to the central control room at the back of the barbershop. An agent in the control room alternates between multiple camera views, editing the film live.
What does “Black Mirror” mean to you, and how does this artwork engage with that theme?
Jack & Leigh Ruby see the concept of the Black Mirror as simultaneously obscuring and clarifying the facts. A black mirror negates some of the detail in the picture in favor of highlighting other aspects of the picture. A proliferation of one-sided phone conversations likewise negates much of the detail—and leaves the observer with a halfway accurate, but skewed version of reality (“alternative facts” from which to cherry pick). In addition Barbershop uses the obvious contemporary black mirror, the iPhone, as the primary device for conveying this story.
L-Dope, performance by DOME Theatre, directed by Forrest Gillespie and Dylan Latimer at SPRING/BREAK 2016, Curated by Eve Sussman and Simon Lee. Photo: Samuel Morgan for SPRING/BREAK Art Show
The tensions between what’s “real” and what’s not is a recurring theme in the Ruby’s work. How scripted or choreographed will the performance be, and what will be left to chance?
Given the arena that the piece will be playing out in, Times Square, a lot of the action will necessarily be left to chance and improvisation. The performers will be channeling one side of recorded texts and interviews. Likewise they will be carrying out specific tasks and following designated paths and choreographies. Within these given structures quite a lot is left to chance and the whims of the agent in the control room. However, because there will be multiple takes throughout the six days of SPRING/BREAK, we expect that the actors will settle into their roles and develop their characters—their improvisation on the ever-shifting stage of Times Square is a key element that will be encouraged.
When Jack & Leigh saw this question they both burst out laughing and Jack said “When have we ever not left things to chance?” and Leigh replied a tad wryly: “Yeah, thanks for the decade in jail, Jack!”
What can you tell us about the control room and the role of the “agent” who’s watching and editing? What sort of role do you see the viewers stepping into in this space?
The agent is giving directives to technicians running the footage: “rewind,” “zoom in,” “cut to camera 2” might be the kind of things you would encounter upon stepping through the barbershop and into the control room. The agent may also be angry at the technicians’ failure to capture key moments—or ecstatic when they do. The viewer joins the investigation in search of what is really happening and in so doing will inevitably make up their own version of reality and the motives behind this complex surveillance.
Footage, (partial) documentation, and live-editing are central to this piece. Do you anticipate Barbershop having an afterlife? Might the surveillance footage live on in a different guise (in a film à la Car Wash Incident, for example)?
Yes! Jack & Leigh are excited about the possibilities of touring this project and bringing live surveillance and local actors into the mix of material for Barbershop. Footage gathered from Times Square would mix with the next location (Helsinki, for example), creating a site-specific piece made for and from multiple places, the piece growing with each location. The Rubys have a history of transporting their characters from one piece to the next (for instance “the two girls in red,” who were featured in Car Wash Incident, may well reappear in Barbershop). And if the piece were to move to Helsinki, for instance, then “two Finnish girls in red” would have to be found.
SPRING/BREAK Art Show will take place at 4 Times Square, from February 28–March 6, 2017.
Andrea Alessi is the Managing Editor of ArtSlant.
(Image at top: CCTV still image from a scam the Rubys organized in the 1980s. All images: Jack & Leigh Ruby, Research images for Barbershop, 2017. Courtesy of the artists.)