art
 and 
context
Made in Texas
March 2015

In an interview[1] Jean Baudrillard was asked why the desert was so central to his book, America. His response is multi-layered but the most direct answer is that the desert is ‘more than the state of nature’. The chosen locations in West Texas for the video trilogy Sound Speed Marker by Teresa Hubbard and Alexander Birchler[2] may not qualify technically speaking as desert; the locations are however generally designated as such and in the final part of the trilogy, Giant, the expanses of a Texas landscape is the stand-out role. Baudrillard wrote America in the 1980s and is based in the time he lived there in the 1970s. Hubbard and Birchler completed their trilogy in 2014 having worked on it over several years. Much has changed over the period of time between the two works and no doubt the two artists would have enormous difficulty with Baudrillard’s opening comment to the interview that, as he wrote America, ‘I experienced it on a cinema screen, hypothesizing almost experimentally a country without a history’. While Baudrillard’s chief thesis—we have evolved the simulacrum and we are removed from ‘nature’—is now less fashionable, his imaging of himself isn’t that of writing a text but of something more spatial which involves being before a screen and looking or viewing. The work of Hubbard and Birchler is inextricably bound up with this condition with the cinema screen replaced by the screen of the gallery space. Gerard Byrne along with Sarah Pierce was asked by IMMA, where Sound Speed Marker is currently showing, to respond to the work before an audience. During it he remembered Baudrillard’s America. On examination, there is more to the comparison than simply all three are European born and have acknowledged their enthrallment in the desert they encountered in the United States.

Sound Speed Marker references films from the early twentieth century, the 1950s and ‘80s, and three locations, a mountain known locally as Movie Mountain after an early film made there, the site near Marfa where some of Giant was shot in 1955, and a site in the vicinity of locations for ‘80s films, most particularly, Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas. While the first two parts of the trilogy focus on the social fabric of the localities in which the films were originally shot, Giant, a thirty minute, three channel colour projection on three screens, is totally free of the human voice. The sole purveyor of language is through a 1950s Underwood typewriter which occupies a staged office supposedly situated in the studios of Warner Bros. in Burbank, California. The language is the stark language of a contract between Warner Bros. and the owner of the property of the location in Texas where the film set is to be constructed and it sets out the terms to be followed for the duration of the set. The laborious typing out of the contract, which the viewer reads line by line, is done by a secretary transcribing from shorthand who does her job at a certain regular pace while allowing herself brief moments of distraction and day-dreaming. This process is interspersed with long and close-up shots of the location as it exists today. Filmed over a two year period we see the effects of season, weather, night and day on the environment, the birds and insects which inhabit the area, cattle, the freight train, film crews, but the scene is dominated by the decayed wood skeleton of the house built on set. The other important element is that the clicks of the typewriter are exchanged for the sounds of nature and a boom operator is filmed listening attentively to what is going on around.

The care with which Hubbard and Birchler filmed the landscape of Giant speaks to their concern to connect with nature which could be said to correspond with Baudrillard’s remark about the ‘radical insignificance of the subject in that world of pure signs which is the desert’. We know in Baudrillard’s case that this isn’t an attempt at transcendence, rather he expresses it as ‘the absolute self-evidence of the world’. When prodded by the interviewer, Baudrillard chooses immanence over transcendence to identify in philosophical language. If this doesn’t sound like the theorist most famous or infamous for his denial of reality he emphasises that America is a mental state, imaging, and this is said in the context of his reference to the cinema screen. It may then follow that the cinema screen is metaphor as much as experience. The interviewer presses Baudrillard to contrast Europe and America; utopia slips in and out of the exchange. While neither suggest any simplistic connection between European emigration, the psyche, and the concept of utopia, there is nonetheless allusion to early explorers and their quest for paradise. For Baudrillard the desert is where reality and fiction merge, not in ‘paradise’ but in hyperreality. He points out that it could have been other than the actual continent of America, it just happened that way. Baudrillard is taken by the way Americans are so much more comfortable in the space they inhabit compared to Europeans and this is reflected in their literature and cinema—the cinema screen as a filter allows Baudrillard to make such generalizations. This is an ‘innocence’ or an acceptance of the self-evidence of the world.

Giant is in that zone; it presents what is there in the landscape without superimposing a narrative. However the making of the video requires contrivance before, during, and after. Giant, like the other videos in the Sound Speed Marker trilogy, is made possible only through the collective memory of the original film. Without the originals the significance of the locations is gone. But this is not to affirm the artifice of film over the real. For Baudrillard, screenfictions ‘are part of the continent’, they merge. This is also the premise of Hubbard and Birchler. In the interview Baudrillard acknowledges that part of the attraction of America is its power: ‘There’s no predestination other than the retrospective .… there is always, of course, the imaginary power of America as the “cutting edge”’. When the original Giant was released in 1956 the United States was the consumer paradise that much of the rest of the world gazed upon through the mass media, and made available in the film not in the Texas landscape (bar the images calculated to show the might of the oil industry that contributed to the wealth) but in the personas of Taylor, Hudson, and Dean. In the 1970s and ‘80s the economic and cultural power of the United States was still largely intact. In his discussion at IMMA Gerard Byrne recalled his first encounter with the work of Hubbard and Birchler in New York in the 1990s. His identification was with what seemed a generation, like Hubbard and Birchler, born in the 1960s who wanted to move beyond the cinematic influences of an older generation towards some other sense of cinema. Retrospectively, we can identify this as the last generation who could image art developments in this way, and who could still see this happening specifically in America.

[1] Jean Baudrillard, ‘America, America …’, in Paroxysm: interviews with Philippe Petit, trans. Chris Turner, London and New York: Verso, 1998, pp. 79-88.

[2] Sound Speed Marker is showing sequentially in three parts at the Irish Museum of Modern Art between December 2014 and May 2015. Giant, the final part, is showing between 6 March and 4 May 2015.