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Speaking volumes: Rachel Withers on the art of Susan Hiller.

The following article obeys two rules likely to make aficionados of Susan Hiller's work smile wryly. One: The writer will tell the truth. Two: She will not use any first-person pronouns.


Readers not thoroughly familiar with Hiller will want an explanation. In fact, the rules are borrowed from the artist herself. Lurking in small print, they inhabit the footnotes to a talk/performance she gave in London nearly thirty years ago. Rule One begs questions, to say the least. Beyond a deliberate factual misrepresentation, what would constitute a critical "lie?" Who cares if critics dissemble, as long as their comments are pertinent? Rule Two, on the other hand, seems the syntactical equivalent of a ball-and-chain, given the writer's self-referential stance. But rest assured: There's method in this masochism. Responding to "Recall: A Selection of Works 1969-2004"--Hiller's acclaimed summer 2004 show at Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art, in Gateshead, England, (the most extensive survey to date of the artist's nearly four-decade career)--this article proposes Hiller's practice as a sustained, compelling, and pivotal interrogation of the idea of "critical distance"--between artist and artwork, cultural producer and audience, critic and critical object, subject and other. If a commitment to truth-telling combined with the grammatical arm's-length of the third person helps keep questions of "subjective" and "objective" critical statement, of "owning" or "being owned by" the text in nice sharp focus, that's good. The discussion has to be reflexive to do Hiller's project justice.


This writer's strategy takes a page from the artist's playbook in more ways than one. Gathering, reevaluating, and redeploying in some cases very large quantities of pre-existing cultural artifacts, Hiller, too, is a gleaner. Her work hinges on the recycling of "shards" of culture--on looking at the overlooked, the marginalized, or neglected, "the banal, the unknown, even the weird and ridiculous" (as Hiller states in Thinking About Art: Conversations with Susan Hiller, a 1996 collection of interviews and lectures given by the artist). As evidenced in "Recall," Hiller's source materials range from horror movies (Wild Talents, 1997) to Punch and Judy shows (An Entertainment, 1990); from photo-booth portraits (Midnight, Baker Street, 1983) to deeply eccentric artworks crafted from human hairs (Split Hairs: The Art of Alfie West, 1998); from first-person accounts of UFO sightings (Witness, 2000) to narratives of "near death" or "out-of-body" experiences (Clinic, 2004), to select just a few examples from a gloriously wide-ranging and idiosyncratic repertoire.

But Hiller's work isn't about the source material per se: Her real objects of scrutiny are the intellectual, emotional, and ideological processes whereby these materials are comprehended and classified. In From the Freud Museum, 1991-97 (one of Hiller's most widely known works), for example, an array of specimens--samples of earth and holy water, tourist trinkets, seeds, books, oddities, and so on--is mediated for the view via a display that compiles and (re-)classifies the very vocabulary of archiving and curating: Terms such as "collated," "addressed," or "annotated" appear in the work's internal labeling system. But "comprehension" and "classification" processes obviously don't take place in the passive tense. Hiller's treatment of her source materials reflects, and reflects on, her own convictions, fascinations, and cultural investments, inviting the viewer--or the critic--to do likewise.

Here, it's useful to recap some facts which, for better or worse, have become something of a "founding narrative" of Hiller's practice. She studied anthropology to the Ph.D. level in the early 1960s, but developed conscientious objections to the discipline's construction of the "participant/observer" relationship as it stood at the time. To her, it seemed superficial and ideologically unquestioning. (She later commented scathingly that "'participation' was clearly meant as a kind of formal pose to be adopted for a limited period" before the anthropologist got back to the real work of reinforcing his own cultural model.) As an antidote, Hiller turned to art in order "to be inside all my activities," but her art-making practices nevertheless hinge on a sustained critique of the discipline she rejected. She has noted, "We are all simultaneously participants and observers. There is no need to stress that as a paradigm. That is part of ourselves, our being within this culture." Even so, her work subtly disputes that point, for it could be said to offer a kind of training in self-awareness of the participant-observer duality.


Two projects, Dedicated to the Unknown Artists, 1972-76, and The J-Street Project, 2003-, prove the point. Nearly thirty years separate these works, but the continuity of their ideas is unmistakable. They stand side by side as evidence of the persistence and coherence of Hiller's critique of the "anthropological turn." Dedicated to the Unknown Artists arises from the artist's amassing of several hundred vintage and contemporary "rough sea" postcards: visually seductive views purporting to show gigantic waves bombarding British beaches, piers, and esplanades. The piece marshals these in grid formation, systematically logging details of the cards' locations, captions, and message content ("We had a storm today, just like this one," and so on), and evidencing generations of British natives themselves colluding in the anthropological myth of the "British love affair with lousy weather" (a love affair founded in deep ignorance of the weather's ferocity elsewhere; here, the writer is remembering that Hiller is Florida-born). Refocusing ephemera as significant testimony, the images could be psychoanalyzed as a "collective anxiety-dream about national insularity." However, in noting that, what dream is the writer of this piece really invoking, a popular fantasy about ruling the waves or her own critical fantasy about the explanatory power of psychoanalysis? For the piece itself, which both employs and undermines anthropological fieldwork techniques, is intrinsically reflexive. Its postcard images reiterate the ideologically saturated motif of the Sublime--reason's battle with cosmic chaos. In parallel, the work's King Canute-like "empirical" sorting system threatens to be swamped by the morass of material it strives to tame and contain.

Commenced during Hiller's DAAD-sponsored Berlin residency in 2003-2004, The J-Street Project entailed the charting of a hitherto unremarked category of historically charged geographical data--all the locations in Germany (there turned out to be 302) whose place names include the prefix "Juden." It also required the artist to travel countrywide, photographing and videotaping the sites disclosed by her research: city streets and alleyways, woodland paths, winding roads, tracks through fields. At first glance, some of the resulting still images seem blandly generic, others picture-postcard pretty, but this effect is deceptive. On a more sustained view, their picturesque formulae and discreet subtitles--"Judentenberger Strasse, Illmensee," "Judenweg, Gunzberg," "Judenpfad, Rockenberg," and so forth--combine explosively, opening an interpretational chasm. The viewer's interpolations--memories, hypotheses, leaps of imagination--cram the images with uncanny resonance. The J-Street Project's programmatic aspect inescapably invokes the work of August Sander, Eugene Atget, and photography's archival histories; in passing, it also raises a quizzical eyebrow in the direction of German photography's more recent photo-archival genre. Unlike the work of the Bechers, for example, the J-Street images' apparently cool surface turns out to be very hot indeed. Caught between the "objective" register of the comprehensive empirical survey and the "subjective" terrain of the uncanny, her photographs keep the viewer in a self-conscious state of ambivalence.

The footnotes in Hiller's 1975 talk/performance, from which this article takes its "rules," focused on three of her earliest works. In Street Ceremonies, 1973, 120 participants used mirrors and reflected autumn sunlight to "draw" a continuous circle, half a mile across, on, or rather in, the London cityscape. The Dream Seminar, 1973, and Dream Mapping, 1974, both invited small groups of collaborators to aid, abet, and meddle in each others' dream schemata. Bearing the philosophically cavernous and evidently ironic subtitle "an investigation into the origin of images and ideas," The Dream Seminar comprised twelve "intensely serious and very funny" weekly meetings in which participants unpacked each others' dreams using texts that conceptualized dreaming outside the standard Western post-Freudian or scientific models. Dream Mapping pushed things further: Its collaborators spent three nights in rural Wiltshire, sleeping under the stars inside "fairy rings" formed by Marasmius oreades mushrooms, then logged their dreams (or maybe alternatively induced visions) in notebooks that Hiller subsequently exhibited as artifacts. Rejecting both the "primacy of the object" and the autonomous artistic persona of the Western Renaissance tradition, these three anti-theatrical "group investigations" explored the principle of rendering art-making and spectatorship self-identical; "no role [was] allocated to spectators or observers," Hiller noted in her talk.



Scant documentation remains of these events, and like much avant-garde performance they constitute anomalous and intriguing objects for a non-participant to write about in the present. They ask to be both revisited and "visited"--that is, reinvented in relation to the writer's present-day preoccupations--and, maybe unlike the mainstream of participatory, time-based works evolved in the '60s and '70s, they have the awareness of this very paradox subtly inscribed in their conception. Invoking the (from a conventional rationalist viewpoint, outrageous) conceit of telepathy, The Dream Seminar and Dream Mapping probed the idea that "dreamworking" and fantasying--and by extension artistic imagining--could best be understood and pursued as intersubjective rather than individualistic activities, a proposition with clear implications for the standard art-historical idea of "influence": It replaces the notion of the conscious, sequential transmission of known "facts" with a much more nebulous, constellatory model. This, in turn, issues a spookily prescient corrective to the critic temporarily stricken with a misguided yearning for (in Hal Foster's phrase) history as a "scientific retrospect." The continuity of this concern in Hiller's work is evidenced in From the Freud Museum by its citation of Benjamin's famous dictum. "To articulate the past historically does not mean to recognize it 'the way it [really] was.'"

From the mid-'70s on, the explicit participant-as-spectator formula evident in Hiller's early pieces metamorphosed, informing a body of work in a wide range of media: drawing, painting, photography, tape-slide, and video (both in installation and broadcast on mainstream TV). The four-channel video installation An Entertainment, 1990, realized the medium's spatial and aural potential in ways that enthused many rising UK artists. Jane and Louise Wilson, for example, have characterized it as a refreshing alternative to the readily commodifiable formulae that dominated the early-'90s UK art world. In particular, Hiller's use of sound became critically important, with listening foregrounded and re-evaluated as the "passive," devalued counterpart of "active" looking. Through a variety of means, the work continued to problematize fantasies of detached viewing ("mastery" over the dumb cultural artifact) as well as fantasies of emotional or psychical immersion (libidinal self-othering through abandonment to the work).


Monument, 1980-81, uses a deceptively simple device to underline viewers' participatory role. Photos of nineteenth-century ceramic plaques found in a London park are displayed on a wall: They salute "ordinary people's" fatal acts of bravery. SARAH SMITH PANTOMIME ARTISTE AT THE PRINCES' THEATRE DIED AFTER INJURIES RECEIVED WHILE ATTEMPTING IN HER INFLAMMABLE DRESS TO EXTINGUISH THE FLAMES WHICH HAD ENVELOPED HER COMPANION JANUARY 14 1863, reads one. Others commemorate railway men, housewives, laborers, and children, who were killed by fire, drowning, scalding, runaway horses, and other grisly hazards while attempting to save lives. In front of the display, a park bench invites viewers to sit and listen via headphones to the artist's reflections on the ideology of heroism and representation disguised by these perversely picturesque mini-tragedies. The bench faces away from the images, obliging viewers, with their live bodies set against the background of the dead, to twist around and physically "perform" the act of looking, thus completing the installation from other gallery visitors' point of view.

Many of Hiller's best-known projects log materials so declasse or "tainted" by "irrationalism" they seem almost calculated to provoke snorts of disapproval from criticism's more doctrinaire elements: eyewitness reports of otherworldly messages received via TV (Belshazzar's Feast, 1983-84); recordings of the voices of the dead (Magic Lantern, 1987); or movies about children gifted with paranormal powers (Wild Talents, and Psi Girls, 1999). The companion pieces Clinic (launched in Baltic's top-most gallery, and forming a remarkable climax to "Recall") and Witness (first shown in an abandoned London chapel, then at Tate Britain, the 2000/2001 Havana Biennial and the 2002 Biennale of Sydney) could be said to inhabit this category. Both foreground sound, feature huge quantities of data sourced from the Internet, and draw on the skills of dozens of named contributors, whose fluent readings in many languages form the works' aural raw material.


Witness employs a galaxy of tiny, opalescent speakers suspended in darkened space to relay hundreds of tales of extraterrestrial encounters; voices blend, amplify, and fade as the listener moves from one speaker to another. Clinic, in contrast, exploited the bright daylight of Baltic's biggest gallery. Ranks of speakers, one at head height, the other about ten feet higher, were built into pre-existing structural columns; each speaker, when activated, caused an electronic numeral positioned above to flicker. The installation hinted at a giant elevator lobby (while Baltic's real-life elevators zipped up and down outside, casting faint moving shadows into the space). Complicatedly orchestrated, the ensemble of voices built from an insidious chattering to a loud barrage of speech. Individual voices gabbled at artificially high speed then slowed to a comprehensible pace, amplified then receded, luring listeners from column to column in pursuit of elusive snatches of narrative. This write-up documents an Anglophone's response, but speakers of Japanese or Russian or Lithuanian will have taken away their own impressions, comparable in some respects, incompatible in others.


Kurt Schwitters wrote that he had "made works of art by juxtaposing ... sentences that, taken by themselves, are banal. I am also conscious ... that not all the sentences I used are banalities. The reader has to decide." Hiller sees affinities between her practices and Schwitters's, stressing her raw material's factual status: The existence of "near death" narratives is, after all, as provable as that of discarded bus tickets or signs saying, "Bicyclists must keep within the lanes assigned" (to borrow a line from Schwitters's poetry). Refusing to censor the cliches, wishful thinking, or evident overdeterminations present amongst Clinic's raw materials, Hiller launches the viewer into the ocean of its testimonies. Inevitably, some seem generic: "I found myself in a warm, dark tunnel"; "I'm not afraid of dying, because I know I'll meet my parents"; "I left my body and floated up to the ceiling." Others are less predictable. One witness undergoes an atrocious vision and reflects, "As a result, I am much more afraid of dying." (So much for the happy notion that the chemical changes that trigger out-of-body experiences guarantee a fabulous deathbed trip.) By no means do all of the tales suggest their narrators would disagree with current scientific hypotheses about their experiences; but irrespective of their aetiological assumptions, most convey awe and astonishment at the sheer fact of the shattering psychological journey they've made.

Hiller is entirely aware of the range of reactions this material is bound to provoke: that some might cherish Clinic's narratives as authentic contemporary expressions of spirituality, and others dismiss them (and--if they're not looking, listening, and thinking carefully--the work, too) as mere reiterations of what Adorno termed the culture industry's "irrational panaceas." But a Merzbild is not reducible to its constituent parts, and Clinic's meanings don't boil down to extrapolations from its textual raw materials. Wittgenstein took Freud to task over his expose of the sexual undertow in a patient's beautiful dream: "I would say ... 'Do these associations make the dream not beautiful? It was beautiful. Why shouldn't it be?'"

Working through her own responses, this writer does indeed firmly believe that some of Clinic's stories are "ideological"--proselytizing parables concocted, for example, by the advocates of organized religion (just as some of Witness's tales are pathetic attempts at self-aggrandizement). But--telling the truth--she also must recognize their vividness and peculiarity: Some are genuinely touching, some are fascinatingly enigmatic, some are beautiful. Hiller's work diagnoses this ambivalence, characterized by Foster in The Return of the Real as the "fetishistic structure of recognition-and-disavowal (I know but nevertheless) ... typical of cynical reason" and renders it up, clearly delineated, as an indigenous intellectual artifact in itself--both the creation of the participating viewer and an object upon which she must exercise her powers of critical analysis.


"Recall: A Selection of Works 1969-2004" is on view at the Museu de Arte Contemporanea de Serralves, Porto, through Jan. 2005. It travels to Kunsthalle Basel, Feb.-Apr.2005.

Rachel Withers lectures at Wimbledon School of Art and Goldsmiths College, London.
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Author:Withers, Rachel
Publication:Artforum International
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 1, 2004
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