It is not difficult to find examples of the use of digital media in museum and gallery exhibitions today. Vancouver Art Gallery has many to choose from, and The Splits is an interesting piece that fits into this broad category of digital media. The Splits is a 15-minute digital video by Allison Hrabluik and is part of the Ambivalent Pleasures exhibit. The Splits uses visuals and audio in such a way that touches on many of the issues around image and the senses that are part of the current discourse in media studies.
Ambivalent Pleasures is the first installation of the Vancouver Art Gallery’s Vancouver Special exhibition, which will occur every three years and showcase artists and artwork from Vancouver. Ambivalent Pleasures focuses on work created within the past five years, with no set style or subject matter, though the gallery notes that many of the artists are working with ideas of surrealism, abstraction, and conceptual art. I first visited Ambivalent Pleasures with friends, whom I had dragged to the Walker Evans Depth of Field exhibit. It was a weekday morning, so our fellow museum visitors were mostly school children who were chatting and sketching. As we stood in front of Gareth James’ Deodand No. 9/12: Monument of a Park for Legendarypsychastheniacs (a), For Jeff Nelson, a group of children joined us in viewing the empty frame. One questioned loudly, “How is this art?” Perhaps it was the astute skepticism of the youth or the photographic mindset I was in from Evans’ work, but out of the 40 works in Ambivalent Pleasures, I was particularly drawn to Hrabluik’s piece.
I entered the screening room part way through the video. There were no children here, but people were sitting on the bench directly in front of the projection while others were standing behind the bench or lingering at the entrance. While it is difficult to comment on the level of interaction visitors had with the piece, as I could only observe how long people watched, I noticed that most people stayed quite a long time in the screening area. I revisited the piece on another weekday afternoon and again during the gallery’s weekly evening hours, and I found the same was true at other times. A few people entered and exited the screening room rather quickly, but more visitors were watching intently for many minutes or for the entirety of the video.
When I first saw the piece, a weightlifter was pictured on a stage in a small room, perhaps a primary school gymnasium or meeting hall. He was doing squats with a barbell. He had a towel tucked into the back of his shorts, and every time he bent his knees, the towel would touch the ground with a quiet slapping sound. He then dropped the barbell with a loud clang, with the weights taking a few moments to settle. The sound of that drop and clang was repeated over and over rhythmically as the visuals cut to a woman doing repetitions with a kettlebell. Then comes a scene of hands patting out dough, which turns out to be pizza dough, and later more hands pat meat, picking up balls of the meat mixture and throwing it back down on a tabletop. The images then switch to a line of tap shoes. The meat sound continues with the taps, and only slowly to the actual tap sounds of the shoes begin. The video continues like this, with visuals of human activities and movement. The subjects include a competitive hot dog eater, an opera singer in drag, speed jump rope skippers, a dog groomer, and tongue harp player. Much as the images cut from one subject to another and back again, the audio loops and repeats and plays over other video, disconnecting the sound from its source.
(Embedding isn’t working for me! You can view a clip here – https://vimeo.com/202349520)
During my first encounter with The Splits, I was viewing not with the intention of writing a formal class response to it. Often when I watch videos in gallery spaces, I only stay for a briefly, but here I was drawn in. The juxtaposition of visuals and sounds were fascinating. More than once I found myself questioning my own senses, wondering if the sounds were really coming from certain activities in the video or memories I had of similar sounds. In this way, when thinking about how this work can be described and analyzed in the context of critical terms for media studies, I find that ideas around image and the senses are particularly appropriate when discussing The Splits. Even the statement next to her work mentions that Hrabluik more recently has begun using editing and choreography as an exploration of “constructing narrative through visual and auditory rhythms.”
In W.J.T. Mitchell’s chapter on Image, he notes how pervasive images are in our everyday lives today. Considering the digitization of images along with the Internet, the description of images “flooding” viewer seems quite apt; it can be almost overwhelming. In The Splits, Hrabluik carefully selected her subjects, filmed them, and then thoughtfully joined these moving portraits in a way that made sense of them. The choices of sequencing (like cutting from a dog groomer brushing an Afghan Hound to the beautician brushing her client’s hair) and the overlapping of sounds over unrelated images (hearing an opera singer as a man stuffs hot dogs into his mouth, for example) create a flow, a connection, among the many different subjects. Mitchell discusses the idea that “digital images… have lost their causal, indexical linkage to ‘the real,’ becoming untethered appearances subject to willful manipulation.” Indeed the juxtapositions of mismatched video and sounds highlighted and further fractured this linkage between the image and real, leading the viewer to wonder whether they are being deceived in some way by the piece. During the video when the salami makers are throwing meat on the table, the meat began to sound like a basketball bouncing. When that sound was overlaid on tap dancers, I was no longer sure what I was seeing or hearing. I actually waited for the film to repeat so I could confirm whether or not a basketball was in the film.
This example of the phantom basketball ties into Caroline Jones’ chapter on Senses as well. Right away she notes the division between what is felt and what is thought, how discrepancies could create doubt, and how we are often willing to believe what we see over what we can hear, smell, touch, or taste. While as viewers of The Splits, we may choose to believe what we see over any doubts we have about the auditory experience. The meat is being thrown on the table, so that must be what meat sounds like in that situation. The audio/visual mismatch, while sometimes allowing us to assume that truth of the source of the sound, simultaneously allows us to abstract the visual and auditory qualities from the piece as a whole. In the way “consciousness may craft knowledge by selecting among sensory mediations to focus on some ‘abstract’ quality taken from memory of the sensuous encounter,” we can recall our own past encounters with similar sights and sounds, adding or amending what we think we know. Much like my insertion of a basketball into my experience of The Splits.