Sunday, 10 February 2013

Susan Hiller - Psi Girls

Susan Hiller (born 1940) is an American-born artist who lives in London, UK. Her art practice encompasses installation, video, photography, performance and writing.

Psi Girls 1999 features imagery from films about girls with telekinetic powers, synchronised on five large screens at the moment of high tension in each film, when the girls use their extraordinary psychic powers to move objects. The excerpts, from Brian De Palma’s The Fury (1978), Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979), Mark L. Lester’s Firestarter (1984), Danny DeVito’s Matilda (1996) and Andrew Fleming’s The Craft (1996), are saturated in washes of vivid colour. The soundtrack featuring the drumming and rhythmic clapping of a gospel choir, reaches a crescendo at this point, a familiar cinematic device to increase tension, only to end abruptly with a burst of white noise and a period of silence. The use of different coloured filters in each of the projections, immerses the viewer in coloured lights and adds to the range of physical sensations experienced.

I used five films that show girls, pre-adolescent and adolescent, who have telekinetic powers, that is, they can mentally move objects. I’ve made an immersive environment using these images which of course suggests relationships between the power of art and magic. Basically what I do with the soundtrack in that piece is to have a minute of silence followed by a minute of very compelling music by a gospel choir which has a very strong rhythmical beat. I’m attempting to introduce a situation to the audience so that when you look at the images, the moving, exciting, colourful, huge images in silence, you are allowed a distanced scrutiny. When the music starts, you feel your heart pumping, you feel this music which is of course designed to drive you towards some sort of belief and you have a completely different experience. This is a deliberate attempt on my part to share my own ‘between’ position.
‘P.S.I Girls’ has not really left my head since I first experienced it. The work would ebb and flow from my thoughts when I was working on my own pieces. I would like to use this space to ramble about the work and my feeling and thoughts on it and Hillers wider practice.It was created in 1999 and when presented at Tate Modern Gallery, London in a fairly large room of its own, consisted of five screens showing looped clips of montage from films primarily about young girls with telekinetic abilities, which were all, except one, appropriated from mainstream Hollywood cinema. Each clip is a montage of a different film. The clips are all shown simultaneously, their original sound removed, as was their original pigmentation. Instead each clip for its duration was coloured either blue, yellow, red, violet or green. The colours moved from one clip to the next in a random sequence. After each clip had run its course. Silence was intercepted by a soundtrack of rhythmic drumming, both of equal length. The colours had a cycle that ran in time with the soundtracks. This cycle of sound, silence and change of colour brought in a performative element into the work. A kind of simple narrative subtlety played out and hinted at in front of the viewer. When presented at Tate Modern, seating was provided in the centre of the room which, in strictly formal terms, added to the ambience of the exhibition room and made it appear to be more like a screening room or small cinema where concentration is aided by the surroundings. I want to show how all these formal elements are inextricably linked with as well as aid the content and meaning of the work. I will go on to compare the formal elements of the work with other artists who use video linked with pop culture or appropriated more mainstream film within their art practice. One major element at stake within the work is how artworks are actually experienced by an audience.
Pete Inkpen

Psi Girls (1999) is a video installation comprising five floor to ceiling projections and a loud soundtrack made by an uncredited percussive gospel choir, whose rhythmic handclapping is central to the work. There is great pleasure to be had in a warm, dark, empty space, listening to beautiful music. But it can also be disturbing: the use of other people’s music may go beyond legitimate appropriation and sometimes threatens to contribute disproportionately to the artist’s work. Hiller trained as an anthropologist, and her art practice often involves the appropriation of ‘cultural artefacts’. The fact that she is an anthropologist may be something about which it is doubtful she should boast - Psi Girls in some ways is like a good pop promo, but one in which the name of the band remains unknown.

The work comprises edits from five feature films, screened simultaneously, each of which last two minutes. They hop sideways on completion, giving a dynamic motion to the space in a syncopated, angry dance of giant moving images. Each monochrome film is tinted a retro colour - sick disco green or naff perspex pink - a sort of groovy disco hell of sub-genre Hollywood imagery. The movies reach a crescendo with the driving rhythm of the unnamed musicians; a raising of the pulse that peaks excitedly and effectively but which is then wiped out in a searing blast of cruel white noise, only to start again. Overall, the effect is powerful: strong, young and rock and roll.

The orderings and reorderings in the work are appropriate as a reflection of Hiller’s interest in collecting, a subject she has made work about before. Psi Girls is itself a collection of thematically classified images, arranged and randomly rearranged in an exercise of power and ownership. Collecting is, of course, as much about the empowerment of the collector over the external world as it is about pleasure in the intrinsic worth of the collected subject. A great deal of the subject of Psi Girls then, is the schemata of the work juxtaposed with its ostensible subject: parapsychology.

Psi phenomena are those aspects of the mind claimed by parapsychology to be beyond normal perceptual processes, such as telepathy and clairvoyance. They function partly in this work as Hiller’s metaphor for art making. The five film edits are of young females who employ telekinetic skills (making objects move by use of the mind alone) to disrupt the world. A number of pubescent schoolgirls watch as a classmate derails a moving toy train with her mind; a glass travels the length of a table to break, as a child rests her head on the table’s surface; an attractive college student balances a pencil on its point, prior to its crashing; a child, wired up by authoritarian ‘mad scientists’, ignites remote objects to the alarm of the now panicking, foolish males; and another child commands physical objects from the adult world to move at her remote command, in a gross disorder of the possible.

All share a similar conclusion at the end of their two minutes: disorder or damage effected by the young females to the physical world, in contradistinction to their usual disempowered status. Hiller’s protagonists defy certain fearful aspects of power relations, such as those between the physical and mental worlds; adult and childhood sexualities; male and female; old and young; and art, artist and viewer.

Between these categories writhe many other possible discourses, but about which Hiller provides no real theory, making these discourses less privileged relative to the overall work than first appear - as if they vigorously rattle the bars of their theoretical cages but can only escape into their neighbour’s cage. Hiller abdicates responsibility at the point at which her ideas threaten to become literal - a strategic exit which provides an imaginative space for the viewer, but one which could also be read as a relieved cop out.

Although Psi Girls has panache, it is severe: the reordering of the images and their abrupt severance effected with austere perfection and an impatient authoritarianism. And, despite lacking authorial pronouncement, it seems to contain a creeping, unspoken judgmentalism. While excitingly rich, allusive and spine-tingling, it is also seethingly angry, disordering and destructive - of itself as well - forcing unbounded energies to collide with each other in a wilful compression of anarchies.
Neal Brown 

Susan Hiller - Spazio Culturale Antonio Ratti (ex-Chiesa di San Francesco) - 14 July/8 September 2011 from Fondazione Antonio Ratti on Vimeo.


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