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Wasteland Dreaming

Reflections on Peter Garfield’s Deep Space One and The Four Seasons

From Pierogi show Four Seasons: Alfred E. Neuman's
From Pierogi show Four Seasons: Alfred E. Neuman's "Clean Sweep (Fall)," 2008, Digital C-print, 55 x 69 inches.

In the years bracketing 9/11, I was working on a book about the history of everyday surveillance and at the time suffered recurring dreams that were something like nightmares, but more fun. I was always on the run, chased by the state or some other omnipotent force that was never well-defined. In these dreams my companions and I were rebels, or bandits, or refugees, or the wrongly accused. I finished the book, published it, did the book tour and was done. So too were the dreams, and when they were finally gone I missed them.

Recently I saw Peter Garfield’s new video installation, Deep Space One, and I was reunited with that strange hunted, haunted, exhilarated feeling from the dreams. Garfield’s three-channel video, in which each screen relates to the others—sometimes simultaneously, sometimes sequentially and sometimes merely thematically—begins with a close shot of falling snow. The camera pulls back and the snow is revealed to be the static signal on a television screen tuned to a dead channel.

Deep Space 1 (Studio Idealists), 2001-2005, Digital C-print, Dimensions variable.
Deep Space 1 (Studio Idealists), 2001-2005, Digital C-print, Dimensions variable.

Around this forsaken appliance lies a landscape of trash, that most familiar hallmark of everyday modern life’s implicit apocalypse. On the right screen, through the heavy snow appears a fuel truck. Its headlights sweep across the other two frames, illuminating more harshly this landscape of detritus. Then we move to a desolate wintertime airfield. The truck passes a helicopter, and we hear the helicopter’s rotors gaining momentum. The whine and clatter rises with a steady menace, momentarily overwhelming the power of the images. The helicopter lifts off, the sound fades, and we seem to rise with the aircraft into the night sky over a dark landscape of jagged snow-bound peaks. But on the central screen the trash lingers.

Thus begins something like a dream sequence. The cold mountains roll and twist beneath and around us, the chopper flies precariously close to the cold brutal massifs. Then in the central screen the twisting landscape begins to emerge as a strange glacial cave, a fake, upon which work scientists and artists, daubing the snowy peaks with white paint. The camera advances into a studio/laboratory to reveal a trompe-l’oeil wall where one of the artists lounges on a couch, his feet protruding through the wall and into the same place where we began—at the cold, nocturnal mountain air base.

Distant as that place may seem, it’s really not that far from home. Two figures sit on the couch, a man and a woman, casually watching television, the same small black-and-white set from the trash heap. On it we see someone in a lab coat running through those same snowy mountains. The viewers are entirely nonplussed, as in a dream.

At work in the lab/studio are the technicians/artists in white and blue lab coats—all are appropriately “multicultural,” as everyone here is a token. They tinker, consult, plan, and carry on unaware of the camera or the improbable overlap of their workspace with Garfield’s sinister dreamscape. On the wall behind them is a mural, the mirror extension of their workspace.

One of the technicians then casually applies a power saw to the mural and climbs through the ragged hole she has made, only to run through those same cold snowy mountains, her boots making a dry crunching sound. In another frame the camera focuses on the wall she has cut through: the wall slowly tips back and then crashes to the floor, revealing another wall, which is also pulled down and smashed to the ground, followed by another and another.

The camera next rushes through this increasingly dusty demolished warehouse interior, evoking gentrification, displacement, creative destruction and the real political economy of art in New York and other major cities. Garfield, in fact, shot this scene upon being evicted from his studio.

Throughout the seventeen-minute piece, one witnesses the political logic of the last two or three decades—a market economy run amok, culturally sensitive advertising, the military-industrial economy, dotcom bullshit, the biomedical moment, and a political culture contained by fear, surveillance, and a growing police state. (Don’t forget: it was not all the fault of the younger Bush. Clinton’s Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, his callous immigration reforms, and his numerous prison- and police-bolstering omnibus anti-crime bills all gave the incipient police state much of its momentum.)

The underlying politics are what gives Garfield’s work its traction. Deep Space One is technically proficient, perfectly scored, and complete with Foley sound and remixed; in other words it is cinematic in that big-budget, epic fashion we all like, but it maintains a deeply subversive, critical defiance towards what can otherwise seem to be a juggernaut of defeat. The state, its spies, the corporations, the squares in lab coats who inhabit the air bases and corporate campuses—they will always win. And you will be screwed, left to run alone through the snow, one step ahead of “The Man” with only the sound of your boots for company. Or so it seems.

Another essential theme in Garfield’s work is our society’s relationship to nature, specifically as it is expressed through the accumulation of garbage and the message that garbage brings us. Of course, garbage is text in the broadest sense, but it also contains specific texts and images, distinct messages and jokes. Opening at Pierogi in April, Garfield’s installations provide acerbic commentary on the mindless neuroses and waste inherent in modern life. The show consists of four pieces, or “The Four Seasons.” Each is a landscape of trash, similar to that seen in the opening sequence of Deep Space One. Summer is light and green, and the trash assembled here is somewhat floral and frivolous in its messages. There are children’s toys, a smashed-up bright green plastic dinosaur, a picture of Shrek, candy wrappers, a Green Mountain Coffee can, bits of grass, a plastic bottle of lemon juice, a likeness of SpongeBob, and a pack of American Spirits.

Fall is made up of red and orange hues against an earthy background of muddy water. It seems to invoke the fall from grace. Here we see a package of Brawny paper towels; a rotten pumpkin; a bottle of Thunderbird; some reddish hot dogs sticking up tumescently; a rotten banana peel; leaves; lunchmeat wrappers; a page from a porn magazine; another page from a porn magazine in which a woman offers her ass; something called “prostate helper” with an elfin gay man on the packaging and a copy offering deeper penetration; a duck head from Chinatown; more leaves; dog shit; Chapstick; a can of empty PVC glue; condom wrappers; leaves; tinfoil; and fast food containers.

For Garfield the trash pieces intend no environmental or moral commentary. “I just like the aesthetics of trash,” he says. “There’s an archeological process—picking things, signs, out of the gutter and looking for their meaning. I like a lot of the logos and package design—they get even better when they are half destroyed.”

Fair enough, but the work also has a life of its own and offers its own escapes, similar to the monad in Deep Space One who cut through the wall to run for it. The meanings of The Four Seasons go off the reservation, crossing from aesthetic statements into political commentary.

Together these pieces invoke the logic of the present in all its despotism and pathology. As the pieces comment on cultural production—especially cinema and advertising—you could say they are classic détournement, a cultural “turning” or reuse of the spectacle in order to call into question class power and other hierarchies. As such, they do important work, focusing on that which we already know but are numbed and worn down by. In the short term there is perhaps not much effective resistance against the rape of the earth or the enclosures of political life and liberty that pass as public safety. But Garfield’s subversive humor at least enables us to mock and lament our predicament.

Peter Garfield’s The Four Seasons will be on view at Pierogi from April 18-May 19.

The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2008

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