Vol. 30 Issue 3 Reviews

People Like Us: Story Without End (and three other Films)

DVD (NTSC), 2005; Sonic Arts Network, The Jerwood Space, 171 Union Street, London SE1 0LN, UK; telephone (+44) 20-7928-7337; fax (+44) 20-7928-7338; electronic mail david@sonicartsnetwork.org; Web www.sonicartsnetwork.org/.

Reviewed by Kevin Hamilton
Urbana, Illinois, USA

Music videos for mash-ups are rarely as enjoyable as the audio originals—the pleasure of the sound collage is the simultaneity of clashing spaces, where visual montage makes us choose between one space or another through sequence. The Web is awash in video cut-ups today; giddy editors take advantage of bountiful source material in online archives, easy desktop editing software, and mostly free distribution through video.google or youtube.com. Surrealist film technique is the stuff of late-night television comedy, as each day's presidential speeches are cut up and re-arranged for comedic effect.

This explosion of montage only highlights the differences between sound collage and video pastiche. Multi-track recorders, turntables, samplers, and sequencers give us densities no film editor could dream of. Yet sometimes film collage carries a more obviously political impact: visual juxtapositions seem to jar more directly.

Into this dynamic steps the singular art of People Like Us. At the controls is artist Vicki Bennett, a masterful and prolific sound-collagist whose works in video have been recently released by the Sonic Arts Network on DVD. Where traditional montage makes us choose between one cut or another, Ms. Bennett's meticulous work relies on compositing, masks, and mattes to create a visual simultaneity every bit as dense as what we hear in her music.

Through four works, completed between 2002 and 2005, Ms. Bennett has extracted various subjects from their backgrounds, and backgrounds from their contexts. Recombined, these artifacts occasionally grow synchronous with sound, but always stand out in contrast to each other. As in some of the more jarring mash-ups one might encounter on Ms. Bennett's radio shows for WFMU, the seams are far from hidden. A boy sets a toy house down upon a giant circuit board; later, we see him again laying out his little town on a pumpkin patch.

Opacities and edges blur to give way to various cohabiting characters: a man peers into a screen to reveal another composited world, even as he's oblivious to the third one above him, or the beetles crawling over the screen on yet a fourth layer. Narrators stand above it all, promising all sorts of things to come. Ms. Bennett introduces each new element as she would a new loop in her sonic compositions, and lets us hold it all in our head for a moment (or sometimes far longer—she loves repetition) before moving on to something else. It's a happy marriage of pastiche in sound and video that helps demonstrate the musicality of vision—the work is more Dziga Vertov than Sergei Eisenstein.

All of this makes Story Without End a welcome and rare addition to the lively world of the cut-up. Ms. Bennett's films offer much more than this, however. After all, as the narrator of The Remote Controller tells us, "mixing is so simple, a child could do it."

Directing the artist’s deft and patient hand at the mouse is a very specific sort of curiosity, and a particular approach to human creation and action. These films are the result of countless hours of sifting through the archives of various digital and physical collections. Specifically named in the credits are the collections of Rick Prelinger at The Internet Archive (www.archive.org), Skip Elsheimer's avgeeks.com, and London's Lux collection of avant-garde film. Except for some footage of Ms. Bennett's own screen desktop in We Edit Life, none of her source material appears to be self-generated. She even borrows from herself, recycling audio or video from old works in new.

The result is a very specific kind of collection. Though individual elements within a frame are composited to remain estranged from one another, the ingredients add up to a whole that's from a particular palette, a specific time and place. In all four of these works, we see and hear hopeful proponents of techno-marvels from modernity's golden age. Men and women hunch over vintage screens and typewriters, monitoring, tweaking and enjoying new-found power through perfect analog connections. Telephone operators, orchestra conductors, audio engineers, and city planners listen to the spaces on the other side of an edit, command our attention, or carry out plans through remote operation.

We see an artist and an engineer negotiate a new collaboration; we are transferred by a series of attractive switchboard operators from Chicago to Wabash. Maps and radar, puppet strings and monitors mediate the relations between distant actors. Throughout it all, Ms. Bennett plays an equally magical role, creating new seamless spaces through edits, as her subjects create spaces through telepresent connections. These hopeful operators and technicians are people like us, twiddling knobs at a remote, if enamored, distance. By revealing her own hand, the artist identifies herself with the films' optimistic subjects, who, according to their narrators, "merely push a button and let something else do the work." Another narrator adds, "the result is breathtaking beauty, and lasting good taste."

Like Craig Baldwin in Spectres of the Spectrum, Ms. Bennett tells a story of hope about technology, using the artifacts of a more hopeful age. Her films marry medium to message to reveal the folly of such hope, yet without resorting to irony. Refreshingly gentle and humble, the work relies on humor, awkwardness, and empathy to produce skepticism without cynicism. If through her reliance on found materials Ms. Bennett lacks the faith of scientist-magicians who create something from nothing, she shares their joy at seeing push-buttons produce results.
In the tradition of modernist reflexivity, Ms. Bennett relies on the stutter, the scratch, or the pause to call attention to her own hand. Importantly though, she reminds us that stutters and burps are also human, and funny. Laughter is likely to be one's first and lasting reaction to this artist’s work in sound and video, so much so that perhaps this act of analysis might seem absurd. Close examination of the works of Story Without End yield rich results, however, and make me grateful for Ms. Bennett's generous and labored marriage of humor and criticism.