The UbuWeb Project #1: Harrell Fletcher

To motivate myself into being a better writer, and also to be more well-rounded culturally, I have embarked on a project to watch every video in the Film section of the invaluable online treasure-trove UbuWeb. I will randomly select an artist, and watch every one of the videos pertaining to that artist; once I have done this, I will randomly select another artist and start anew. I will write up my thoughts on the videos pertaining to that artist, however disparate or incoherent, here. I hope that by declaring this so openly, it will create a culture of accountability to myself that will see me through the project. This is the first entry, and the artist is Harrell Fletcher.

Fletcher’s work, on the basis of the materials available on UbuWeb, seems principally concerned with the individual, or group, interacting with the unifying theme or structure that he has based that particular piece around. This is evident in The Forbidden Zone, in which Fletcher edits David Jarvey, a man with Downs Syndrome, into his favourite episode of Star Trek via greenscreen.

For Jarvey, who religiously watches the episode, this seems to allow him the ultimate realisation of his love for it; to see himself as part of the text, which (as is established through interviews which punctuate the work), he also seems to think is real in and of itself. It provides a comment on the nature of immersive, fictive reality, and the way texts respond to our interaction as much as we respond to them. It is also a pleasant bit of wish fulfilment for Jarvey, who is both treated with respect and seems to be greatly enjoying himself as he sees the episode play out with him in it.

This continues through to Blot Out The Sun and The Problem of Possible Redemption, both of which sees non-professional actors/passersby reading out passages from James Joyce’s Ulysses (which, in the interest of full disclosure, I have not read). The ultimate aim of the piece seems to be to return to Joyce’s language to the people, and to drive at some hidden truth behind the words as they are read in a stilted, awkward manner (robbed of Joyce’s famous Irish ear). The awkwardness of the performers (in a garage and a residential home respectively) is the element at the forefront of these pieces, which makes me think that Fletcher is, possibly, entirely unconcerned with Joyce himself except as a methodology by which to get these people to bare some small part of their souls to the camera. These readings are not honest, impassioned, or eloquent (for the most part), but is there a truth to this stilted delivery? Like The Forbidden Zone, it seems to ask whether a hyper-awareness of structure or artifice bring about some kind of hidden meaning, which can ultimately shine a light on those engaging with said structure or artifice?

Other pieces articulate this interaction between the artist and his subject much more simply, namely Babies and Hello Friend. Babies speaks for itself; it is a series of shots of people’s babies in prams, from the same angle. It doesn’t (or didn’t, for me) articulate much beyond the occasional cute baby, although there is a slightly uneasy register to the fact that Fletcher is filming the children of strangers; it is obvious that he gained the consent of the parents/carers, however, so this element isn’t something to dwell on. Hello Friend, however, is structurally similar (repetitions of the same shot, this time with a shut hand opening to reveal an object of some kind), but contains slightly more thematic interest. The items displayed include little knick-knacks, fortune cookie papers, small toys, and little pieces of nature. Although the video is visually unremarkable, it nevertheless adds up to something of a comment on the way the rubbish we leave behind can only ever form a barely inadequate picture of the individual, but nevertheless counts as some small trace of a self that did once exist.

Perhaps the key video, which seemed to me to articulate most clearly the underlying principles behind Fletcher’s art, was The Sound We Make Together. In this piece, Fletcher opened up a space for people to congregate and use; we see it populated by a hip-hop group, a ladies choir, a rock band, a yoga session, a drumming circle, and more. Fletcher’s method is perhaps his most simplistic in this piece, simply an empty space and a static view of a camera (bifurcated down the middle, although I would guess that this is due to the installation methods when the piece was presented, as opposed to an intentional affect within the video itself). The people in this piece have come to Fletcher, bringing with them whatever it is that they are able to bring, and with this simplistic methodology the piece adds up to a surprisingly clear-eyed testament to the necessity of public space and communal activity. Seeing all of these disparate groups of people, who rarely look or sound alike, it felt as though Fletcher was smoothing out those differences through the indifferent gaze of his camera, articulating the ways in which we are most alike when we are behaving completely differently. This seems like a potentially trite message, to say that we are all the same after all, however it would be erroneous to say that Fletcher is trying to send a message of any kind; he simply presents the footage as he found it, and if that message is one of unity, then that simply speaks to the cogent nature of Fletcher’s aims, as opposed to some pre-meditated ideology that he set out to convey.

The other, more obviously major work in Fletcher’s videos was Where I Lived, and What I Lived For, which took the format of the Joyce videos, except the text in this case is Walden by Thoreau, and the setting is a park. The setting is a more obvious match for the words in the text, although the manner in which I had to watch this video was slightly more difficult than for all the others; this video was entirely in French, and although the text on the UbuWeb website (copied and pasted from Fletcher’s own website) claimed to have the English translation alongside it, I had to go to Fletcher’s website to retrieve it, and then have the video open and the PDF of the text alongside it, scrolling down as I watched.

In a perverse way, this probably engendered a much more tactile relationship with the video, which I responded to the most keenly of them all. Although I found the awkwardness to be the principle factor behind Sun and Redemption, it is likely that the spoken French language obscured any little moments of awkwardness (although some participants were still visibly awkward). However beyond this, the cinematography (if I can call it that) felt much more engaged with the background, capturing some nice low light and the crisp hues of the park. It felt not entirely dissimilar to a Straub-Huillet film, using as they so often do natural spaces which either pertain directly to their historical content, or less directly to their emotional content.

I’ve said all I have to say for Fletcher; I will also say that being forced to reflect on the videos in this way really allowed me to organise my thoughts, and in general I feel I should make more time for that kind of thing.

For the next video, my randomiser has brought up Yalda Afsah, who currently has one video on UbuWeb, coming in at 14 minutes long; expect my next post to be, possibly, much shorter. If I’m feeling particularly self-indulgent I might merge it with something a tad more diaristic, which I note that this piece has itself become.

That last observation feels like a pertinent place to stop this, which I am going to do… Now.

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