Depthlessness is Not A Word: Thomas Cook on Kate Durbin and Sara Tuss Efrik

by on Jun.27, 2014

Depthlessness is Not a Word
by Thomas Cook

In a recent review of Kate Durbin’s E! Entertainment, I refer to Durbin’s expositional prose as “point-of-view-less” in order to describe the haunting affectless/affecting dichotomy of her transcriptional fiction. Throughout her book, Durbin faithfully depicts, I argue, “the reality of reality television” and “the surreality of the real” by objectively describing the mise-en-scène of Real Housewives, The Girls Next Door, and other reality television successes of the first decade of the millennium. The technical choices that Durbin makes in her video work, “Anna Nicole Clown Mouth,” reaffirm the aesthetics of her prose while adding a dimension to our understanding of the effect (and potentially the aim) of such an aesthetic.

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“Clown Mouth” is one shot. It lasts eights minutes and forty-six seconds. The camera focuses on the lower half of Durbin’s face, where a red clown mouth outlined in black is painted around her actual mouth, spreading up to her nose, down to her chin, and out over her cheeks; the camera remains focused on that part of Durbin’s face, stationary for the duration of the video. The only movement in the video is Durbin’s mouth, opening and closing to speak as she reads the entirety of the “Anna Nicole Show” chapter of E!, a story written in the form of a transcript that includes voices from CNN, Anna Nicole Smith, Howard K. Stern, Riley (Anna Nicole’s daughter), and mechanical baby, whose hundreds of “mamas” Durbin reproduces. Here we return to the question of point of view: whose mouth are we watching? It’s not Anna Nicole’s mouth, nor is it Howard’s, Riley, the mechanical baby’s, or Durbin’s. Looking closely at the video (or watching it several times as I did), one is struck by clumsy physicality of a human mouth. Lips flap, a tongue squirms and cavorts, the teeth rise and fall. All of this to facilitate speech, but again, who is speaking? Moreover, does the question whose mouth are we watching and who is speaking have the same answer? In “Clown Mouth,” we watch a mouth, trapped in a close-up, masked and unmoored from body, divorced from identity, a flat and unchanging orifice of the affectless as Durbin neither smiles nor frowns, her voice sounding neither angry nor shrill, happy or concerned. The video takes place in real time with no technical effects. The focus is sharp. Durbin effectively reproduces the flat expanse of televisual experience that her fiction creates through the use of filmic techniques that resist the emotional or affect-based conduit of point of view. What we see is what we get. But that’s all.


The video work of Sara Tuss Efrik and Mark Efrik Hammarberg use wildly different techniques to a not dissimilar end. The latest issue of Action Yes Online Quarterly features two videos, “Mummy Loves Me” (2011) and “I Love Mummy” (2011), which are similar to Durbin’s fiction in that they sample The Real Wives of Beverly Hills among other texts, and they also share a masked, point-of-view-less quality with “Clown Mouth.” Both of the Efrik and Hammarberg videos open with close up on one feature of a masked figure. In “Me,” the figure sit in a bathtub with a fish on its shoulder, and in “I” the camera circles the features of the masked figure who appears to be seated or standing in a room. In each case, the camera glides, traces, searches the contours of the figure as if it seeking a vantage point from which to represent what it is capturing. There are cuts and jump cuts that advance us over the terrain of the bath (that is populating with fish and eggs and odd gadgets) and the figure’s place in the room (also populating with objects). The focus is soft, the movements in slow motion. (As a brief viewer’s note, I have the following recommendation: the Action Yes site allows one to play both videos simultaneously, which experience I recommend after independent viewings. “I” is two minutes and twenty-four seconds longer than “Me,” but they roughly line up and their overlap is rewarding insofar as one can almost absorb the symmetrical technical approach to the subject that unites the videos.) Unlike Durbin’s video, and unlike her use of Wives in E!, Efrik and Hammarberg cut and jump, juxtapose and pastiche, complicating the viewer’s relationship to the borrowed speech rather than faithfully reproducing it. Moreover, the masks in “I” and “Me” are themselves assemblages. In “I,” two masks, each cut and deformed, are sutured together over the head of the bathing figure; in “Me,” a gas mask with regalia adorns the figure’s head. (Oddly, protruding from each mask, is the bill of toucan, which in “Me” is used to penetrate various human-body-cavity-looking things while it remains (relatively) unsexualized in “I.”) The world of Efrik and Hammarberg’s videos are filled with things, things that the figures manipulates, pick up, and press to their bodies as though they are trying to discover what do with the fact of the human form. In this way, the recognizable humanness of the figure is not unlike the recognizable mouth in Durbin’s video; the form seems somewhat familiar, but it is largely un-integrated with our common understandings of how these forms work.

In each of these three videos, we find partiality, fumbling mouths and forms reaching out to affect the world from largely affectless interiors that we are only given access to through words that are not the figures’ own. As blurry, swooping, camera movements cut and back and forth across Efrik and Hammarberg’s world and remain fixed on a duplicitous mouth in Durbin’s, we stop asking who is this figure, or whose mouth is this? These videos ask us why we, as viewers, are looking for human forms? Why are looking for the source of inauthentic speech?

Perhaps we can connect these very different video works by asking another question, which is what is behind the impulse to occlude or preclude questions such as the simple-minded questions I asked above. And this may point to one of the enduring qualities of visual and specifically video-based art, namely it’s ability to reverse the position of subject and object, to implicate the viewer and make the viewer’s reaction the subject of the work itself. Tacit in that subject, in these cases, is the most powerful aspect of Durbin’s work and may also be that in Efrik and Hammerberg’s: their work does not instruct us how it might be integrated into the context of a human point of view, but at the same time, the masked grotesquerie of Efrik and Hammarberg and the wailing “Momma” of Durbin, each reach out and try to establish precisely that, without representing it, in the viewer.

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