Arts » Arts Stories & Interviews

Media mediators



Willie Varela of El Paso (left) and Washington, D.C.-based artist Fareed Armaly are two of three artists in residence at Art Pace this summer. The group of multimedia artists are currently preparing their studio spaces. (Photo by Mark Greenberg)
Media mediators

By Catherine Walworth

ArtPace's newest residents focus their lenses on San Antonio

It's official: ArtPace's second set of 2004 residents kicked off their entry into the local community with the traditional potluck on June 3. The curious flocked to it with foil-covered dishes in hand and, after feasting, were served up the artists' dessert: pie-in-the-sky ideas, both realized and nascent. These homey potlucks are a communal way for artists to introduce their past work to a new audience, and to talk about the direction their two-month residency is taking in its infancy.

Guest curator Uta Meta Bauer, co-curator of Documenta from 1999-2002, followed her predilections when she selected three artists who share film and photography as media. She writes, "Our perception of the world happens to a large extent through mass media. The art space is one of the rare localities that offers space for a critical reflection and reading of mass media practices." At ArtPace, the resident artists have access to an empty gallery, technical equipment, and support. The price for the opportunity is a mere eight-week deadline.

Resident artists are like fish put in a new tank with a ceramic Alamo. Each curator selects one Texas, one U.S., and one international artist. For many of the national and international residents, this is their first time in the romantically vast state of Texas, best known currently for spawning President Bush. Interacting meaningfully with a foreign location and culture makes their short time even more daunting, but these artists seem especially suited to the task.

Border culture influences Willie Varela's work. Varela lives in El Paso where he is assistant professor of film theory and criticism at the University of Texas. But whoever said, "Those who can't do, teach," wasn't talking about Varela, who has been producing avant-garde films since 1971. These include Super 8 films, the nostalgia of which makes it the height of craft and coolness. Discovering American avant-garde filmmaking in his early twenties gave Varela a fixed purpose and, rather than missing its heyday, he entered the scene as a key player. The Whitney Museum of American Art included his work in its 1993 and 1995 Biennials, bookends to his 20-year retrospective there in 1994.

Varela intends to be political and wants his viewers to come away armed with the understanding of how powerfully images manipulate us.
Allotted only a brief 15 minutes (mischievously akin to 15 minutes of fame) at the potluck, each artist projected images on the wall of the makeshift cafeteria. Varela, a lapsed Catholic, showed photographs of playfully kitschy still-lifes with velvet Jesus paintings on sale next to shelves of skulls in a Las Vegas gift shop. In another, a wax museum figure is posed as if constructing the head of Tony Bennett, which will become another wax figure. The scene wasn't created by Varela, but his ability to recognize its oddity is one of his gifts. On the other side of the border, he photographed tattered posters advertising Mexican wrestling phenomenon Santos, whose religious name belies a brutal and popular sport. Rather than being perfect photographs, these images show the artist's daily search for striking moments. Tiny surrealisms are valuable building blocks for projects.

Varela finds confluences of images and ideas and activates them in his films. He screened "Collisions," a short film juxtaposing shuttle lift-offs, insects, and a homeless man, with scenes taken from his daughter's orchestra concert. Repetition of sounds creates a new music - as jolting as a grinding bow sticking to the same strings. Varela's experimentation with sound and image is meant to be unpleasantly anti-Hollywood, yet still seductive.

Varela's residency project will include still images, videos of recently shot material, and sound art. He intends to be political and wants his viewers to come away armed with the understanding of how powerfully images manipulate us. Citing Bush's theatrical declaration of the war's end in Iraq, as well as his choreographed landing on an aircraft carrier in full flight suit as examples, Varela announced his intention to pull the curtain back and reveal the wizard's stature. What wizard that may be remains to be seen.

Fareed Armaly (Washington, D.C.) also works confidently with video and sound, adding a human touch. A first-generation American, Armaly is the son of Palestinian and Lebanese parents. Influenced by identity politics in the 1980s, the artist interviewed his favorite musicians, those who defined his taste and, as a result, a part of his identity. In George Clinton, James Brown, and others, he found extremely articulate artists who, he muses nostalgically, were willing to be interviewed by a strange young man with a camera. Armaly listened to them and realized that identity is a construct and, in that way, relates to art's non-identity. Who we are and what we do is an exhilaratingly open playing field.

Armaly skipped ahead to Documenta 11 in 2002 and his "From/To" project, in which he literally mapped out a multi-disciplinary discourse on Palestinian history, as distinct from what we receive from the news. Using a computer, he consolidated the discourse's latticework into a 3-dimensional stone, a fitting symbol of earth, architecture, and weaponry. Triangulated gridlines from the network are flattened out and given directional place names such as "To Amman" and "From Bethlehem" and affixed to the floor like a spreading web. Walled rooms on top of this floor map block flux and movement, and each housed a separate film by Armaly. In "Waiting," he captured the feeling just before something is about to happen. Inspired by the real life situation of a filmmaker stuck in Jordan and unable to get to Documenta, "Waiting" features a filmmaker auditioning actors. The only direction he gives to the participants is to portray waiting, with no script and no motivation. The actors flounder without boundaries.

Opening Reception: New Works: 04.2

Friday, July 9
445 N. Main
Armaly, who is gleefully plotting his San Antonio project, has already envisioned doing away with the traditional white walls, transforming his gallery through color and making it into sculpture. The artist, who spent last year as a research fellow at the Center for Art and New Media in Karlsruhe, Germany, has also discovered experimentation with radio similar to his own, and as close by as Austin. Armaly lights up when he discusses radio, its nostalgia and disembodiment. Perhaps this is his personal touch, his genuine, Frasier Crane-esque mantra of "I'm listening" that makes his identity-based work interesting and profound. He also admitted plans to fabricate a sound piece using American and French films, and the dissected fragments (conversations with God and the devil) sound tantalizing.

Ulrike Ottinger (Berlin, Germany) began her artistic career as a painter living in Paris. She turned to cinematography, directing her first film in 1971, the same year as Varela. Ottinger, who relocated to Berlin in 1973, explores history, ritual, and myth in various locations. Watching clips of her Berlin trilogy, "Madame X: An Absolute Ruler" (1977), "Ticket of No Return" (1979), and "Freak Orlando" (1981), one realizes that Matthew Barney is old hat. Fantastical scenes with freakish characters inspired by carnivale perform amid Berlin's industrial landscape. Ottinger claims to find the carnivalesque even in suburbia and the ritual in her films smacks of secret cabal.

The artist derives her anti-narratives from the open structure of medieval dramaturgies, and her documentaries from reality as strange and interesting as any fiction. Meta Bauer says of her, "The emphasis in her fiction tells us more about hidden desires in reality and her long documentaries draw the viewer into poetic essays - unfolding the beauty of what is inherent in culture ... "

Ottinger's surrealism may not be all that far-fetched. Folks in Iceland, for example, still believe in fairies. We can only expect that Ottinger, who says she has been busy "collecting" local culture and has taken more than 600 photographs so far, will find many imaginative things to draw upon for her work in San Antonio. Regardless, with all of the hype over Matthew Barney, it seems time to pay homage to Ulrike Ottinger. •

By Catherine Walworth

Support Local Journalism.
Join the San Antonio Current Press Club

Local journalism is information. Information is power. And we believe everyone deserves access to accurate independent coverage of their community and state. Our readers helped us continue this coverage in 2020, and we are so grateful for the support.

Help us keep this coverage going in 2021. Whether it's a one-time acknowledgement of this article or an ongoing membership pledge, your support goes to local-based reporting from our small but mighty team.

Join the San Antonio Press Club for as little as $5 a month.