A tattooed woman sits on the ledge of a building contemplating a plunge to her death. A fashionable young actress addresses the penalties of art. A teenager carries flowers to lay outside the loft of a famous American crashed couple. A butterfly wrangler spends the morning roaming around his LA apartment. A group of old men push oversized chess pieces around an outdoor board in Geneva. A young girl leans over the edge of a bridge in Paris gazing at the swollen river. A group of children move back and forth across a beach in Hawaii and then into the magnificent ocean. The artist, his head shaved into a mohawk, sits at a piano and labors out a piece by Chopin. A melancholic young man holds on to a weak new tree in the hope of not being swept away. Such are the characters that populate the world of Slater Bradley.
Bradley’s notational ethnographies capture privileged moments from a series of lives, lived both independently and for the camera. His subject persons invite our gaze in a manner which straddles the gap between document and fiction. In certain works, the artist assumes the possibility of an objective observer, while in others, he utilizes fictive strategies which recognize the inherent narrativity of the moving image. It is this negotiation of opposing impulses that accounts for the freshness of Bradley’s views. His work is real life and celebrity; artifice and actuality. These pieces are both cynical and romantic; nihilistic and hopeful, come close to what Jack Ellis, in The Documentary Idea, referred to as “the creation of a life-like art object.”
Each of the videos on display runs either just under or over three minutes, including the looped work, Female Gargoyle, which functions as this installation’s centerpiece. The artist filmed a woman threatening suicide on the ledge of an East Village walk up. When editing the piece, the artist chose to remove establishing shots which provided crucial grounding information (e.g. police and firemen on a neighboring rooftop attempting to “talk her down”). Bradley also refrains from showing us the crowd, leaving the woman completely isolated. Above her image he inserted a gray band which carries upon it the text “Amateur Video.” These two words stand as a didactic plate introducing the show’s theme of the artist and his doppelganger; the visionary and the charlatan. The constant reminder —”Amateur Video”— illuminates the media’s constant search for real life agony, as well as issues of authorship and of quality. Bradley’s “star” appears to ride majestically over the exhibition, her mane of hair flipped back against the seemingly hostile sky. We will forever be haunted by our choices which, in curator Greg Hobson’s words are limited, “to stay, trapped with her on the rooftop, or to walk away and leave her.”
Bradley’s mock verite stylings reject the refinements of theatrical projection, embracing instead the jagged look of the digital projection. The artist switches decidedly between different modes of video making and creates work within the documentary mode, the fictional mode and within the differing aesthetics of the infomercial, the fast-breaking story, the local station look, or the high-tech effects of the decidedly low-tech Sci-Fi channel.
Bradley takes advantage of what Stephen Mamber identified as “crisis structure” — a real life situation loaded with drama, possessing a beginning, a middle and an end — to endow his camera with a relative invisibility. As a girl sits on the roof ledge, as a girl approaches the front of a line of mourners, so are they glimpsed without their awareness of a camera. As a matter of fact, JFK, JR. — a work in which the artist pries into the privacy of a teenager outside Kennedy’s Tribeca loft — formally shatters when the girl makes eye contact with Bradley’s voyeuristic camera eye.
The harsh reality of Bradley’s actuality pieces, taped at times of crises, are played against musically scored works which have been greatly worked in post-production such as Every Person Leaves a Quiet Place to Think.
Flood, which makes its debut here at Basel, is a work made in a vertical format. The formal orientation enforces the idea of the piece as a door onto another place and time. Recently, and for several months, the River Seine dangerously overflowed its banks. Traffic in the city was disrupted as the access roads that run the length of the river were completely inundated. The camera in this piece is intensely tied to the artist’s perspective for the piece not only chronicles the real-life disaster, it also chronicles the artist’s increasing intervention in the actions depicted. It is easy at first to view the central figure as a young woman completely unaware of the camera’s presence engrossed not only in her own thoughts but also in the surreal uncanny of Paris succumbing to the Flood. However, as the piece progresses her interaction with the camera becomes more obvious as does her invisible relationship with the artist.
Bradley investigates — using his camera to get at something beneath the skin, something behind the artifice of moving through the world. It is this sense of query that allows us, as viewers, to join the camera’s gaze in an attempt to see the truth at the center of his amateur videos. Videos that stand in dialogue with direct cinema, and not with MTV. These works, as formally accomplished as they are, concern themselves primarily with the emotional lyricism of the subject observed.
The artist, like his revered butterfly collector, fills gallery spaces with beautiful protagonists who can only be glimpsed, never understood. As the women in these three projections engage and detach from each other and the viewer, one senses an almost unmediated immediacy. We are there with them, right now. Bradley’s protagonists, whether directed or spontaneous, are trapped in a perpetual present tense, demanding an empathic response. The space has the feeling of both the intimate and the epic. The cold, expensive and largely impersonal nature of much recent video art is rejected for nothing short of an intense emotional catharsis.