When Omer Fast was an MFA student at Hunter College in New York City in the late nineties, he had one of those pot-smoking roommates who flip through the channels of the TV, never stopping to watch any one thing in particular. “The more he smoked, the more he flipped through the channels,” Fast says. At some point, the rapid juxtapositions began to make a certain amount of sense to Fast, and a seed was sown. After 9/11 he put together “CNN Concatenated,” a single-channel video in which individual words by different CNN presenters are cobbled together into a mosaic, intoning Laurie Anderson-like statements: “You mistrust your body. Lately it has been looking more and more foreign.”
The screen format of CNN assures that the stock quotes stay on the bottom of the screen, fluctuating like mad while the white faces of the presenters flicker one after another with each word. But there is one detail in this piece that makes it more than a heap of word/image fragments: at the beginning of each sentence, Fast has inserted someone taking a breath—frequently Robert Novak’s trout-like face taking in a huge gulp of air. Instead of an impersonal, disembodied voice, the post-9/11 media suddenly takes on a horrible spectral body.
The Betty Rymer Gallery has two new video works. “Looking Pretty for God (After GW)” takes up the theme of voice and embodiment from “CNN” in its picture of funeral homes and the business of “mortuary restoration and cosmetics.” The GW here is British artist Gillian Wearing, whose “10-16” showed adult actors lip-syncing to the voices of children as they narrate their dreams and fantasies. In Fast’s piece, the children mouth the words of the morticians, as they describe their compassionate art of creating “memory pictures” out of the recently deceased. There is an extended comparison between the art of filmmaking and a description of the embalming process, and moments of confusion, as when the mortician says that he is a “third generation filmmaker.” This is not, we will learn, a slip of the tongue.
The other video installation was at the Whitney Museum this year, and won the $100,000 Bucksbaum prize. Fast’s interest in reenactments and simulations led him to apply with the US military to film at Fort Irwin, a fake town in the Mojave Desert designed to simulate conditions in Iraq.
After waiting anxiously for permission for almost a year, Fast gave up, and instead interviewed soldiers from Fort Hood in Texas. One of the interviews he conducted there became the basis of “The Casting.” The film shows a director in search of a story; a soldier tells two stories, one about a date with a self-mutilating German woman, the other about a roadside bomb and its aftermath. Both stories are rejected in the end because they are “too long.”
On entering the installation, you hear the story being told, and you see the events recreated in a series of tableaux-vivants. You see, for example, the scars on the woman’s body, the embarrassment of the soldier as his story is rejected. On the other side of the screens, something else entirely is going on. The interviewer and interviewee are shown speaking, but the jump cuts and abrupt visual transitions show that what you see has been fabricated, pieced together out of scraps of video.
The principle, Fast says, is the same as in the CNN piece. A story is edited out of bits and pieces. “I used the interview almost as a pool of words from which to edit new sentences and new thoughts that were not said in the interview.” There never was a self-mutilating German woman; her “scars,” the scars on her body that we have seen, are made up of the sound files “scared” and “cars,” spliced to make “scars.” And in the final scene of rejection, so convincing in the hesitant modulations of the voice, the hesitations, the uncomfortable silences, is, on the other side of the screen, nothing but scraps and fragments.
Omer Fast shows at Betty Rymer Gallery at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, 280 South Columbus Drive, (312)443-3703, through January 3.