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Substrait (Underground Dailies) and The Empirical Effect


It's funny how seeing art changes you and your interpretations of other work. I'm not sure I would have seen Gordon Matta-Clark's Substrait (Underground Dailies) or Rosa Barba's The Empirical Effect in the same light without having seen the other. Both owe much to Left Bank style French New Wave film; pseudo-documentary art films that express ideas or emotion through a collage of film. Both have a protagonist that is a based on nature; for Barba, the Mountain; for Matta-Clark, the tunnel. Compared to the patient sublime natural formations, the humans that surround it end up looking awkwardly young and naive. The mountain watchers practically worship it, venerating its every twitch and hiccup with a paper trail of data to observe. In the end they are trying to forecast the next event in their ancient and introverted neighbor's life. For the tunnelers, the ground's striations, the physical reality of penetrating the earth, grows into an aesthetic experience that borders on a religious tradition. Instead of observing and spreading the word of the mountain, they live with and explore the gnostic gospel of tunneling.


Though the mountain is in plain sight, still, humans need fine-tuned instruments to observe the subtle motions that the mountain makes. The tunnels are hidden from every day sight, but with just a portable flashlight, a good pair of eyes, and enough time, you can explore the caves to find a whole new experience.

Both use a reliable camera but possibly an unreliable human narrator. Did the man in Matta-Clark's film really get bit by an alligator? Did the children really get to the end of the tunnels that they said they've been to? Who knows for sure, but we do know that formally, the film is created from natural filming techniques with very little sleight of hand. These films allow the viewer to have access to a lot of information. The density of the material provides all the difficulty that these artists seek. The mountain leveled the entire town at one point, and all that we see today has grown out of that tragedy. The survivors of the last geological event (1944) are shown here, but we are not given much access to their accounts or experiences. We see them, but their stories are secondary to the mountain's. We hear more about the tunnels, but the related stories are so beyond most of our experiences that we can't confirm their reality. Besides, I'm sure that the stories we'd hear from tunnel workers in 2012 would be very different from the stories recorded in 1976.

The phantasm—what we are told is the unseen residual affects of emotions in a place—that we hear about at St. John's Cathedral does not apply to the Ottaviano that Barba presents. We can see the aftereffects of Vesuvius in the landscape. The town is built on a bedrock of change, from the mountain's alterations to the effects of the World Wars, we can see the village as a palimpsest, where each generation writes over the next; reacting in a similar manner to the erasures caused by man or nature: they build. St. Johns both marks and obscures the natural landscape, protecting the naturally occurring well by encasing it in a stone fortress. The cathedral, or the church with the bishop's seat, was a political location as much as a religious one. Any town with a cathedral had a direct relationship with Rome, unlike smaller churches who had a relationship with the Bishop who sat in his cathedral. This is all but lost on most parishioners, but the effects of this relationship leaves a similar emotional residue. Non-catholics visit cathedrals every day, and there is an intuitive sense that they are as close to the geologic time frame that humans can achieve; they take generations to create, last for millennia, and are just about as insoluble as a mountain. Long after we're gone, the stone buildings will be the things that we leave behind that best matches the geologic stratum that will bury us. Stone buildings will be our own decorative inclusions into the bedrock that buries New York.

Rosa Barba's The Empirical Effect is included in MIT's In the Holocene and will be on display continuously through Jan 6.

Gorden Matta-Clark's Substrait (Underground Dailies) is currently on display at the Davis Museum at Wellesley. Also see Gordon Matta-Clark's films at UbuWeb.Gordon Matta-Clark exhibit walk-through with Jane Crawford from Howard Silver on Vimeo.


About Author

John is an independent writer and curator. He was the Editor in Chief of Big Red & Shiny from 2012-13 and Journal Editor through June 2014. John has written for Art New England, Art Papers, Artsfuse.org, Artwrit.com, DailyServing.com, the New American Paintings blog, Printeresting.org and others.

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