It occurred to me in the course of writing the prior post on Mathias Poledna’s Imitation of Life that Disney’s Snow White has turned up in the work of another significant artist in recent years. That being in a pair of pieces by artist Pierre Huyghe; starting with his Snow White Lucie of 1997. The piece focuses on Lucie Dolène, the chantuese who had provided the voice for the character of Snow White in the dubbed French version of the film, and who decades later sued Disney studios for unpaid royalties. In Huyghe's piece, Dolène is seen sitting in an empty soundstage studio singing “Someday My Prince Will Come” while the story of her lawsuit appears at the bottom of the screen in subtitles.
Like Poledna’s piece, Snow White Lucie deals with the realities that reside behind the curtain of the entertainment industry’s machinations of artifice and make-believe. At the same time, it deals with another theme that occurs repeatedly throughout Huyghe’s work – that of ownership, copyright, and how it pertains to the common culture. This theme echoes throughout Huyghe’s sprawling 2006 installation Celebration Park, in which Snow White (along with other cultural entities) would again be invoked, although this time in name-only form, as one of a number of neon disclaimers...
One of Huyghe’s best-known works is the 2000 split-screen video installation The Third Memory. The work is based on the famous 1972 incident in which John Wojtowicz attempted to rob a Chase Manhattan branch in Brooklyn, which resulted in a hostage situation and a 14-hour standoff with police. The incident, of course, inspired the 1975 Sidney Lumet movie Dog Day Afternoon, which started Al Pacino in the role of Wojtowicz.
For The Third Memory, Huyghe has Wojtowicz himself revisit the sequence of events of that August day in 1972, offering a matter-of-fact walkthrough of the drama as he remembers them. The staging of this reenactment is done with the aid of a mock-up set of the bank, extras standing in as hostages and the like, and various props. Scenes from Lumet’s dramatization sometimes appear on one of the flanking screens, paralleling Wojtowicz’s own narrative by way of comparison and contrast.
With The Third Memory, Huyghe conflates Wojtowicz’s own lived experiences with that of a theatrical, adapted narrative; in the process allowing Wojtowicz the opportunity to “reclaim” his story from the realm of the mediated spectacle. It’s likely that Huyghe had originally developed the idea for the work from the fact that Wojtowicz had complained to the New York Times about how his story had been represented by Hollywood, and had requested that the paper offer him the chance to set the record straight. An arts editor from the Times responded:
"I'm very sorry to say no to this after all of our correspondence, but this article just won't work for us. The problem is that I just don't believe you have profoundly come to grips with the motives for your crime, and the complex relationship between art and reality in this instance."There is also the matter of how Huyghe’s presents and stages the reenactment, particularly in how it follows the format set by late-‘90s TV shows like America’s Most Wanted. The chief difference being that Huyghe allows the perpetrator to present an alternate narrative to the “based on a true story”/”ripped from the headlines” premise.
Also worth underscoring the way that The Third Memory riffs off of its cinematic precursor, by way of a double-edged pun on the idea of a "captive audience." In Dog Day Afternoon, director Lumet buttressed the pathos of the story by portraying Wojtowicz as a conflicted yet sympathetic character. His rapport with his hostages (as Lumet chose to tell the story) leads to a "Stockholm Syndrome" scenario; which is extended to the TV viewers and members of the surrounding Brooklyn community, many of whom come to regard Wojtowicz as something of a folk-heroic figure as the drama unfolds. As critic David Joselit has pointed out, the story had already – via print and broadcast sources – gone through numerous layers of mediated reframing before Lumet adapted it to film.
Nicolas Bourriaud had Huyghe’s works and methods in mind back in 2001 when he penned his lengthy essay on an aesthetic concept of what he termed a “Postproduction” mode of artistic activity. By Bourriaud's reckoning, a considerable amount of recent artistic practices has involved "a culture of the use of forms," and the interventionist manipulation of same. As he states it at one point in his essay:
"Duchamp started from the principle that consumption was also a mode of production, as did Marx, who writes in his introduction to Critique of Political Economy that 'consumption is simultaneously also production, just as in nature the production of a plant involves the consumption of elemental forces and chemical materials.' Marx adds that 'man produces his own body, e.g., through feeding, one form of consumption.' A product only becomes a real product in consumption; as Marx goes on to say, 'a dress becomes really a dress only by being worn, a house which is uninhabited is indeed not really a house.' Because consumption creates the need for new production, consumption is both its motor and motive."
And argues later in the text:
"In The Practice of Everyday Life, ...Michel de Certeau examines the hidden movements beneath the surface of the Production-Consumption pair, showing that far from being purely passive, the consumer engages in a set of processes comparable to an almost clandestine, 'silent' production. To use an object is necessarily to interpret it. To use a product is to betray its concept. To read, to view, to envision a work is to know how to divert it: use is an act of micropirating that constitutes postproduction. We never read a book the way its author would like us to. By using television, books, or records, the user of culture deploys a rhetoric of practices and 'ruses' that has to do with enunciation and therefore with language whose figures and codes may be catalogued."
Aside from Huyghe, Bourriaud cites a number of artists whose work shares the common denominator of the postproduction aesthetic in one respect or another – e.g. Maurizio Cattelan, Gabriel Orozco, Liam Gillick, Rirkrit Tiravanija, and others. "Artists today program forms more than they compose them," he states early in the essay, "Rather than transfigure a raw element..., they remix available forms and make use of data." As an example of an artist who works from preexistent forms, Bourriaud also cites the Swiss artist Daniel Pflumm, whose work in the late 1990s and early Noughties involved a merging of the Minimalism's syntactic emphasis on "primary objects" with the designerly visual language of advertising and corporate logos, in some instances reducing the latter to a series of generic emblems and a clutter of "de-branded" lietmotifs. Playing out through Pflumm's multimedia efforts, it amounted to a very of-the-moment encapsualtion of how the urban commercially-saturated urban environment and globalized capital dissolved into a dense forest of empty signage and visual "white noise"...
As with certain of Poledna’s recent works (Imitation of Life, A Village by the Sea), there's been a very similar productivist aspect at play in a number of Pierre Huyghe’s pieces in recent years. Huyghe doesn’t so much as appropriate items from the realm of mass, manufactured culture as readymades to be manipulated, “remixed” or reconfigured at will; but rather uses them as springboard – the starting point for a trajectory whereby new, alternate works are created, works that engage the modes of production and circulation of cultural artefacts in a critical dialogue, or posits what Hal Foster described as countermemories to an amnesiac (or selectively attentive) “memory culture.”*
In many ways, Bourriard's "postproduction" rubric broadly connects with categories of “remix“ or “collage culture” – those postmodernist domains of activity that involve appropriation (deconstructive or otherwise) from the canons of fine art and popular culture.** But once one considers where Huyghe's work has gone in the years since, the lines along which it has developed, one finds that parts of Bourriard's thesis fall short. Whereas Bourriard argues that postproductionist practices "present a challenge to the passive culture" of consumerism, he elsewhere asserts – by way of the De Certeau citation above – that the relationship between consumer and commodity (or cultural product) as being "far from being purely passive" in the first place.
Huyghe perhaps had something similar to the latter in mind when, in a 2004 interview, he stated that "A film is a public space, a common place. It is not a monument, but a space of discussion and action." This would seem to kick the issue squarely into the court of Reception Theory, in which the ultimate “meaning” of a given work or cultural artefact resides in the various ways it might be interpreted or contextualized within a broader social realm. In that respect, Huyghe has elsewhere stated that he’s fascinated with “how things circulate,” By which he wasn’t talking simply about objects and artefacts, but also the accompanying “narratives” that generate from their production and reception. Take, for instance, his comments about Andy Warhol and his Factory, which Huyghe likens to Warhol positioning himself (the waning days of) the system of postwar Fordist production:
"It was a platform that allowed and produced a kind of chaos of nonstop activity. Before Warhol there was Fluxus, Kaprow, and Pollock, or even Yves Klein and Manzioni. But Warhol understood the relationship between raw activity and events differently. He understood how you put them in perspective through representation, through narrative. [...]
In a certain way the Factory was a place where Warhol could embody the capitalist system,... It’s interesting how he played with this mechanism. ...By expanding the system he demonstrated his relation to it. ...Warhol showed the alienation of it all by overembodying it in a carnivalesque way, leading to death and renewal through moments of transgression, as Bakhtin would say.
The Factory was about the production of fetish, celebrity, and ritual, all of which are linked. Capitalism is based on rituals; it needs stories to be told in order to exist. Warhol was aware that in a consumer society the place of the product and the stories you tell around it are actually what make the product the product. The Factory was a place for producing myths and relations more than objects."
Huyghe situates this Factory-situated hive of production (whether of objects or myths) within a “closed” environment, a theater of activity that selectively discloses the nature of its operations. By shadowing and recreating the productional methods and values of how a given artefact came to be, the means whereby those myths and narratives – or, in Huyghe’s choice of terms, “mise-en-scène” – are cultivated
* Admittedly, for the matter at hand I've been employing the term productivist in a context here that differs from its more standard usage, terminology-wise. As for the broader context of Hal Foster's discussion of archival art and memory culture, see his essay "The Archival Impusle," circa 2004.
** As far as my own earlier thoughts on the matter of "collage culture," see here and here.