A video/mixed media artist could be excused for feeling a tad self-conscious at having their work exhibited in the nook that is the Bruno David Gallery‘s New Media Room. Tucked into the rear of the gallery, the area might be mistaken for a disused coat alcove by the oblivious gallery patron. Yet there’s something about the cramped, uncanny character of this space—suggestive of a forgotten gallery storage area—that is eminently fitting for Brett Williams‘s enigmatic yet winsome video-sculpture “Memory Old and New”. As suggested by its title, the piece is assembled out of elements from the artist’s previous installations, as well as original elements, and the impression that the resulting aggregate work conjures is at once thoughtful and playful.
Williams’s body of work reflects an abiding interest in the absurdities of contemporary modes of communication, often conveyed through a sardonic use of himself in the role of authority, messenger, or glamorous brand. “Memory,” however, feels psychologically intimate in a way that even his amusing, lo-fi “Commercial” shorts do not, even when they depict him wandering his apartment eating peanut butter in the nude. A multimedia collage constructed from bits of reclaimed creative scrap, “Memory” provides a superficial glimpse of the workings of the artist’s mind via the specificity of the selected components and their suggested significance (illusory or not). The agreeably abtuse quality of the piece is a vital aspect of its charm. Despite the purposeful way that it juxtaposes used and virgin elements, “Memory” feels like a snapshot of an interrupted act of four-dimensional sorting.
The work consists of several contrasting components, assembled into a kind of audiovisual monument. A silver, 13-inch CRT television rests atop an unpainted plywood box. Surmounting the screen is a small glass and wood display frame, which encloses a short length of rubber hose. The television plays an approximately fifteen-second video on a loop: a glowing image of the hose that spouts an animated fountain of four-pointed amber stars. The accompanying soundtrack features a repetitive bass-heavy track replete with beatboxing, Atari-esque chirps, and electric guitar-like fuzz. The audio emerges not from the television, but from an accompanying pair of PC speakers, and like the pixelated star-stream it flows forth abruptly and then tapers off.
The elements of “Memory” reflect a wide diversity of materials and degree of rawness: the unfinished wood and garage-studio sound clash with the mass-produced plastic and glass of the consumer electronics. However, even the work’s “new” components contain an amicably retro aspect, mostly strikingly embodied in the video clip of the star-spurting coil of rubber, which looks as if it could have been plucked from a 16-bit video game circa 1993. The dim, yellowish recessed lighting of the New Media Room and the deliberate arrangement of the constituent objects—excepting the sinuous hose, they are all set at fussy right angles—bestow the work with the air of an archeological display or religious shrine. The glass-encased section of hose resembles an excavated artifact, while the animated video presents a reconstruction that plainly corresponds to the tangible object while also differing from it in essential ways.
The personal meaning of such a banal item is pointedly elusive in Williams’s piece, allowing more philosophical themes to emerge from “Memory”’s material / digital twinning. As remarked upon indelibly in David Lynch’s Lost Highway, one sometimes prefers the past as it is remembered, rather than how it actually occurred. The original well-worn segment of hose, encased like a pinned moth behind glass, contrasts sharply with its luminous animated double, highlighting the extent to which memory is inherently faulty and prone to nostalgic idealism. However, “Memory” presents the authentic and the fake side-by-side in remarkably neutral manner, evincing neither an aesthetic reactionary’s sanctification of the original object’s “realness” nor a post-modern narcissist’s slobbering affinity for the remixed and reused.
The scruffy effortlessness of Williams’s engagement with such themes is the reason that “Memory Old and New” is such a weirdly disarming little work. Too often avant-garde artists seem to be striking an artfully composed pose, and while Williams’ work unmistakably aims its prodding finger at the dominant ideology’s eye, his subversiveness seems to emerge naturally from his first-order fascination with color, shape, music, space, and people. Secreted away in the Bruno David’s diminutive black cube as though it were a saintly relic, “Memory” serves as a peek at the affinities and obsessions of individual mind, but also as an archetype of the universal process of remembrance and revisitation.
Andrew Wyatt is a St. Louis-based writer on film art. He is a critic for Look/Listen at St. Louis Magazine, and a member of the St. Louis Film Critics Association and the Online Film Critics Society. He writes about current, classic, and cult cinema from a Heartland perspective at Gateway Cinephile. He has served as a juror and presenter for the St. Louis International Film Festival, the Classic French Film Festival, and the CinemaSpoke screenplay competition. He has also worked as a game designer and maintains an alter ego as an environmental scientist.