Erin Colleen Johnson at Sella-Granata Art Gallery
Erin Colleen Johnson’s solo exhibition Seek You at Sella-Granata Art Gallery at the University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa consists of experiments in human connectivity, though imbued with the always present possibility that one will fail to connect. The title of the show, Seek You, derives from CQ, the code used by wireless operators to invite responses from others that are out there listening. CQ is shorthand for “seek you.”
What unites each of the bodies of work presented in the show is the consistency of Johnson’s process and medium. Though the subject matter varies, the important underlying foundation is the act of reaching out to another, desiring some sort of reciprocal contact.
The Message’s (Non)Arrival
Three of the works in Johnson’s show are directly related to the CQ call sign: Come In (2011), CQ (2013), and To Sea (2012). Installed as videos, each grapples with the desire to send out a message, but the potential failure of ever getting a response to it.
Come In, a split-screen video, in its combination of imagery of the Historic RCA Coast Station KPH (KPH, the ex-RCA coast station) located north of San Francisco with a Spiritualist church also located in the Bay Area, depicts the historical relationship between the invention of wireless telegraphy and Morse code with the birth of the American Spiritualist church. 1 Both sparsely populated, the spaces of the RCA Coast Station meet the spaces of the church and sounds of Morse communication join with the recordings of a congregation’s song and prayer.
Johnson’s 16mm film To Sea evokes the image of the message in a bottle that may never arrive at anyone’s feet, a gesture similar to her work call and response, not featured in the show, which also sends messages out to the ocean that are never responded to or returned. To Sea’s material support is 16mm film footage of the ocean view from the RCA Coast Station. What the viewer encounters in the 3 min film loop, though, is an abstracted sea, partially bleached out, only visible through a series of dots. In her artist talk, Johnson described the process of making this film. Using a 2011 year-end report about the environmental state of the ocean, Johnson typed messages in Morse on Morse strips, which are the same width as 16mm film. She then covered the film-Morse strip in varnish and submerged it in bleach, leaving the dots and dashes safe from the degradation. The sound is of the messages being transmitted. Each letter a different visual and sonic symbol.
CQ is Johnson’s attempt to maintain communication with the RCA station after she had relocated from the Bay Area in California to Carrolton, GA to teach at the University of West Georgia. When she moved to Georgia, Johnson found John Playford who operates a Morse transmitting station in his basement. The video shows Playford’s attempts to make contact with the station, but in the end, he’s not sure whether connection had been made. He relays the conversation: “I got so little of what he was trying to tell me. He was there but I wasn’t hearing him well enough to pick up where he was going. And then he just came back and said “Thanks for the try, but it’s just no go.” And then I said “Erin says hello, Erin says hello,” and I don’t know whether he got it or not.”
Jacques Derrida’s essay “The Purveyor of Truth,” in its analysis of Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “The Purloined Letter” in conjunction with Jacques Lacan’s seminar “The agency of the letter in the unconscious or reason since Freud,” argues that any message sent or activity of communication is constituted by the possibility that it does not or will not arrive at its destination. He states that it is “[n]ot that the letter never arrives at its destination, but that it belongs to the structure of the letter to be capable, always, of not arriving. And without this threat (breach of contract, division or multiplication, the separation without return from the phallus which was begun for a moment by the Queen [refers to the character in Poe’s story] that is, by every “subject”), the circuit of the letter would not even have begun. But with this threat, the circuit can always not finish.”
This is not just an argument that claims the letter may just fail to arrive in one’s mailbox. Rather, this argument, following Lacan’s take on the letter (of the alphabet), the signifier, which slips back and forth between signifieds; meaning is not secure. John Durham Peters, in his book Speaking into the Air: A History of the Idea of Communication, critiques the hope for direct and transparent communication. Though we long to connect with another and be completely understood, “a fusion of consciousnesses,” 2 this is impossible.
The telephone is another important device in Johnson’s works. Her video installation Hole (2013) develops connection with another despite, or in spite of, isolation and distance. During a series of telephone calls with an ice fisher living in Minnesota, Tom Johnson (no relation), Johnson (Erin, the artist) holed herself up in a cardboard box. Avital Ronell argues that for the telephone to be a telephone, it always already has to be multiple: “To be what it is, it has to be pluralized, multiplied, engaged by another line, high strung and heading for you.” 3 The work is a conjunction of two spaces: the cardboard box in California and Tom’s darkhouse spearing hut in Minnesota.
The viewer, sitting in a wooden hut-like structure, watches a projection onto the floor of video of glowing water surrounded by darkness and listens to the voice of the artist narrating her story and snippets of her phone conversations with Tom discussing techniques of cutting holes, in the ice (in the case of Tom) and in the cardboard box (in the case of Erin). Four minutes into the video loop Johnson finally cuts through the darkness of the cardboard box and reaches the light source. Then, Tom’s voice says “Then, you just sit there and you wait.” The circle of light rests on the screen and the viewer waits. Erin then tells the listener that she hasn’t actually been on a frozen lake or held a spear, but she’d seen videos of the glowing light darkhouse ice fishing produces. She uses videos culled from Youtube to show the experience of illuminated water.
For the darkhouse spearing hut, this illumination source would be the hole in the water itself, the light from the sun penetrates the ice and travels up through the gap in the frozen surface made by the fisher.
Though Tom’s and Erin’s geographical location and experience of the landscape is so different, the video’s way of juxtaposing these spaces allows the viewer to draw associations between them. Hearing both the artist’s and the fisher’s voice opens up an intriguing space of empathy. We watch and listen as these two beings try to understand each other.
The Animal Speaks
The third major body of work featured in the show is Johnson’s video If it won’t hold water, it surely won’t hold a goat (2014). This work appears at first to be a radical departure from the other projects in the show. However, the process of producing the work through activities of conversation and communication with others, remains the same.
Upon moving from California to Georgia, Johnson decided to buy a herd of goats. As it turns out, goats are “slippery” beings, thus the saying “If it won’t hold water, it surely won’t hold a goat.” 4 To deal with these new creatures in Johnson’s life, she reached out to other goat farmers in the area and soon happened upon the story of the Goat Man — a wanderer who traveled throughout Georgia on a cart with his herd of goats. Johnson describes how the Goat Man believed in “the law of contagion, where contact between two people, animals, or objects creates an indelible, magical link.” In keeping with the idea of connection, Johnson eventually founded the West Georgia Goat Association, a group that gathers for meals and shares information with each other.
In another light, this “indelible, magical link” 5 is not dissimilar to the contact between the living and the dead in which those in the spiritualist church believe, bringing us back to contemplate Come In, which leads the viewer to reconsider the failure to make steady contact in CQ. Then, we return to To Sea and the figure of the water’s depths, which conceptually leads to the water underneath the ice of Hole. The body of the fish, an animal, relates to the body of the goat and its slipperiness; the title’s reference to water securing the relation. Discovering this network between the different projects is extremely satisfying. Funny how pondering failed communication can lead to a rewarding aesthetic and intellectual experience.
- See my forthcoming article “Treasonous Transmissions and the Death of Clue’s Singing Telegram Girl,” which is a meditation on the relationship between telegraphy, spiritualism, Salem witch burnings, and the Cold War on Dilettante Army. http://www.dilettantearmy.com/. ↩
- John Durham Peters, Speaking into the Air: A History of the Idea of Communication (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1999), 8. ↩
- Avital Ronell, The Telephone Book: Technology, Schizophrenia, Electric Speech (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1989), 3. ↩
- Johnson’s statement, http://erincolleenjohnson.com/if-it-wont-hold-water-it-surely-wont-hol. ↩
- Ibid. ↩