Okay Mountain, Austin
Through December 12, 2009
by Claire Ruud
Gareth Long, Platoon / Manual for Draft-Age Immigrants to Canada, 2007
see image gallery for full caption
Two things happened on my way to review booksmart at Okay Mountain. First, I stopped to purchase a copy of Esquire’s touted augmented reality issue. By downloading some software and holding the magazine up to your webcam, you can access video supplements to the printed features. It’s novel to see Gillian Jacobs bat her eyes at you while she murmurs a “funny joke from a beautiful woman,” but the whole setup is still a bit cumbersome. Then, listening to NPR in the car, I heard about Cushing Academy, the elite prep school that’s giving up its physical library in favor of a digital database and electronic readers. My encounters with Esquire’s November issue and Cushing’s electronic library set the stage for my rendezvous with booksmart. The magazine and the Academy are in step with a parade of producers/consumers seeking to take advantage of the virtual word. booksmart, meanwhile, is about the printed word. And the present anxiety surrounding the printed word cannot help but frame the exhibition.
In light of all the hype surrounding the future of the written word and partly because of it, booksmart falls disappointingly short of curator Josh Rios’s promise to investigate, as his press release puts it, “the cultural phenomenon of the book as an intellectual structure.” Primarily, the exhibition’s ineffectiveness arises from over-ambition. Books, as cultural objects or intellectual structures, are a lot to tackle, and the exhibition would have benefited from a narrowed focus. As it is, individual works are conceptually all over the place. William Hundley’s photograph of Tashen’s ART NOW Volume 2 on cheeseburgers is pretty, and pretty funny, too. But its irreverent jab at the big-press art compendium has little resonance with works like Neva Elliot’s nearby Mellon Homes, a book of plans for low-income housing in South Africa, the sales of which go toward building an actual home. Throughout the show, disjunctions like this one result in a superficial treatment of “the book.” Each piece alights briefly on a relevant issue, but few dig deep enough to compel further engagement. Secondarily, the exhibition’s downfall lies in its visual structure. There isn’t one. I need something—installation design, wall text, a focal point, the formal qualities of the works—to draw me through the gallery. Rios’s intellectual investigation of the book might make a great essay, but it doesn’t translate into an exhibition.
Nonetheless, one standout in booksmart makes the show: Gareth Long’s Platoon / Manual for Draft-Age Immigrants to Canada (2007), a full-length recording of Oliver Stone’s Platoon (1986) in which Long replaces the English subtitles with the text of Manual for Draft-Age Immigrants to Canada (1968). (Watch the first ten minutes on the artist's website here.) The text is synched to the dialogue on screen. In the second sequence of the film, as the platoon sweats and pukes their way through the jungle, the subtitles read, “This is a handbook/ for draft resisters who have/ chosen to immigrate to Canada./ Read it carefully,/ from cover to cover,/ and you will know how.” The movie is brutal, but the Hollywood war film is a well-worn genre. In Long’s hands, the Manual’s text, drawn out slowly in time through the subtitles, reframes the movie’s images and narrative powerfully.
At Okay Mountain, a dog-eared fourth edition Manual rested on the pedestal beside the monitor. I picked it up and leafed through it as I watched the soldier’s cruelty to the Vietnamese and the death-dealing infighting of the platoon. In my hands, the Manual was a handbook for deliverance, but the text made no bones about the difficulty of a draft resister’s life, either. “Finally, the toughest problem a draft resister faces/ is not how to immigrate but whether he really wants to./ And only you can answer that.”
Certainly, the weight of Platoon / Manual for Draft-Age Immigrants swells with Obama’s decision to send more troops to Afghanistan. The heavy emotional content of the piece, however, is also what makes it the exhibition's most engaging investigation of the book as an intellectual structure. In Platoon / Manual for Draft-Age Immigrants, knowledge and feelings are enmeshed. The book is a manual of information. But by pairing its words with the film’s images, Long foregrounds the emotional urgency of the text. The images magnify the desperation and hope within imperatives like “read it carefully, from cover to cover…” Yet this desperation and hope are inseparable from the book’s promised knowledge: “read it carefully, from cover to cover, and you will know how.”
In our texts, whether old-fashioned books and movies or new-fangled augmented reality readers, feelings and knowledge are co-determining. Platoon / Manual for Draft-Age Immigrants depicts this reality simply, but powerfully: what we feel affects what we know, and what we know affects what we feel.
Claire Ruud is Associate Director of Fluent~Collaborative.