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A Stranger in the Street at the Edge of the Earth: An Installation by David Mitchell and Joseph Stocker

From A Stranger in the Street at the Edge of the Earth

Notes From the Edge

The trouble with seeing David Mitchell and Joseph Stocker’s installation currently at Big Orbit Gallery, 30 Essex Street, is that to get what’s going on you have to—had to—see the movie, which was screened one night last week at Ró, a home goods emporium a few blocks away at 732 Elmwood. Or maybe not.

The installation consists of a central sculptural setup of a car in an off-road area at night, immobile after some kind of mishap—one wheel is off—and maybe abandoned, but recently and hastily, headlights and taillights still glowing, and the driver’s side door ajar. But we can’t see well into the car. And a small pack of wolves or coyotes—apparently newly arrived on the scene—cautiously stalking. (Let’s say, to stick with archetypes, wolves.) And surrounding the car and wolves setup, a dozen clattery old-style film movie projectors, projecting snatches of a single film—you are told, and you see this when you see the film at Ró—some kind of horror/disaster movie, it looks like—but the snatches don’t add up to anything like a coherent narrative.

On the contrary. A man stumbling, staggering, down a residential street. The man digging with a shovel, in a white shirt and tie, frantically, like he’s a digging a clandestine grave. The same man running down the middle of the street, at night, looking back, as if someone or something is pursuing him. The man, fully dressed, as always, walking into the sea, into the surf, like the end of a Fellini film. The man and the wolves from the installation, as if cowering before the man. Or maybe stalking him. Maybe closing in for a kill. The man stepping out of his car, a little zombie-like, at a gas station, at night. A mirror ball. The façade of a suburban duplex residence. All to a musical soundtrack—by Stocker, the rest of the installation and the movie are by Mitchell—nearly drowned out by the clatter of the dozen projectors.

You have to—had to—see the movie to see how the snatches are strung together. To understand the narrative structure. The story.

But even then the snatches—vignettes you could call them now, in a continuous movie structure—don’t add up to coherence. They’re scrambled in the movie much as in the installation.

In an artist’s statement, Mitchell talks about how in his artwork he employs cinematic tropes—movie clichés—to explore a congeries of abstract/abstruse subjects: “the psychic divide between science [and] technology…the idea of unseen forces…cosmic radiations, telepathy, intuition, and the spiritual.” You can kind of see some of that in the movie, among the horror/disaster tropes general framework. But specifics about those things, not so much. A bunch of tropes don’t add up to a story or even a statement about so vast an array of thorny to intractable subject matter.

The work—movie and installation—is multivalent enigmatic. Just as the individual viewer will impose meaning of some sort on the scramble, see a story there—because humans are a story-making species, we impose meaning on everything—the artist sees a story there, too, his story, the story that caused the creation of the artwork. But he refuses to privilege his own story over yours or mine. Very generous, very democratic. Not the artmaking standard model, however. Artistically extremely edgy. Maybe the real artist’s statement is in the title of the work. A Stranger in the Street at the Edge of the Earth. Maybe there and only there he privileges his story.

Two things you get in the movie that you don’t get in the installation. Subtitles, and the musical soundtrack unobstructed by the noise of a dozen film projectors. The subtitles are variously cryptic, oracular, mysterious, but only hint at the artist’s message rather than do much to expound it.

The subtle and beautiful soundtrack consists largely of eerie protracted monotones with more transitory tonal or percussion punctuations around the monotone baseline. The music is said to be inspired by the Mellotron, a type of analog synthesizer that uses audio tape for its sound source. (The installation aural environment—including the composed soundtrack and overlay clatter of analog projectors—is likened to a grand-scale Mellotron.)

Discussion among artists and audience after the movie ranged widely and wildly, from musician talk about the musical historical impact of the Mellotron to theological implications of digital versus analog technology.

The exhibit at Big Orbit continues through July 6.

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