Review: Heath Franco, “Fun House” at First Draft
by Alex Wisser
The gallery at the rear of First Draft is not that small. It has high ceilings and enough room to accommodate a medium sized lorry. Don’t get me wrong, its not huge or anything, but it’s not a closet. It is thus the first achievement of Heath Franco’s work, “Fun House” that with nothing more than a few channels of av and some pink florescent lights he has managed to cram it with enough sensory stimulation to make it feel claustrophobic. He does this by condensing 5 video streams onto a single wall with 3 large wall mounted flat screens, a fourth sitting on the ground in the corner and a fifth stream projected across all of it. Within this compressed field of noise and vision, absurd creatures superimposed against images of sidewalks, public art and amusement parlors, dance and bob in looping gestures of obscure intent, often chanting barely comprehensible slogans that convey nothing but the generic will to influence you.
My favorite is the clown standing in front of a burger shop, then in front of the flames of a fire, aggressively insisting, “You eat meat. You eat meat. You got the taste for it.” When the camera zooms in, the glitter on his cheeks glistens like saliva and the red of his clown’s makeup looks like gristle and blood. The message is so scrambled that I can’t separate the feeling of offense I take at his bullyboy insistence on who I am and the strange pleasure I derive from being so recognized. Yah, I do eat meat. The over masculine aggression of the character feeds both receptions: at once as a threat to my own sovereignty, but at the same time offers it support.
The other characters include a bird man, endlessly importuning, “Hey guys lets have real good time”, a feminized cowboy riding a bouquet of fake flowers across desert vistas, a circus ringleader mutely inviting us into the screen or into his own bare chest, and another character who escapes description other than that his face seems to be made of black fur, asks the audience “What are you doing now?” These characters repeat and overlay across the three screens and the projection on the wall, each equally irascible and irritating, each competing figure and voice blending into a single wall of noise, a unified field of sensory stimulation that unhinges the gaze and sends it scurrying from distraction to distraction. On one hand your attention is constantly distracted from any sustained focus by the demands of the other screens crowding at its periphery, spruiking their own brand of nonsense. On the other hand, the gaze of the viewer, while fascinated by the various scenes, cannot sustain the visual assault for long, and seeking respite in the elsewhere of its neighbors, restlessly moves on. The movement is similar to the phenomena of channel surfing in which the viewer who cannot stand the various forms of crap on offer takes refuge in the space between channels and the infinitesimal closed circuit in which desire and disappointment are almost superimposed in a stasis of perpetual transition… almost.
To reinforce this experience, the fourth monitor sits on the floor containing the character of a small child wearing a beanie and clinging to a toy balloon pump as he wanders around superimposed against video footage of an amusement parlor. The child’s mood cycles from wide eyed excitement to confusion to overstimulated petulance, until finally he is sobbing, and demanding to go home. This fourth screen sits to the side, and like a Greek chorus, expresses and reflects the position of the audience, perpetually itinerant and trapped within a closed circuit of distraction and stimulation, endlessly repeating an emotional cycle that is as sinister in its positive phases as it is in its negative. While the other automatons are indifferent to the eternities to which they are condemned, this simplistic emotional modulation allows for a relative level of empathy and identification with the subject even as the subject retains its character as automaton.
The simple insertion of a crude ‘subjectivity’ into this field of screens, opens the virtualised picture plane to the fact that it is more than simply a screen — it is also a representation of actual places. (The screen with the child is the only video in which the background is video — all the other backgrounds are still images). While we instantly recognize the “fun house” as being any of the hyper kinetic virtualized spaces we have available today, from television to video games to the Internet, Franco has superimposed this virtuality over representation of actual spaces, and the “fun house” can be recognized in any of those timeless, insomniac places we have designed for our distraction and our perpetual passing through: airports, hospitals, malls, casino’s, fast food restaurants, amusement parlors of any description. That he succeeds so readily testifies to the fact that this is not a union of his making, but one he discovers.