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.

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