The centerpiece of The Parallax View, Alan J. Pakula’s classic 1974 conspiracy thriller, is a montage of photographic stills shown to Warren Beatty’s character to measure his emotional responses, and his aptitude for being an assassin. As the sequence accelerates and the content grows more violent and disturbing, the images come to be absorbed before there is time—for Beatty or for us—to consciously process them. The implication is that we, as viewers, are also being tested. American artist Sean Snyder’s exquisitely edited sequences of found film footage are similarly poised between informing us of past events and forcing us, moment to moment, to question our own automatic reactions. Investigating the ways that images operate on us, he explores a paranoid mindset that can be dated to the time of Pakula’s Watergate-era film.
One component of Snyder’s recent show was Index (2009), a putative archive of photographic and textual material he compiled for various projects over the last 10 years. Ultimately, he intends to whittle it down to fit on a single 1-gigabyte memory stick. At the ICA, cheap black-and-white computer printouts—the residue of information damaged or destroyed in the archiving process—were densely tiled and pinned to plain white bulletin boards. The format owes something to Tom Burr’s cross-referencing of archival photography on blackboards, although Snyder’s presentation was resolutely statistical and anti-esthetic. His dry functionality becomes, of course, its own esthetic. And there is a moral element to his focus on the material properties of the digital media that are the vehicles for his narratives, and to his efforts to disabuse us of any illusion of those media’s transparency.
But the archive that gave the show its title was merely a scene-setter for three separate single-channel videos that all use appropriated footage. Afghanistan, circa 1985 (2008-09) is a 10-minute black-and-white loop made with film shot during the Russian occupation of Afghanistan. In a desert landscape, uniformed Soviet soldiers carrying assault rifles watch a group of Afghans, in local dress, dancing and laughing. The assumption that they are performing under duress gradually unravels as the soldiers are drawn into the celebration. Who is in a position of power here, and who is being manipulated? Lacking an explanatory voiceover, the film compels us to reflect on our preconceptions and how they have been shaped.
Snyder’s concern with the politics of world events is a corollary of his primary preoccupation with the politics of images. In Exhibition (2008), which is drawn from a Soviet propaganda documentary, copies of famous paintings have been hung on the walls of a Ukrainian farmhouse for a lecture on art history given to a gathering of local peasants in the ’60s. The footage is a partly humorous relic made mysterious by its isolation from the ideological apparatus of its source.
At best, Snyder’s films leave us with a sense not of political machinations, but of how little images tell us about the world they purport to reveal. Casio, Seiko, Sheraton, Toyota, Mars (2004-05) consists of a 20-minute didactic disquisition on corporate branding during the US-led invasion of Iraq. The ironies thrown up by Snyder’s litany of facts—for example, that Casio is the terrorist’s wristwatch of choice—enliven the pervading air of conspiracy and paranoia. Finally, the artist’s deadpan narrative voice fades out, and we are left with a panoramic night view of bombs exploding intermittently over Baghdad. In the darkened gallery, the gulf between the distant muted flares and what they signify resonates more deeply than all the foregoing explication.
Photo above: Exhibition, 2008, DVD projection, 7 minutes; at the ICA.