Alex Hubbard on the Abstract Labor of Video


“Somebody had to do it” is the title of New York-based artist Alex Hubbard’s debut exhibition—referring cleverly if deceptively to the artist’s pursuit by a number of the city’s galleries and the anonymous, slapstick destruction of found objects in his videos. Though the artist’s body is not present or even visible in the videos, his gesture and labor are palpable in the work’s direct evocation of the body through altered still lifes. His paintings—drippings and textures in abstract, often heavy forms and wild colors—work to the same effect, and to no less quiet ends. Here Hubbard ties the seemingly disparate to connect these media:

MARGARET KNOWLES: Your works have an element of suspense and climax that demand sustained viewership. Unlike with much video art, we can barely bring ourselves to leave in the middle of a loop. What keeps us committed to the projection is watching the absorbing process that has the promise of leading only to demise. What do you have to say about the satisfaction a viewer finds in watching your carefully constructed creations crash to the ground?

ALEX HUBBARD: I’m not sure what makes people want to make sure everything falls. It could be to make sure you’re not watching a trick of some sort. It’s quite human to want to witness a crash, or see its remnants. In the worst case it’s the muted thought, “This happens.” I don’t think anyone really wants to see the results of a car wreck, but when finally passing one—even after complaining about rubber-neckers—everyone slows a bit.

There is also a logic, or a psychologically-projected logic, that is built into these actions: this goes here; that goes there; and so on until we know it will fail. I think people enjoy that: It’s a simplified and abstracted version of so many things in our lives. This one is harmless and we can watch it again. There is also a satisfaction in understanding something so clearly. The whole operation is closed and that is satisfying.

KNOWLES: I have heard your work described as “performance based video art.” Performance pieces so often involve the presence of the body and, by extension, the artist’s body. In this series, the body of the artist is noticeably invisible, represented by an arm here and a foot there, serving only as a backstage hand, an assistant to the physical object. What implications do you think that absence has for the document?

HUBBARD: The original video I made in this series was about types of performative gestures. But the more I removed myself as an actor or performer, the more abstract the movie became. It’s the same decision in disabling the time element of the movies: Tear everything out and they become abstract from the original actions. These “movies” really aren’t “documents” in any proper form. They are videos. The sound is done later, it’s faked, and my gestures are heavily edited. Sometimes what looks like one pull or turn from my hand is several edited together. If the gesture remains fluid the eyes doesn’t see it, like in a magic trick. It’s always been a conscious decision to not show the leftover sets as well. They look cool sometimes but then the abstraction is lost. I love cinema but have never seen a production still that excited me. It’s like seeing the backlot at Universal Studios, or a souvenir.

KNOWLES: Is there any significance to the objects—seemingly found household (or garage) items-you group in each sculpture you build?

HUBBARD: In this movie, there is no particular significance. There are formal and practical choices for the materials, but all of the materials were in my mom’s basement.

KNOWLES: Here your videos are projected onto freestanding vertical flat screens with the moving images visible on both sides of the flat plane. Instead of one specific fixed position (that of the camera) that the viewer can inhabit, there are two, the original and the mirror. How does the experience change if one looks at the video from the “wrong side”? Why did you decide to show this way here? Does the screen have a special, even bodily presence because of it?

HUBBARD: I think of these in terms of the body in the same way I would of a cardboard cutout of a celebrity. They are flat and signify something much different than a real person or sculpture would. These are stand-ins. I am executing the simplest actions with the most common of objects; flattened and projected they become an abstraction of a sculpture as well as of my actions. The advantage to the screens being two sided forces someone to consider “the back” of a video, I like the play there between sculpture and video.  Sculpture of course demanding this kind of attention( see all sides), and video failing in this way. These are closer to going “backstage” than requiring a viewer to consider all sides.  And they also have a greater presence in a space.

KNOWLES: Can you talk a little about the conceptual threads that connect your video and printed or painted works?

HUBBARD: The paintings began, many attempts ago, as a way to find a link between the two. If I was making painterly videos what did it mean to make paintings? There is a great Michael Snow quote which I can’t find but essentially he says he makes films as a painter and paintings as a sculptor and sculptors as a musician. It’s a great way to think about things, coming at them from the outside. If I am going to make films about gesture, that look like gesture but are choreographed actions, how do I reflect that in a painting? With these resin paintings I pour the resin onto the fiberglass and have 20–30 minutes before they dry. The mechanics of me pushing resin into the fiberglass before it dries becomes the gesture, one that looks painterly but is borrowed from the labor of making the thing.