Laced with deadpan humor, Frank Heath’s sculptures and videos convey an obsession with archiving banalities. His 2014 exhibition “Backup,” at Simone Subal Gallery in New York, included the copper plaque diptych Live-Help Backup Plaque (Pioneer TX9100 Schematic JPEG), 2014. One panel is etched with alphanumeric code that will generate a digital image of a vintage stereo; the other side documents a meandering online chat about the stereo between the artist and a customer-service representative. In the first installment of Heath’s video series “On the Beach,” commissioned for the online magazine Triple Canopy and exhibited in “Backup,” actor Jesse Wakeman stars as a filmmaker who poses existential questions to subjects ranging from K-Mart shoppers to scientists. The second and latest episode, A Prime Condition (2017), contrasts the supposedly secure underground storage of film reels in a salt mine in Hutchinson, Kansas, with the obsolescence of DVDs.
“Blue Room,” Heath’s recent exhibition at Swiss In situ (the temporary Tribeca location of the Swiss Institute), features new works that merge the conspiratorial tone of “On the Beach” with old-fashioned phone pranksterism. In two video installations, unscripted audio conversations unfold between an unnamed character played by Wakeman and real customer-service providers. The exchanges quickly turn surreal. In War Pigeon (2017) Wakeman explains to a Chase Bank representative that he doused a Manhattan branch’s plate-glass window with a McDonald’s Shamrock Shake. He confesses to feeling paranoid because the branch happened to be in Tower 270, where a Manhattan Project team designed nuclear weapons. Furthermore, he suspects that a bird he noticed observing him during the incident might have been a messenger pigeon of the type used by the military in WWII to send coded missives. The pigeon, Wakeman says, subsequently followed him around the city.
The Hollow Coin (2016) borrows another espionage conceit. Wakeman dials a pay-phone helpline from a downtown Manhattan phone booth, located across the street from a windowless former AT&T call center. He tells the agent who answers that, just like a midcentury Russian spy, he enclosed important material inside a hollow nickel, which he accidentally used to pay for the call. He explains how his nickel contains a digital file with a mysterious video of a telephone booth blowing up in an open field. The call concludes with the representative describing how to get the nickel back, detailing a comically protracted bureaucratic process with a minimum forty-five-day waiting period.
Visually, the videos resemble slide lectures or Chris Marker’s La Jetée (1962). They both feature a series of close-up stills depicting objects described in the conversations, like a spilled milk shake, or depopulated views of the Manhattan architecture referenced in each story. A few bursts of moving imagery interrupt this plodding pace. A short montage of archival footage related to messenger pigeons interrupts the rhythm of War Pigeon, and The Hollow Coin crackles to life with a slow-motion sequence—apparently, the video contained inside the nickel—showing sparks erupting from a phone booth, as violent and dreamlike as the house fire concluding Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point (1970).
There are moments of tension in Heath’s work when the agents break with customer-service etiquette. The Chase Bank representative is mostly willing to go along for the ride. “That sounds trippy,” he says about the pigeon. The representative in The Hollow Coin, however, loses patience when he asks Wakeman to dictate his story for an official written complaint. Wakeman begins to dictate the meandering story, complete with requests to render certain phrases in italics. The representative snaps back that there are no typographical options. In response to the agent’s curtness, Wakeman concludes his narrative with a desperate bid for human contact. Perhaps acting as Heath’s avatar, he asks for feedback on his video of the phone-booth explosion hidden in the nickel: “Tell me, phone person, if the violence in this image is terrifying in a sad way, like a beheading, or is it terrifying in a threatening way?”
In 2012, Hostess halted the production of Twinkies, the beloved cream-filled snack cakes. During the scare that ensued, people hoarded the remaining treats, paying top dollar for them at online auctions. Once plentiful, Twinkies became scarce and collectible, a new cultural and economic status supported by their shelf life, which is fabled to be infinite. Though Twinkies have been back in supermarkets since 2013, the New York-based artist Frank Heath has made good on the snacks’ near fate as antiques. In Production Drawing Backup Plaque (Twinkies Capsule II), on view in his exhibition “Backup” (all works 2014), 10 Twinkies are encased in an acrylic chamber behind a laser-etched stainless steel plaque.
Affixed to the wall, the durable artwork doubles as a time capsule, preserving the snacks for an indefinite future when they, and their container, may presumably communicate something about our present. But the message Heath is sending to another era is highly self-referential. The plaque has been inscribed with instructions for its own production: the plans and diagrams that Heath submitted to the company that fabricated the piece. One diagram featuring a Twinkies logo appears in the upper-left corner of the plaque. The diagram specifies that an enlarged version of the logo be etched onto the plaque’s lower-right corner. The cartoonish image of a sponge cake in a cowboy hat riding another sponge cake is thus repeated on the plaque.
Similarly recursive procedures were evident in the show’s six other metal plaque-based works. Live-Help Backup Plaque (Pioneer TX9100 Schematic JPEG) is inscribed with the text of Heath’s online chat with “David,” a customer service representative at the laser-etching company that ultimately produced the piece. Heath attempts to draw David from his professional script, sending him ragtime lyrics and a link to the Wikipedia entry on the Emerald Tablet, a cryptic Hermetic text. The transcript is part of a copper diptych, the left panel of which is etched with a field of hexadecimal code. According to the gallery’s press release, the alphanumeric grid is the computer-language version of a digital image depicting an analog stereo that Heath discusses with David.
In this work and elsewhere in the exhibition, Heath’s plaques are metaphorically linked to hard disks. Both traditional commemorative plates and the high-tech platters spinning away inside computers are systems of mnemonic inscription-different forms of “backup.” New media is thus equated with very old forms of remembrance. Likewise, Heath uses a device normally associated with public monuments-the metal plaque-to register personal and quotidian experiences. Backup Plaque (Letter from Future Self) is engraved with a letter Heath wrote to his junior high school inquiring about letters he and other students wrote in 1995 to their future selves, but which they never received as promised upon their graduation from high school (a duplicate plaque was mailed to his old classroom).
The humor that pervades this exhibition is undergirded by a sense of loss that motivates our need to record experiences and transmit them into the future. This is the broad theme of On the Beach, a two-channel video playing in the gallery that combines footage from a physics research laboratory in Switzerland with scenes shot in a department store. Holding up a blue towel in the store, a man asks a shopper about making a banner describing what she finds worthy of remembering about life on earth. “Go to Wikipedia on the Internet,” she instructs him with deadpan sincerity.