In the last six years, 30-year-old San Francisco-based videomaker Anne McGuire, a graduate of the San Francisco Art Institute, has generated a collection of truly peculiar tapes, most of which deal with difficult and traumatic personal experiences. That she records them on videotape is only one of the reasons why her work is so perplexing. McGuire is always a presence in her videos, whether or not she’s in front of the lens, and she shoots her tapes in private, her performances covert and self-contained. Each video is concise and economical, unfettered by people, props and sets. Funny and unsettling, McGuire’s videos are participatory works that leave an indelible impression.
In her 1996 tape When I Was a Monster, Anne McGuire sits naked on a chair supporting a forearm braced by an “external fixator.” Accompanied by steady, droning music, this image and its desensitizing effect suggests McGuire’s kinship with the mechanical. While apparently watching herself in a TV monitor, McGuire passes the arm brace across her breast, rubbing its knobs against her nipple, and then spreads her fingers like claws to see how the device directs movement. She then investigates her own body, as though it’s as foreign as the brace, until her face flushes with tension, her body trembles and she slumps back in the chair, her head falling back and away. While When I Was a Monster conveys McGuire’s feelings about her own body after falling off a cliff, it also articulates the universal lack of satisfaction women feel when contemplating their physical selves, and encapsulates another part of McGuire’s project: the demonstration of the performative, grotesque aspects of femininity. Video serves as a discreet means for McGuire to record experiences and present them to the viewer, but paradoxically, the degree of self-scrutiny here and in her other tapes distances her from her audience. Though she appears to be in pain, our sympathy hasn’t been solicited, and the fact that we can observe such a private examination feels like an intrusion.
McGuire refers to some of her videos as documentaries, a term implying a clarity or directness of purpose that her work lacks. When I Was a Monster withholds the circumstances of her injuries from the audience. Dispensing with facts and dramatizations, McGuire conveys her experience through established moods and the sensations we feel in response. McGuire confronts the audience with her weakened, disfigured body and reminds us of our own fragility.
McGuire also regards her 1998 video The Telling as a documentary and, like When I Was a Monster, it’s constructed around a secret at its center. McGuire seats two older male friends and takes her own place in a livingroom arrangement that crudely resembles a talkshow set, covered by three stationary video cameras. McGuire’s actions are as unpredictable as the setup is familiar. The purpose of the meeting is never explained, the lack of preparation producing a distinct level of suspense. As the men wait for her to speak, the cameras catch the anticipation and skepticism that pass across their faces. In the dark like the rest of us, McGuire’s friends serve as our stand-ins.
The video’s sense of confusion is achieved largely through enigmatic editing and content choices. Without any preliminary remarks McGuire springs a confession on her friends: the older man they’d once believed to be her father was actually a lover she’d met during a near-death experience. Her friends betray no surprise, diminishing the impact of the big announcement. McGuire cuts back to herself, silently playing with her hair, no longer interested in her guests, while her eyes move around the room. Her absent expression suggests she’s already forgotten her admission. At the end of the piece, the two men stand suddenly and leave. The viewer is still wondering what happened.
As with When I Was a Monster, much of the effectiveness of The Telling lies in McGuire’s performance — her willingness to reveal herself, and the teasing manner in which she does so, creates an atmosphere of expectancy, compounded by the inexplicable editing choices. Though her work might initially appear amateurish, its incoherence is strategic. In The Telling, the video’s formal elements are pitted against McGuire’s desire to build towards a dazzling finish. Abrupt blips and cuts reduce everything in the video to the same level; the surreptitious glances between McGuire’s friends become as absorbing as the mystery surrounding the meeting.
Though McGuire references familiar television practices, she seems uninterested in producing a polished final product. Like most videomakers, she favors video for its low cost, yet chooses not to shoot a lot of tape or correct the defects in her work. The Telling has a raw feeling, as though the process of making it involved immediate, irreversible decisions, and most of McGuire’s tapes give the impression of having been shot in one hurried take, the imperfections adding texture to the work.
All Smiles and Sadness (99) adopts a TV melodrama format for McGuire’s first experiment in narrative. Friends and volunteers, playing the regular cast of a soap opera, read McGuire’s obscure poetry from dummy cards as though they’re seeing their lines for the first time. Although her dialogue is preoccupied with love and loneliness, the cast reads with little emotion, occasionally suppressing laughter, pitching their self-conscious dramatics at odds with the earnestness of the writing. The video consists of a series of brief scenes, but due to the absence of sets the characters appear to be suspended in space. Withholding narrative context from a character-driven melodrama, McGuire re-creates the feeling of returning to a soap opera you haven’t seen for a while.
All Smiles and Sadness uses common television devices — a three-camera shooting format, pans and zooms that lead us in and out of the action and lingering shots of the actors’ loaded glances, music swelling on the soundtrack. Certain actors further diminish the importance of the already vague poetry by reciting lines with food or cigarettes in their mouths. The absence of expositional dialogue and settings draws attention to our dependence on such technical devices to guide us. In the end, the camera work expresses emotion more effectively than the poetry, enabling us to infer that the characters’ relationships are plagued by stock soap opera elements: yearning, betrayal, affairs and illness. All Smiles and Sadness derives more meaning from the skeleton than the flesh, the story nothing more than a series of technical devices strung together, exposing the construction of narrative and melodrama.
McGuire began dissecting narrative with Strain Andromeda, The (92), her manipulation of Robert Wise’s 1971 feature The Andromeda Strain, a race-against-time sci-fi thriller about scientists attempting to neutralize a virus from space. McGuire’s version is re-edited shot by shot in reverse so that the tape begins with the Wise film’s final shot and ends with its first. Mesmerizing and hallucinatory, the inversion of narrative produces the same level of confusion present in McGuire’s subsequent videos, with character motivations and story slowly becoming discernible. Favoring experience over comprehension once again, McGuire lets viewers get lost in Strain Andromeda, The without sacrificing any of the original film’s suspense.
The crude look of McGuire’s work is usually complemented by faulty-sounding audio. A quasi-musical, I Am Crazy and You’re Not Wrong (97) features McGuire, who performs songs she’s written herself, as a failing cabaret star. The slightly out of focus vintage black-and-white camera causes her figure to bleed into the surrounding dark background, while the rough finish, poor audio and unrefined vocal performance generate a live TV aesthetic similar to All Smiles and Sadness. Opening with a music track that speeds up and slows down indiscriminately, the tape reveals McGuire with a microphone in one hand and a bottle in the other, balancing on a stool. The lurching music mimics her singer’s drunken state — the viewer watches McGuire’s delivery while experiencing her character’s disorientation. Although there is applause and the singer addresses them with vacant banter, the audience remains unseen, possibly the figment of a delusional imagination. Straining her neck to bleat generic, torch-song lyrics into the microphone, McGuire’s singing is mannered and automatic. Her singer is unable to keep the beat, and her delivery suggests she’s merely going through the motions, the dispirited tone of the performance embarrassing and tragic. The discomfort McGuire makes us feel eventually undermines our ability to watch objectively, eliciting the same anxiety we felt watching When I Was a Monster.
One of the strengths of The Waltons (96), a video that records a session of TV viewing using a handheld camera, is its ability to convey how our surroundings inform our experience. The video doesn’t stray far from the images on the TV screen, but our attention is divided between the show’s action and the off-camera activity in the apartment. While a couple watches and comments on an episode of The Waltons, street sounds, chatter and the yelps of a dog all but drown out the show’s audio. The competing noise reduces The Waltons to its essence — the images. McGuire isolates and manipulates a sequence in which John-Boy is seriously injured while helping his father cut wood with a circular saw, the moments before the inevitable accident slowed to an excruciating crawl — yet another instance of McGuire’s fascination with physical trauma. The camera pans from the TV screen to reveal a poodle in heat, frantically rubbing itself against McGuire’s leg, its whining desperation echoing John-Boy’s embarrassment when his family mentions a girl he has a crush on. The tape exemplifies McGuire’s use of her camera as a conduit for shared experience, a practice that’s at the heart of the piece that first brought her to a wider audience, Joe DiMaggio 1,2,3 (91), a video in three parts about a chance encounter. Sitting in her parked car in San Francisco’s Marina, McGuire’s camera was running when elderly baseball legend Joe DiMaggio unexpectedly walked into the shot. In the tape, she follows him, continuing to shoot and begins making up songs about her feelings for him as she drives.
In the first part, it’s not immediately clear that McGuire’s taping DiMaggio from inside her car. Though the audio sounds as though it’s been recorded in a sealed room, the camera stays zoomed in on DiMaggio outside and when McGuire starts to drive, she has difficulty keeping him in the shot. In the second part McGuire focuses on her immediate surroundings. We can make out DiMaggio by his blue sweater as he passes by, but McGuire has lost interest in her subject, concentrating on her car, singing and scenery. Her performance, as singer and cameraperson, has replaced DiMaggio as the center of attention. The third section begins with freeze frames of DiMaggio that appear to have been collected over several days and ends with a strobe effect that fragments and accelerates the images. The audio has been processed to the point where it’s impossible to identify its source. McGuire abandons singing altogether and begins to plead, her electronically processed voice sounding desperate and predatory. It’s as if we’re seeing the complicated inner thoughts and desires of a person whose harmless fascination has given way to stalking, the obsessiveness and hysteria anticipating the surrender of McGuire’s cabaret performer in I Am Crazy and You’re Not Wrong.
Anne McGuire has insisted that artists need to maintain a sense of mystery about their work — a strange statement perhaps, coming from an artist who apparently uses video as a confessional tool, a device to record private moments for public consumption. If mystery can be found anywhere in a collection of such frank work, it’s in the brevity of her tapes, the careful balance of truth and omission, and in her embracing of technical glitches. McGuire’s videos give the impression that sound and image are often working against each other, that the editing conspires to obscure the content. But their unpolished quality has the impact of a guttural noise, a shocking question, potentially unanswerable, coming from a difficult, honest place.
Though McGuire plays with the video diary format, she isn’t preoccupied with the minutiae of personal detail, but with universally understood feelings and states. She strikes a balance between mystery and confession and the viewer soon learns not to take anything at face value. McGuire’s tapes are a window on a baffling, parallel world and though they puzzle more than they reveal, the view’s extraordinary.