Hermès: a haudenschild Garage project with MARK BRADFORD

banner image
Jordan Crandall: On Hermès

A webcam image appears on the computer screen, a window into someone’s private home. The home’s occupant is in the midst of staging a performance, or going about some ordinary domestic task. The cam feed is accessible to anyone else who cares to watch, but often, not much is happening in this little theater of the everyday. The actor is frequently compelled off screen to attend to some household matter. In those moments, all you can see is the room.

Shadows flicker at the edge of the window, reminding you that this is a live feed, and offering tantalizing hints of some unexpected action about to unfold, some domestic drama about to ensue. You keep watching. Why? You may come to realize, in these expanses of stillness, that the mise en scène, not the actor, is the star of the show. The occupant has been upstaged by the house. The room, far from being still, is a teeming cosmos unto itself, rife with material, sensory, and psychological charge. By the time the occupant returns, you’ve already cast them in the role you want them to have. The role that the house itself seems to demand.

A person’s dwelling space, rather than simply functioning as a container, is actually part of the person that resides there. Observing them through a limited interface, however, you can’t tell much. All you have is an image. You may have bits of communicative or contextual data, but ultimately these obscure more than they reveal. The information unfolds only within the terms of what you are willing to allow — the conditions of the interface you are using — and often this is accommodated only to the extent that it addresses some deeper need. Who is this person?, you may wonder on the surface, but that is not really the question that you are asking, the question that keeps you watching.

Mark Bradford’s research into the use of such domestic webcams, and the kinds of psychological strangeness that they arouse, were part of the informing backdrop for the Hermès project. The vicissitudes of peering and the vagaries of projection instituted by these intimate, remotely-present views, as they are conducted through circuits of interface, were conditions that were brought to play in the work. The views were oriented toward a particular duo of homes and the theater of conflict that ensued there. It was a drama that was action-packed at the level of script and character, but devoid of the primary actor beneath, focused as it was on an empty house whose occupant had exited the frame. It was a narrative that one could access, but through challenging representational conditions that rendered views, actors, and communications partial. These limitations, far from being ignored in the context of the project, were made explicit and generative in the work.

The central mediating function was provided not by an online interface but by a person: the messenger Hermès. He embodied the complexity of the interface in all its material, social, and linguistic resonance. His job was to carry messages from the project’s commissioner, in La Jolla, to Mark Bradford in Los Angeles, throughout the first half of 2013. These messages concerned the history of a reclusive homeowner who for many years inhabited a house next door to the Haudenschild residence. The woman was now dead and the property acquired by Haudenschild. Bradford’s commission was to develop a temporary site-specific installation there. The installation was to open to the public for one day, August 3, 2013, after which time the house would be demolished.

The messages that Hermès carried from La Jolla to Los Angeles were communicated orally. They took the form of observations and anecdotes that together sketched the picture of a villainous woman who, for 26 years, harbored a deep antagonism towards the Haudenschild family. Her decaying home was an eyesore, her ramshackle yard composed of dirt, crabgrass, plastic jugs, peeling cement, and rusty barbed wire. She seemed to deploy its ugliness as a weapon, aware of the aesthetic dread that it incited. Though her house was spacious, she rarely allowed anyone inside; the occasional guest was installed outdoors in a tent. Her living patterns were irrational.  She seldom ventured out, yet would occasionally burst from the house in the middle of the night to engage in a round of feverish pruning, apparently unaware of the yard’s barren state. She often glared menacingly at visitors to the Haudenschild estate; at times she would shout insults at them, or back her dilapidated motorhome down the driveway to block their paths. Unhinged, she once threw the Haudenschild’s mailbox in the trash. One could well imagine her staying up at night devising ever new torments for her neighbor. Some of these occurrences might well be chalked up to the pitfalls of living next door to an eccentric person were it not for the constant psychological and aesthetic anguish that the wretched woman seemed to impose.

Once the woman was gone and the property acquired, the home’s interior, newly accessible, was found to match the character traits that were expected. Reports were conveyed of vast expanses of stains on hideous, decades-old carpeting; frayed, falling curtains; dirt-caked tiles; strips of yellowed wallpaper peeling off walls; frightening cabinetry. As if rummaging through the contents of her mind, these were testaments to the woman’s psychological condition — evidence of a failed interiority that corresponded to the external view. A teeming cosmos unto itself, rife with material, sensory, and psychological charge, the house occupant’s role has been cast, cast in the role one now envisions for them and succumbs to, the role that the house itself seems to demand or validate. Accessing the space through a limited interface, you have only the visual impressions conjured, the flickerings at the edge of the screen. You range through the domestic expanse, absorbing and activating the villainous woman-dwelling through the interface of the descriptive words. Who is this person?, you may wonder on the surface, but that is not really the question that you are asking, the question that keeps you listening.

Bradford parallels the uneasiness that he experienced in webcam viewing via the Internet with the unsettling nature of listening in on these private views via Hermès. A voyeuristic thrill of discovery, combined with the discomfort of eavesdropping in on something of a private nature, but that which is willingly offered up for access. There was no viewpoint onto the dilapidated home save for that which that had been channeled by Hermès, yet images formed in the mind. On the Web, Bradford took screenshots of domestic webcam scenes only when people were absent from the frame. Images formed, pictures were taken, but as Bradford remarks, their representational facades are illusive: inside and outside do not always correspond.

It is a matter of how the views are brought together, assembled in degrees of coherency and resonance, across the differences of interface, culture, environment, disposition, and memory, and the markers of adequacy or validation that they are subjected to. In the provisional configuring of the drama the actors can be kept in the frames or the stage resolved around them, and the necessary dramatic tension — lost in those ordinary online theaters of the everyday — thus provided. The actor can be called into the frame through the allure of the melodramatic, thereby transforming absence to presence, boredom to excitement, everyday monotony to exemplary narrative. Shadows at the screen’s edge are centralized, tantalizing expectations made real. The primary actors might be cast as feuding neighbors across generational, cultural, or class lines in a luxurious California enclave. On one side an eccentric physician, one of the neighborhood’s early residents — perhaps from the 1950s, before property values escalated — hostile to the wealthy arrivals who have colonized its rural tranquility. A recluse, irritated by the social vivacity of the neighbors; an ascetic riled by unnecessary ostentation. One the other side a prominent art collector and patron who often hosts events at her home, in which she has installed an exhibition space for art projects that she often sponsors, hostile to a neighbor who lacks cultural appreciation and aesthetic integrity. A convivial hostess, irritated by the antisocial mindset of the neighbor; a generous cosmopolite riled by unnecessary austerity.

However defined by character traits and genre, the outcome of the dramatic apparatus was clear. The denouement was quick, masterful, and bold. The villain had been defeated by way of a thick black line that ran continuously and confidently throughout the entirety of the dilapidated home. The mark served the functions of territorialization, interpretation, and eradication. It enacted an occupation, a viscerally felt imposition into a private domain that had now been claimed. It interpreted, so as to expose, the occupant’s own internal violence — aiming to evoke, through a hard-edged abstraction, the dead woman’s projected psychic state, described as a condition of interruption: a mind fragmenting itself and thereby generating its own ensnaring web. And finally, it anticipated the demolition that was to come, as if offering a guideline for the home’s destruction.

Who was that person?, you may wonder, but is that really the question that you are asking, the question that keeps you envisioning and reading? The complex of stories, observations, interfaces, affects, and materials that is operative here tells many things. The least of these identify the woman who dwelled in the center. Not much is happening in her little theater of the everyday. The occupant has been upstaged by the house, or merged into it, but in any case the ontological arena has been flattened, and identity is not the only attribute to seek. What emerges victorious in the leveling is not the image, however effectively it captures, but the intermediary:  the connective, translational, and relational conduits that are brilliantly embodied in the Hermès figure who is the artwork’s real central actor. A new dwelling will emerge; actors, affects, and drawn lines will ascend and subsume, messengers will carry on.