Playing It by Ear

Ara H. Merjian on Darrin Martin

Left: Darrin Martin, Monograph in Stereo, 2004–2005, still from a color video, 17 minutes 20 seconds. Right: Darrin Martin, Other Turbans, 2007, still from a color video, 12 minutes 40 seconds.

AS PART OF A SCREENING TOUR of his solo and collaborative work from the late 1990s through 2005, Darrin Martin recently presented a sample of his single-channel videos at the MassArt Film Society. Martin’s joint ventures with Torsten Zenas Burns, such as Recall (1998) and Volcanica (various dates), intermix archival footage—’70s pedagogical videos for aspiring psychologists, horror films, and hippie happenings—with staged performances involving the artists themselves. At the core of Martin’s solo work, by contrast, is a sustained evocation—visual, aural, and phenomenological—of his struggles with hearing loss over the past decade. After a series of medical interventions, Martin’s skull was outfitted with a device that sends vibrations to a hearing aid in his unaffected ear. The frequent imbalances and dissonances resulting from this measure, its consequences for the artist’s body (and his sense of embodiment), form the subject of pieces such as Other Turbans (2007) and Monograph in Stereo (2004–2005).

Addressing the artist’s warped perception of sound—particularly when reverberated in the corners of rooms—the latter work intercuts footage and tones from his hearing tests with literal corners scattered in bucolic landscapes. The video’s poetic displacements and its distortions of color and pitch evoke unsettling disjunctions between space and objects, highlighting the ways sound and language mediate the two. The voice of the artist offering commentary alternates with that of a computer—further alluding to the partial mechanization of his own body. The Knocking (2001–2007) combines footage of Eastern-bloc countries immediately following the dismantling of the Berlin Wall with the recurring motif of a single, cloistered individual at a table. Martin transferred his original Super 8 footage to an analogue processor, coloring and manipulating the recordings in various ways. The resulting imagery—striated, faded, and often set into reverse motion—montages urban views with what seems like a vaguely narrative thread, perhaps shot through with personal memory. One frame sets the rocking back and forth of a table to the chugging of a train—a simple convergence of sound and motion, its confluence remarkably different from the rest of the video’s more anarchic miscellany.

Martin avails himself of the protean faculties of the filmed image—by turns flattened and perspectival, monochromatic and multicolored, whole and montaged, embodied and abstracted—to explore the relationship between hearing and other senses. The videos make strange the relationships between physical cause and acoustic effect; we seem to witness someone trying out a new sensory faculty with caution and apprehension. To that end, they draw the viewer into the artist’s own phenomenological rebirth, in all its pains, peculiarities, and strange lyricisms. Martin’s imagery is often knotty and opaque; its perplexities verge, at times, on the solipsistic. But the extent to which such effects are rooted in gratuitous tropes, or else in a self-conscious evocation of sensorial disorientation, remains productively unclear.

Darrin Martin’s solo and collaborative work from the late 1990s through 2005 is currently touring the country. His work will show April 15–19 as part of the Migrating Forms festival at Anthology Film Archives in New York and May 10 at the Echo Park Film Center in Los Angeles. For a complete list of dates and venues, click here.