PRINT April 2001


John Pilson loves boxy, putty-colored computers; he hates those “designed” Macs on which he actually does his video work at home. Drab PCs make good foils for what he likes to think of as “gestures,” unexpected actions or interventions in the anonymous world he calls “corporate cubicleland,” a space Pilson finds endlessly provocative. Empty corridors thrill him. This milieu, which he knows well, even intimately, having worked in the graphics department of a Wall Street investment firm for more than five years, is the setting for his first videos, Above the Grid, 2000, and Interregna, 1999–2000.

A photographer from the outset, Pilson took up video last year, only after desktop editing had come along and eliminated the need for outside facilities, thus permitting, as he put it recently, “the solitary process of thinking about and within a subject, of walking away, of redoing” that he enjoyed as a photographer. For the audience, however, video as an art form remains rather recalcitrant. It cannot be looked at like a picture at an exhibition. In fact, video art tends to play on this difficulty, defiantly countering the encountering experience of art. Video, as Pilson says, does not allow “the luxury of a beginning and an end. The lights not dim. Someone may come across this piece at any time within its duration and to be successful, it must be ‘gettable’ very quickly, it must provide that moment of recognition which tells you why it was made.”

Though they refuse easy categorization, Pilson’s own projects are eminently gettable. Performative instantiations of an idea or way of being toward the world, they tend to be structured around narrative snippets, aiming for, and generally achieving, momentum—not only from moment to moment but also from site to site. His “events” take place in seemingly deadening corporate spaces during “downtime,” at night and on weekends when the powers that be are absent and the power drops, when the workers turn out to be artists, actors, singers, and sundry oddballs. What interests Pilson here is not work itself but work as a backdrop for “gestures,” as a neutral place where strange things may or may not happen, as a negation of home, as a form of escape. For Pilson, “boring inhuman space is relaxing.”

His real nightmare, accordingly, is not the sterile corporate interior but the new, energetically cozy dot-com office that attempts to look and feel like home. The “default minimalism” of the officescape, by contrast, fosters genuine creativity: “The cubicles and computers and hallways are a launchpad, as the thoughtless space and the draining of possibilities reduce the thickness of the membrane that separates this world from another one.” The more antiseptic the space, the closer one gets to some kind of altered experience. Within that scheme, however, Pilson’s focus is really on the interstitial or connecting spaces (bathrooms, corridors, elevators, spaces of potential movement and privacy), which he combines narratively into what suddenly begins to look like a real someplace. In Above the Grid, a couple of suits in the bathroom (characters played by two prominent New York lawyers) suddenly break out in impressive doo-wop harmony, which becomes a sound track for the events in a simultaneous, second frame: Here balls suddenly bounce out of nowhere, breaking up the strict grid, colliding with one another at random and rolling along odd trajectories through the halls, into the elevator, down the stairs. The grid here is not only the officescape inside and the cityscape outside but the cellular phone grid, so far below that to get a signal one has to point the antenna downward.

If Pilson is unimpressed by the humanist critique of instrumentalized office space, designed as it obviously is to subordinate all endeavor to a single, systemic task, he is not offering any deadpan Warholian affirmation of the officescape either. Deadness itself is not the fascination but deadness as an opening for thinking and doing otherwise. These spaces are neither dystopian nor utopian (unless one chooses to think of them in the pan-utopian categories of Fredric Jameson, for whom desire and ideology always work in utopian ways). With respectful cues taken from the Minimalism (and science fiction) of the ’60s, Pilson invests the spatial void with a powerful sense of “eventfulness.” All kinds of weird things can happen here. Interregna, typically, is about eruptions, lapses, and discontinuities: inappropriate events, or actions that become events because they are inappropriate. There is the shirtless man vaulting over cubicles as though traversing an obstacle course, not as an act of rebellion but just because it can be done. There is the guy reading Wittgenstein into a large metal can before a dwindling audience. There is the man banging his own head with an empty Polar Water tank (the sound is terrific). There is the suit on the toilet, pants up, in a private moment devoted not to what you’d expect but to a strange act of winding toilet paper around his arm. And there is the remarkable slapstick scene choreographed as kung fu, a riff on a rule in the corporate handbook sternly condemning “unsolicited backrubs.” This may all seem entirely random but actually follows a “narrative logic,” Pilson’s term for what I think has less to do with deduction than with his formidable grasp of how things ought to follow sequentially and visually—Pilson’s style, if you will.

His is a world unto itself, an exclusively interior space. The viewer never sees the buildings from the outside. The external exists only as images of the cityscape, which also serve as a temporal gauge: setting sun, dusk, moonrise. These exteriors, though visually striking, are there not to offer outside relief, so to speak, but to provide a dramatic setting for the weather as experienced from the climate-controlled interior. By introducing the cityscape, however, Pilson is also making clear that we are not just in any cubicleland but the one precisely at the heart of global finance capital, a location whose significance would seem to warrant some kind of comment. No such comment is forthcoming. Somehow the massive presence of Wall Street neutralizes its own effect and, strangely, aridity turns marvelously fertile.