PRINT May 2017


Frank Heath

Frank Heath, The Hollow Coin, 2016, HD video, color, sound,12 minutes 25 seconds.

IT IS ONE OF THE GREAT PARADOXES of our current era of mediated interconnectivity: We adopt the very same technologies used by intelligence agencies and corporations to covertly track our behavior as our primary means to communicate, to consume, and even to preserve our most intimate memories. This uneasy affinity between surveillant and surveilled provided the central theme of Frank Heath’s recent show at the Swiss Institute in New York. The duality was in fact already signaled in the show’s title, “Blue Room,” which refers to two quite different spaces: areas in prisons reserved for projecting immersive videos of nature for inmates in solitary confinement as a means of reducing violent behavior, and US Air Force command centers used to monitor airspace during the Cold War (the name came from the ambient light emitted by radar screens). Navigating the hazy nexus between carceral state and control society, Heath’s works dramatized the ethical dilemmas that confront both observer and observed in a world of technological artifice and big data with equal measures humor and dread.

The show featured two short videos based on absurd and highly aestheticized acts of vandalism, each presented to the viewer in the form of a dialogue between an unnamed male protagonist, played by voice actor Jesse Wakeman, and actual telephone customer-service representatives who serve as unwitting straight men to Wakeman’s comic foil. Heath’s devious directorial method, based on wire-tapping these conversations (which, as anyone who has ever contacted a call center knows, may themselves “be monitored or recorded for quality-assurance purposes”), makes technologies of surveillance constitutive to the works’ form, a facet registered most overtly in the high-pitched hum of the electronic signal that carries the compressed voices of Wakeman and his interlocutors. In War Pigeon, 2017, Wakeman recounts to a representative of an unnamed bank how he hurled a Shamrock Shake (the mint-flavored green milk shake sold seasonally at McDonald’s) at the window of a branch office after viewing his account balance. As the increasingly agitated protagonist explains, he believes that he was observed by a nearby pigeon, which seems to have followed him ever since.

A similar sense of incredulous coincidence permeates The Hollow Coin, 2016, in which Wakeman describes a video he made of a burning telephone booth in a pasture to a surprisingly unfazed customer-service representative from the phone company. As their conversation progresses, it becomes clear that Wakeman has called to file a report of lost property for a hollow coin (presumably the titular artifact) accidentally deposited in the pay phone from which he is calling. In a surreal twist, Wakeman declares that the coin he wishes to reclaim contains a microSD card that holds the footage of the burning structure he has been describing.

In both films, the caller relates uncanny precedents for his elaborate and often very funny confessions. His interlocutors act as his amanuenses: for example, transcribing the tale of KGB spy Rudolf Abel, who was apprehended in 1957 after he mistakenly gave his paper boy a hollow nickel containing microfilm of a coded message (part of Wakeman’s narration in Hollow Coin), and the surprising history of the avian agents used for military communication and surveillance during World War II (a narrative strand that unfolds during War Pigeon). These chronicles of midcentury espionage are paired with footage of a building in downtown Manhattan, giving the installation at the Swiss Institute a certain site specificity. In Hollow Coin, the pay phone ostensibly used by the caller is located across the street from the looming, bunker-like AT&T Long Lines Building at 33 Thomas Street—the very structure through which, he notes, his call is likely being routed (and which was recently revealed to be a possible hub of NSA surveillance). And the caller states that the vandalized bank in War Pigeon is located on the ground floor of 270 Broadway, where crucial work on the atomic bomb took place. Long, slow pans of the latter building’s matrix of windows emphasize the interconnected—if not paranoiac—logic underpinning both narratives.

These architectural and historical points of reference, like the recorded conversations that constitute the films’ sound tracks, invest Heath’s fictions with a referential substantiality—even an archival permanence. Such a parafictional approach—part prank phone call, part mail art—is one that Heath has been exploring for a few years. The artist’s practice builds on the foundational and in many ways forgotten promise of “systems aesthetics,” which seeks to reveal the clandestine interrelations between the various social institutions that constitute both the world of art and the world at large, and in turn to relate art and life more closely. Indeed, Heath’s work is predicated on infiltrating and subverting the networks and interfaces that structure contemporary life, from the bureaucracies of large organizations like the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation and the US Postal Service to routine electronic communications and commercial transactions. The artist pre-sents his modest interventions into these “real time systems” (to use Jack Burnham’s 1960s term) with the wit and visual sophistication of recent documentaries like Laura Poitras’s CITIZENFOUR (2014) and Andrew Jarecki’s The Jinx (2015), bringing such investigative enterprises to a perverse breaking point, in which historical evidence and idiosyncratic personal testimony become so muddled that there are no revelations of truth, only a mise en abyme of conspiracy and conjecture. Yet amid the shadowy paranoia, a surprisingly demotic spirit emerges from the artist’s collaborations with the workers of the information-service industry. In this sense, Heath’s work at once expresses a desire for communion within such byzantine structures of control and challenges us to recognize ourselves as active agents within the brave new world these systems have established.

Robert Slifkin is an Associate Professor at the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University.