New York

Bill Beirne

Last fall Bill Beirne did a performance on 23rd Street in Manhattan titled Cross Reference. It was recorded with two cameras stationed at opposite ends of the street and broadcast live on Manhattan Cable TV’s channels C and D simultaneously, with each channel carrying one of the cameras. At home, on a single set, the final structure of the piece would vary from viewer to viewer, depending on when and how often he switched from one channel to the other. When I saw the tapes later at the Kitchen, however, they were run on two monitors simultaneously. This “double exposure” revealed the work’s poverty of concept and execution.

Two cameras scanned 23rd Street, communicating via walkie-talkie to each other and to Beirne as he executed his performance. Camera “C” followed Beirne as he walked east, camera “D” followed a pedestrian going west described to operator “C” and to Beirne on the walkie-talkie (“We now have a white female wearing what appears to be the uniform of a nurse.” . . . “Check.”. . . “Check.”) As they passed each other in the middle of the block camera “C” was to pick up the “subject,” and camera “D” was to pick up Beirne, who now attempted to mimic the observed mannerisms of the “subject.” This activity was repeated up and down the block for half an hour.

A second tape, breaking up is hard to do, had Beirne operating at an intersection in midtown Toronto casually and surreptitiously violating the territorial integrity of that pedestrian “vehicular unit” Erving Goffman calls a “with” (“a party of more than one, whose members are perceived to be ‘together’”) in his Relations in Public, Microstudies of the Public Order. Beirne did this by pretending to drop something in their path, for instance, forcing members of the “with” to pass on either side of him. Neil Sedaka’s music played throughout the tape.

Beirne obviously finds structural sociology an appropriate subject for videotaped performances. Cross Reference was designed to demonstrate Beirne’s apparently original thesis that minutiae of pedestrians’ stride and posture in the street are actually signs communicating nuances of personality. His work seems problematic, because even though the forms of social behavior on which it focuses may support a sort of structuralist definition, such an analysis has a place only as an authoritative apology for otherwise gratuitous activity. Breaking up is hard to do seems to be saying that if Goffman’s analysis of public behavior is important then Beirne is important because he makes reference to it.

There is something vaguely insulting in Beirne’s attitude toward the public. He attempts to define the behavior of oblivious people on the street as indicative of a reality of which they have no notion and which is sensible only to the secret artist in their midst and his voyeur audience.

Strained as the theoretical rationale for these pieces may be, it still provides Beirne with an imperative for taping “x” instead of “y,” and the process develops certain interesting incidental features. The image of an art audience in the sanctity of a gallery space (or at home) watching via video hook-up an artist-“visionary” struggling to impose order on the wild world is potentially a moving one. And though I don’t agree with Beirne’s theorizing or its place in his work, both tapes were fun to watch.

Despite its overt behavioral roots, Cross Reference obliquely acknowledges video’s most obvious source: not sociology or psychology, but commercial TV, entering into competition with it by the live broadcast. Bringing video art into the home proposes the reverse—bringing commercial TV into the gallery context. A string of commercials, for instance, would make a forceful video Readymade.

Ross Skoggard