New York

Constance DeJong and Tony Oursler, Relatives

This collaboration between writer Constance DeJong and video artist Tony Oursler tells the story of the fictional McCloud family. The clan springs full-grown from the image bank, where each has contributed in some small way to the history of representation: great-grandmother modeled for Albert Pinkham Ryder; grandmother worked as a Hollywood extra; an older sister dubs kung fu movies into English, and so on. DeJong stands next to a television monitor, talking to or about these “relatives” on the screen. What we see is not them, but the images they have generated. The subtexts to their life stories (belief, identity, authenticity) are the subtexts of television itself. Relatives illustrates the McLuhanesque point that we are now a mass-audience family, with collective memories of media narratives, jokes, and advice; electronic transmission has replaced the oral tradition.

Like an evening with Barbara Walters, the performance moves from one relative’s “15 minutes” to the next. The dramas these characters have experienced, though, are more hinted at than explored. Certain episodes might have made poignant stories had their emotional implications been examined. For example, in the grandmother/bit-player’s life, we learn that she took the pseudonym Lorna Lanne and submitted to a glamour makeover—to look “less like just a person and more like a person on the screen.” As clips from old movies play across the monitor, DeJong identifies as Grandmother someone whose face we can hardly see and wouldn’t remember. In clips from Cleopatra (the Taylor-Burton remake), DeJong then singles this character out from among the anonymous robed figures in the bonfire scene. “Many a sad story is secreted in the little screen moment when Lorna Lanne will toss her torch into the air, one among many an extra,” she observes. But we never hear those stories, so the moment has no pathos. Instead, the tape rewinds to the torch-tossing a couple of times, rendering it one more repeatable, disposable image.

Perhaps it’s appropriate that Grandmother/Lorna, a fiction, remains a bit of highlight footage wedged in hyperreality. For once, we can’t develop some insane emotional attachment to an image. But showing the audience how easily their responses can be manipulated—or showing them what fakery they’ve responded to—is the same routine practiced by television hipsters, from Ernie Kovacs to the Moonlighting gang. In fact, DeJong and Oursler include a Kovacs take-off, a children’s show hosted by a character named “Uncle Johnny.” This low-tech black-and-white segment captures both the self-reflexiveness of Kovacs (“Which came first—me or the TV?”) and the innocence of Kukla, Fran, and Ollie, a popular ’50s puppet show. DeJong plays the “Fran” character, who interacts with the hand puppet (painted on Uncle Johnny’s fist). This is the most direct contact she makes with the screen—speaking to a fiction’s fiction.

Each relative onscreen is certainly what Jean Baudrillard would call “an image without referents,” and all the DeJong characters become something like humans without referents. Unlike most family histories, this one reveals nothing about its narrator. Such are the cool diminished lives so particular to television and so difficult to care about, not matter how much they entertain as they unfold. Like the tube, the show is hollow at its core.

C. Carr