New York

Paul Garrin

Holly Solomon Gallery

“Shoot the cops . . . with your video camera!” A few years ago you couldn’t walk five blocks in the East Village without encountering this slogan, stenciled on sidewalks and building walls. If it wasn’t the work of Paul Garrin, then it certainly was a tribute to the video artist whose tape of the 1988 riot in Tompkins Square not only brought him a mass-media attention he would never have earned from his collaborations with Nam June Paik, but also became an icon of the power of reverse surveillance.

In his first New York show, “Watch Your Back,” Garrin continued to investigate the potentials of surveillance. The viewer could watch the two environments that comprised the exhibition, but the environments also watched the viewer: a video camera linked to a computer tracked your movement through each of them. In the first, a reincarnation of Garrin’s earlier Yuppie Ghetto with Watchdog, 1989–93, a video mural showed a swank cocktail party, the guests outfitted in formal wear, chatting pleasantly and toasting unknown pursuits. The party-goers seemed oblivious to the scenes of war and carnage that flashed by outside a big picture window. This “interior” was protected by a wall of cement blocks, a chain-link fence, razorwire, and a German shepherd—or rather, a video of a German shepherd. As you approached the gate, the dog “sensed” your presence and barked and snarled and snapped his jaws. If this work is an indictment of capitalism—the image of the upper classes safely ensconced in their mansions, oblivious to the dog-eat-dog turmoil of the imperialistic world, is practically a stereotype of leftist politics—then the rich get what’s coming to them in Garrin’s second installation, White Devil, 1992–93. Here, a video mural showed a large estate, complete with manicured lawn and handsome car parked flamboyantly in the drive, burning to the ground. Before it, a “pit” made of video monitors contains a white pit bull who followed you along, snapping at your heels and barking like mad. Are we gallery-goers barbarians pounding at the gate, or do we become little Neros getting vicarious kicks from someone else’s destruction, as bad as the yuppies in the other work?

Garrin’s work is incredibly well choreographed: though consigned to his doghouse of video monitors, the pit bull is so palpably “real” that you can hear his claws scraping the walls, you can feel his barking reverberate under your feet from the floor. In spite of the political intentions behind Garrin’s work, it delivers a Sensurround thrill reminiscent of Edmund Burke’s definition of the sublime as deferred danger: you get all the excitement of facing ferocious guard dogs without any worry of actual bodily harm. After all, Garrin did not title his exhibition something like “Cave Canem,” but, rather, the oxymoronic “Watch Your Back”; what’s truly fearsome is not the virtual dogs you face, but the real ones that can sneak up on you from behind, as Garrin found out when police clubbed him for trying to film the riot in Tompkins Square.

Keith Seward