Diana Thater

In two recent video works entitled China (all works 1995) and A Confusion of Prints (work for two video monitors), Diana Thater examined the opposition between the wild and the domestic, the natural and the man-made. Using unedited footage of two wolves during training sessions (the animals were bred in L.A. and have appeared in the films Cry Wilderness, White Fang, Quest for Fire, and two Playboy videos), Thater at once evokes and demystifies the conventions of the documentary by emphasizing the process of filming itself. In China, the videotapes, recorded by six cameras that had been placed in a circle, were projected from six projectors, echoing and inverting the process of filming. This reversal also placed the viewer in the wolf’s position: at the center of a circle. Present in almost every frame, the trainer attempted to teach the wolf (China) how to stand still, holding its attention for a moment with a black-gloved hand, only to fail again and again. Apparently, for a wolf standing still does not come naturally. The second piece, A Confusion of Prints was designed for two monitors and played in a smaller space behind one of the walls.

Part way through China, the images started flashing in rapid series around the room, making it difficult to focus on any one of them. The one-minute piece Thater created for MTV, entitled Shilo, was structured by similar techniques. Playing on a single monitor, this piece seemed not so much to surround as to toy with the viewer. The presentation of six different points of view did away with any hope of locating a center, while the manipulation of temporal coordinates produced a direct, physical effect on the spectator that stopped just short of nausea.

In China, Thater used only one color in each videotape (out of the six colors that comprise a video image) so that no single projection seemed “real,” destroying any notion of documentary authenticity and breaking with the conventions of television editing that create the illusion of “natural” sequences. Because they were projected from a distance, the already pixellated images were blurred, and this, along with the slightly slowed tempo in part of the piece and the amateurish quality of the footage—visible tripods, animals and people entering and leaving the frame—gave this piece the grainy look and feel of a home movie. The landscape of rough country, uneven ground, backyards, crabgrass, fences, and trees seemed remote from Hollywood, and something about the trainers’ parkas, cinched at the waist, and their straight, parted hair was almost nostalgic.

Superficially, it is difficult not to be attracted to these familiar images, seduced by their (initial) dreamy slowness, their scale, their indecipherability. But Thater’s installation strategies, tempo changes, and the “real time” component of these works (Thater uses all the footage she shoots) effectively question the opposition between filmic and “real” experience, that is, the degree to which our perceptions of nature and our sense of its coherence are constructed and determined by television and movies. Thater also draws on Vicki Hearne’s discussion in her book Adam’s Task, of how the process of training an animal reorganizes reality for the trainer. Hearne claims the process can socialize “a drunk, an autistic, or a juvenile delinquent,” because it demands the development of coherent patterns of communication. Thater’s choice of the training model and her confusion of the positions of wolf and viewer play on the reciprocity of this relationship to question how we are trained to see and know the world.

Laurie Palmer