New York

Mary Ellen Carroll

Cinema Village/Storefront for Art and Architecture

Billowing American flag
Bus deposits people
Birds squawk and chirp, jets fly overhead

The urban haiku above was pulled from my notes on Mary Ellen Carroll’s Federal and is a fairly complete summary of its action. Shot in real time on July 28, 2003, this two-part video (the halves were shot, and are screened, concurrently) is a twenty-four-hour record of the northern and southern facades of the federal building in Los Angeles, and was shown exactly two years later at Cinema Village in conjunction with an exhibition of twenty-four photographs of the northern facade at Storefront for Art and Architecture. The images of the building’s orderly grid of windows (one critic described it as an “immense file cabinet”) were in stark contrast with the open, asymmetrical doors on the gallery’s Vito Acconci and Steven Holl–designed exterior.

The main attraction, however, was the movie. During the screening—which started at 9 AM—visitors either dropped in briefly, or stayed (if they were on assignment for an editor with a sadistic streak), and shuttled between theaters in order to view both the front and the back of the building. The image’s relentless monumentality was alleviated by the banter of the crew, a dialogue that occasionally suggests nonaction worthy of Samuel Beckett (albeit expressed in a rather different idiom). “Oh yeah, baby, there it is,” someone says at 3:30 in the afternoon while looking through the camera’s viewfinder, “that building ain’t going nowhere.” Disembodied voices on the north side puncture the stillness with shouts of “Yahtzee!” and are later heard negotiating with a security guard who has arrived to tell the crew that he can’t lock up the national cemetery, across the street from the building, while they are still inside with their camera. “Sir, it’s a liability,” he repeats with concern.

That the crew was able to stay the night in the cemetery, or even to film the building at all, speaks volumes of the other unseen, crucial aspect of Federal: paperwork. Apparently, Carroll spent the better part of a year getting permission from the FBI and the CIA in order to make the film. There is something appealingly subversive about watching the watchers, although the monotony that is Federal’s trademark (like that of Andy Warhol’s Empire, 1968) gradually eradicates whatever preconceived notions we may have had about the function of the building, and the bureaucratic fortress begins to look almost friendly. As Warhol once claimed, “[T]he more you look at the same exact thing, the more the meaning goes away, and the better and emptier you feel.” Walter Benjamin too was attracted to boredom as a way of denying chronological or “historical” time, and one could argue that to be bored is also to exist in a state of potential receptivity. I can personally attest to the unexpected satisfaction of giving up twenty-four hours of my time to sitting in a movie theater: When the film started, I could not imagine looking at the same thing for twenty-four hours; after fourteen hours or so I could not imagine doing anything else.

In a superbly ironic twist, the only people to have seen the film in its entirety—all forty-eight hours of it—are the federal agents who vetted it before it could be shown to the public. One wonders how this experience affected—if only temporarily—their worldview. One of my favorite lines in the film was delivered in a weary voice at 5:30 in the morning: “So what do the people in this building do, actually?” At that point the agents watching the film were probably asking themselves the same question.

Claire Barliant