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Rachel Reupke, Letter of Complaint, 2015, HD video, color and black-and-white, sound, 10 minutes.

Rachel Reupke, Letter of Complaint, 2015, HD video, color and black-and-white, sound, 10 minutes.

Rachel Reupke

CUBITT Gallery | Studios | Education

Rachel Reupke, Letter of Complaint, 2015, HD video, color and black-and-white, sound, 10 minutes.

“Dear Sir or Madam: It has come to my attention that I am paid less than the man next to me on the assembly line,” states the narrator’s voice in Rachel Reupke’s latest video, Letter of Complaint, 2015, a ten-minute piece commissioned by Cubitt. The letter of complaint can be considered an art form in its own right; its subject matter can range from the deeply serious to the trivial. Expressing one’s exasperation, frustration, disappointment, or anger in this constricted format is a tricky task. Inspired by correspondence found in various UK archives, Reupke’s work considers this act of writing as a way of relating, one that has its own particular set of power dynamics.

In a montage of scenes, six letters are narrated by the same female voice. In three, the writers are shown at their desks; interspersed with these are three in which the letters are read aloud over shots of overcast skies—some almost apocalyptic, saturated in bright pink, orange, and purple. In the interior scenes, both male and female actors write in settings, stylized almost to the point of camp, that combine a mix of decor from the past few centuries, featuring reproduction period furniture and outmoded writing equipment such as inkwells and feather quills. These constructed domestic settings evoke a generic idea of the “historical” and, juxtaposed with the dramatic images of skies, highlight a sense of nostalgia. The relationship between interior and exterior scenes could also be read as a visual metaphor for the letter as a way of externalizing our thoughts.

Reupke, who has previously addressed the construction of stock imagery in works such as 10 Seconds or Greater, 2009, in which performers act out scenes from the Getty Photo Archive, was in this case trying to create her own stock images, ones that perform the aesthetic tropes of Romanticism. However, the way she shot and edited the scenes is far from generic; she intersperses long shots with tight close-ups of hand movements and minute facial gestures, as if to capture the writer’s intimate thoughts. My favorite letter details an incident that occurred on the 106 bus route in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The driver swerved to avoid two women burdened with shopping bags who were running across the road to catch the bus, yet instead of waiting, he drove on. The letter writer details the distress that she and her companion felt at the lack of consideration by the driver, displaying a belief in a form of manners, or chivalry, that seems old-fashioned today. The writer is played by a man who sits at a green table with a lamp and several roses, in full makeup including white power, red lipstick, and blush—highlighting a playful address of gender, since throughout the work the identity of each writer is never apparent.

All of this leads me to the question, which Reupke also seems to be asking: Why do we complain? Generally, it’s because we perceive something as unjust or inequitable, or feel that our sense of trust has been betrayed—therefore weakening the social systems that bind us together. A letter of complaint may be the only recourse we have, particularly when dealing with big, anonymous corporations and institutions. Listening to the pay complaint, I immediately assumed it was from a woman, in part because the narrator has a female voice—but also because I instinctively felt a woman was likely to be paid less than her male counterpart (a conclusion supported by statistics), and I’ve experienced that inequality myself. This ultimately narcissistic form of identification is common to us all, and is both foible and strength. We judge situations based on prior knowledge and prejudice, aware of only some of the details of the situation we are assessing. Letter of Complaint reveals as much about the viewer as about its ostensible subjects, pointing to the underlying presuppositions that guide our behavior.

Kathy Noble