Jack and Leigh Ruby, Car Wash Incident, 2013–15, two-channel video projection, color, sound, 35 minutes. Photo: Monia Lippi.

Jack and Leigh Ruby, Car Wash Incident, 2013–15, two-channel video projection, color, sound, 35 minutes. Photo: Monia Lippi.

Jack and Leigh Ruby

Michael Jon & Alan

Jack and Leigh Ruby, Car Wash Incident, 2013–15, two-channel video projection, color, sound, 35 minutes. Photo: Monia Lippi.

Jack and Leigh Ruby’s Car Wash Incident, 2013–15, directed by the Rubys and produced by Eve Sussman and Simon Lee, is a looped two-channel video that blurs the line between reality and fiction. Installed on hanging screens in the middle of Michael Jon Gallery’s recently opened Detroit space, it was based around a staged aerial photo from 1975—depicting three people, a station wagon, and a car-wash sign at a dilapidated urban intersection—which the directors had originally fabricated as supporting evidence for an insurance scam (the two worked as a brother-sister con-artist team from the 1970s until their arrest in 1998). The viewer was allowed to navigate the dimly lit gallery, observing the simultaneously unfolding videos from multiple positions, while an eight-channel sound track of dialogue and ambient noise wafted from seven speakers positioned around the edges of the large curtained space. The conversations’ audibility changed depending on the spectator’s location, and this instability added to the sense that one was watching an unedited slice of reality, in which significant words and actions commingled with the mundane stuff of everyday life.

Car Wash Incident, which presents a vague and intentionally ambiguous narrative concerning the handing-off of a mysterious shopping bag between several different people in the vicinity of a car wash, is based on a photograph that purportedly documents an event that never happened. Despite this, the videos, shot on 35-mm film at a meticulously fabricated set in Jersey City, look like footage from a ’70s documentary. The action is minimally edited, with continuous takes lasting up to about seven or eight minutes, and the cinema-verité style and quasi-improvised dialogue produce a strong reality effect. The ever-present ambient noise and overlapping conversations on the sound track further heighten our sense of the representation’s verisimilitude, as do the off-center framings and empty spaces devoid of action that the camera sometimes captures.

The two screens reveal the shopping-bag transfers, which involve four main characters (a man in a suit, a mother and son in a car, and a woman in a red shirt), from a variety of different angles via a moving crane. Initially, they suggest the simultaneous recording of the same situation shot from two different points of view. Slowly, however, the spectator realizes that the takes are out of sync with one another, and that the dialogue is not entirely the same. As the narrative develops, the four protagonists and the location double and the handoffs reverse, until we are confronted with two identical car washes situated across the street from each other and a multitude of doppelgängers engaged in an endless circuit of passing a bag whose contents are never revealed. Subtly, the real has been transformed into the surreal.

In its inclusion of the 1926 song “When the Red, Red Robin (Comes Bob, Bob, Bobbin’ Along),” which a woman occasionally sings or hums on the work’s sound track, Car Wash Incident explicitly references The Conversation (1974), Francis Ford Coppola’s brilliantly self-reflexive film starring Gene Hackman as a guilt-ridden surveillance expert who searches his audio recordings—commissioned by an unnamed corporation—to discover his own complicity in a possible murder. And like Coppola’s meditation on the truth and falsity of cinematic sight and sound, Car Wash Incident emphasizes how we can be fooled despite engaging in close observation, and how the surreptitious spy inevitably becomes the spied upon. Going beyond the Watergate-era film, however, Car Wash Incident reminds us that art can resemble fraud (and vice versa), that authorship continues to fragment, and that surveillance is met by simulation in today’s rapidly evolving digital moment.

Matthew Biro