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Rosa Aiello, A River In It, 2015, video, color, sound, 9 minutes 41 seconds.

Rosa Aiello, A River In It, 2015, video, color, sound, 9 minutes 41 seconds.

Rosa Aiello

Eli Ping Frances Perkins

Rosa Aiello, A River In It, 2015, video, color, sound, 9 minutes 41 seconds.

“Just walk in a straight line. . . . Go ahead, forward. . . . Proceed straight ahead, go on, go on. . . .” Though sometimes indistinct, at one point dropping to an intimate but distorted whisper, the voice-over in Rosa Aiello’s video A River in It, 2015, doesn’t let up for more than a few seconds of the work’s nearly ten-minute duration. Directing its unseen subject (the viewer?) ever onward, it varies in tone from reassuring (“Whoops, careful. . . . It’s OK, go ahead”) to official (“At this time, keep going straight”) to impatient (“Don’t stop! Why are you stopping?”) to bullying (“You have no choice, just do it, do as I say!”). Demanding that we press ever ahead, it keeps us on constantly shifting ground.

Accompanying this narration, voiced by artist Olga Pedan, is an ominous mix of other sounds—regular breathing; a repeated low piano note; a slow, rattling beat; and the occasional deep bass tone. Their combination generates a creeping dread, which the video’s imagery does nothing to dispel. A moment of darkness gives way to a shot of a distant roaring campfire, which the camera approaches unsteadily, as if its operator is trudging across a field, eventually getting so close that the flames fill the screen, suffusing it in a white-orange glow. On one of the camera’s several approaches to the flames, the image is layered over a blurry black-and-white design; on another, it is interrupted by splatters of paint on the lens, which partially obscure the scene beneath murky color.

In the press release, Aiello makes clear that the form and content of A River in It are directly related to those of Nancy Holt and Robert Smithson’s Swamp, quoting Holt’s characterization of that 1971 work as using the camera to address perceptual limits via a consciously problematic mise-en-scène: “Verbal direction cannot easily be followed. As the reeds crash against the camera lens blocking vision and forming continuously shifting patterns, confusion ensues.” Yet as Aiello also points out, A River in It is set in a virtual, partly animated space, making the quality of that confusion less environmental, more subjective.

The divergent origins of Aiello’s work and its model feel critical, marking a shift in method from what one might call an experimental-documentary mode to one rooted in the conscious and transparent manipulation of situations and the media employed to represent them. Holt really did hack her way through a New Jersey swamp under Smithson’s unforgiving direction in a study of what he dubbed “calculated aimlessness,” but Aiello stays warm and dry in the editing suite, making use of technology to create a similarly unsettling experience. And while in Swamp we hear Holt and Smithson engaging in a kind of conversation, A River in It features just one voice, a reflection, perhaps, of the atomization effected by society’s organization around remote digital communication.

Yet though the structure of A River in It is complex compared with Swamp’s single, long, unedited shot, the journey is hardly a smooth one. If anything, the abrupt cuts, awkward superimpositions, and murky sound of Aiello’s video make its precursor appear relatively straightforward, if not quite slick. The questions raised by the later work—Who is doing the directing, and why? Where exactly are we supposed to be? Can we imagine a resolution to this peculiar drama?—add a disturbing narrative element to Holt and Smithson’s comparatively formalist experiment, not simply “updating” it, but relocating it to a contemporary interzone, darkened and untrustworthy.

Michael Wilson