New York

Gerard Byrne, In Our Time, 2017, 4K video, color, sound, indefinite duration.

Gerard Byrne, In Our Time, 2017, 4K video, color, sound, indefinite duration.

Gerard Byrne

Gerard Byrne, In Our Time, 2017, 4K video, color, sound, indefinite duration.

Gerard Byrne’s brilliantly imagined and rendered film In Our Time proceeds from a concept that is, in its basic shape, so simple and straightforward that it almost eludes description. Set in a commercial radio station, the film—originally commissioned for Skulptur Projekte Münster in Germany in 2017—focuses on a DJ with a graying goatee and a magnificently fugly cardigan performing his duties in a cozily cluttered control room: introducing pop songs, cuing commercials, reading news and traffic reports. Meanwhile, on the other side of a soundproof window, a few men and women fiddle with musical gear for what may be an upcoming performance. Projected on a single screen in the middle of a space replete with red drapery, the video is, the gallery noted, of “nonfixed duration.” It is not, however, without chronological structure. Indeed, the larger temporality it occupies—playing continuously all day each day and synced, like Christian Marclay’s The Clock, 2010, to the time in the outside world—is only one of a number of complex tetherings (and subtle dislocations) that Byrne orchestrates to uncanny effect in this spellbinding, gently bittersweet work of visual and textual parafiction.

Just as I arrived, the announcer told his audience that it was 1:34 PM, as it indeed was for me in Lisson Gallery’s space. When I left, it was 2:38 PM, both on Tenth Avenue and in the slippery time-space occupied by the DJ and his listeners. What had happened in the intervening hour was both reassuringly familiar and creepingly peculiar: a meditation on dispersion and fixedness; a paean to a disappearing mode of technology and a form of notional community; a typically Byrnean project of examining the ways in which media structures our sense of facts and history, of making visible places, people, and/or moments and bringing them to (generatively embroidered) life.

There’s obviously considerable sensorial disjunction in watching a film of a radio show, but the extent of the work’s deep structural strangeness only fully revealed itself over time. The camera slowly tracked around the studio, lovingly capturing the various furnishings and objects orchestrated by Byrne to produce an unmistakable, but also unstable, 1970s to 1980s verisimilitude. And as the broadcast went on, the DJ’s patter also started to wobble in its specifics. His name changed along with his location—Bill Tompton, Ron Lander; WYSR San Francisco, WWL New Orleans—while a segment of news bulletins mashed up real and fictitious events from different time frames. Then, roughly thirty minutes into my visit, the film began to perform a curious loop. The piece returned to its beginning, but while its interstitial moments—an ad for Camaros, a call-in segment with a high school student—remained constant, the previous sequence’s songs were replaced with new ones: Where the Everly Brothers had been singing “Cathy’s Clown,” Steely Dan were now reeling off “Peg”; the Kingsmen’s “Louie Louie” substituted for the Carpenters’ “We’ve Only Just Begun.” And, in a further spatiotemporal distortion, it slowly dawned that a second voice-over—perhaps the conversation of the musicians—had been going the entire time, emanating along the wall just at the threshold of audibility. As the DJ was reporting golfer Tom Watson’s victory the previous day in the 1974 Western Open, I’m pretty sure I heard two men discussing something one had bought on eBay.

In one of the most memorable scenes from George Lucas’s 1973 American Graffiti—beneath its coming-of-age nostalgia, a beautifully rendered consideration of the complex intersubjectivities produced by the medium of radio—the college-bound California high schooler Curt Henderson (played by Richard Dreyfuss) goes searching for the legendary DJ Wolfman Jack, whose radio broadcast serves as the movie’s constant incidental soundtrack. The teenager wants the Wolfman to dedicate a song to a mysterious blonde driving a white Thunderbird he had seen a few nights before, but when he goes to the studio hoping to meet him, the modest-seeming man he finds alone there (played by the famous DJ) claims ignorance of the Wolfman’s whereabouts. When Curt persists, the man plays a tape with a recording of the announcer’s voice and tells him, “The Wolfman is everywhere!” With its mix of nostalgia for and strategic deployment of the form and function of the radio broadcast, Byrne’s In Our Time is similarly engaged with this kind of increasingly rare performer-audience nexus, a community of like-minded listeners structured around a single point of identity—a voice—fixed and unfixed in time and space, nowhere and everywhere at once.

Jeffrey Kastner