Arena and Faithless Grottoes
Frank Rodick, 2017
Long before smartphones and YouTube made video ubiquitous, there was the heyday of videotape. The medium wasn’t quite an underground phenomenon, but it was, briefly, new and not so common as to become boring or fade into the cultural background. You might even say there was a thrill to it back then. Anyone with a player that took those clunky black plastic VHS cartridges could privilege themselves to a private film viewing, an experience previously limited mostly to the rich as well as frequenters of seedy porn booths, the kind you'd find around Times Square and 42nd before Disney conquered all.
I remember watching David Cronenberg's Videodrome—yes, on VHS—and loving all that creepy camp: a hand clutching a pointed gun stretching out of an old television panelled with faux wood; Debbie Harry playing the electro-erotic Nicki Brand; James Woods wigging out after yet another hallucination-though-maybe-not.
It turned out you could have lots of fun and even commit a bit of mayhem with video, as pretty well everyone today knows. You could also tape stuff that was on TV thanks to video recorders, a big deal back then (no way was I missing any of that first Twin Peaks). And you could make tapes of your own with bulky VHS videocameras you propped on your shoulder like small bazookas, or, in my case, one of the early models that used the short-lived Hi-8 format. They were clunky but easier to use than the old movie cameras that came with all the hassles of film stock.
And so it was—I can’t remember when exactly, sometime in the late eighties, early nineties—that I started setting up my VCR to tape a couple of hours of television programming nightly, usually scheduled for the wee morning hours. It was semi-random, the gifts of fortuna being more opulent in my experience than those of cleverness. The morning’s catch could include anything from old movies, reruns, and the impossibly bad commercials that still seem to run for the desperate or insomniac. And, yes, there was porn, electronically scrambled to prevent people (okay, men) from getting off for free.
I continued this taping routine on and off for a few years, accumulating several boxes of tapes, a few hundred hours. But I got busy with more developed projects and while I kept taping, sporadically anyway, it wasn’t until 2000 or so that I got around to taking a deep dive into my bounty. I can't remember why it was then: maybe I was worried about the tapes deteriorating, or I might have just have found myself, unusually, with a little time on my hands.
So, always very late at night and always by myself, I’d plunk in an unlabeled, unsequenced tape. I'd turn off all the lights and watch.
What came pouring out of that screen was this nocturnal parade of images—some farcical, a few ghastly, others quasi-erotic, as well as numerous other constellations of strangeness. Some of the images were already skewed and distorted (as when the programming was scrambled) but I learned that, by tweaking the controls on the old television I used, I could fuck them up even more. Things would become even more misshapen, twisted, dysmorphic. Which I thought was very fine indeed. Really though, most of the stuff was crap—banal or stupidly incomprehensible or both. But once in a while, something would flash onto that screen, that twenty inch cathode canvas floating in the middle of the dark—a scene that was like a primitive revelation puked out of someone's brain stem, maybe mine. And sometimes, with a tweak here and there, I could make that scene darkly blossom, as it were, even further.
So it was that every few nights, for a few seconds anyway, my TV and I would hook up to go full Videodrome.
So here's what I decided to do: I’d make still photographs of anything and everthing that caught my eye. No plan except to watch and wait, Bronica mounted on tripod, like a hunter waiting for game in the dead of night. Something would look good and, bang, I’d take the shot. Of course, the good thing was if I missed it, which was often, I’d just rewind and try again. I went through a lot of tape and a lot of rewinds, including all the tweaks, to come up with, well, quite a bit of film. Along the way, I’d learn—through accident and technical malfeasance, not design of course—other ways, within the camera, to transform the image some more.
Eventually, I had all these negatives. And my darkroom turned out to be the perfect place to get wonderfully lost in the images, not just by printing them, but also by sequencing and resequencing them, and by transforming the prints with all kinds of alternative techniques I was using—metallic toners, homemade filters, focusing hacks. I was, as I liked to say to myself, “putting the image through its paces,” all according to the imperatives of my instincts and whims.
Serious analog printers understand that darkrooms have this mystical vibe to them. (I, who consider myself, ostensibly, superstition-free, had this ritual of solemnly asking each negative I worked with to "tell me your secrets.") You're in this dark windowless room dimly lit in red with, perhaps, music in the background at the perfect volume (here did I fall in love with Portishead, Philip Glass, and the acoustic Kurt Cobain). Always in the background is that most primordial of sounds: flowing water. And one of the great privileges of the darkroom is that it forces you to spend enormous amounts of time with single images, by yourself, thinking about them, being with them, touching them (prints are sensual things, as every printer knows.) I’m grateful for all of that—not only did it force me to learn a patience to which I wasn’t naturally inclined, but it helped me become much more contemplative and sensitive towards what made an image work, especially when there really wasn't comparator out there for what I was doing.
I printed and printed, inevitably filling my garbage cans with what I called the largest five and ten and twenty dollar bills in circulation. What kept me working, and moving in a direction that felt deeper as opposed to further, were the images themselves. They thrilled me, and pushed me on.
What was coming together was an amped up, primal opera-come-nightmare. The images seemed to bless me with a sensual directness that reflected—or was it betrayed?—the darker landscapes sequestered inside my life: primeval emotions swirling around those visceral and unremitting issues of sex and pain and death. The emanations of memory were in there too, the memory of things, physical things, long smothered or extinguished—though never completely.
It also occurred to me that the processes through which the images were being wrung—the processes of video, myriad darkroom interventions and, later, in the case of Faithless Grottoes, digital manipulation—were analogous to the prisms within consciousness through which our experiences are filtered, the mechanisms that are part of who we are and that make our internal realities so diverse. Those same subjective prisms could also turn up the emotional voltage of those experiences, regardless of the so-called objective source.
So, Arena was created first—26 works, many of them multi-image—the title coming from something I'd read once about the "movable arena between pain and pleasure," which seemed a fitting way to describe the experiential ambiguities I realized I was obsessed with. That title also meant something else to me: an act rendered public, in this case intimate acts, brought into the public realm, which for me seemed a pretty apropos description of the work of art itself.
In 2006, I incorporated digital imaging into my practice, reaping the slightly dizzying bounty of that technology. New possibilities for scale, colour, and nuances of manipulation were now available to me and from all that came the Faithless Grottoes works. But I stuck with the original stills I’d made years earlier as my starting points. They’d become like totems for me, imbued with a an intimate magic I felt bound to.
Through it all, the human figure remained the uncontested reference point. To this day there's nothing, for me, so devastatingly expressive as the human face and body, no visual element—in all its iterations and transformations—more capable of piercing and splaying open the human heart, at least this one. Of course, there were many other elements injected into these tableaux—the surface detailing, the melding of foreground with background and subject, the bending of form and colouration—and these acted as supporting agents and accelerants. But the core setting for this work remained the same: those dark cathedrals of inner life, their architecture mapped out by patience, desperation, and delirium—all of it titrated through the human form.