Ghost house | Joel Stern
There’s a rare form of humour that starts cheap and easy, accumulates an unexpected complexity, and then exponentially expands into something deeply agitated, almost hardcore. Laughter becomes puzzlement becomes mesmerised trance. But it remains funny. Sarah Byrne’s GHOSTHOUSE zones in on this phenomenon, systematically probing its permutations with relentless riguer, before delivering a creepily disorientated punchline, a comic unpleasure that piggybacks slyly off the cringe. Byrne executes the trick with the sensibility of a connoisseur, a bad taste-maker in possession of special sick skills.
GHOSTHOUSE is an obsessively complied assemblage of cultural low-points from the VHS era, articulating a specific and uncanny aesthetic ‘wrongness’ that gags on multiple levels. 4 VHS players feed 8 TV’s, arranged in a banal mock-lounge setting complete with dodgy carpet and couches. Despite its mundane domesticity, the space feels altered and heavy; the environment bumps and grinds (orange tanned, g-stringed Chippendales running on a beach) like a druggy endlessly bad vibration.
How many days did Byrne spend manually dubbing and re-dubbing found footage of terrible American evangelical sprot, nasty spiritual capitalists proselytizing a salvation we’re all excluded from? How many weeks pausing-rewinding-taping-re-taping worn-out images of clammy kids with contorted expressions faking bad TV emotions for bad TV directors? The bow-tied (but otherwise nude) Chippendales? They are almost uniquely aesthetically dismal, soft focus steroid poodles gyrating distressingly across new age synthetic sunsets. These images are perfect cultural dregs, mental schlock and awe, guilelessly awaiting structural revision under the perverted logic of unpleasure.
In common with VHS-recycling peers (Animal Charm, People Like Us, Soda Jerk etc) Byrne’s work engages kitsch retrospection, however GHOSTHOUSE’s ‘memory lane’ is more lurid and intoxicating, a looping back-alley with no passage out, punctuated by high frequency noise and blasts of bad tracking. The work actively resists linear coherence yet remains jarring and persistent, each sequence forming pools of vibrating video ‘non sense’. Images are grafted and layered; fragments repeat, repeat, repeat, and overlap as literal meaning whites out. The aggressive banality of the content makes it prime-cut material for the transformative methodology; textual ‘blankness’ heightens our appreciation of the structural-material reconfigurations taking place. In this way, Byrne’s strategy of acute fragmentation and obsessive restructuring extends a radical tradition including Burroughs and Gysin’s cut-up assaults on visual and verbal grammar, the form-collapsing cine-seizures of Martin Arnold and Ken Jacobs, and Steve Reich’s brilliant early phase-shifting tape works.
The evolution from old school linear channel-surf to contemporary multi-channel simultaneity has made ubiquitous a hyperactive ‘appetite for distraction’ and fragmentation – a digital sensibility upon which GHOSTHOUSE materializes an analogue (re)translation. GHOSTHOUSE’s 8 TV’s are situated as discrete instruments of an indeterminate phasing composition; a TV choreography activated en masse, mapping a gradual unfolding de-synchronisation as multiple iterations of the master tape drift in patterns of echo and delay. The arrangement produces an orchestral machine-spectacle of phantom image-dialogues, unhinged word-forms and damaged ambience, an oscillating conversation between clarity and massed cacophony.
VHS is an in-between medium, a domestic extension of TV enabling compiling, collecting and remixing of the broadcast signal, and for artists, the transformation of clean, linear, programmed sequences into battered, misshapen and fucked forms. The ‘soft electronic milkiness’ (Steven Ball – The future of materialist video nostalgia) of old Video Home System footage, its stretch-marked warble, transmits directly from organic mechanical decomposition, from material distress to the tape or player. However, as a tape winds down inexorably towards physical capitulation, its impalpable magnet memory continues to accumulate experience. Tape, retape, tape, retape, erase, start over, tape, retape. The biography of a VHS tape; shrink-wrapped virgin blankness, insertion, manipulation by rollers and tracks, wound and rewound, record and erasure, a high pitched whir, residue, wrinkled deterioration, and ultimately death by mangling due to dirty tape-head catastrophe.
GHOSTHOUSE; the undead tape reanimates, flickering alive with renewed intensity. A VHS resurrection spell; the exanimate history recapitulated as a barrage of stuttering non-linear fragments and visual-noises striking across the screen like scar tissue from multiple video grafts. The tape life-story flat-lined in a ‘VHS flashback’ of horizontal damage.
by Joel Stern
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