image: Mark Laliberte, "Stranded Cover Image"
Mark Laliberte's Art Of Enigmas
by David Livingstone (1999)
Mark Laliberte's artwork is easy to write or talk about, but difficult to write or talk about with any degree of objectivity or accuracy. There is a purposeful hollowness at the core of Laliberte's creations -- a shifting, nebulous absence which mandates subjective, visceral responses on the part of the viewer, mandates interpretation and inference, and evokes strong, unsettled feelings. Subjectivity is part and parcel of the experience of the work. Behind the carefully-constructed sounds / soundtracks, behind the meticulously arranged models and props lurks the distinct sense that something more is going on -- a menacing offstage something which dominates through its very absence. Imagine the first moment in a suspense film when the faceless killer is about to strike; imagine that moment, and the feelings accompanying it, protracted into infinity.
Laliberte is probably best known for his Pillow Scenes series, a succession of works which each contain the same set of basic elements--a wall-mounted photograph depicting a human figure and a "pillow" either literal or implied; a speaker resting atop a pillow on the floor plays an individualized soundtrack of sorts, providing additional vague glues as to the nature of the scene depicted. Each Pillow Scene offers a voyeur's-eye view into a strange, private universe seemingly governed by unreason, where the potential for violence is a given--a mental space overshadowed by an accompanying sense of vague, barely-repressed dread.
His The Suspended Room, an installation / environment consisting of a motionless, ancient fan, a flashing neon arm and knife, several wall-mounted shadowboxes containing speakers, and a multichannel soundtrack recently ended its run at the Art Gallery of Windsor. The soundtrack, a fractured narrative consisting of dialogue between a male and female character reminiscent of both noir cinema and nightmares, suggested a murder--either in the immediate past or the imminent future. Entering the space, being engulfed by the alternating red-blue neon glow and the quiet, insistent, repetitive voices issuing from all corners of the room, served as passage into a claustrophobic, ominous, alien parallel world: Was one a witness, or an accomplice?
Laliberte is also an independent curator and publisher; The Doll House, an exhibition of works incorporating dolls by six female artists, is currently on view at Artcite in Windsor. We spoke to him at the Common Ground Gallery headquarters...
CD: Maybe we can start by talking about the most recent things first--The Suspended Room. One of the things I liked about it when I saw it was the sense of suspended time and place; despite the fact that recorded sound is a time-based medium, the work seems to stay within its own private, impenetrable world. I wanted to ask you about that encapsulated quality.
ML: I think it's one of the challenges of working with sound, outside of the medium of, say, a recorded disc--you can play with things of that nature. And it was interesting for me to relate it to the looping video segments that you normally see in video art. It's a similar approach. But because they're all playing at once, and because it is based off of a linear narrative, I think the interesting thing for me was playing with the idea that you could drop into this tale at any moment, drop out at any moment, and experience all of it just by virtue of not being able to drown all of the other scenes out. You're always hearing them sort of behind your head. What started out as possibly being limitations ended up being some of the more interesting puzzle pieces.
CD: Did you envision that it would fall together that way?
ML: I did approach the sound the piece was commissioned for the gallery, and we chose that space, so I did spend a little time in the space and I did have a sense of how much sound I thought would fit into that space. But of course, working on the material in a few different cities and what not, finally bringing it into the space--there are always surprisesa bit strangely for the way I work, I actually started with the written script, which is almost never the case when I work with sound. I'm generally more visual-based, and I tend to start with visual things, and try to apply a sort of narrative with sound to it afterwards, depending on what the images are speaking to me. In this case, partly because of the way I approached the project and partly because of the requirements for the residency, I had to do things in reverse--I came in with writing, the idea that I needed two characters and two voices, and that I needed to do the ambient tape recordings.
CD: That leads into another question I had--why did you decide to do both voices yourself?
ML: I guess I did try a lot of people, and maybe because of the way I approached the piece, with a script and what not, I couldn't seem to find anyone who could really take on these characters the way I thought I knew them. And in the end, there was a late night experiment where I was just playing around with the digital mixer, and there was a fairly low-end pitch transposition function built into the board, and the equivalent of something like Photoshop filters. And every time you used the filter, there would be a residue that appeared on the voices. And I thought it was sort of interesting, because it had that kind of phone call masking when you used the effect. It gave me the idea to do a test to do it myself, and I ended up just liking it better that way.
CD: Do you see this piece as being the starting point for a series at all, maybe more pieces involving this overheard dialogue? Different, separate rooms, separate environments
ML: I think I'll definitely explore character-driven narrative more in the future. But the piece I'm researching now is an audio installation that's completely non-narrative in nature. It's going for a musical language in a sense, but one that's been kind of taken apart. But I think I'll definitely work with character-based narration.
CD: There's a definite filmic quality to this piece, and to a lot of your work. Have you ever worked with film at all?
ML: I came out of essentially a photographic / multimedia background when I studied in school. And I did take a film course. There are technical differences between film and video, but in terms of storytelling you can approach it in sort of the same way. And I'm very interested in film. But I don't have a huge film background.
CD: I'm interested in people's reactions to your work. I think I told you about this: When I was looking at The Suspended Room, a guy came in with his kid, and something on one of the soundtracks evidently shocked him and he grabbed his kid and left. I was wondering if you'd gotten much in terms of hostile or offended reactions from people; there's nothing obscene or overtly violent about it, it's just kind of an unsettling atmosphere.
ML: Being in a space of that nature, I'm actually kind of distanced from public reaction a little more than I might normally be. But I have heard that the gallery has received it's share of complaints--surprisingly, about the stabbing neon. I think people find that image unsettling. The neon functions as a device for the telling of the story; it signifies the implied murder within the space. But the texts are fairly unsettling. It would be interesting to know what that guy heard, or what he thought he heard--which likely is more the case. As far as I know, there haven't been too many complaints.
CD: What was the nature of the ones that you did receive?
ML: There's an underlying violence that maybe goes against the grain of what people think should be in a municipal art gallery. The Art Gallery of Windsor has a really good historical collection, and you get a lot of people coming there to see that work. Apparently, they don't go through a quarter without receiving a complaint about some show in the contemporary field, so I don't think it's necessarily that this piece stands out in that regardI think it's perfectly fine that people complain; it's perfectly within their freedoms to voice their opinions. But most of the time, it's always "the children." And from what I've heard, the curators at the gallery tend to fall on the line that essentially an art gallery isn't a place for children.
CD: What was it about the stabbing image that made you settle on it for the neon element?
ML: I was sort of thinkingthere's something decidedly noir-ish about the piece. The two basic characters contain a lot of noir stereotypes in the way they're written. So with that in mind, I was also thinking about Nature and The City. The whole tale seems to take place just outside of the city, but there's this continual pulling from the city. So within the narrative, it fit to think of the edges of the city, and the motel as a possible space for this murder to occur in. So without spelling it out, I thought it would be interesting to have this kind of B-movie neon sign that signified such a motel. And also, with the color scheme, when you're not looking at the neon, it still kind of envelopes the space because of the blue and the red. There's a distinct suggestion of a police car's lights flashing, suggesting the time after the murder has been discovered. So with both of those elements, I thought it would be an interesting way to keep the actual murder out of the audio narrative, but to have its presence be felt at all times within the space.
CD: That theme seems to recur in your work a lot: There always seems to be a world going on, an unknowable something happening, just outside the frame.
ML: I think that my interest in narrative comes from the implied narrative--I like to present narrative information, and to allow the viewer to order it, but the interesting thing is that it's always fluid in that sense; you just give enough puzzle pieces to have someone put something together. For me, that sort of more poetic, abstract edge to narrative is what's interesting. When you talk with people about their interpretations of the work, it's always interesting to hear how they put together what you've given them to work withit is kind of a filmic idea, to go back to that. One of the things that struck me most that I remember from my study of film was the idea of the suture--taking two images that were unrelated, putting them next to each other, and letting the viewer imply something. You could take an eye and a razor blade--the old surrealist mechanism--there's that implication that the eye would be damaged. But if you take an eye and a landscape, then there is a totally different implication. So thinking of still images as frames and moments, I began playing with the idea of coupling simple things using sound and images and incorporating that sensibility.
CD: In reading the criticism of your work, the words "popular culture" pop up with annoying frequency. While surely it can be argued that your work is filled with pop culture elements, as a consequence of that being the environment that you as a person are submerged in, it seems to me that the work is a lot more historical in nature, if not classicist.
ML: That's definitely an interesting point. I've made that observation as well. I think that is happening because I'm dumping a lot into these works, and it's the position of the critic to try to ground the audience, so inevitably these comparisons are made. One that particularly grinds me, they talk about one of the Pillow Scenes and they mention Max Headroom in regards to the voice, and there's no it's just not there at all! It's just a somewhat distorted male voice, stuttering and repeating. But it's a very dark, mechanical piece, and it really got under my skin, in a way. But I think that in some sense, it's just a matter of trying to ground an audience to something that they know. With the photography in Pillow Scenes, I think it's becoming more baroque, and the images are denser and more classical in nature. There are not very many direct references to cultural icons--I'm not working with Nike or the corporations, no Mickey Mouse or Disneyification or any of those things. What would normally be called a popular form of culture.
CD: In terms of the imagery, it appears to me that if your work references popular culture, it references the culture of a fairly distant and far removed past. There isn't much to suggest the overt presence of 1999.
ML: And I want them to be around past 1999. I am trying to be kind of timeless with the imagery, but at the same time, I am living at this moment. And it's very natural to have some things of this moment. It's almost impossible to make images or to make any type of artwork without some sort of references, and maybe right now, that's being focused on a little too much.
CD: Maybe by virtue of the fact that you incorporate sound and sound technology, using tape recorders and so forth, people automatically associate it with music, and by extension popular music.
ML: Definitely. And for some of the sound pieces that I do, there is almost a musical edge to the approach, to the construction of the sequences. And it's also electronic in nature.
CD: To dig into ancient history a bit, into Headtrip and the accompanying censorship battleever since then, judging by what I read, it seems that the impression lingers that you're sort of this edgy, dangerous guy. Is that a perception that you'd endorse at this point, something you welcome or something you'd want to get away from?
ML: I've certainly accepted it as a part of my mythology, if you want to put it that way. And interestingly enough, anyone whoever sees the Headtrip material is ultimately disappointed with how tame it really is from a cultural perspective. But it is a part of my artistic history. Probably the most interesting part of that whole thing--one of the issues that came up revolved around my work, and then another around a strip called Blood and Salt, published by Mike Diana. And Mike Diana was charged just after my court case ended, and the thing we've always suspected was that that was a ripple off of this case. Because his material was a lot more extreme than the material that I had created. It's interesting to me that he's become such an underground icon in the states; he's partly infamous because his case really hasn't resolved itself, whereas I was able to triumph or whatever. He's never been able to prove his work as being artistic in nature, and so it's sort of interesting to be tied into that whole cartoon history of the '90s. But at the same time, my work was alreadyI was sixteen or seventeen when I started Headtrip, and I think eighteen when it all kind of collapsed, and I was moving away from that kind of material and cultural parody and starting to explore photography and multimedia. For me, it's there, and people bring it up occasionally, but ultimately they always say "Wow, your work has really changed." And they start talking about the new work, which is what I'm more interested in.
CD: Do you remember what your thoughts were when the first complaints happened?
ML: It's crazy to think back on how it all went. What actually happened was that the Windsor police basicallyit was a local fanzine, but like all fanzines it had more of a mail presence. So they ordered it through the mail under an assumed name, and then actually raided my house while I was still in high school--took anything that was sort of art-related, which was very difficult for me at the time, because that was my world, and it was all gone. But quite quickly I really thought that I really had to take a stand on it. I wanted to go to art school and I wanted to continue making things, and I had to fight. So the first idea was to get legal aid, and a lawyer in town suggested Daniel Brodsky, who'd dealt with censorship with, I think, Dayglo Abortions. So he had an interest in censorship. They were an interesting firm, a firm of three lawyers, one of whom had the biggest underground comics collection in Canada. They really knew how to educate the judge. It was a long process, two years on and off. There were a lot of experts, with wildly differing points of view, and a lot of discussions about the sexual politics of anthropomorphic characters--whether or not a cartoon character could be underage, or if sex between a cartoon animal and a cartoon female would be bestiality. All really absurdist stuff. But eventually, the judge wisely did what some officials don't do--he looked around him, looked at what's available in video, comic, and book stores, and made his decision based on the fact that the material he was judging was "tame and trivial"--that's how he put it--compared to what was out there in the popular culture. It's a strange thing when a particular officer is given the power to make a decision based on his own morality. Supposed to be deciding for the society.
CD: What about the aspect of violence in your work? It seems that on some level a large measure of your work ultimately deals with violence of some sort or another--looking at the people in the Pillow Scenes photographs, for example, there almost always seems the sense that they've had something done to them, rather than having done anything--the guy with the speaker in his mouth, the woman with the numbers on her face
ML: There is an implied violence in a lot of the work that I do. It's something that I've thought about for a long time, and I think violence as a phenomenon is sort of interesting. And I like the attraction/repulsion that adding a layer of violent imagery brings to the work. But at the same time, more and more, I've wanted to become less sensationalist about it--to control that, to take the violent layer and subdue it, so that it's not the immediate thing that the viewer bumps up against. It's definitely happening in the work. My work isn't less aggressive than it used to be; I think it's actually more aggressive; there are more layers. I'm being sneaky about it.