EVERYTHING AND MORE, Rachel Rose’s dazzling and disorienting video installation at the Whitney Museum, makes advocates of its doubters — The New Yorker’s Andrea K. Scott “entered the show as a skeptic” and left calling it the best debut of 2015 — before it challenges its advocates. You might walk out onto the museum’s outdoor patio, as I did, and run into a couple friends eyeing their reflections in the carbon fiber barbs of Frank Stella’s Dark Star sculpture. You guys need to see this video installation, you urge. What’s it like, they ask. You then realize that they want you to represent the work with words, but you’re seeing stars; it’s like you have a barb in your brain; your sentences stumble around in the dark.
You could begin, like the installation’s many reviewers, with specifics. A large, semitransparent rectangular screen stands in front of the gallery’s floor-to-ceiling, scrim-covered windows. Projected onto the screen: an abstract, 10-minute-long nonnarrative video collage constructed like a layer cake. The first layer features Aretha Franklin’s wordless, quivering soprano, extracted from a performance of “Amazing Grace.” It mingles with the voice of retired NASA astronaut David Wolf, who describes the bodily alterations he experienced while traveling through space and returning to Earth. Wolf’s narrative prompts a visual montage — close-ups of milk, soil, baby oil, dye, ink, swirling and bubbling; the camera steadycamming around an astronaut training facility at the University of Maryland; a drone-shot from high above an EDM concert. Adobe After Effects edits take the earthbound shots and smear, crystalize, refract them. Recognizable things like space suits and dancing concertgoers shatter into fragments before they pull apart and overlap like whirring bits in a drunken kaleidoscope.
Describing this is hard, potentially futile work. On the one hand, the more you describe the material structure of the work (how Rose’s liquid blends were often no wider than an inch, say, or how she isolated Franklin’s vocals using audio editing software called Ableton), the more you get away from what watching the work is like. While you watch, it’s difficult to discern what many of the filmed substances actually are: physical effects recorded in Rose’s studio look like computerized modifications and vice versa. Differences between analog and digital effects, dimensions and depths, sizes and scales, are often impossible to parse.
On the other hand, the more you turn from the language of technical construction to the language of personal experience, the more similes you scrounge for and the more you feel like you’re trying to hold a moonbeam in your hand. The language of “like” and “as” is a language that grasps for representation via approximation. Even the poetic description of experience is, as the mystic poet Christian Wiman writes in My Bright Abyss (2013), a “mere echo of its original, inevitably faded and distorted, especially as it moves farther from its source.” Language, even a highly stylized language, is a solar system away from an audio-visual experience as complex as Rose’s Everything and More. Just go see the video, you want to say to your friends. Trust me.
This type of struggle between language and experience is, appropriately, a central issue explored in Everything and More. The installation’s wall text claims: “For her first solo show in the United States, New York based artist Rachel Rose (b. 1986) premieres a new work titled Everything and More, which explores the limits of physical sensation and our ability to visually or verbally describe it.”
By attempting to represent Rose’s work verbally, you found yourself in the same position as the astronaut David Wolf. Wolf’s narrative gains dramatic tension not just from the bodily experiences he relates, but from the difficulty of describing (on his part) and trying to imagine (on our part) a physical sensation that very few people have experienced, much less articulated. Wolf, too, relies on simile after simile in an attempt to link his extraterrestrial experiences to common, terrestrial relations: “When I first came back to earth after 128 days in space, I thought I had ruined my life. […] Gravity felt so heavy that my wristwatch felt like a bowling ball.” “You’re overwhelmed with the smell of the grass and the air. It must be like how a dog feels when he smells a bush.” “Daylight hits and it looks like fire.” “Earth looked like a jewel floating in blackness.” In Far from the Maddening Crowd, Thomas Hardy famously wrote: “It is difficult for a woman to define her feelings in a language which is chiefly made by men to express theirs.” Wolf might say something similar: “It is difficult for an experienced astronaut to explain his extraterrestrial experience in a language which is chiefly made by earth-bound humans to explain their terrestrial experiences.” Rose makes this representational difficulty the basis of her own video, which presents to us its own set of explanatory difficulties.
Artistic critiques of linguistic and visual representation are far from new, of course. By 2016, this ground might seem over-trodden by a glut of conceptual art. In The Bowery in Two Inadequate Descriptive Systems, Martha Rosler paired descriptions of drunkenness (“loopy, groggy, boozy, tight,” and so on) with images of Bowery Street, a well-known haven for alcoholics. Despite what Benjamin Buchloh has called the “physically motivated” character of Rosler’s terms, neither a verbal nor a visual descriptive system adequately represents the experience of drunkenness. Like Rose’s Everything and More, Rosler pairs descriptions of an altered bodily state with a variety of images in order to arrive at a representative impasse.
And yet, experientially, Everything and More is a far cry from The Bowery in Two Inadequate Descriptive Systems. Rosler’s descriptions of drunkenness lack context. The photographs are lifeless. Conceptual photography “is hardly complex,” Rosler said in her interview with Buchloh, “It is a little blind.” “Hardly complex,” “a little blind”: what could be further from Everything and More? Unlike Rosler’s conceptual photography, Everything and More presents an excess of complexity, an overabundance of visual stimuli. What conceptual art sees as an artistic impasse, Rose sees as an opportunity to begin working. Where representation ends, more begins.
In the 1970s, when Rosler created The Bowery in Two Inadequate Descriptive Systems, it was in vogue for academics and artists to critique the limits of representational systems, with linguistic representation touted as one of the main objects of criticism. While more recent trends don’t wish to undo the fruit of this critique, they wish to recover what is overlooked by thinking of representation as a porthole onto experience. Art doesn’t merely gesture toward the world through insufficient representations of it. Art engages with the world, in the world. Representation not only describes the world but also actively transforms it.
While this shift builds on the work of artistically minded thinkers like Maurice Merleau-Ponty, these ideas have also, most recently, spawned different styles of working across media forms. Geographer Nigel Thrift, anthropologists Kathleen Stewart and Tim Ingold, and philosopher, artist, and dancer Erin Manning, among others, have attempted to not merely describe the world through analysis, but to shape the world through traditionally unacademic activities like poetry, painting, and performance. This type of engagement has been termed “non-representational research” because it’s less concerned with trying to represent the world than creatively respond to and affect it.
Everything and More is striking precisely because it takes what could’ve been a Rosler-like critique of representation and turns it into the sort of creative response touted by proponents of non-representation: contingent, experimental, experiential. A non-representational attitude doesn’t see a monologue like Wolf’s as an impasse: it sees it as an opening, as an occasion for creative response. Rose responds to several representations of Outer Space, actually. As she explained to Charlotte Burns of The Guardian, her artistic impulse was an attempt to “addres[s] that powerful feeling” triggered by films like Gravity and Interstellar, and Wolf’s story in particular, which “left [her] feeling such aftershock” after she first heard it on NPR. To address a powerful feeling is not to translate that feeling or to represent that feeling: it is to face that feeling and respond to it through transformational practice.
Rose’s impressionistic juxtaposition of sound and image does not attempt to visually represent the events Wolf describes. She features no actual shots of outer space, no space-like animation. Rather, she uses Wolf’s bizarre experience as a “launch pad” for our own experience in the gallery. When Wolf speaks of watching the multicolored continents, we see red and green tinted EDM dancers; when Wolf speaks of the heat of the sun, we see a grid of small, white circles, delineated by black, quickly expanding, merging, obliterating the black; when Wolf speaks of his heightened sense of smell, dark red and forest green strands of dye expand and blossom into a multidimensional swirl.
Rose finds a role model in the film editor and sound designer Walter Murch. “Walter was one of the pioneers of the way that we think about sound design in film — bringing interior and exterior sounds together, inverting how we think about sound effects and soundtrack,” she told Alex Greenberger in ARTNews. The train sounds famously used in the pre-murder dinner scene in The Godfather, a film edited by Murch, do not represent literal trains; rather, they respond to Coppola’s cinematography and creatively contribute to the scene’s air of emotional ambivalence. For Murch, the most important aspect of the editing process does not involve splicing together a visual representation of the story told. (That’s priority number two.) What is most important, for him, he writes in In the Blink of the Eye: A Perspective on Film Editing (1988) is, “Emotion, the thing you come to last, if at all, at film school, largely because it’s the hardest thing to define and deal with. […] Emotion, at the top of the list, is the thing you should try to preserve at all costs.” The power of film, Murch proposes, lies in its ability to extend beyond the limitations of language: “What word expresses the concept of ironic anger tinged with melancholy? There isn’t a word for it […], but you can see that specific emotion […] in this photograph,” he writes. “There’s a higher level that comes through recognition [when you edit]: You may not be able to articulate what you want, but you can recognize it when you see it.” Editing is not a way to represent what can be expressed linguistically but a way to extend beyond the limits of the linguistic. Therefore, editing opens up opportunities for transformation.
You may not notice one of the most significant aspects of Rose’s installation until the film is nearly over. I didn’t: only small gradations of light pass through the semitransparent scrim and screen. But this realization deepens and complicates our experience of the work. We haven’t just been watching the luminous trace of prerecorded things but an inseparable blend of past and present objects, flung by bilateral beams from exterior and interior space, held together in ceaseless tension on a fibrous canvas.
Just a movie, this is not. As we sit on a black carpet before this ever-shifting screen, the world is not merely represented: it actively presents itself to us. We see the pinprick lights shining on the Black Star before us; the orange, late-evening sunset on adjacent skyscrapers; the atmospheric reflection of lights from the New York skyline. We feel as if we’ve transcended the world and reconnected with it all at once. No, Rachel Rose hasn’t accurately represented an actual trip in Outer Space. But that hardly matters. Her expressive response to Wolf’s story has us caught up in the affective fabric of an ever-changing engagement with space, rocketed away from the concerns and limitations of representation.
Nathan Roberts is a Film and Visual Studies PhD student at Harvard University. His writing has appeared on Patheos.com and TIME.com. His memoir about media, Surface Tensions: Searching for Sacred Connection in a Media-Saturated World, will be released by Hendrickson Publishers in 2016.