America is in an era of self-conscious, packaged and often constructed history. The news media blurs the line between information and entertainment, determining tone and selecting for us which images will become iconic of which events. The entertainment industry quickly recycles current events into blockbuster films and made-for-TV movies. Museums preserve and present the artifacts of popular culture (Archie Bunker's chair and Fonzie's jacket) as well as those of contemporary American tragedy. The shoes of victims from the Oklahoma City bombing are on display at the Oklahoma City National Memorial. And during the World Trade Center recovery, museum curators sifted through the debris for everything from ID badges to wrecked cars to twisted sections of the building's framework. Never has horror been so well documented.
The impulses to inform, remember, record and learn are noble human qualities. But when these impulses are manifested through institutions, corporations and the media, they can become suspect. At what point does the process obscure, skew or manufacture the truth? When does it abstract, diminish and commodify human experience? Artist Duncan Ganley explores some of these issues in projects that address "documentary fact, cinematic spectacle and museum representation." Using the trappings of a museum -- audioguides and informational labels -- and the authority they convey, Ganley presents relics from nonexistent films made by a fictional director (Martin MacAnnally) and a nonexistent film company (Millennium Panic Pictures). Curated by Chris Ballou and on view at Fire Station No. 3, "Millennium Panic: New Work by Duncan Ganley" historicizes the wholly fictional.
Ganley narrates an audioguide that leads viewers through the exhibition in didactic museum fashion. Don your headphones, press play, and you hear his spot-on hypnotic audioguide tone. He convincingly relates the troubled and ambiguous history of Millennium Panic Pictures, further setting the stage by describing the "retrochic ambience" of the company's offices, including supposed snippets of film audio and recounting the director's relationship to his actress/muse Katy Freeway. The soothing and factual tone of Ganley's voice is bolstered by the accoutrements of institutional information. The combination makes you more than inclined to accept whatever he says as fact.
In The Last Film, a ten-foot video projection shows a film loop of a grainy and unchanging cityscape, a time code counting down its one-minute length. Identified as an unknown fragment from the Millennium Panic archives, it is viewed with the scrutiny one affords a relic. The same applies to another large-scale projection, this time ostensibly a loop of a title animation for Millennium Panic Pictures -- an artifact of corporate identification. Next to it is The Last Image, a printed photograph showing the back of a man filming the same city view. A production shot, perhaps? In the exhibition brochure, we learn that the image was shot at the observation deck of the World Trade Center. Here is where reality conflates with fiction and our knowledge of recent events lends tremendous import to an innocuous image.
In the center of the room, four large wooden pallets hold plastic-wrapped stacks of film posters seemingly retrieved from some forgotten storage facility. The posters feature a lot of the stereotypical "****!" followed by the name of some fictitious reviewer. (Remember the sham film critic Sony Pictures was caught using to plump up its ad copy?) But, surprisingly, there are no pictures on the posters. According to the museum label, the images were left out of the printing order either because of the printer's error, as Millennium Panic Pictures' "staff testimonies show," or through MPP error, "as the printer's faxes show." An administrative screwup becomes the stuff of artifact and legend.
Ganley creates an interplay between museum signage and film credits with his list of random names on a white wall. The context shades our interpretation, their neat vinyl lettering on the pristine wall implying honor, credit, thanks or memorial. Who are they? Actors? Victims? Funders? Family and friends?
Ganley is creating intriguing objects and images to explore ideas of spectacle, historicization and information. There are a lot of ideas rolling around here. The film clip and the poster misprints are the most persuasive "artifacts." But while you want a few more things along those lines, the audio is effective in tying all the works together. Ultimately, most compelling is the artist's savvy ability to hone in on telling aspects of contemporary society.
Two central themes emerge from Ganley's work. One is how the presentation of information affects our perception of it, how official trappings make information seem objective and authoritative. The other is how contemporary events are transformed into commodities via their associated artifacts. Just last week, people were busily scooping up Enron memorabilia at an auction, and the woman standing in front of me at the grocery store was wearing a souvenir baseball cap that read "Ground Zero." Truth is stranger than art.
Get the Theater and Arts Newsletter
Exclusive discounts and announcements to Houston theater shows and art events