Catherine Sullivan: The Chittendens

20 January–9 March, 2006

Catherine Sullivan,  The Chittendens , Catherine Bastide gallery, Brussels, 2005, exhibition view

Catherine Sullivan, The Chittendens, Catherine Bastide gallery, Brussels, 2005, exhibition view


The Chittendens

Has man invented a better device than his finger for picking his nose?

Critical to the discussion of all works of mine are the devices employed to produce and generate the behaviors of the performers who execute them. Be they written texts, stylistic economies and gestural regimes, or re-enactments of historic performances, I have always viewed these devices as a means to animate qualities in each performer and bring to bear on the performance itself circumstances of training or cultural orientation through a biography of familiar or absorbed forms. Performers, especially actors absorb and regenerate aspects of the behavioral regimes we are all subject to, and in this sense each project has begun with a certain anthropological interest.  However, as much I would like to regard a performing body as a "text" in an of itself, the result of historical production, what has ultimately continued to drive much of the work is the irreducibility of that text, and the effects generated by its own delicacy when placed in terms of other histories, other parallel evidence of what I can now dare to locate as "self-possession", "self-determination", and to use this word sparingly, desire. It is in this way that I don't feel the work to be particularly "Brechtian" although this description is commonly attributed to it.

The Chittendens began with a choreographic method developed with composer Sean Griffin for a sequence ("D-Pattern") in an unrelated theatre work. Sean and I were both interested in scoring strategies from the 1960's primarily having to do with the use of numerals and with ambiguities which could be teased out of strategies of reduction. Minimalist baggage aside, I was interested in how such a numeric scoring system could be applied to an actor's dramatic task which is impossible to break down into quantifiable units. Because I am interested in devices which calibrate or measure "dramatic" content, and devices which pressure expressive and emotive content, I was interested in a piece in which the actors and musicians would be asked to "master" through the same system, knowing that for the actors, the system would impose an entirely different set of effects, effects produced when a quantifying system is imposed on material which is impossible to quantify. Unique also to the actors' application of the numerical score would be the psycho-social aspects of recombination and grouping.

While working on The Chittendens, a certain critical mood set in relating to notions of self-posession and the festering cynicism I had toward the annoyingly introverted aspects of my own interest in it.  (The luxury to consider something so old school was fueling the cynicism, and generating moral traps within my thinking, but I think better art is made by embracing the traps.)  I am not interested in self-posession as an ideal but more as a kind of survival reflex which, along with self-determination is projected into the cultural, political, or social sphere as a necessity. "Determinism" is an old philosophical chestnut -- causes are determined by previous causes, etc., and self-determinism, "free-will" is the antithesis. The historical philosophical trajectory of this question is exhaustive and for the most part uninteresting to me because I am not interested in the implications of such a discussion, but again more in the various reflexes and pathologies associated with it,  such as the moral value given to protecting and advancing such an ideal as "free-will". Such as the brutality and deceit which is masked in its name. One can't apprehend such things as America's current attempt to control the world without recognizing that its culture has always conflated the ethics of self determinism, and economics. I was ultimately drawn then to the extroverted aspects of the question of self posession, and how it is a kind of national pathology, one which is hopelessly bolstered by the glorious victories of the 20th century.  Unlike Europe, we have no reason to doubt that our past justifies our present. 

Catherine Sullivan,  The Chittendens , 2005, 6 channel video installation transferred from 16mm film 2/4', Black & White/Colour, sound (16mm film stills)

Catherine Sullivan, The Chittendens, 2005, 6 channel video installation transferred from 16mm film 2/4', Black & White/Colour, sound (16mm film stills)


My interest in the associated pathologies of self-posession, self-determination, determinism, free-will etc., then became more or less rooted in the moral universe of past, and connections between morality and economic exploit. It seemed more interesting to work with an interpretive model from the past, rather than the "objective" critical tools of the present. Since I don't hold objectivity in any kind of esteem, it made additional sense to work with a critical model whose framework would be set even further in the past. An appropriate choice here was Thorstein Veblen's "The Theory of the Liesure Class" and its conflation of social pathologies with the "pecuniary"  (that which is associated with acquisition and ownership) structures which determine them. For Veblen, the circumstances of life are economical and thus inherently pathological, the moral character with which the "liesure class" assumes and maintains its ownership puts this in evidence.  Around this time I had also made a trip to Pheonix Arizona and, while driving,  passed an unassuming brick and block glass building,  outside of which was a sign depicting a lighthouse, a tall rigged sailing ship, and the name "The Chittendens". I couldn't tell what kind of business this was given the age of the sign, the building's non-descript exterior, and the "mixed use" city planning common to the west and American southwest. Some research revealed that The Chittendens was an insurance agency, and I was reminded how common such maritime imagery is to American business culture.  The icongography of the Chittendens insurance agency in some strange way became the mise en scène for my reading of "The Theory of the Liesure Class".

For Veblen, the barbarian traits are of no use to a healthy collective life and he is often dismissed on this point among others. Must the collective life be defined by what is useful to it? Don't expressions of class consciousness consist of complex social rituals motivated by much more than esteem and status?  Don't his assaults on display and ceremoniousness betray long held superstitions in Anglo-Protestant culture about artifice? Couldn't we find that such invectives constitute a pathology themselves, one which represses the emotional, irrational and sensual surpluses of industrial capitalism -- what is pleasurable in display, what is titillating about exploit?  Such criticism is only meaningful depending on the degree to which one actually wants an absolute and objective theory of the liesure class. The book is written in an overtly pedantic style which leaves the reader in a constant state of anticipation for a systematic logic which is never revealed.

At some stage in a project, there is always a point where I am aware of the degree to which I am absorbed in its emerging references but don't feel any obligation or obedience toward them on their own terms, the degree to which this potentially relegates them to a kind of kitsch. The dramatis personae of "The Theory of the Leisure Class" and the sentiments embodied by the signage for The Chittendens insurance agency were beginning to be staged through my imagination which easily borrows them, easily "cheapens" their meaning, and perhaps is satisfied by them as no more than kitsch. I think this idea would apply to the function of reference in any artwork, it becomes a matter of to what degree the kitsch object (in this case a visual signification and theoretical model) are left in their borrowed and incomplete form to serve as content in themselves. I have no problem with the kitschification of reference, as long as it is re-animated through other devices and toward other effects. Adding additional information is in a sense forcing the viewer away from the reductive and mutually congratulatory aspects of the kitsch experience of reference. For me kitsch is only offensive when its function is to affirm a nostalgia for the original thing or a pedigree necessary to its recognition. I think the end result bears some anxiety about this question, the spectre of kitsch looms over every work of mine, and this is true here as well, once the choice was made to pursue the iconographies of Veblen and The Chittendens as raw material for the mise en scène of the films. 


The choice of setting and costume infuses my projections onto the moral universe of Veblen, its antecendents in late capitalism as I have experienced it (the ersatz financeering mileux of upper, middle, lower-middle, junior, and lower management) and the maritime iconography of The Chittendens. I began to look for offices, the best of those found was a mid-60's office building in Chicago housing the multiple endeavors of both exploit and industry. Several rooms were in the process of construction, or contained office furniture, copy machines, leftover files,  knickknacks, and hundreds of other surpluses (or stockpiles) of closed out or relocated businesses. Empty offices and a grand oak-paneled board room completed what would become our primary location. The emerging mise en scène was one of dislocated management/commerce and this influenced the search for the other necessary location,  a lighthouse.  A true epiphany for the project happened when I found and was able to negotiate shooting at a small abandoned lighthouse on a remote island an hour from the coast of Wisconsin, ironically named "Poverty Island".  Drawn from various 19th and 20th century archetypes, (including Veblen's peacable savage and liesure class financieer), I wanted the costumes, to provide a kind of  "loose cover" for the performers, they could justify his/her being someplace in dramatic terms, but would never reconcile with what exactly they would do there. The performers have no relationship to the costume as an identity they should embody, nor does it bear any relationship to an expression of their attitudes or choreography. 

The piece works the performance of the scores through a kind of spectrum of scenes with different stylistic approaches and staging for the camera. The first component,  "Chittendens Scenes (Morbid Naturalism)"  takes place in the maze of small offices using the office floorplan and re-combination of character archetypes to loosely ground a kind of narrative. An unmotivated camera moves repeatedly through the waiting room, pantry, bathroom, conference room, and executive office generating an endless mutation of narrative given the status of the room, who is present, and the effects of their action -- the playing out of their individual scores.  The "Chittenden Screen Tests" were filmed in an executive boardroom in the same building. Like many other projects, this location yielded the necessary "production design", we didn't have to bring anything in, the setting already consisted of a fantastic conflation of 19th and 20th century period decor.  These scenes present one score per each actor filmed in two takes, in different costume,  one in black and white, the other in color. The takes are then dissolved over one another, so that any inconsistancy in the performance between the takes is revealed. The "Chittenden Screen Tests" follow one from the other as a series of solos. The filmic dissolve brings the two takes together,  and the performer either unifies his action over two disparate moments in time, or, fails to "self posess" in the high steaks ambiance of the executive boardroom. The location also offered us a series of rooms which were in transition, either under construction or full of artifacts from businesses no longer renting space there. These rooms had a bad vibe of liquidation, eviction and foreclosure a kind of vibe that  became the setting for a somewhat dry and static series of scenes we called "The Resucitation of Uplifting" which are combined with Sean Griffin's musical compositions. Shot in a fairly static manner, music is used to animate a depth and narrative projection into the choreographies. The final component is a series of scenes shot at Poverty Island lighthouse, which sits, abandoned on a small island of of the Wisonsin shore. Completed in 1875, the lighthouse guided vessels loaded with ore to the steel mills of the great lakes during the maritime commerce boom of the mid 19th century. The scenes involve a voyage to Poverty Island with a Captain Bligh-esque figure and two "deckhands" costumed for work on a modern cruise ship. Often noted for the failure of his micro-managing, Captain Bligh and the voyage of the HMS bounty are a model of failed exploit and bad leadership. The scenes depict a sequence of inspirational views of the abandoned lighthouse, the deckhands at "work", and the Captain's melancholy over the failure of the resucitation of the metaphor of the lighthouse --  the voyage's primary aim. Sean Griffin's reworking of a score by composer Percy Aldridge Grainger who aims to convey "a suggestion of wafted, wind-borne, surging sounds heard at sea" accompanies these scenes.I hope The Chittendens generates a spectrum of effects. I hope it is a quasi-European, nostalgia-obsessed hysterical film noir, a morality tale, and a critique of one. I hope cohesion is simultaneously generated and dismantled by the particularities of the performers and the tasks they execute. I hope there is ultimately an effusion of reception as the actors are cast in and out of the historiography of the mise en scène due to their own ideosynctratic playing of its score.  

Catherine Sullivan, 2005

Catherine Sullivan,  The Chittendens , 2005, 6 channel video installation transferred from 16mm film 2/4', Black & White/Colour, sound (16mm film stills)

Catherine Sullivan, The Chittendens, 2005, 6 channel video installation transferred from 16mm film 2/4', Black & White/Colour, sound (16mm film stills)

Exhibition views