Alone Again Or
The Videos of Submerged!

-Karl Erickson

The Floater by Shir Lieberman, Jonathan Phelps and Fabio Fonda

We, all of us, are lonely. We are in that together. It is just that we are lonely in our own different ways. The three stories by Leo Kuelbs that form the basis of Submerged! – “The Floater,” “Roger’s Dream,” and “Submerged!” – share perspectives on loneliness that map that feelings contours. This cartographic analysis shows loneliness as abandonment, disengagement, aloofness, difference and patheticness. In each of the three stories the narrator speaks from a glassy distance, both of time and space, estranged from his own reality. The video and sound artists that have interpreted the three stories have all latched onto this sense of separation, a tension between surface and depth that cannot be transgressed.

Dream Propulsion (Laboratory) by Nicole Antebi and Laura Ortman

In their take on “The Floater,” Shir Lieberman, Jonathan Phelps and Fabio Fonda put a hopeful face on this difference, presenting the protagonist in a mythical light whose aloneness is a sign of specialness. In their “Floater,” the central character comes untethered from the city life on earth and finds a chance at belonging as an initiate in a mystical realm of sea-creatures, druids and magic. In their story, loneliness serves a purpose: to prepare someone for a moment of greatness. Fonda’s sound design with Lieberman’s and Phelp’s visuals create a moment of anticipation, of being on the edge of something more, about to take flight.

This sense of weightlessness is treated as a curse, or maybe even just a sense of very bad luck for the unnamed protagonist in “The Floater” by Kitzinger Gábor and Alex Hamadey. Gravity attracts and repels the character along with the detritus, large and small, that makes up the obstacles and events of everyday existence (mailboxes, police officers, fire trucks, shopping bags, etc.). This gravity is capricious, defying preconceived notions of space and propriety. The artists focus on the sense of helplessness, of being tossed about by incomprehensible forces. In Kuelbs’ “The Floater” story, the character gives in, at last, to this helplessness. In Kitzinger and Hamadey’s version, the hapless

character is not even given that option and is buffeting by unseen forces, before being lost in a heap of rubble. Hamadey’s repetitive, slowly churning soundtrack reinforces the notion of existence as an imponderable machine, cycling without concern for and despite our actions and desires.

”Submerged” is Danielle de Picciotto’s and Alexander Hacke’s version of Kuelb’s story “The Floater.” Their video follows the emotional arc of the original story, from estrangement to bucolic reverie to dread. Floating becomes transformed from the airborne drifting of the story to something akin to being drowned. Images and sounds fill the screen, like water into the lungs. Children, dogs and campfires change from friendly and inviting to threatening. This transition point is difficult to locate. De Picciotto’s images stretch and stutter, become overripe and permeable, permissive but repulsive. The story told by the imagery and sound is that of the movement from longing for connection to violent rejection.

Roger’s Dream by Jim Ellis

Late night TV becomes existential dread in Jim Ellis’ interpretation of “Roger’s Dream.” The glass surface of the TV screen becomes an impenetrable barrier to the perceived depths just on the other side. Sounds of commercials burble to the surface amongst the noise, beeps and bleeps, in synch or not, with images that bloom and recede like time-lapsed fungi, after-images burning the surface for the briefest of moments. Watching it is something similar to channel surfing, but the images pile on top of one another rather than cycle linearly. Ellis’ “Roger’s Dream”is steeped in a hallucinogenic overload that renders the viewer passive, washed over and out.

”Dream Propulsion,” Nicole Antebi’s and Laura Ortman’s version of “Roger’s Dream,” is similarly hallucinogenic and screen focused. Unlike Ellis’ video, though, the TV screen draws the viewer into its depths even as it expels the viewer from one scene to the next with each heavy click of the remote control. Ortman’s soundtrack, metallic and reverb-drenched, paces Antebi’s animated collages from the domestic to the strange to the galactic and back again. The images beg for analysis, but provide no clues to their meaning, leaving the viewer estranged on the other side of understanding. The video and sound are gentle, but impenetrable, self-contained, the triangular glyph stuttering the corner another unfathomable mystery.

The project’s titular story “Submerged!” resulted in the two most narrative takes in the collection. The story features the greatest dramatic moment in the set of stories: two brothers running to escape an oncoming tsunami while warning the town’s populace of the catastrophic threat. In Kuelbs’ writing, the story is told in flashback by the narrator, starting “Do you remember that day?” The piece is melancholic, the narrator speaking to his absent brother. Sam Marlow and Alon Cohen amplify this dysphoric atmosphere. Marlow’s paper cutout-like animations, predominantly depict traces of the human body in action: footprints, knocked-over coffee cups, disembodied mouths. It is as if the video is a fading memory, details slipping away. Through cuts and transitions Marlow brings the viewer in and out of depths, from beneath the tidal wave to looking down into a cup of coffee, and from hovering above tire tracks left by a fast moving car to looking up from beneath the ocean to floating figures. Cohen’s soundtrack amplifies these changes of mood and perspective moving from cinematic chase music to ambient drifts that alternately comfort and stress the viewer.

United VJs’ “Mishap” instead places the viewer in the middle of the action. After a brief, disorienting intro of optical checkerboards transforming into angular trees and landscape, computer generated abstractions threaten the silhouettes of two runners. The staccato soundtrack intensifies the sensation of panic and pursuit. Acid-colored images of sound waves replace the town-consuming tsunami, echoing with menace the chase music. The anxiety produced is similar to that of Jim Ellis’ media-image overload. This time, the viewer is caught in a loop, as the video cycles at the end back again to checkerboard pattern at the beginning, leaving the viewer to be plunged down into the realm of abstraction, no chance for escape by going further in or out.

All seven of the videos have a point of view that feels alienated from the events depicted. This can be felt as a distance in time, in an inability to find emotional connection, or in a directionless sadness. The imagery nearly all seems to be from a first-person orientation, placing the viewer behind the eyes of the protagonist, an actor with no self-actualization. The surfaces are either glass-hard or suffocatingly soft. The soundtracks all share a sense of density, even the pauses packed with reverberation. This creates a feeling of an ever-shallower surface pressing down, pushing away. The viewer is left, like the narrators in Kuelbs’ stories, outside, immobile yet urgent.
Originally published in the Submerged! DVD catalog essay, Leo Kuelbs Collection, 2014

Alone Again Or: The Videos of Submerged! Catalog Essay | 2014 | Writing