So beautiful, the girl says, staring up at the forest of redwood, like being
in fairyland, soon into which, she carefully — her gait easy — wanders.
String section, magical, and the glimmering of a celesta
try to emulate and accompany her feeling,
sincerely, until some woodwinds and a flute begin,
wonder stilling any possible fear.
We all hope for a better world, sometimes
that hope takes us entirely elsewhere
(is that what she was thinking?).
You have tired of this approach already.
So stop it.
Not the wonder, not the girl wandering, the sunlight, radiant through the trembling canopy; certainly not the hoping for a better place, which can end up taking you out, of the world and/or existence, entirely — but everything now promoted as a “self,” that forlorn coherency, constantly rebranded. (You’ve tired of this approach, too, haven’t you?)
The girl part, Elizabeth, will have been played by Karen Dotrice (billed in the credits as one of “the Mary Poppins kids,” a sad showbiz tale), the scene early in Disney’s The Gnome-Mobile, based, you might find this hard to believe, on the book by Upton Sinclair.
Now is probably not the time to ask if somebody else finds reek of the slaughter yards in any of it.
No one seems to mind.
“Frolics of the intuition, artistic visions, inspiration, all the grand things which have lent my life such beauty, may, I expect, strike a layman, clever though he be, as the preface of mild lunacy. But don’t you worry; my health is perfect, my body both clean within and without, my gait easy; I neither drink nor smoke excessively, nor do I live in riot. Thus, in the pink of health, well dressed and young-looking, I roved the countryside described above; and the secret inspiration did not deceive me…”
…is not something Julie Becker wrote, but you hear many of those words, spoken by a man, instead of any music or a girl’s voice, expressing wonder, as the only soundtrack to the scene of the girl exploring the forest primeval in the opening sequence of both versions of Becker’s video(s), Transformation and Seduction, 1993/2000*. Except for the interruption of two almost identical inserts of a man’s hand — Pirate? Regency schooner captain? — in close-up tracing an olde tyme map to a treasured location, nothing else is seen other than this footage of the girl, edited and repeated so that she retreats further into the forest, until a cut to black, marking the end of the first half of the video.
The artist once wrote that she “was told by some ‘expert’ that supposedly some systems take more and some take less time to repeat.” For the second part of the video (over the black announcing its start, the male voice declares this “the transformation”), the artist choreographs repeated short clips from various (children’s?) films of the sixties (or early seventies?) over which the voice continues to declaim, resulting in a tracing or tracking of, as well as a meditation on, the uncanniness of representation, or something equally (darkly?) marvelous.
“I did find the thing that I had been unconsciously tracking. Let me repeat — incredible! I was gazing at a marvel, and its perfection, its lack of cause and object filled me with a strange awe. But perhaps already then, while I gazed, my reason had begun to probe the perfection, to search for the cause, to guess at the object.”
At some point Becker lost the original tape of Transformation and Seduction, first made when she was twenty-one and still a student at CalArts. Her father (exuberantly? blithely? John the Baptist-like?) recorded the text for the soundtrack, perhaps through a landline or onto an answering machine, almost all of it a subtle reworking of things from opening chapters of Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Despair, which is quoted above.
Becker remade the video in 2000, sourcing the same footage from The Gnome-Mobile and whatever other gothic or gnomic, Disney or Disneyesque, live-action productions, as well as finding a man with a similarly resonant timbre to recite the Nabokovian text. Her gallery sees this remake as a second “version” of the piece rather than an “autonomous work.” Perhaps.
In Despair (or, as Nabokov put it, in his foreword, “Отчаяние—a far more sonorous howl”), the shady narrator is concerned with twins, doubles, mirrors, false cognates, deceit, dissociation, and death: in other words, art, the devilishness of representation. The Russian text of the novel, written in 1932, in Berlin, was serialized in a Parisian émigré review in 1934, and published by Petropolis in Berlin in 1936; then, Nabokov related, as had happened in the case of all his other works, it was “banned in the prototypical police state.” He continues: “At the end of 1936, while I was still living in Berlin — where another beastliness had started to megaphone — I translated Отчаяние,” but, brought out by John Long Limited in 1937, in London, “the book sold badly, and a few years later a German bomb destroyed the entire stock.” For the 1965 version, the only one that survives, Nabokov did more than revamp his thirty-year old translation: “I have revised Отчаяние itself,” but before the revised novel was (re)published, a somewhat briefer version” first appeared in Playboy.
Julie Becker, Transformation and Seduction, 1993/2000; video 4:36 minutes; courtesy of Greene Naftali, New York
Although the girl in the woods returns in flashes near the very end of the second part of Transformation and Seduction, the video begins — by some slip in space-time — with a damsel running, ecstatically (?), again and again, through a golden field. She is soon followed by a male suitor; a castle sits on a hilltop in the distance. Becker edited the fifth repetition of this bit so the damsel finally moves through the resplendence by herself, her suitor nevermore appearing. Moonlit castle ruins; a lone figure walking through them; quick cut to black; silhouettes etched by lightning. Most of the last half of the video worries over an inscrutable something rushing, creaturely, rustling by the bushes that completely obscure it (sheep dog? monster? spirit?). Becker cuts away from this mystery, but returns to it again and again, the movement ominous as it is funny. After last editorial glimpses of the girl, the very final shot cools on predatory birds circling in the sky. Through it all, the man’s voiceover intones another of Becker’s rewritings of Despair: “…as if I were looking for, and finding (and still doubting a little) proof that I was I, and that I was really in the forest, searching for one particular common girl, named ____________, but had nothing in common with her, who, at the moment, was probably lolling under a bush. And then again, the thrill of that marvel made my heart miss a beat. That girl, especially when she slept, where her features were motionless, showed me my own face, my mask, the flawlessly pure image of my corpse.”
What was she thinking?
She’d said: “A refrigerator box, in American cities, can be the last refuge of the homeless. They’re also temporary places for children to play in.”
She’d said: “Some things in life are really harsh and troubling. And if you can find a way to be less cynical — well, all the better. Thinking, you know, can be completely suicidal. Sometimes it’s better to just zone out.”
She’d suggested, at some point, Hanna-Barbera was God.
Julie Becker / Jason Yates / TSC
Why did she kill herself?
I don’t know.
She’d long ago wondered about a desire (is that what to call it?) to be or create the semblance of “a ghost moving through the walls.” The earliest version of Transformation and Seduction ends with one possible figure of or for art’s primeval power (“let me repeat—incredible!”) found in sleep’s perfect representation of the self as corpse — and it’s her father who narrates the tale. Is that fucked up or just a “marvel making the heart miss a beat”? Blanchot would probably have something heavy to say about it. All I can do is wonder how long should any life be? What or who determines its fullness? How much art should anyone make and how often? (As much as possible, or only what has the intensity of desire’s profundity or lightness?) How many drugs should one take? (As many as possible, all kinds, recreational or not, or not?) What determines art’s “success,” how does that differ from its meaningfulness, and what happens if we can no longer tell the difference?
Her decision to remake the video formalizes and/or crystalizes her thinking, its marvelous hauntedness, but the second version — narrated by a man not her father — is not the same (its audio and visual tracks are much clearer, sharper). Or if it is a “version,” we must consider what a version of anything is, how similar two things would have to be to be a version of one another. It’s not unlike the search for proof that I was I. Relating to one another as if parts of a fugue, starting at different times, in different voices, mood and motion and even motive of the two versions differ as much as one twin does from another, “sameness” wavering, wobbly, Twin Peaks-ish.
If certain frolics of the intuition, artistic visions, inspiration, all the grand things which lent her life and her art such beauty, still strike some “as the preface of mild lunacy,” perhaps it’s time to reflect upon, psycho-ontologically, what a term like creative management occludes, what its unconscious looks like. And you really wouldn’t have to be Roman Jakobson reflecting on Majakovskij’s suicide to come to some terms for the connections between the art and the life or to see that “those who stubbornly mark out a strict boundary between the ‘purely personal’ fate of the [artist] and his [artistic] biography create an atmosphere of low-grade, highly personal gossip by means of those significant silences.”
Which only means that there is no reflection about the question of why she killed herself without confronting the exigencies and/or contingencies of career, fame, and “promise”; the cruel mutability of tolerance for “fucking-up” and “being difficult” by artists who are men compared to those who are women; or the difference, without any misty nostalgia, between L.A. “then” and L.A. now. Let’s just say some find it all immiserating. Cause for something like Jakobson’s “single-minded, naked hatred for the ever more threadbare, ever more alien rubbish offered by the established order of things” as well as for close contact with the pharmacopeia, whether its use is understood actually and/or figuratively.
I don’t know.
Her (w)hole project — begun circa 1999-2000, parts of it shown over the next sixteen years of her life, never completed (could it have been?) or, let’s demand, still ongoing, something that would come to include “film, photographs, collages and drawings, models, and sculptures” — concerned the stuff and the life of the previous tenant of her Echo Park house, a “gay man with AIDS,” a “stained-glass maker.” He’d died and Becker related: “No one ever came to collect [his] things. It’s like he mattered to no one. He was about as invisible as a person could be. I guess I wanted to bring him to life again and ask him some questions… as well as honor him just for making it through life as long as he did.”
While it’s too convenient to say that like the narrator of Despair, she’d come across her double — proof I was I, its lack of cause and object filling her with a strange awe — something about the encounter preoccupied and/or prepossessed her. While her art often provided a way of walking into the middle of somebody’s trip or dreaming, there’s access, but perhaps no solution. Becker had often wondered about “behind the scenes,” asking, “Where is it? From what place do we normally view a situation?”
Perhaps she finally found the perfect vantage from which to view the whole situation, life or its double, and decided to stay there, but whatever the case, in light, darkly radiant, of the (w)hole, it would be wrong to pity her, to sigh, If she could only have done for herself what she did for the stained-glass maker!
That’s not what the story is about. It’s about the ones who come after and do the work of honor.
Bruce Hainley would like to thank Jason Yates, and Sarah Lehrer-Graiwer for their insight and assistance.
* The titles and status of the two versions require more attention. When first asked about the videos, Becker’s gallery replied, via e-mail: “The work is titled Transformation and Seduction,1993/2000. It was first made in 1993 when Julie was a student at CalArts, and the voiceover in the original is that of her father’s. At some point Julie lost the original tape and the only copies we had were of poor quality— as you heard, the soundtrack was also compromised. As a result, Carol and Julie decided to remake the piece in 2000— they sourced the same footage from a Disney film and found a man with a similarly deep voice to recite the voiceover. At some point down the line, the work was improperly titled as Leda and the Swan — this is how it appears in Nine Lives — but the correct title is Transformation and Seduction. Therefore the two files you received represent two versions of the same work, not two autonomous works. Apologies for any confusion, and I hope this is helpful.” It’s just not clear to me why the later “remake” (?) wouldn’t be a restoration rather than a “version,” even if it’s somehow construed that the two videos don’t remain intricately connected but different works, made at different times with different voices. I mean, you don’t have to reach for Deleuze to comprehend how these repetitions produce critical difference as a result of the same. In any case, the second (ghost?) title, Leda and the Swan, doesn’t only vex who or what is the subject of transformation (both Leda and the swan are truly awfully transformed), it also freaks wonder with sexual violence as it inverts sequence, “seduction” now leading to “transformation,” rather than the other way around. With these videos, Becker opened up a dossier on wonder (aka the sublime) that glimmers throughout her oeuvre and that includes the sorcerous and pubescent as well as the dissociative and stupefying, not to mention the psycho-aesthetic, shuddering aftermath, myth to many, of being fucked and/or fucked over by a god in beast mode. Becker’s gallery now states that the originating video, with her father’s voice, is not “the real work.”
Julie Becker, “Surburban Legend,” in Peace, catalogue for a show curated by Rain Wolfs, Gianni Jetzer (Zürich: migros museum, 1999): 85.
Julie Becker, Researchers, Residents, a Place to Rest , curated by Bernhard Bürgi (Zürich: Kunsthalle Zürich, 1997).
Roman Jakobson, “On a Generation That Squandered Its Poets,” in Jakobson, Langauge in Literature, edited by Krystyna Pomorska and Stephen Rudy (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1987): 273-300.
Chris Kraus, “Whole,” last accessed on May 1, 2016.
Vladimir Nabokov, Despair (New York: Vintage International, 1989).
Ali Subotnick, “Julie Becker,” in Subotnick, Nine Lives: Visionary Artists from L.A. (Los Angeles: Hammer Museum, 2009): 30-41.