If you could read a transcript of your internal monologue during the lockdown period, would you like what you encountered there? It’s a good bet you wouldn’t. Conversations in your head can get pretty heated. We say searing things to ourselves that we never would direct at anybody else.
This is particularly true of artists, who, even under normal conditions, spend most of their days hurling accusations of inadequacy at themselves. Making art is a humbling thing to do. Pressure to excel is immense, and the task isn’t always adequately compensated. Quarantined artists were trapped in the pressure cookers of their own fevered minds. Some wilted, some snapped and some, like experimental artist Derrick Belcham, made pieces like “The You Voice.”
Not content with a single self-castigating speech, Belcham has given us nine of them at once. He’s put his acid words on the lashing tongues of a group of attractive women and filmed them delivering these addresses straight to his camera, and he’s playing the footage back, mercilessly, on loops, in a long, darkened gallery at MANA Contemporary in Jersey City.
A few of these speakers come off as concerned friends; others like exasperated job counselors or therapists at wit’s end. And one, who reminds Belcham sharply that he needs dental work, seems like a boss who is about to give him the sack.
Though “The You Voice” is loud and dizzying and should, perhaps, come with a trigger warning for fellow artists who share Belcham’s recent trauma about misdirection, it is not cacophonous. Belcham, curator Irene Mei Zhi Shum and MANA executive director Kele McComsey have spaced out the voices just enough so they can be disaggregated. Depending on where you stand, it is possible to concentrate on one speaker while the others murmur astringent thoughts in the background. Move a few feet and engage with a different face, and the first voice joins the background chorus of babble while another intensifies. It’s a shrewd approximation of how racing thoughts work: They run on many tracks, overlapping, tag-teaming and jostling, passing the baton in a relay of self-abnegation.
Belcham enhances the intensity by letting light swell on the faces of their subjects while they’re speaking and darkening the scene when they pause. Women are constantly emerging from blackness, stabbing up Belcham’s psyche and then retreating into the shadows. When the sentences get short — and they often do — it’s as if the speakers are at the side of a deserted road at midnight, continually swept by high-beams.
Because Belcham isn’t named in the film loops, the “you” that the women are addressing might well be “you the viewer.” The video-maker clearly expects you to identify with his plight and, depending on your degree of masochism, you might find yourself willingly inhabiting his uncomfortable perspective. Like him, you might worry about your courage, or your failure to reach your potential, or your checkered history of romantic relationships. All of that is emphatically covered in the monologues, as are Belcham’s concerns about his health, his dietary habits, his capacity for meaningful work and his lack of education relative to that of his peers.
Those who are overwhelmed by this can step to the side of the gallery, don headphones and listen to the same actresses tell haunted stories: reveries from childhood, accounts of dreams, laments for unrealized plans, advice too epigrammatic to follow. Once those tales are over, it’s right back into the crucible.
Though Belcham runs the water hotter than other filmmakers do, this blasting spigot has been turned on before. Sharon Hayes’ Whitney installation “There’s So Much I Want to Say to You” plunged the gallery-goer into a wilderness of signs and voices, each one designed to splinter the attention of the viewer and communicate the vertiginous experience of information overload. “The Visitors ” by Ragnar Kjartansson devoted a screen to each member of a musical collective at play in different rooms in a farmhouse; the mix changed depending on which strummer or plucker you were standing near. Footage of women’s faces, captured in high contrast black and white as they stare the camera down, are a staple of music videos and television commercials.
But those videos and commercials are rarely so condemnatory. “The Visitors” welcomed the viewer to partake in an exercise in harmony, not criticism. And the Internet-age multiplicity of voices doesn’t seem to be what’s eating Belcham. His narrator is focused obsessively on a single subject: himself. A mind as beleaguered as his might benefit from a little escapist distraction.
It’s an open question why Belcham’s superego is young, adorable and female. Perhaps he feels that a scolding assessment is more motivational when it’s delivered by a pretty face; if so, he’s not alone. But the casting undermines some of the fearsome cohesion of “The You Voice.” It isn’t merely that the acting in this show is uneven. It’s also that the actors on the loops have very different ideas about how much to ham it up. Some of the women are plainspoken to a fault, others have learned the rhythms and cadences common to museum video installations a little too well, and at least one — an impertinent tattooed blonde — seems to be angling for Hollywood.
That’s an issue with execution rather than a problem with design. The use of actors in a show as personal and confessional as “The You Voice” was bound to create some aesthetic tripwires. Other elements of the installation are handled masterfully, especially the sound design. Belcham, Zhum and McComsey have spaced the speakers perfectly, tickling your toes with warm waves of dialogue upon entrance and slapping you with waves of recrimination once you’re immersed. The faces are filmed with an emphasis on clarity with every stern look, half-smile and sneer captured and amplified.
Belcham has even appended subtitles to the loops, just in case you don’t get it. You’ll get it.
Derrick Belcham’s “The You Voice” runs through Feb. 12. MANA Contemporary’s galleries and exhibitions are on view by tour only. Tours take place Tuesdays through Fridays at 3 p.m. and can be scheduled at manacontemporary.com.
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