Found Hurting: Laurel Woodcock's operetta

John Zeppetelli

Literally meaning “small opera” the term operetta designated for over three centuries something less ambiguous than opera. The form evolved in our own century into musical comedy or musical theatre, incorporating spoken dialogue and dance. In contrast, to the full-blown, virtuosic articulations of traditional opera, Laurel Woodcock’s installation operetta ironically evokes the lighthearted, minor drama of a song and dance routine.

Consisting of a video projection of a dying fly (a disturbingly beautiful if annoying little bug, visibly struggling to regain composure) and an audio clip of a crashing computer borrowed improbably from the 1969 film 2001: A Space Odyssey, the installation proposes the structural features evoked by the musical genre: the dance (performed by the fly), and the dialogue and musical number (composed by the technology in the audio clip). As both the image and sound are on endless loops, this comically macabre coupling is locked in an inescapable cycle of repetition, deferral and inconclusiveness.

At once mystical and satirical, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey features a computer that gradually takes over a space-ship only to be painfully disconnected at the end of the film by the sole surviving astronaut. Upon disconnection and after politely identifying itself by its model number HAL 900, the computer sings a touchingly mechanical rendition of A Bicycle Built for Two. Much pathos gathers in those few broken lines as the faltering computer–who seems to have assimilated the textures and emotional depth of human experience not readily available to the actual people in the movie^1^ –- succumbs to what may have been a programming of human weakness. For the purposes of operetta this sound segment effectively and brilliantly completes the uneasy alliance between death and representation which the installation visualizes as a cruel form of irony: a bug in the machine is found to cause systematic failure. (Interestingly, the expression computer bug originates in the discovery of actual insects causing malfunctions in early computers).

Situated somewhere between the uncertain monumentality of sculpture and the ephemerality of time-based media, operetta is a strangely compelling work made all the more intriguing by the presence of its display mechanism. Indeed, the video projector (hovering elegantly off the floor on a metal platform hung from the ceiling on steel cables) proudly declares its instrumental reason while beaming its loopy fiction. Like so many media installations, the exposed props of the stagecraft are responsible for generating a seductive, sometimes fetishistic, yet always self-reflexive thralldom whilst summoning a new kind of suspension of disbelief in the viewer–perversely, one which does not require seamlessly realist codes and conventions to be activated. (Add to this the installation’s smiling, nudging reference to truth claims made by certain “observational” documentary practices, euphemistically known as “fly on the wall”).

Cleverly mocking technological determinism, the break-downs and technical mishaps of this work are interestingly cross-referenced to nature and human relations. Like the Kubrick film it quotes from, operetta is an ultimately hopeful space epic about the way technology might in the end be defeated by human rather than cybernetic values. But these may be disproportionately grand and unnecessary claims for what is, after all, at its core, a gently absurdist and quietly modest installation. In point of fact, I’m certain that if you stripped operetta of its apparatus and spliced just the image and soundtrack into an appropriate indie film narrative say, the sequence wouldn’t cause too much inconvenience to the viewer, accustomed as many filmgoers are to the split cinematic sign where image and sound are held in meaningfully conflictual tension.

However, operetta is emphatically an installation, sculpturally implemented in a space its elements arranged in a specific and unavoidable configuration. Witness the luminous pixelated spectacle of projected video in darkness, the necessarily kinesthetic experience for the viewer, the narrativisation of site–not to mention the piece’s insistent compulsion to repeat over time–and the result is a powerful dramatization which, despite its grace and economy, unlatches a considerable body of associative histories.

From this ambiguous musical theatre one comes away with a curious apprehension of loss that is just sufficiently leavened by Woodcock’s cheeky humour. The idea of loss is offered here as a constitutional element of spoken and unspoken language, one which structures experience, and our unceasing negotiations of the symbolic order. Existential and sensory questions aside, one also comes away empowered by operetta, as the viewer ultimately learns to distrust the poignant death-bed pronouncements made by insects or sentient machines.

Footnotes

  1. Sobchack, Vivian. Screening Space: the American Science Fiction Film. N.Y. Ungar, 1987, 2nd edition.