An Evidence Horizon
On entering the near-dark room, I could discern a few slab benches arranged in rows in the dim light of the video display. From here, austerity rapidly became plenitude. My attention was drawn to the trial scene that was displayed across several screens, each actor framed within a corresponding video display, each display positioned according to that actor’s courtroom role. The visual was dominant until I put on a pair of headphones similar to those worn by the onscreen actors. As I started listening, a former soldier was describing his role in a civilian massacre. I found this performance both disturbing and moving, a feeling magnified by my knowledge that the script was based on actual international court transcripts. My empathy extended even to the court officials. It would be a very difficult case. The defendant was charged with a horrific crime, but he claimed he had acted under extreme duress. Meanwhile, the imagery onscreen wandered from the main drama, ranging in focus from banal object to abstracted form, and from background stage set to dramatic foreground. The video crew and the camera apparatus were made visible at times in such a way as to disturb any illusion of documentary footage or conventional courtroom drama. Once pulled from the narrative flow, I returned to attending the more formal details of the piece, such as the structure of the installation space. The spatial hierarchy of a typical courtroom was effectively recreated in the installation itself.
World Rehearsal Court, as installed at the Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery, featured a seven-channel video installation set up in a pared-down courtroom configuration. Seven video monitors were arranged on the far wall, where the judge would preside and the witnesses would take the stand. Six monitors were suspended from the ceiling at the same height in a row across this wall, while the seventh sat on the floor, sometimes showing a front view of the witness. The installation simulated the spatial structure of the courtroom, where each participant’s role has a specific metonymically loaded place, such as the bench, the bar, and the stand. In this case, each actor not only had a place related to a specific role, but each actor at times had the focus of a dedicated camera. Informed by Judy Radul’s background in performance and video art, World Rehearsal Court uses technology not only to record a given performance, but also to reveal the peculiarities of the medium of video itself. A custom camera apparatus was devised to hold multiple cameras arranged around a circle facing outward to focus on separate actors or to pan 360 degrees through a scene while providing multiple camera views. I wondered how such specific scopic technology functioned in this case, and how it distorted or enhanced the reading or interpretation of the situation.
In the installation, we can watch all the actors at once from a physical position similar to that of a courtroom audience—a spatial setting that also makes visible the latent presenter/viewer hierarchy in gallery presentation, particularly with video installation, where the presenter controls the work’s duration. The installation also conveys an excess of simultaneity that does not exist for audiences viewing the conventionally edited material of television but that does exist for audiences of live theatre or live courtroom trials. In other words, the video installation simulates a sense of the simultaneity of a live event. Visitors can see the reaction of one actor to another actor’s testimony while also glimpsing the equipment and the areas off set. Unlike in conventional video media, with World Rehearsal Court the viewer must choose where to focus attention at any given moment. Occasionally the camera apparatus pans over and beyond the scene, providing a view that spans across several monitors and revealing the set location to be a school gymnasium. Props ranging from black robes to a music stand come into view, providing a peculiar visual backdrop for the continuing audio of the performance of the trial script. Over time it becomes clear that the set location itself has been disguised with decoys of objects typically found in a high school gym. The props shift between nested theatrical sets—black robes could just as easily be choir uniforms as costumes for actors playing court officials. It also becomes apparent that the dialogue contains scripted adjustments to the transcripts. A role sometimes switches actors, or a boom slides into view, disrupting the viewer’s immersion, once again suspending the suspension of disbelief and calling attention to how the interpretation of a role changes with a change in actor—for example, how feelings about the power of the judge may shift when the role is performed by a black woman instead of a white man. The trial scenes themselves play out as so many frustrated attempts at protocol in the face of a discrediting barrage of revelations. The stark white-on-black titles between scenes telling us the page and case numbers serve to highlight the perversity of a juridical apparatus bogged down with overwhelming volumes of bureaucratic detail and case material. This is the framework for the retelling and judging of moments of extreme crisis.
A visitor to World Rehearsal Court experiences a regime of multiple focal points, technological filters, and repeated disruptions to narratives that refuse him or her any confidence in determining what is fiction and what is documentary. But there is some coherence and a sort of truth to what unfolds. Apart from the courtroom narrative or the revelation of the multilayered set as backdrop, a massive formal experiment unfolds, testing the limits of the conventional relationships among camera, actor, set, script, display, presentation, and audience. Where conventional video presents a single perspective camera view, World Rehearsal Court offers numerous simultaneous perspectives. Where a fiction would normally be made persuasive, World Rehearsal Court provides multiple playful disruptions. The video presents layers of stories within stories with varying degrees of authenticity and play. A dizzying array of potential meanings and their negation is set into effect, often humorously in contrast to the serious tone of the trial; the resulting experience calls to mind what Fredric Jameson famously termed the “waning of affect,”1 a replacement of deep feeling by the fleeting “intensities” that he identified as a characteristic of the postmodern. In World Rehearsal Court, the testimony that first appears as an excessively disturbing retelling of a truly horrific event becomes less affecting as the whole scene dissolves into tangled layers of fiction. My potential empathy for the protagonists flagged with each revelatory trick. Ultimately, the multi-perspective view is still a far cry from being present as an eyewitness to the live proceedings where one could witness the slip-ups, see the sidelines, experience unedited time, and so on.
The question remains whether Radul’s bleak picture of a technologically mediated and imperfect judicial system—a system with the power to assign responsibility for horrific events—leaves room for any idea of justice. Does it leave an opening for possibility when faced with the impossible? Perhaps World Rehearsal Court—through its provisional quality, its “rehearsal” feel, and its “behind the scenes” glimpses of its own construction—provides a thorough critique of seamless technological mediation, while suggesting an opening for discovery in the gaps between representation and reality. Radul’s source material itself was largely drawn from an ad hoc provisional court established by the United Nations Security Council to fill a gap in time when the new International Criminal Court (ICC) based on the Rome Statute that was passed in 2002 could not extend its jurisdiction to events that had occurred prior to its inception; the script was developed from transcripts of the International Tribunal Courts for the Special Court for Sierra Leone and the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. Using this source material as well as drawing on time spent observing actual trials in The Hague, Radul poignantly—and with humour—highlights the malfunctions of the contemporary court. The resulting work marks the contingency of experience and the difficulties of discerning truth where technological mediation exacerbates the uneven distribution of power within modern institutions such as international law. How is the integrity of digital video or audio protected and how is such media handled as evidence? What does the introduction of new media mean for modern institutions that rely on evidence and that require faith in the possibility of truth discovery?
Having watched a quarter of the four-hour video, I made my way into an adjacent gallery only to find myself on camera. Four servo-controlled video cameras were trained on the space, capturing views of the installation and generally providing a feel of constant surveillance. The mechanical noise of a rail system that allowed one of the cameras to traverse the entire length of a wall drew my attention to the bank of video monitors that showed live views of the gallery and its visitors. A live camera position playback system connected to twelve monitors brought live images into an installation that was rich with clues for the visitor, suggesting that much more than a courtroom Brechtian reveal was in play. Pieces of the courtroom set, research materials, photographs, and assorted production souvenirs all served as “evidence” that could be viewed multiple times in various contexts and through different technological lenses and representational filters. In an elaborate weaving of representation and reality, an object seen first on a video display could be found sitting on a shelf around the corner. In one example, a crow featured in a photographic print proved to be much more convincing than its source material, later found to be a tattered stuffed creature standing on a shelf on the other side of the dividing wall. As in some of the socio-psychological installations of Dan Graham, visitors would catch glimpses of themselves in the monitors along with others wandering through the deliberate spatial organization of the gallery, providing a peculiar way to observe oneself and other visitors sharing the space. A glass divider was used to divide the gallery hallway into two smaller video viewing rooms, each of which displayed a live feed from the cameras. Each room offered a sort of mirror view of the other—two identical coffee cups sat on the floor, one on each side of the glass, providing a fleeting impression of a mirror image reflection that evaporated as the differences in the rest of the view disrupted the illusion. For example, distinctly different chairs visible from one side of the glass to the other side of the glass negated the impression of mirror reflection. Such vignettes suggest that architecture and the material world itself could prove deceptive as well, but in a different way than video.
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About the Author
Lisa Marshall is a cultural practitioner living in Vancouver. For this issue, she took on the role of art critic.