Do you remember “The Birds” final scene? Melanie and Mitch’s family leave the house clutching each other, while a sea of landed birds tweets and quivers by. Though the birds remain uncannily idle, the family cringes in fear of a further attack, as they sneak their way into the car. Yet, but for the occasional chirp, the birds are oblivious of their human fellows, and as they drive away, we are left wondering, whether the birds – the unspeakable Other – are nonetheless observing them.
When we enter Feinkost gallery we do not see birds. We see headshots. Headshots are close-up photos of aspiring actors, a bastard branch of portrait photography, which is not meant to depict a person, but a personal drive. Oddly enough the drive to become a person, i.e. an individual: Someone standing out of the stashes of headshots, which the artist David Levine has been gathering in his archive. The archive has now made its way into a gallery where the headshots, thousands of headshots, are covering all of the walls, from floor to ceiling. That was what made me recall “The birds”, that same eerie feeling of being stared at from all sides. For they are surely staring. All of them. Behind their plucked eyebrows and perfectly coiffed hairdos, they all sustain our gaze in one suspended, soliciting, stare.
It is an uncomfortable experience, sustaining a stranger’s stare, so I approach them with caution. Each headshot comes together with a cover letter, where the person depicted presents him or herself as the perfect one for you. Just this You is of course not you, as in you or me, standing in a gallery staring at pictures, which stare back at you. The You the cover letters addresses is the You of an acting agent qua embodiment of the promise of professional bliss. And if only You would oblige, such bliss could be attained.
If ‘all love letters are addressed to the self’, these definitely fall under such a category.
They are also something else though. They are an allegory for sovereign power and bare life, insofar as they represent individuality when caught up in a paradox. For individuality is what the law, here the law of social interaction, allows for, and all of the above depicted are its outcasts, which is why their pictures will be discarded ‘en masse’ by the agencies they are sent to. ‘Their individuality’, because unwarranted, is also what strikes ‘us’ as obscene while staring at their headshots. We feel these cover letters to be awkward, embarrassing. You see, there is nothing more obscene than individuality, when not bestowed upon you by the bureaucratic apparatus which rules over the laws of life. That is why we tend to avoid eye contact with the homeless to whom we give our spare chance. No matter if with emigrants who flock to Calais or with actors who flock to New York City, there is always an inside and an outside of the system. And one needs to access the inside in order to be able to be, to exist, to lead a life in the full sense of the word life: a life of political fulfilment as a social being. Yet the system is in place precisely to assure exclusion. And exclusion always generates a black market, an industry of exploitation, which preys on the hope that you might be the exception and not the rule, the one who makes it through the crevices of ‘the proper channels’ and lands an audition, or lands in Dover. As David Levine makes plain in his “Cabinet” article about the archive from which he culled the show there is an “entire industry ancillary to entertainment” industry, implied in the production of these headshots: “ninety-nine percent of these submissions (however) are perfunctorily thrown out; the remaining one percent are put on file and occasionally get the actors an audition and, in very rare cases, a job.”
So “Hopeful” speaks from a crux in experience where the fantasy of self-governance is at odds with a reality of bureaucratic authority. What remains haunting about the show is, how the awareness of the mechanisms of exclusion and exploitation are not enough to prevent exclusion and exploitation, since what we know does not enform what we feel, and what we feel is not solidarity but commiseration. Or maybe for the most daring amongst us, a bit of ‘Schadenfreude’, a certain glee upon the sighting of someone else’s humiliation, which is, after all, nothing but the attempt to dispel that pervasive unconscious fear of also, like these people, one day, falling through the cracks of the system to find ourselves in someone else’s wall of shame. Notwithstanding all our propriety, both birds, headshots, sardine cans, and the unspeakable Other are always already staring at us.
David Levine is an artist and writer living in between
New York and Berlin, his article complimentary to the show can be found on Cabinet magazine number 31 under the, quite fitting, topic ‘Shame’. Hopeful is also currently on display at Cabinet’s art space, New York.
David Levine „Hopeful“, Feinkost, Bernauer Straße 71–72, 13355 Berlin,
David Levine „Hopeful“, 2005–2009 (© Courtesy FEINKOST, Berlin, Foto: Claire Laude)