Remote (2011) creeps through a series of unpopulated spaces that seem to be controlled by such inhuman forces. Lights turn on, sprinklers start, and surveillance cameras pan with no apparent human intervention. Suspense builds but does not release. There are no killers to pop out of the shadows that fill these horror movie landscapes. Someone somewhere else is in charge, and we will never discover their intentions. Living in an era defined by drone warfare, automated and indiscriminate mass surveillance, algorithmically generated advertising, and the ceaseless and insane babble of SEO, this is no longer just a paranoid logic. “How can you tell what’s real and what’s a dream when you can’t even tell whether you’re awake or asleep?” asks one of the video’s many disembodied voices.
In Just Like Us (2013)—screening in the basement of McLean’s show at Interstate Projects in Bushwick through October 20—an unseen, unheard narrator addresses us in subtitles that run across the images of a big box store-lined, suburban anywhere. She was once a body double for a famous actress. “I age more slowly than my star,” she says. “We don’t look the same anymore.” No more mass media salvation for McLean’s people; the projections no longer line up.
The Invisible World is McLean’s most complex, multivalent work yet. Working partly from Peter Schwenger’s book The Tears of Things, it asks what happens to our material possessions after our souls migrate online. Footage from Hoarders and haul videos depict enormous stockpiles of mass produced junk. Speaking through a bulbous, blinking device, an older woman tells the sad story of her life to an empty control room. This detritus belongs to no one, seems to accumulate on its own accord. Every voice we hear seems incapable of reaching the others—with so many tools of self-presentation so widely available, there is no longer an audience. Encased in the bubbles of their own specific media these would-be characters float past one another, addressing no one. Having emptied the meaning of our physical surroundings, the network empties itself, leaving a vast architecture of communication through which nothing is really shared. At the video’s climax, satellites and telephone wires explode to the sounds of ELO’s “Telephone Line,” sweet bubblegum sounds transformed into a kind of desperate chant. By the end, dust is all that remains onscreen.
McLean is not new to the ironies of techno-communicative failure. Her 2011 installation loop Relations pictures a spinning newspaper that never stops to actually deliver the information it contains: a concise and clever riff on the patterns of contemporary news consumption. But the sadness that marks the most recent videos is new. The Bearing Witness Trilogy and Magic for Beginners revel in the creative uses that people make of the culture and technologies that saturate their lives; Remote, Just Like Us and The Invisible World operate under the painful knowledge that the uses that culture and technology make of us are not so benign.
The trajectory of McLean’s body of work mirrors the arc of pop cultural attitudes toward the Internet and the digitized life it has created. Its ascendence opened a space where we could rediscover the charms of a newly diminished mass media, at least partly shielded from its imperatives. Now that the Internet has taken mass media’s place as one of the primary planes of our experience, we must contend with its own demands.
Show & Tell
October 17 at Anthology Film Archives
Stars, they’re just like us
Through October 20 at Interstate Projects