Janet Biggs: (Un)common Denominators

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Janet Biggs: (Un)common Denominators

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ISBN: 978-1-7355856-5-9


Janet Biggs: (Un)common Denominators July 19 – August 29, 2021

CRISTIN TIERNEY GALLERY 219 BOWERY, FLOOR 2, NEW YORK, NY 10002


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(Un)common Denominators is an online survey of Janet Biggs’ single-channel videos. Open from July 19th through August 29th, this exhibition takes a close look at the artist’s work from the last two decades by way of three main themes: the Anthropocene, the intersection between art and science, and the influence of extreme situations on human limits. New art will be presented every two weeks, organized around these three subjects. The works in the first viewing room explore life in our current geological age, the Anthropocene. Climate change, ecology, and its connection to issues such as human health and income inequality are all addressed. The second group of videos attests to Biggs’ ongoing interest in scientific research and its revolutionary potential. These single-channel works find inspiration in the advances being made by scientists across the globe, from the cognitive to the physical and the planetary. The third and final viewing room follows humans in extreme landscapes and situations, asking what is possible when we push ourselves to our limits. Musicians, singers, elite athletes and record-holding speed racers are highlighted, and Biggs’ videos invite us to marvel at their talents, while admiring the discipline each exerts. This is the first survey of Biggs’ single-channel videos, anticipating the artist’s debut presentation of work at The Armory Show in September 2021.

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The Anthropocene July 19 – August 1, 2021

Presented here are three videos that show the breadth of the impact of global warming. Fade to White follows a kayaker in the icy waters of the high Arctic, while A Step on the Sun captures the beauty and danger of sulfur mining at the Kawah Ijen volcano in Indonesia. Point of No Return takes us on a journey through China’s Taklamakan desert, a stretch of arid land whose name in the Uyghur language means “you can get in, but you can’t get out.”

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Fade to White is the first work from Janet Biggs’ Arctic Trilogy (followed by videos In the Cold Edge and Brightness All Around). The artist embarked on an expedition in the high Arctic, traveling aboard an ice-class, 2-masted schooner built in 1910. During the voyage, Biggs filmed Fade to White, focusing on a crew member as he navigated the ship through iceberg-filled seas, and paddled a kayak past glacier walls and polar bears. As she photographed the explorer, Biggs tested her own will and endurance. The visual tension of her uncompromising imagery bespeaks their mutual struggle to maintain balance and purpose. The video also reveals the myth of the solitary white male explorer. Biggs explains, “The desire to hold onto the notion of the ‘great white north’ as a blank space awaiting interpretation only reinforces the idea of the colonial polar hero. The ‘virgin’ north has now been mapped, surveyed, and mined, but increased knowledge has not replaced endless fantasies of discovery.” Loss and change are implicit in the video’s title, Fade to White, which refers to an editing technique used to evoke death or transcendence. Biggs integrated her Arctic imagery with sound and video footage of counter tenor John Kelly, whose age, androgyny, and mournful voice parallel the vanishing Arctic landscape and signal the waning of male dominance.

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Fade to White, 2010. single-channel HD video with sound, 16:9 format. 12:28 minutes. 9


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A Step on the Sun, just over nine minutes long, follows a sulfur miner through the suffocating environment of the Ijen volcano in East Java, Indonesia, which houses the world’s largest sulfuric lake. We watch as the miner collects hardened sulfur crystals and packs them into a basket. Amid clouds of toxic sulfur dioxide gas, he carries heavy loads up a steep, rocky path from the crater floor to the rim, then to a distant weigh-station. The video is a provocative mix of natural beauty and human exploitation­—a perfect description of life in the Anthropocene. Alongside footage of the sulfur miners is the release of a weather balloon by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) station in New York. The event is one of two daily releases that occur simultaneously in over 900 locations and is part of a global effort to gather information on temperature, humidity and pressure in the atmosphere to use in meteorologic forecasts and research. The balloon serves as a metaphor for hope in A Step on the Sun. Its rise feels like a transcendent moment as it sheds the earthly confines of gravity and enters the atmosphere. Thick clouds of sulfur dioxide are traded in for a crystalline blue, endless sky. Any feeling of lightness, however, is short-lived: like all weather balloons, the one in A Step on the Sun eventually bursts once it reaches a certain height in the atmosphere and starts to fall back to earth. This return to the terrestrial is fated to occur, possibly forming a dark prediction on the environmental and human cost of sulfur mining. The effort to research climate change in the atmosphere may be global, but the data and its applications do not impact everywhere equally.

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A Step on the Sun, 2012. single-channel HD video with sound, 16:9 format. 9:05 minutes. 15


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Janet Biggs’ video Point of No Return focuses on individuals in the face of cultural loss or change. To many, cultural extinction is a part of human evolution. Whether through assimilation, globalization, technological advancement or battle, cultures expand and disappear. Filmed in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of China, Biggs documents the rigors of survival for man and beast. Point of No Return examines the loss of a sense of self and way of life in one of the world’s most isolating and harsh locations, known as the “Desert of Death.” Biggs traveled into the Taklamakan desert with eight camels and their Uyghur handlers. She filmed the caravan as it journeyed past ancient sites, some in ruins, others buried under the desert. Set against backgrounds of never-ending sand dunes and fevered market activity in the ancient (but disappearing) city of Kashgar, Point of No Return reveals the Uyghurs’ grit, endurance and passion for a way of life that is being destroyed by overwhelming outside forces.

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Point of No Return, 2013. single-channel HD video, 16:9 format. 10:16 minutes. 23


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(Un)common Denominators: Janet Biggs’ Single-Channel Videos Julie Reiss Children play marbles at a refugee camp in Djibouti in the Horn of Africa. Workers in Kawah Ijen in East Java, Indonesia, carry baskets of yellow sulfur on their shoulders. Janet Biggs has borne witness to these scenes and more, traveling from the Arctic to the Afar Region. She has found her way through crystal mines and driven across salt flats in the American West. She explores the human experience of distant landscapes and the mysteries of situations closer to home, exploring the mind itself as terra incognita. The video camera is Biggs’ chosen medium, and she is a master of its potential, creating complex amalgams through highly sophisticated editing. She describes her process as using a documentary point of view as a starting point for gathering imagery, but “at some point, I need to push myself off that path, to slide sideways. For me, this is where the art happens, where the project broadens allowing for unexpected juxtapositions and convergences.”i By offering two disparate scenarios in a single-channel video, the viewer is invited to find connections between seemingly unrelated endeavors. The sequencing offers intriguing dialogues between scenes and sounds. With their high production values, Biggs’ singlechannel videos provide as rich an experience as a multi-channel video installation. Each video lends itself to multiple interpretations, touching on themes that run throughout her oeuvre. One prominent theme is the idea of the extreme, a word often used to describe the situations to which Biggs is attracted, extreme as in exceeding what is usual or reasonable; the limits of a scale or range of possibilities. Travel is one arena in which this plays out in her work; sports are another. In an early video titled Chamblee (2003), pairs of wrestlers leverage their weight against each other, struggling to hold

each other at bay; one slip in defenses and the other will win. There is no room for error, and no equipment beyond the sheer force of two bodies pushing against each other with all their strength. Spectators in the video egg the wrestlers on and so do we, drawn in by the tension. Biggs explores athletes in established gender roles, showing us that performance and the drive towards perfection take many forms. Airs Above the Ground (2007) is a slow-motion video of a young synchronized swimmer underwater, assiduously putting herself through a series of rehearsed movements, concentrating on going through the motions. While on the surface the swimmer makes a pretty picture, referencing a Hollywood stereotype of femininity, the scene is also subtly disturbing. We sense the effort beneath the young girl’s smooth façade. It becomes tangible through the apparent translation of a mental state into a physical one.ii As we watch athletes in Biggs’ videos strive to reach their limits, we are reminded that physical performance is tied to mental discipline and to training. These same attributes are essential for musicians.

Janet Biggs, Jokūbas Žiburkus, Jason L. Eriksen, “Art-Science Collaborations: How to Break Boundaries without Breaking Trust.” Mobile Brain-Body Imaging and the Neuroscience of Art, Innovation and Creativity. Ed. Jose L. Contreras-Vidal et. al. https://link.springer.com/book/10.1007/978-3-030-24326-5 (accessed May 15, 2021). i

Andrea Inselmann discusses the gender stereotyping in this video in relation to Hollywood film. See No Limits: Janet Biggs, Ex. Cat., Tampa Museum of Art, 2011, 43-44.

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The virtuoso pianist performs with serious intensity, and then bows to an empty auditorium in Enemy of the Good (2007). He appears to feel the pressure of the audience in his desire for perfection even though the seats are empty. The alternation of physical feats with musical performance in Vanishing Point (2009), Duet (2010), and Fade to White (2010) suggests a common denominator in the human tendency to accept challenges and strive for the highest standards.

skimming across salt flats in Utah at breakneck speed (with the unseen Biggs following the motorcycle in a pick-up truck). These unexpected pairings of musical genres and physical feats challenge cultural hierarchies, and we’re reminded of the incredible breadth of human achievement.

Biggs is at times a spectator, a witness and a participant, and the viewer can take up these positions as well, identifying with the subjects and spectators For Biggs, video is as much an audio as a visual on the screen. We are privy to the tense and quiet medium, and she creates an intricate relationship moments before the action starts. In Vanishing Point, between the two. At times the camera focuses on a we see the final moments before the choir starts to musical performance, but then the scene shifts and sing—the nervous fidgeting and anticipation—and the same score becomes the soundtrack for a differ- in the next moment we see a similar tension in the ent scenario—we hear it while we’re seeing somespectators waiting with their binoculars for the motorthing else. In Duet, a pit crew at a NASCAR track cyclist to appear. We also get the thrill of being in the rushes forward to change the tires of a race car at the driver’s seat and seeing the landscape unfold. precise moment that an elegant violinist and singer While Biggs’ videos often explore human achievebegin to play and sing. We hear and sometimes see ments, we see consequences of the human drive the musicians, alternating with footage of the crew towards mastery when she addresses the climate changing tires at lightning speed in a precise and coordinated—even choreographed—series of move- crisis. Fade to White (2010), part one of her Arctic ments. Although the classical performance may seem Trilogy, was filmed in Svalbard, a region between the top of Europe and the North Pole that has seen an incongruous juxtaposed with the racetrack, there is something exalted about the combination. In a similar average 7.3 degrees C (13.1 degrees F) winter temperature increase since 1971 due to human-caused vein a gospel choir at Harlem Addicts Rehabilitation global warming.iv The artist joined an expedition on Center sings about the need to bear witness and be a 100-year-old schooner and, unseen, films a crew free in Vanishing Point. iii The scene then changes member as he lowers his kayak into the sea and to the record-holding motorcyclist Leslie Porterfield

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The refrain is “I need a Witness/Can I Get a Witness/Lord help my eyes to see.” Lyrics by Janet Biggs. Music by Barney McAll.

Climate in Svalbard 2100: A Knowledge base for Climate Adaptation. NCSS Report 1/2019. https://www.miljodirektoratet.no/globalassets/publikasjoner/m1242/m1242.pdf (accessed May 15, 2021).

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paddles around, exploring. In some frames he traverses the slush of melted glaciers, in others the water is distressingly smooth and unobstructed by ice. The ship’s masts remind us of an historical age of exploration before climate change. Now, polar bears falter along the edge of the water, standing on small ice floes. Biggs has reflected on the conflict between bearing witness to a vanishing landscape and intruding on it, aware of the seduction of human power: “We’re in the age of the Anthropocene. Our presence, the industrial revolution, and the nuclear age have changed our planet forever... It’s seductive to me to have that hubris, to alter the land, alter the earth. But then I’m reminded of my time in the Arctic—which is a landscape that I desired so strongly—when every physical footstep I took was destroying the landscape that I so desired.”v Alternating with scenes of the white-clad counter tenor John Kelly, whose ele giac and unearthly beautiful singing of a Baroque aria arguably represents the best of what human culture has accomplished, Fade to White concludes with a scene of a vast expanse of water without a glacier in sight. The human costs of the Anthropocene are unequally distributed, bound to a legacy of colonialism where laborers are treated as an expendable resource. In A Step on the Sun (2012), workers in a sulfur mine labor in a toxic and extremely dangerous situation inside the crater of an active volcano. While the miners

are theoretically self-determined, the region offers a severely limited choice of how to earn a livelihood. With no access to modern equipment, the workers stuff cloth kerchiefs into their mouths as protection against sulfur fumes as they fill their baskets. Biggs filmed there for two and a half weeks, sharing the same risks to her personal safety and nurturing relationships with some of the miners. She has built and maintained a positive connection to Abi Slamet Hariadi, her principal subject, who no longer works in the mine. The other end of the scale of technological progress is evident in Seeing Constellations in the Darkness Between Stars (2018), parts of which Biggs filmed during her residency at the Mars Desert Research Station in the barren red landscape of Hanksville, Utah. The research station simulates life on Mars, a planet with no oxygen, in anticipation of exploring or ultimately moving off an exhausted and uninhabitable planet Earth—a “plan B” for a select cohort of Earthlings. In Seeing Constellations, we watch one of the entries in a competition to create the next Mars rovers. The rover moves independently, industriously digging for a core sample, picking something up. But then it fails, flips over, and falls into a crevasse; humans rush over to rescue their creation like EMTs at a crash site. These scenes alternate with scenes of the first cybernetic drummer, Jason Barnes, performing while wearing a prosthetic arm. His pros-

Janet Biggs, “Janet Biggs with Nancy Princenthal,” The Brooklyn Rail, November 2017. https://brooklynrail.org/2017/11/art/JANET-BIGGS-with-Nancy-Princenthal (accessed May 24, 2021). v

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thetic is fitted with two drumsticks, one of which he controls. The other drumstick independently beats in response to his rhythm, in effect a second musician. Barnes’ missing limb has not simply been replaced, but enhanced with AI, breaking down the traditional binary between human and machine, between natural and artificial. In her essay “A Cyborg Manifesto,” Donna Haraway asks “Why should bodies end at our skin?” vi As Haraway observes, humans routinely use technological enhancements to expand our capabilities.vii Each of the two scenarios—preparation for space travel and AI-enhanced prostheses—suggest a post-human world of hybridity and “fields of difference” rather than binaries, reminiscent of Haraway’s description of the cyborg. The two instances in Seeing Constellations may seem futuristic but are happening right now.

her way forward until she comes to a larger space where she is surrounded by crystals. Through shifting between scenes, the crystal mine starts to seem analogous to the brain. We begin to visualize it as a three-dimensional space full of twists and turns. Through Biggs’ journey, we sense the isolation and disorientation Alzheimer’s causes, but also the magic of arriving at an unimagined destination that no one else can see.

The people in Janet Biggs’ videos are in the midst of challenging situations, some of their own making and others externally imposed. As viewers we gain insight into the subcultures and collective identities they inhabit. We admire the mastery of individual achievement and see how the drive towards mastery can have disastrous consequences, as with the environmental crisis, or spur an adventure into the Biggs seeks out points of intersection between her unknown, through space exploration. One life can be work as an artist and scientific research. She has col- enhanced through cybernetics while others are left laborated with neuroscientists exploring neural diver- behind in inhuman and unchanged labor practices. sity, particularly the ravages of Alzheimer’s disease, These contradictions are at the heart of Biggs’ video which has affected several members of her family. In production and address crucial questions about our Can’t Find My Way Home (2015) she filmed University paths forward. of Houston faculty members researching treatments for Alzheimer’s in their lab. We observe them as they look for clues to the workings of the diseased brain on a cellular level. Biggs then cuts to scenes that suggest how such brain changes might be experienced by an individual. Her subject is an older man looking intently at samples of crystals at the Denver Gem and Mineral show. Although he seems disoriented and unaware of his whereabouts, he examines the samples with a certain authority. Then the scene shifts again and we see Biggs in full protective gear, Julie Reiss is a Brooklyn-based independent scholar. tentatively making her way through the tunnels of She is the editor of Art, Theory and Practice in the a crystal mine, entering dark passages and feeling Anthropocene (2019).

Donna Haraway, “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century,” Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (New York: Routledge, 1991). https://www.sfu.ca/~decaste/OISE/page2/files/HarawayCyborg.pdf (accessed May 29, 2021).

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Hari Kunzru “You Are Cyborg,” Wired, February 1997. https://www.wired.com/1997/02/ffharaway/ (accessed May 30, 2021).

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Between Art and Science August 2-15, 2021

The videos in Between Art and Science attest to Janet Biggs’ ongoing interest in scientific research and its revolutionary potential. These single-channel works find inspiration in the advances being made by scientists across the globe, from the cognitive to the physical and the planetary. Biggs sees grounds for optimism in these efforts, even as she questions the thresholds of existence and possibility.

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Can’t Find My Way Home was commissioned by the Blaffer Art Museum at the University of Houston, Texas, with a four-channel version of the work screened in the artist’s solo exhibition Echo of the Unknown. The video is one of several from Biggs’ oeuvre that explore the role of memory in the construction of identity and was inspired by memories of her grandfather. An avid collector of minerals, Biggs’ grandfather was able to recall the most obscure names of samples in his collections and the locations of their acquisition even as he was losing the ability to remember or identify family members and close friends around him. In 1980, Merkers miners discovered a unique and extraordinary geological anomaly 800 meters below the surface: a cavern filled with giant, glistening geometric crystals, some measuring more than a meter in length. Entering this natural wonder is like walking into a mammoth geode, an experience that is both immersive and otherworldly. Can’t Find my Way Home juxtaposes footage shot in the crystal caverns below the German Merkers salt mine with documentation of neurological research conducted in laboratories in New York and Houston. The comparison makes the visual connection between the structure of these salt crystals and the proteins that determine the biochemical conditions of a hyperexcited brain, such as one afflicted with Alzheimer’s. By physically exploring the Merkers crystal cavern, Biggs figuratively sets out to investigate the diseased brain of her grandfather. As she climbs through rocky passes and symbolically retraces fading memories, she experiences disorientation and confusion, some of the same symptoms endured by Alzheimer’s patients.

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Can’t Find My Way Home, 2015. single-channel HD video with sound, 16:9 format. 9:45 minutes. 37


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Seeing Constellations in the Darkness Between Stars explores the potential of robotics in both the celestial and earthly realms. A four-channel version of the work premiered at the Museo de la Ciencia y el Cosmos in Tenerife in 2018. Earlier that same year, Janet Biggs completed a residency at the Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS) in Utah. While there she filmed the Mars Society’s annual University Rover Challenge, in which teams from around the world face off, building robots that could one day serve as Rovers on the Red Planet. The robots have to complete various tasks in order to win, including picking up samples, drilling into the earth, and crossing rough terrain. The Rover footage is combined with that of drummer Jason Barnes at Georgia Tech’s Center for Music Technology. A longtime musician, Barnes lost part of an arm in a workplace accident. After seeing a video of robot musicians developed by Gil Weinberg, founding director of the Georgia Tech Center for Music Technology, Barnes contacted Weinberg and the two men began a collaboration. Barnes was fitted with a robotic arm developed by Weinberg, which sports two drumsticks. One is controlled by Barnes and one is controlled by Artificial Intelligence, which improvises off Barnes’ drumming. With this robot-enhanced prosthetic, Jason is able to drum faster than what is humanly possible. At the apex of the video, the complicated link between man and machine becomes most evident as Barnes’ drumming crescendos and stops while one of the robots tumbles down a hill. This suggests both the possibility and the limitation of robotics, while shining a spotlight on the creativity of human researchers. Mathematics and music are handled by similar regions in our brains. In Seeing Constellations in the Darkness Between Stars, music plays an overwhelming role in awakening our subjectivity and bridging the gap between man and man-made machines, between creativity and control, strength and frailty, and between our infinitesimal position in the universe and the heroic paths individuals may take.

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Seeing Constellations in the Darkness Between Stars, 2018. single-channel HD video with sound, 16:9 format. 6:47 minutes. 45


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Extreme Landscapes and Situations August 16 -29, 2021

The final viewing room in (Un)common Denominators takes a closer look at Janet Biggs’ videos of people in extreme landscapes and situations. Although the subjects of her works in this section vary greatly, Biggs evaluates all of them through the lens of identity construction. The more pressurized an environment, she argues, the greater the struggle and the need for humans to maintain their sense of self.

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Chamblee presents a seemingly endless wrestling bout of teenage sparring partners surging forward and falling back across the screen. They wear identical blue and yellow uniforms, and the setting is a high school gym that could be anywhere. The boys twist and shove into one another, jockeying for the upper hand, muscles tensing with effort. This is the earliest video by Biggs in the (Un)common Denominators viewing room. Like some of the other works in this section, it is guided by the artist’s interest in niche sports that are stylized according to a strict view of gender roles. Wrestling, traditionally viewed as a very masculine sport, is one of the oldest forms of combat as well as entertainment. It’s also a rich ground for analysis along feminist, queer and classist lines, among others. Like in Airs Above the Ground, the subjects in Chamblee are adolescent youth. This age was of particular interest to Biggs in her work from the aughts; to the artist, it represented one of the first moments that we begin to question who we are and how we exist in the world. For these wrestlers, this sport and its broader culture no doubt play a formative role in how they define their identities and social roles. Sound is frequently an intrinsic part of Biggs’ videos, and Chamblee is no different. The action unfolds against a backdrop of layered dialogue culled from male character-driven sports movies. “Can we do it one more time? Let’s go! What’s the matter with you? Move your asses! We got a game to win. Push it! Push it! What the hell was that? You call that a hit? What are you, female? Keep going! Win! Win! Win! Win! Take your shot. You only get one chance. Hey, it’s what we’re here for, right?”

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Chamblee, 2003. single-channel SD video with sound. 2:32 minutes. 55


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Airs Above the Ground observes a synchronized swimmer as she prepares for and then executes an underwater routine. We watch from beneath the water as she twists and turns, creating an ethereal image of an inverted, weightless swimmer suspended in slow motion. Filtered through the blue, blurry setting of the pool and set to a cello piece composed by William Martina, Airs Above the Ground exudes serenity while also hinting at the effort needed to maintain that appearance. Biggs was drawn to synchronized swimming for the parallel she saw between the sport and perceptions of youth. She states, “From an adult perspective, there is an idea that there is an effortlessness to youth. But in reality, it’s anything but.” As the young swimmer moves through the video, it is revealed how much preparation and dedication lies behind her performance. The hyper-stylized gestures and affected costume of the athlete belie the power, agility and strength required to make every action graceful. When Biggs began to work with adolescents, she was on a quest to find her own authentic voice in her work. Searching for the seeds of her identity, she recalled early memories of feeling powerful and autonomous while riding a horse. Wishing to explore this link further, she turned her focus to youth and gender performativity in adolescence. The underwater portions of Airs Above the Ground were filmed by Biggs swimming alongside the athlete. The camera was placed in an underwater housing with a cable that ran up to a remote monitor above the water, so that Biggs could get the framing she desired.

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Airs Above the Ground, 2007. single-channel HD video with sound. 5:21 minutes. 59


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With its title taken from Richard Sarafian’s 1971 road movie, Vanishing Point looks at the ways in which an individual vanishes. The video combines images of motorcycle speed record holder Leslie Porterfield with Harlem’s Addicts Rehabilitation Center Gospel Choir. As Biggs explains, “I was looking at ways in which individuals disappear, and conversely, ways in which one can become more present, more of themselves, focused solely on the immediate, with no thought of past or future.” Biggs had incredible access to filming Porterfield, who broke three world motorcycle records that year with a top speed of 234 mph. Barreling over the austere and otherworldly landscape, Biggs sat on the back of a truck which drove ahead of Porterfield to capture the footage. Vanishing Point is Biggs’ first work related to Alzheimer’s, created shortly after her grandfather was diagnosed with the disease. She found herself contemplating the ways that people can disappear even when they are physically present, and what that means for their identity. For athletes such as Porterfield, the dedication and focus required to become the best can mean they have to disappear from their lives in a sense, prioritizing their sport above all else. Vanishing Point shows what it looks like for Porterfield to be the best, as well as a woman leading in a primarily male-dominated sport. When considering the ways that people can vanish from their lives, Biggs also thought of addiction. A friend introduced her to Harlem’s ARC Gospel Choir, founded in 1975 by James Allen with the Addicts Rehabilitation Center. Allen, a former addict, started the a capella choral group to fight against addiction and to offer hope to fellow addicts. Assisted by Grammy-nominated composer Barney McAll, Biggs wrote a song inspired by the idea of disappearing, the search to regain identity, and the desire to transcend all limits. The ARC Gospel Choir masterfully brings the song to life, emoting its feelings of isolation and self-loss. Sung by a group intended to bring visibility to people who are often invisible, the song’s message carries layered meaning in this context.

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Vanishing Point, 2009. single-channel HD video with sound, 16:9 format. 10:32 minutes. 65


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Duet was commissioned by The Mint Museum in Charlotte, NC, and screened for the first time at the institution. Charlotte is the home of NASCAR, and Biggs, drawn in by her self-admitted lack of knowledge of the sport, was fascinated by its intensity, skill and extreme duration. High-speed racing’s wild popularity and position within consumer culture creates both drama and heroism, but Biggs found herself most interested in the sport’s more minor character: the pit crew. Duet showcases the speed, precision and agility of the pit crews, which the artist termed “ballet-like.” The camera sits in the crew’s staging area, and we wait and watch alongside the team from this privileged position. To best create the impression that we are part of the action, Biggs prepared by watching the pit crew perform drills in advance of the race. The video is accompanied by a performance of Flower Duet from Léo Delibes’ opera Lakmé by singer Martha Joseph and violinist Mazz Swift. Flower Duet is a widely recognized song that frequently appears in advertising and films. Biggs wanted to pair her video footage with something as heavily consumed as NASCAR, and the combination aims to complicate how we see and hear things, particularly things we’re used to automatically enjoying. Duet also prominently places two women­—one white, one Black—in dialogue with video of a heavily masculine, primarily white subculture. In both arenas, the questions of who assumes the supporting role and who receives the recognition are at play. Alternating between crews of men working on cars and two women in dresses creating a delicate, iconic piece of Classical music, Duet explores issues of gender, race, and the need for extreme grace under pressure when performing prescribed roles.

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Duet, 2010. single-channel HD video with sound, 16:9 format. 6:47 minutes. 73


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Janet Biggs’ (b. 1959, Harrisburg, PA) work focuses on extreme landscapes and situations, drawing connections between physical terrains and psychological, societal, or political dynamics. She has had solo exhibitions and film screenings at the SCAD Museum of Art, University of Waterloo Art Gallery, Blaffer Museum of Art, Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Tampa Museum of Art, Skulpturenmuseum Glaskasten Marl, Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Mint Museum of Art, Everson Museum of Art, Gibbes Museum of Art, and the Rhode Island School of Design Museum, among others. She is the recipient of numerous grants, including the Guggenheim Fellowship, the Electronic Media and Film Program at the New York State Council on the Arts Award, the Arctic Circle Fellowship/Residency, Art Matters, Inc., the Wexner Center Media Arts Program Residency, the Anonymous Was a Woman Award, and the NEA Fellowship Award. Her works are in the collections of the SCAD Museum of Art, Fonds Régional d’Art Contemporain (FRAC), Zabludowicz Collection, Skulpturenmuseum Glaskasten Marl (Ruhr Kunst Museen), Tampa Museum of Art, High Museum, Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Mint Museum of Art, Gibbes Museum of Art, and the New Britain Museum of Art. Biggs is a member of The Explorer’s Club and New Museum’s cultural incubator, NEW INC with the support of Science Sandbox. Last year, she sent a project up to the International Space Station as part of MIT Media Lab’s Space Exploration Initiative. Her studio is in New York.

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Photography credits:

Katja Aglert: 2


Cristin Tierney Gallery 219 Bowery, Floor 2 New York, NY 10002 212.594.0550 www.cristintierney.com