1000 Words: Harry Dodge and Stanya Kahn; Talk about All Together Now, 2008

By Kushner, Rachel | Artforum International, January 2008 | Go to article overview

1000 Words: Harry Dodge and Stanya Kahn; Talk about All Together Now, 2008


Kushner, Rachel, Artforum International


"ONCE UPON A TIME, or maybe twice, there was an unearthly paradise," begins the Beatles's 1968 animated extravaganza, Yellow Submarine. As the opening line's turn on the cliche suggests, visions of other worlds--past, future, or parallel--have popped up repeatedly throughout history as the shadow expression of an era's collective unconscious. But these fantasies don't easily divide into categories of utopic or dystopic. From the radioactive monsters in cold war sci-fi novels to the Blue Meanies that invade Pepperland, the nightmare that threatens civilization is what generates the dream of saving it. People band together in order to survive. And, to grossly simplify, love--a newly grand, capacious kind of love--prevails.

Harry Dodge and Stanya Kahn's roughly twenty-five-minute video All Together Now (a name borrowed from the Yellow Submarine sound track) plays on the idea of a parallel world that has already collapsed, creating a radically restructured social order. If the aftermath that Dodge and Kahn depict is someone's idea of paradise, albeit a gritty and anarchic one, the place is in fact all too earthly: The resource-rich, technological ease of modern life has dropped away, and what we're left with is a barren and crumbling metropolis--Los Angeles (where the artists live and work) and its dwindled, cement-encased waterway. Indeed, the Los Angeles River, which in real life has become something of a trash-filled open storm drain, features as the main artery in Dodge and Kahn's imagined world, a sick zone teeming with natural life. Dead kittens might lie by the side of the road, but ducks skim along the river and rogue parrots voraciously attack a persimmon tree. Meanwhile "foragers"--played by Kahn and poets Eileen Myles and Amy Gerstler--siphon water and collect old batteries, dead fish, and mulched soil, their faces sunbaked to an unhealthy burnt sienna, their mouths swollen from dehydration like Coleridge's thirsty mariner.

Slated to screen at the 2008 Whitney Biennial in New York, All Together Now is a work in progress as this article goes to press, but its meticulously crafted imagery feels astonishingly, even devastatingly complete. The sound track is a complex tapestry the artists built up after eliding every last bit of actual city noise, and the editing is fast paced, flashing from Kahn's character nailing an unseen foe with a golf club, to hooded creatures toiling in an underground world, to a winsome child rigging his own electricity in order to watch Yellow Submarine.

Dodge and Kahn propose a not-so-distant future that, depending on your taste, is either grim or an Elysian renewal of human capacities. Disaster, as Susan Sontag once wrote, is one of the oldest subjects of art--popular not only because we fear it but because we long for it. Not everyone is saddened by the idea that our world, and the systems by which we function and think, might have to be reconstructed: like the sound in Dodge and Kahn's tour de force, a new city built completely from scratch.

THE PIECE OPENS with Stanya's character, "the forager," killing something. You see her hesitate, momentarily confused. She has never done this before and is socially trained not to. So she draws from how she has seen it done, a memory of a horror-movie moment. The scene introduces the idea that something might be chasing her. But more important, it acknowledges the violence of transition, and the idea of killing as a fertile act. That she's able to go through with it suggests a shift in her own emotional makeup. This lets the viewer know right away that we're following a different set of rules: The social agreements have changed.

It was interesting how many people, when we first showed a cut of the video last July at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, said, "Heavy. What a downer." And we thought, Really? It felt so full of life to us. The environment of the video is a kind of postplace, more symbolic than literal. …

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