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By David Finkelstein | November 21, 2009

“Claudia and Paul” is the newest DVD out on the Innova label by composer and video artist Henry Gwiazda, and it contains three new substantial video works which are beautifully made, and, like Gwiazda’s other work, can actually change the way you perceive the world.

The title piece is the most rigorously structured, formalist piece of the three, and its somewhat austere nature may make it the most difficult one for viewers to absorb. But the challenges of watching “Claudia and Paul” are well worth it, as this work is deeply rewarding and pleasurable, once you get to know how it works.

“Claudia and Paul” is in eleven sections (including an Introduction and a Closing). Each section presents four very short sequences in the lives of Claudia and Paul, who live in adjacent buildings in a nearly deserted and crumbling area of a city. (The neighborhood made me assume that they are artists.) As in all of Gwiazda’s video work, this world is rendered in highly detailed 3D animation. The world of “Claudia and Paul” is generally gray and dark. The streetlights or sunlight which fall on the buildings cast complex, overlapping shadows, and there are detailed renderings of the textures of walls, fences, sidewalks, etc.

The moments depicted in the video are exclusively from life’s “in between” moments, when “nothing at all” is happening: the two protagonists shift their postures, look at their watches, or observe the street while pigeons fly by, a bicyclist passes, and, most dramatically, the light shifts in the scene, either gradually or suddenly. Not only does the video concentrate solely on those nondramatic parts of life which are eliminated from most films, but it asks the viewer to watch in an unconventional way. Traditional film syntax spoon-feeds the images to the viewer, with camera movements telling you exactly what the artist wants you to watch at each moment.

Gwiazda presents only static shots, taken from a great distance, and the movements of the two characters and other events of the scene are therefore very small and often peripherally placed, so that the work demands that the viewer constantly scan the frame, the same way that we often look at landscapes in life but seldom at the movies. Gwiazda specifically helps the viewer to learn to watch in this new way by placing numbers on the screen, which guide your eye to the various minute changes. The sound score likewise consists of discreet, isolated packets of sound, such as a bird’s wings flapping or the sound of a car, which are sparsely placed in the silence. Occasional lines of written text (“I brush the hair from my forehead”) give the viewer a clue about the inner physical sensations of the two characters.

Each section presents the four short sequences in the following order: ABACBDCD, followed by a section where all the images, sounds, and text of all four sequences are combined into one sequence (and therefore we can see multiple Pauls and Claudias visible in the frame.) This scheme, in which every sequence is seen two times (but not consecutively), functions much the same way as the repetition of sections of music does in baroque and classical music: it allows the viewer to become more familiar with the details of the material, and it allows him to see the form of each section as form, i.e., to see the sequence of light changes, small gestures, sounds, and events as a rhythmic and spatial composition. The sequences all have a sparse, minimalist, stripped-down feeling. This is a highly schematic, reduced model of a world, where only one or two events happen at a time, surrounded by continual silence and stillness. The final sequence in each section, in which all the previous actions are mashed together, is much more complex than what has come before it. Because the viewer has had a chance to see all of the material already twice, he is prepared to enjoy and decode the complexly overlapping counterpoint of these final sections.

This highly stylized, reductive model of a world has a peculiar and fascinating effect. The work encourages us to become sensitively aware of the look and sound of the most ordinary moments, and to concentrate totally on the senses and on physical sensations. Inner thoughts and feelings are completely excluded. The video invokes a mental state in which one’s inner monologue has become quiet, and one can enjoy the pleasure that comes from realizing that it is enough simply to see, to hear, to breath, and to be physically present in the world. Anyone who has experienced this state, whether through meditation or natural inclination, knows that it can be an ecstatic state where one feels free to appreciate the world like a beautiful work of art, but it can also at times feel like one is simply repressing or escaping from inner conflicts. “Claudia and Paul” captures both of these qualities. The very weight of the artist’s obsessiveness in creating this highly detailed model world can create a sense of airlessness and oppression, while, on another level, these scenes can be experienced as a gateway into a paradise where shifts of light, tiny gestures and events, and precisely rendered sounds all become a kind of exhilarating music.

Because this is an artificial model of the world, rather than, for example, HD footage of real details from the world, the video asks one to become more conscious of the act of seeing and hearing itself. The work firmly points you to the door of the movie theater, and challenges you to experience real life outside as a sumptuous feast of aesthetic pleasures. The “ugly” urban setting is crucial here: people that live in rural areas rarely need to be told that their world is beautiful. Country dwellers, even those who don’t know city life and have nothing to compare it with, tend to exclaim frequently about how wonderful it is to be surrounded by beauty all the time. It is primarily urban and suburban dwellers (i.e., most Americans) that need lessons in how to find beauty in everyday life.

The second piece, “a doll’s house is…,” presents an altogether sunnier, more obviously playful vision. Again we see a highly reduced model world where only one or two events occur at a time, labeled by numbers, but the scheme of repetitions seems less formal and rigid. We are looking into cutaway views of an apartment complex, and into the lives of people who live and work within. Their gestures and movements, raising an arm, turning a head, all look like exercises, since they are divorced from real actions and presented, isolatedly, as movements. In fact, quite a few of the people we see are actually doing exercises. Other activities include cuddling together in bed and standing and looking out the window. Several images of a little girl playing with a dollhouse overtly link the compulsive model-making of the filmmaker with the playful urge which children have to invent their own worlds, and it is a lot of fun to look at what all the people in the film are doing, in the same way that it can be fun to play with dolls.

The third piece, “…is consciousness,” presents a new development of these elements. The virtual camera in these scenes is always in motion, as if the scene were viewed from a moving car, and the piece concerns itself with the notion of following different pathways through the virtual world. Gwiazda has created a kind of 4th dimensional hypercube format for some of these images, which allows him to imagine that he can simultaneously see in front, to both sides, and behind him. (All three of these videos seem motivated by an insatiable hunger to see and hear absolutely everything.)

An introductory voice-over talks about imagining a world where you could choose more than one option about what to do and where to go, and the world of “…is consciousness” does seem to be a kind of consumerist paradise where “making personal choices” is the dominant metaphor. In several alternate pathways through this world, we observe people lovingly caressing goods in a store, and lovers caressing each other. We see some would-be rock stars shopping for guitars, and surfers lazily riding the waves in a resort. (Gwiazda’s version, in his schematic style, of the surface of water, as a sort of shiny, rubbery mat with waves in it, is one of the strangest things on view here. Making a controlled, reductive model of waves may be the ultimate fantasy of the control freak.) People walk in lockstep unison down the street (under billboards about the military) and exercise at the gym in tandem.

It is important to remember that what is being “consumed” here are really aesthetic moments, not material objects. A crowd also gathers to observe a piece of street theater, evidently being performed for free. The vision here is not a glorification of capitalism, it is about the desire to expand the sphere of one’s perceptions as widely as possible.

The inner emotional dramas and human conflicts which make up the subject matter of almost all films are entirely absent from the world of these three works. “Claudia and Paul” won’t tell you directly how to handle life’s problems. But it reminds us that, even on the day of our greatest tragedies, we are alive, we can breathe, we can see light and hear sounds and experience the pleasure of being in the world. This knowledge may be a crucial survival tool.

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