Saturday, July 15, 2006

Live from Neverland

Well, I'm becoming quite the reviewer. Snigger. I attended a presentation at the Luce Auditorium tonight. I was suitably impressed to write it all down lest I forget some of the details.

Paul Pfeiffer's impressive yet unusual resume cites his groundbreaking works in video, sculpture, and photography to dissect the role of mass media in shaping consciousness. It's an eclectic collision that results in art, specifically, pop art. But what is it about exactly?

"Live from Neverland," a joint presentation / performance by Pfeiffer and Silliman's Department of Speech and Theatre Arts, was an introduction of the uninitiated to the world of avant-garde video art. Held at the Luce Auditorium last July 14, "Neverland" featured samples of the Pfeiffer's work as well as a live recording of a speech choir for use in one of Pfeiffer's ongoing projects.

Pfeiffer's brand of art defies easy description because it doesn't fall into the traditional categories that many of us are used to. It's work that needs to be experienced firsthand even as the effect varies from one viewer to another. Pfeiffer's first presentation, "Pure Products Go Crazy," set the tone for what the audience was to expect for the rest of the evening.

"Pure Products Go Crazy" is a video of a half-naked man in briefs, face planted into a sofa, performing a wild epileptic dance. It goes on and on for quite a bit until one realizes that it's actually a short clip of Tom Cruise from the movie "Risky Business" run in an infinite loop. The effect is unsettling, so much so that many of the Luce audience burst out in nervous laughter, possibly unsure of how they were supposed to react.

Pfeiffer's other works follow the same spirit. "John 3:16" focuses on a basketball, and just the basketball, as it is passed from hand to hand. "The Long Count" is a triptych of famous Muhammad Ali fights, including "Thrilla in Manila" and "Rumble in the Jungle", in which the fighters are digitally erased, leaving only the ring and the audience. "Caryatid" features a floating Stanley Cup as its bearer is digitally removed, leaving just an adulating team. Another work also entitled "Caryatid" shows scene after scene of soccer players tripping and falling down. "Fragment of a Crucifixion," like "Pure Products," is a clip in infinite loop: it shows basketball player circling a small section of the ring in what looks to be agony or ecstasy.

These are samples of some Pfeiffer's earlier works, and they can be quite disturbing to watch. Pfeiffer removes the context in which the scene is being played, leaving the viewer gasping for some structure, any structure. Pfeiffer explains he likes to make the audience aware of themselves instead of being lost, as with traditional cinema, in the story and in the medium. In this he succeeds: owing to the lack of linearity, the viewers find themselves detached from the work yet affected by it.

Other aspects of Pfeiffer's work with his art are time and perception. A video sculpture displayed in the World Trade Center (prior to 9/11) depicted incubated eggs hatching into chicks which eventually grew into fledglings and then full-grown chickens. The video played in real-time, with a total run length of two-and-a-half months. It may sound like a kooky idea, but one has to view it from the perspective of its audience: busy Manhattanites catching a few seconds' glimpse at a time over a period of two months, and then, all of a sudden, the exhibit is gone.

Pfeiffer's artistic philosophy tracks the influence of pop culture and the mass media on the human psychology. Inasmuch as he uses contemporary icons familiar to everyone, the viewers become part of the canvas. Pfeiffer, who studied in Silliman as a child and continues to visit Dumaguete regularly, notes the unique effect this has on Filipinos who are primarily impressed by American-style media. "You are aware of it, you have an almost intimate knowledge of it," he says, "and yet you know that you're not really part of it."

His Filipino heritage makes its way into some of his works. His most ambitious project to date, an audio recreation of the England's 1966 World Cup victory in Wimbley Stadium, to be replayed in Wimbley Stadium, makes use of Filipino voices to supplement archive sound footage. Another project he plans to work on involves the Wowowee game show, digitally erasing the host, the dancers, the audience, and all other visual cues, leaving just the contestant.

"Live from Neverland" is another such experiment, one that the Luce audience was privileged to hear as part of a live performance. "Live from Neverland" references a 1993 interview with Michael Jackson, protesting his innocence and decrying the indignities he suffered at the hands of the police. The Speech Choir, a troupe of over 80 Silliman speech students directed by Dr. Eva Lindstrom, mimicked this speech, down to every pause, every inflection, every nuance.

Eighty voices speaking in near perfect synchronization is no easy feat to manage, and yet the Speech Choir pulls this off. It takes on an eerie quality as a mix of male and female voices match Michael Jackson's monologue, describing how he was made to strip and how they took photographs of his penis and his buttocks. Pfeiffer intends this to be a modern take on the Greek Chorus, where the actor becomes everyman. The voices will later be superimposed against the clip of the Jackson interview. In this way, we've made some small bit of history in Dumaguete.

Paul Pfeiffer's work won't appeal to everyone, at least not on the first go. Not only is it unconventional, it's also uncomfortable. But that seems to underlie the whole point of it: to take the viewer outside of the established boundaries. It makes one think and it makes one feel. Ultimately, that's art.

Paul Pfeiffer was born in Hawaii in 1966 but was raised in the Philippines. He spent part of his grade school and high school years at Silliman University. Pfeiffer relocated to New York in 1990, where he attended Hunter College and the Whitney Independent Study Program. He is the recipient of numerous awards and fellowships, most notably The Bucksbaum Award given by the Whitney Museum of American Art. He was also artist-in-residence at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and at Artpace in Texas.


  1. hi. I like your blog a lot so I nominated you for the "Filipino Blog of the Week". You can visit site and vote daily. :-)

  2. Thanks, Composed Gentleman. I think your site is great, too (he, he, I keep reminding myself to add it to my blogroll -- I have just been too lazy.)


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