Opening the mouth to sing means placing oneself in the position of vulnerability that attends any unabashed expression of raw emotion. From the glorious “fat birds” that come up Duke’s throat in Bad Ideas for Paradise (2002) to grotesque wet sobs, the act of singing is pleasurable and cathartic. Performance—both musical/theatrical and social/existential—is a vivid, embodied process for grappling with the beauty and horror of living.
Since first meeting in 1994, Duke, born in Halifax, and her partner, Battersby, born in Penticton, B.C., have collaboratively produced a series of openly philosophical, darkly comic videos that wrestle ambitiously with the problem of being human. At the core of their practice is a knotty, irony-soaked ambiguity; their work finds nobility within the most abject gestures, ugliness within the most splendid. When asked, in the slightly notorious Being Fucked Up (2001), if they believe in the possibility of redemption, Duke nods her head yes furiously, while Battersby equally emphatically shakes his head no.
Episodic in structure, their videos chip away at existential dilemmas from multiple vantage points. In interviews and in her writing, Duke exhibits a tendency to speak fluently and forwardly about her feelings. Her voice is urgent and sober at once; she calls it “insisting on expressive emotionality.” Duke and Battersby’s videos constantly risk teetering into excess, overindulgence and saying too much; Duke, for example, sometimes ventriloquizes teenagers, most dazzlingly in Bad Ideas for Paradise, in all their awkward, unabashed verbosity.
Each of Duke and Battersby’s works is a compendium of multiple voices. They contain witty, keenly felt songs, simple animations and found-footage vignettes brought to life by the duo’s narrations (in which voices run backwards, are manipulated to emulate children, robots and animals, or just to convey “anonymity,” and are haphazardly accented). Intertitles and aphoristic texts silently drift by, the voice of a higher authority perhaps; the artists pull faces, enact rituals, stage confessions, test limits. This dynamic polyvocality renders each work a series of provisional propositions and hypotheses: bad (and good) ideas for paradise.
The ethos seems to be: if the task of changing the entire world is too daunting, let’s transform ourselves. Hence the emphasis on language— narration, dialogue, script—which may hold the potential for transformation, but is just as likely to fail you. (The songs come the closest to using language as a form of incantation.) The artists exploit video’s ability to synthesize, recording and recycling different realities, and also bringing new ones into being through animation, which has become more and more central as their practice has matured.
Executive-produced by their self-adopted “dad,” the video artist Steve Reinke, Rapt and Happy contains the seeds of all that will come later in the duo’s practice. Ostensibly focused on the thin line that separates joy from sadness, its short-and-sweet ditties and bleak, absurd cartoons show us characters trapped by habit or by contradictory and self-destructive desires. Each episodic fragment beautifully encapsulates how the mundane can contain intimations of both great joy and great trauma.
Duke and Battersby consistently address the conundrum of reconciling what we want with what we know to be good. Both are presented as pipe dreams. At the outset of Bad Ideas, these opposing desires are voiced (sort of—the sound is manipulated) by Duke and Battersby respectively as they describe their differing views of heaven. For Duke, it is a place where one is loved best, while for Battersby it is where everybody is equal. Later, a text nicely summarizes the problem to a shark: “You have only stealth and speed/And nobody likes stealth and speed/But assholes.”
Being Fucked Up, which begins with Duke smoking crack and breathing into a plastic bag as she sings, in voice-over, “I don’t know how to be a worthy citizen,” is perhaps the duo’s most concerted effort to develop an ethical system based on recklessness, negation and danger, undisciplined and messy desire. As a robot states, “I wish I was a pervert with something inside me that burned and could never be made manifest.” Here they assert the power of self-annihilation (narcotic, religious or otherwise) in reaching new states of understanding.
Curious About Existence (2003) functions as a companion piece of sorts, centring as it does on the scientific principle that describes how entropy always maintains the upper hand over order: the first law of thermodynamics, according to which energy can be neither created nor destroyed, but is simply changed from one form to another. Found footage shows us a classroom filled with pimply students attending a lecture comparing the death of a mouse—its “energy and order” converted to “fungus” and “grief,” among other elements—with the death of a relationship and the resulting transformation of the emotions contained within it. The work strives to disprove the idea that total order equals total goodness. In valuing passion and experience over reason and rigour, these videos lay the foundation for the metaphysical vision quests of the duo’s next works.
The musical/science-fiction trilogy The New Freedom Founders, from 2003–04, seems like a transitional work in this regard. Rather than being subdivided into episodes, each part features fictionalized versions of the artists describing new ways of shaping reality according to one’s desire to achieve freedom. For example, in part one, I am a Conjuror, Duke and Battersby laze about in bath and bed, reflecting on the revolutions in medicine and physiology they have effected through the new metaphysics they have developed. Episode two features an interview with Battersby in which he describes his manipulation of time. Duke (as one Karen Annasdaughter), in turn, describes her invention of a new language. This triptych now seems like a deeply personal manifesto.
After The New Freedom Founders, the artists returned to their more episodic structures and created their two most accomplished works thus far: Songs of Praise for the Heart Beyond Cure (2006)—a summa of their oeuvre and road map of their concerns and strategies—and Beauty Plus Pity, which in late 2008 expanded beyond the video frame to populate a gallery space (The Power Plant in Toronto) with a council of finely dressed taxidermied animals. The scenes that comprise both works, rather than having the loose, unforced character of sketchbook notes, uniformly carry a distinct—and perverse, of course—gravitas. Each piece builds to a near-transcendent finale that is, appropriately enough, sung.
Songs of Praise concludes with four plaintive solos that unite the world’s creatures in the shared experiences of suffering and its overcoming. Following the laments of a blind shrew eaten by an eagle, an emaciated but happy crackhead and a raped and discarded little girl, all animated, we hear: “I’m a tiny brown seed in the ground. I accidentally sprouted before the springtime came. I almost died. But I’m gonna survive… We’re gonna survive.”
Duke and Battersby wrote Songs of Praise during a sojourn on the shore of Nova Scotia, the rural setting catalyzing their provocative reflections on the natural world. It was completed in rural New York, where they work as professors at Syracuse University. They previously lived a peripatetic existence, moving between Halifax; Cape Town; London, Ontario; Vancouver and Chicago (where they studied with Reinke and received M.F.A.s from the University of Illinois).
Songs of Praise proposes nothing less than a cosmology; its scope and its ambitions are vast, taking in not merely the pas de deux of ethics and desire but the laws of the universe as well. As its theme song intones, “We will sing to the fallen and to the filth in which they lay.” The artists find profound evidence for the future redemption of humanity in the natural world. Birds, for example, “come back” each year despite our not deserving them. Evolving the conjuror personas they introduced in The New Freedom Founders, Duke and Battersby appear as animated witch and wizard, proclaiming their desire to create a “new nature,” since the old one has been domesticated to the point of extinction. With its lyrically abstracted images of natural and constructed environments, hymns addressed to our entire species and other macroscopic strategies, the work’s canvas would seem to be the whole world. Not surprisingly, magic and science—the generators of two very tiny babies that feature in one memorable episode—are the keys to understanding it.
Beauty Plus Pity similarly encompasses a huge swath of human experience, from familial bonds and reproduction to our collective identity as a species. Its title is Nabokov’s equation for “the closest we can get to a definition of art.” The video’s protagonist is a hunter, who is shockingly candid about his passion for killing animals, which he compellingly identifies as a “wrong committed for the right reasons.” It is because he wants to touch and hold them, a longing for closeness with other creatures that can only come from incapacitating them (he yearns for a zoo where all the animals are tranquilized so they may be safely cuddled). The video also examines the simultaneous punishment and redemption we seek from God—and, the artists suggest, from every mythic or symbolic figure we have created. God is clearly past his best-before date here, and is supplanted by the multivocal, multi-species woodland Spirit Guides. Who but the most downtrodden should determine our fate?
Children and animals are intriguing for Duke and Battersby because these figures lack the inner conflict between base desire and moralitybased self-control that haunts human adults. In Curious About Existence, an otter reads from a letter (written by Duke) from Cosima von Bülow to Nietzsche: “Treat your impulses as a comedy…not a doctrine.” (Incidentally, an otter dressed as a flapper is the lead polemicist in Beauty Plus Pity.) According to Duke, children and animals are also easier to forgive, a key concept for the artists given their interest in the earth’s apparently inescapable cycles, the way the seasons change and life reproduces despite everything. As the hunter says, the “song of the universe will continue like a round.” While animals and children embody “bad ideas for paradise” in the video of the same name—paths to transcendence not to be taken—in Beauty Plus Pity the hunter suggests that children, while not good, contain the potential to be so. The artists seem to have reached some kind of answer in their philosophical quest here: humanity’s potential for good is what can bridge the abject and the sublime.
The laborious handcrafting that went into the taxidermied figures the duo exhibited at The Power Plant renewed Duke and Battersby’s taste for forms of art production other than video, and also offered the opportunity to focus more on the decorative than the discursive. They found it quite satisfying to create seductive objects, and plan to incorporate sculptural elements into their future productions. This interest in new kinds of expression also informs their ongoing, multi-faceted Year in the Life of the World project, an ambitious archival endeavour that involves collecting webcam feeds from all over the planet. The goal is to form a kind of monumental, non-verbal collective portrait through a flow of digital image streams.
Duke and Battersby are currently collaborating with the Toronto-based experimental film- and videomaker Mike Hoolboom. The artists have collaborated with others in the past; for example, Duke is close to completing a six-year poetry-and-drawing project with Shary Boyle entitled The Illuminations. The focus of the video project with Hoolboom will be “intraspecies communication” among primates, about sex specifically, and they suggest it will be quite a personal project (as opposed to the universalism I find in their most recent work). Duke suggests that the three artists have very different views of sex, and that the work will need to be more than the sum of its parts.
Duke and Battersby’s inclination to make art that is simultaneously entertaining, intelligent and ethical is underpinned by their understanding that every aesthetic act is in some way futile. Their videos are filled with paradoxes that, rather than being debilitating, somehow spur action into being. As they have shown, every fascination can turn to disinterest and every expression of emotion may be misinterpreted as needy self-indulgence, but such outcomes do not negate the glory that could also come in their wake.
This is a feature article from the Fall 2009 issue of Canadian Art. To read more from this issue, please visit its table of contents.