These days I pull back a black curtain and fully expect to walk into a video installation. There’s a language present in the mere existence of the curtain: “this work requires some degree of isolation.” There is a moment of confusion when first entering Nate Young’s installation at The Suburban, however—no video in sight, and an endless loop of what sounds distinctly like James Brown, plus a crowd, plus something else—a kind of religious fervor?
I might not have found the video for “Untouched” at all—I know a few folks that didn’t—except that the space was occupied by a few enthusiastic youngsters who excitedly chimed out ‘It’s here!! Over here!!” and pointed me toward a video screen hidden behind another curtain. An isolated work within an isolated work.
The video is a set of disembodied white-gloved hands. They move in choreographic circles, like a magician’s, as the endless loop of sound plays. In the video, it’s clear where the loop begins and ends—there’s a very sharp visual ‘cut’ where the hands jump positions on the screen—whereas in the listening one feels that the loop is going on forever.
The initial impressions are near-religious—a dark, meditative space where the hands of a near-mystic move in constant rhythm—but what emerges after prolonged viewing is something else entirely. What emerges is a comment on race. On minstreldom. The audio recording emerges as more distinctly James Brown, and in repetition the familiarity of the sound ebbs away. Is the voice tortured? Is this the voice of someone who has been forced to ‘perform’ blackness, over and over, to a point beyond identity or recognition?
The hands move in circles, move in circles. And further. And some point the invisibility of the ‘performer’—invisible in a field of black—comes into question. The bodyless field becomes a minstrel and a universal black performer all at once—black the field, black isolated and encompassing all at once, black race-and-not-race.
The clip, the point where the loop begins and ends—is distracting. It reads like a record skip, takes you out of it. It’s a glitch, in the literal and cultural sense of the word—glitch as in perceived error, glitch as in disruptive entity. It’s irritating and embedded in the work at the same time. It makes the loop laborious, a task that is endlessly repeated. A kind of falling down and getting up, an Sisyphean task.
It takes a minute to stumble back through the darkened room, find the fold in the curtain again, and emerge back into the sunlight. By then the audio has become something else entirely—it’s attached to various unfolding meanings of performance, heavy with multiple meanings. It’s isolating and all-encompassing at the same time. The sunlight hurts your eyes after all the darkness.