Fan Mail: The “What is?” Project

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The "What is?" Project, Time, Video Still. 2010.

Ernest Hemingway said that “most people never listen” and I think that he was probably right. If you think about how much people talk, it is more disturbing than it initially seems.  I have a family friend who listens to everyone the same way most of us only listen to a person who is dying, a character trait that is initially discomfiting, often creating a situation in which the speaker will shift uncomfortably eyes darting, only to continue babbling on with inane and ultimately inconsequential details and tangents. Sooner or later, the speaker becomes comfortable in the very surreal reality that this person isn’t going to interrupt or rush to make comparisons to her own life.

It’s not combat, it’s conversation.

When the boundaries of this sort of attentiveness get pushed even farther—things get interesting, which is part of the appeal of the “What is?” project.  The project is a series of videos released every Tuesday by Avery McCarthy Studios Production in which a question of universal interest is given to the participants and they answer it.  Sound boring? It’s not.  At the surface, each individual’s view is interesting, but the context of the questions becomes even more fascinating. No pressure and no time limit make the majority of the participants uncomfortable. Most squirm, look down, look up, touch their faces and display a fantastic variety of self soothing techniques.  Thinking of Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments, I wonder how response would change without the inhibitions of empathy and fellow feeling. Each question addresses something that we ‘deal’ with every day—Time for example.  What is time? Try putting that explanation into a sentence. Now try it with the knowledge that your (surely) articulate definition will be posted online for public consumption.  Merriam Webster did it: “a nonspatial continuum that is measured in terms of events which succeed one another from past through present to future” but they have a lot of practice.

There is something intrinsically voyeuristic about watching the “What is?” videos.  A typical documentary that interviews people in much the same way is edited down so that their is no hesitation, as experts pontificate in resolute intonations and with a curious cadence that is very specific to “expert” interviewees.  Before the typical editing process, interviews contains full narratives including a beginning, including copious amounts of pausing and hand gesturing, move on to a climax, with the individual turning his or her head and makes eye contact with the camera, and break to an end, at which point the expert usually sits back, hands clasped, his or her thoughts fully formed and complete. In the “What is?” project, the participants fidget, sit in silence (sometimes for a long time) and generally stumble around questions that are superficially ‘simple’ but in reality are very difficult to address. What results is a mesmerizing visualization of thought – a direct image of how individuals formulate and communicate concepts of the greatest size. The most notable element of the “What is?” project is the individual’s struggle to display oneself to a camera—an intricate balance between articulated thought and visual presentation.

All of that said, the art is in the process, the final videos and the voyeur that the videos create—like a long distance frankenstein—in people like me, who watch the interviews inexplicably enthralled.

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