The entry point to Ragnar Kjartansson’s The Visitors (2012)—if you’re lucky enough to see the beginning of the looping one-hour, nine-channel video—is like awakening each day in a house full of people who were up all night while you slept. Slightly disorienting, the sound, light, and being start streaming into the gallery as each of the screens lights up. The camera is impartial: The shots are static, uncomplicated, and filmed with natural light. Individual facts, like who and where these people are, aren’t apparent, but searching for facts misses the point.
The Visitors is a recording of a group of musicians—all friends of Kjartansson—playing on Rokeby Farm in New York. At the time of filming, the artist was going through a divorce and was blindsided by reading his wife’s poetry. He started writing music to fit one of the poems; maybe it was a way to deal with his own defeat, maybe to just have a last moment with his wife by adopting her work. He saw the opportunity to bring together his friends and created a family-reunion-like atmosphere on the farm. Kjartansson selected people, but not the instruments they would play. The group played music in the house for a week, trying out different things for the song “Feminine Ways,” and scheduled the cameras, headphones, and everything else around filming (including a cannon fired twice) in one take at sunset.
A pink rose
In the glittery frost
A diamond heart
And the orange red fire
Once again I fall into
My feminine ways
The group is composed of excessively talented art-school musicians who have each mastered numerous instruments and can predict each other’s musical quirks. They are more than capable of creating ineffable moments of brilliance. By chance, they’ve captured a wistful nostalgia, but I’m not sure that’s their intention. Kjartansson’s wider oeuvre shows a longing for a time that didn’t exist: for example, the myth of the rambling blues musician—he doesn’t seem to understand that those blues musicians were not really free to travel, they were forced to flee. It would be easy to deride The Visitors as a pastiche of art-school hipster flophouses and rent parties, a cosplay of American beatnik aesthetics. It brings together the pain of listening to a jam band noodle along for an hour with costumes from Portlandia, rendered in HD on nine screens. Yet its optimism and poise immediately gets under the viewer’s skin.
The music world mirrors the tightening economic conditions of contemporary times, in which fewer musicians get more, and more musicians get nothing. This group has succeeded by creating micro-economies for their work—and they’ve needed to, as their works are entirely too smart, too talented, and too diligent to be mainstream. They occupy a distinct space in the creative economy, at the center of a giant Venn diagram of band member, poet, theorist, alternative economy conservatory/art-school attendee, disruptor, internationalist, business professional, and artist impresario. If the music doesn’t get you, their rugged beards and wispy dresses will seduce even the most all-black-wearing, stern, academically credentialed, anti-capitalist stoic. They hit that spot in your soul where you wish your charisma was, and it’s impossible to resist.
You protect the world from me
As if I’m the only one who’s cruel
You’ve taken me
To the bitter end
Once again I fall into
My feminine ways
Recently Boris Groys spoke of the aestheticization of politics, or creating a useless politics that will outlive the ordinary, everyday use-value of political machinations. It would be easy to read The Visitors as a politicization of aesthetics. Instead of creating art-for-art’s-sake from politics, Kjartansson is creating a utopian space where people can play, which is a radical economic and political move.
There are stars exploding around you
And there is nothing you can do
The Visitors exposes the way musicians come together as well as how they interact with the passive viewer. Instead of recording in a studio and releasing an antiseptic song-as-a-song, The Visitors is a video of a performance. I refer not to the musical performance here, but the event, the coming together of solipsistic individuals who are scheduling around complicated professional obligations.
These pro musicians cannot pretend that they don’t have stage personas. They perform with their stage faces, with a studied apathy for the music world and the recording. By the end, each camera transforms from busy character study to a lost potency, from a buzzing house to an empty one. The whole process is an intermingling of modes: an art residency, a single object, and downtime with friends. In the end, they all break character: Exposed by friendship’s piercing gaze, they look into each other’s eyes, and they have to smile and walk off into the distance together, leaving The Visitors soaked in their relationships and mutual trust.
The Visitors is on view at the Institute for Contemporary Arts in Boston through November 2, 2014.