BY Michael Darling in Opinion | 01 JAN 98
Featured in
Issue 38

Crowd Control

Andrea Bowers' 'Spectacular Appearances'

BY Michael Darling in Opinion | 01 JAN 98

The title that Los Angeles-based artist Andrea Bowers has given her latest body of work - 'Spectacular Appearances' - may sound a trifle conceited, but this was not the artist's intention. Rather, the phrase refers to the subject matter with which she is completely infatuated: the artist is a die-hard sports fan, and the hours she spends at ball games, watching TV, or looking through magazines count for just as much as the time she devotes to converting these experiences into art in the studio. She is a spectator of spectacles, yet curiously enough, the baseball, football, and basketball games (and more recently concerts, parades and airshows) get second billing in her artistic programme. Instead, Bowers' fascination lies with the people in the crowds, the regular folk who consume the mass entertainment but rarely appear as anything more than minuscule minions on TV screens or magazine pages. By turning her attention to the people who really pay athletes' salaries, make rock stars Stars, or give parades a reason for being, she discovers a treasure trove of human authenticity far more interesting than the superhuman aura that entertainers are paid to create.

There is an element of licentious voyeurism in Bowers' videos: her camera, seemingly unnoticed by its subjects, tracks the various gestures, movements, utterings, and activities of unnamed spectators, but in the end, these works are completely harmless. First, because these people are out in public already, and anything captured on tape by the artist is also there for others around them to see or hear; and second, Bowers' perspective on her fellow fans is never condescending, scandalous, or mean-spirited - the footage she records is uncategorically banal. Which is not to say that it is boring. While there is a recognisable, lowbrow handicam style to the videos, and absolutely no narrative, the abbreviated clips she combines to form a sequence have an almost sociological sharpness to them, picking up all manner of information-laden observances.

In The Big "A" (1997), for instance, filmed in the stands of a California Angels baseball game, she follows the antics of a wide-eyed youngster obviously thrilled by the glamour and adventure of watching a real-life event. Even though he betrays his team by wearing a hat bearing the logo of the cross-town Dodgers - at least he's got it on backwards - his immediate devotion and loyalty belong to the Angels. A pair of more seasoned teenagers sitting elsewhere in the stands are quietly documented by Bowers for a few seconds, until one of them erupts in a flash of anger and screams out an obscenity to an opposing team member or unjust umpire. As soon as it has left his mouth, he recoils back into serene attention while his friend cringes and looks around to see if any repercussions are to follow. The directness and humour of this passage come not at the cost of the young man's integrity, but from the reflection of ourselves in this sanctioned outburst of violence. Bowers finds a microcosmic community at these gatherings, where many of the same rules and rituals that govern daily home life are effortlessly transferred to the stadium - kids flirting, girls primping, families bonding, drinkers drinking, bad boys behaving boorishly - with little alteration. For many, a sports event is just a public living room.

Similar attitudes prevail in the artist's Parade of Roses (1997) and El Toro Air Show (1997) where chairs, blankets, umbrellas, and coolers full of food and drink are carted out to cold, hard sidewalks or hot, dirty fields in order to establish a home away from home at these (only mildly entertaining) events. In Parade of Roses, one attendee is filmed asleep in the street, comfortably swaddled in a blanket, with his back to the continuous stream of humongous flower-studded floats. Nearby, a pack of high-schoolers seem bored out of their minds as they huddle in beach chairs, equally oblivious to the mobile visual feast (or famine) behind them. In contrast, El Toro Air Show visitors do turn their eyes heavenward from time to time to take in the aeronautical curiosities, but only as punctuation to the more important business of downing beers or showing off new bikini tops. Both videos seem to reveal a deep-seated need for human gathering, even though the occasions are less than compelling and the interactions between members of these democratic convocations are limited to a familial few. Although the crowds are large and have gathered in support of a common, overarching cause, the most potent synergy is localised in cliquish clusters. Kind of like America itself, in microcosm.

A related sense of disconnection is found in Bowers' drawings, but instead of exploring the collective psyche of the group, she focuses on the expressive energy of individuals. Large sheets of white paper are left completely untouched, save for small singular blips of human and artistic intensity. In each drawing, Bowers meticulously renders one or more figures culled from the ambient fanscape in magazine photos of sports or musical events. In Spectacular Appearances (Boy in a Leicester crowd) (1997), for example, a young boy floating, off-centre in a field of white, holds a hand-lettered sign above his head that reads 'LIAR.' When signs like this appear for an instant on TV as the camera pans across the stadium, they are often only good for a quick laugh or to help thematise a marginal local issue. Excised from their context and frozen within the margins of a framed drawing, however, they take on momentous importance. One can only guess what caused this howling, booing boy to publicly chastise someone down on the field or up on the stage, but judging from his grimacing face and the effort involved in making and toting along the sign, a grievous breach of social contract has occurred. This brand of low-tech, media-savvy vigilante justice in the public court of the spectacle is one of the most fascinating features of Bowers' essentialised stadium.

In these concentrated images, Bowers rescues moments of social commitment that are marginalised in media accounts but crucial to the existence of any successful, compelling spectacle. Although we may all imagine what it would be like to wield the power or bask in the glamour of celebrity, Bowers gives weight to the more attainable ideal of active, galvanising spectatorship, in which previously faceless members of the masses are shown to be the ones with ultimate control.