in Features | 06 MAY 06
Featured in
Issue 99

Stranger than Fiction

Sean Snyder’s videos and photographs explore the often bizarre world of urban planning, architecture and the news media

in Features | 06 MAY 06

What do the skylines of Pyongyang and Bucharest have in common? How Japanese is Skopje? Why did Dallas get big in Romania? Investigating these kinds of questions is the basis of Sean Snyder’s artistic process, which results in Conceptual works that don’t try to provide answers but rather display the overlooked frontiers of the plausible, the preposterous and the sad but true. His appropriated-footage mockumentary videos and installations, which take the form of displayed dossiers and exposés, are intentionally ambivalent and politically quixotic. His research projects, sometimes lasting years and presented in multiple versions, are revealing but never neatly sewn up, authoritative or conclusive. They suggest the David-versus-Goliath stance of a tireless self-appointed freelance critic of political, military and corporate power, usually looking into that power’s most patently perverse, maniacal expressions in urban planning, architecture and the news media.

Snyder’s silent video Analepsis (2003–4), for instance shows our planet’s hot spots as filled to the brim with smog-veiled urban sprawl, oil refineries, military bases, high-security areas, choked airports and motorways. The work consists entirely of jump-cut edited ‘set-up’ shots excerpted from news coverage, which Snyder systematically captured for hours on end. Analepsis – a cinematic term for a rupture in narrative continuity – becomes a state of affairs in which unfolding news events fade from collective memory, and cities and populations become a series of merged backdrops. Adopting presentation methods borrowed from a tradition of politicized Conceptual art, Snyder’s works have a serious purpose but are delivered with a straight face; like a deadpan comic with a penchant for black humour. If you are used to uncritically consuming your knowledge in pre-digested form, his work may possibly leave you dumbfounded, shocked, bemused or even laughing nervously about the cruel, absurd constructed reality of the world.

Since the 1990s Snyder has been globetrotting, occasionally with a digital camera and laptop in tow, examining and documenting architecture and urban planning as if they are both endemic and symptomatic evidence of an ideological underbelly and power-broking machinations. These days his information-hunting safaris are enough to make him the subject of suspicion and hostile scrutiny – as the artist recently discovered at an airport on his way to a conference in the Palestinian Territories, when, among other things, a new catalogue of his work made him a target for El Al’s security officers. Equally dodgy was shooting infra-red footage of the perimeter of Kadena Air Base, a US military facility, as well as the surrounding infamous red-light district late at night in Okinawa, Japan, which led to the prints and video work Temporary Occupation (2003–5). Generally his field trips are less risky, although their subjects are exemplary developments in which regimes, the military, multinationals and business magnates conspire to leave tell-tale marks of occupation, imposition and exploitation. Their edifices reach dizzy – as in, sickening – heights. Their need for tangible physical signs of self-aggrandizement seems to know no bounds. Bricks and mortar, façades, massive avenues all manifest control, power and paranoia.

Take, for instance, the two versions of the installations Bucharest/Pyongyang (2000–4). The background to the piece is the story of how between 1977 and 1987 Nicolae Ceausescu, spurred on by his wife, ordered a monumental transformation of Bucharest. One source suggested that, using an earthquake as an alibi, ‘entire areas of the historic centre were demolished to make way for his hallucinatory concept […] distaste for the steel and glass of Western capitalist architecture and the concrete of socialist building led [Ceausescu] to find an alternative in the capital city of his megalomaniac North Korean friend Kim II Sung’.1 This hypothesis became the subject of Snyder’s installation, which also included photographs of Bucharest’s monstrous white elephant the ‘Palace of the People’ (now renamed the ‘Palace of the Parliament’), arguably one of the largest buildings in the world after a Dutch flower market and the Pentagon. It combines ‘pastiches of classical, Baroque, Modernist and traditional Romanian as well as North Korean architectural elements’.2 One million cubic metres of Transylvanian marble were used in its construction. Making the comparison with Pyongyang proved difficult because of the isolationism of North Korea, but Snyder did eventually obtain some footage and photographs of Pyongyang for the installation. These include satellite photographs of the gargantuan 105-storey Ryugyong Hotel, which was intended to be the tallest hotel in the world and remains unfinished owing to structural problems and lack of funding. The colossal building’s retro-Futuristic pyramid shape testifies to North Korea’s attempt in the late 1980s and ’90s to compete with other emerging economies in the region by building grandiose symbols of prosperity. Outwardly there is no comparison between Bucharest and Pyongyang, except perhaps as dubious architectural testimonies to their political masters.

New leads, among them from a Berlin bus driver who is a short-wave radio enthusiast and fan of music on a North Korean radio station, provided sources for a sequel work, the two channel video Two Oblique Representations of a Given Place (Pyongyang) (2001–4), projected onto opposing sides of a hanging screen. One side shows official footage taken from a North Korean documentary with shots of tens of thousands of people taking part in spectacular 10 October celebrations, whose choreography has more than a passing resemblance to Germany in the 1930s and Leni Riefenstahl’s aggrandizing angles. The other side shows tourist video footage shot by an American nuclear scientist who visited the city, looking at an almost car-free city centre in which ‘it is rumoured that the high-rise apartments complexes of Kwangbok Street are in fact a Potemkin village where no one actually lives’.3 Both videos are in a sense documentary but neither can lay a claim to objectivity, the juxtaposition of the images underscores their contradictions.

Another bizarre Cold War exchange is the subject of Dallas Southfork in Hermes Land, Slobozia, Romania (2001), an installation consisting of temporary walls, video photographs, architectural models and documents that explores the rather curious history of the impact in Romania of the TV series Dallas (still syndicated seemingly everywhere). The show was apparently one of the few American TV programmes broadcast under the Ceausescu regime. Perhaps originally intended as anti-capitalist propaganda, the plan definitely backfired. One of Snyder’s catalogue’s reports actor Larry ‘JR’ Hagman commenting in an interview about Dallas’ Cold War role: ‘I think we were directly or indirectly responsible for the fall of the Russian empire […] You know, it’s on cable TV three times a day […] We’ve got whole new generations of people watching it for the first time. I get a lot of mail from Bulgaria, Romania, Nigeria.’ In the mid-1990s the later imprisoned soy bean magnate Ilie Alexandru, presumably a devoted fan, created a Balkan version of the Southfork ranch on his estate in Slobozia, on the main road between Bucharest and the Black Sea. The Slobozia Southfork simulation is bigger than the original, as it was based on the wide-angle shots of the house in the TV series’ trailer. Two architectural models in the installation allow for a comparison of the size and floor-plans, although the interior of Southfork in the series was just a studio set, entirely fictitious and spatially impossible. Other attractions on the estate include a miniature Eiffel Tower, gypsy pagodas and castles. Snyder had to bribe locals to let him in to photograph. Other information in the installation documents Hagman and his wife, Maj, visiting the ranch in its heyday together with Prince Paul, the pretender to the Romanian throne, and a local newspaper clipping reported that George W. Bush was also once a guest.

The global distribution and odd translation of plans and models across national, cultural and ideological boundaries are also implicit in a number of the works, including A Revisionist Model of Solidarity (2004–5). This project draws on, among other things, material in the 1970 United Nations publication Skopje Resurgent: The Story of a United Nations Special Fund Town Planning Project. The report documents the international effort to rebuild Skopje after the massive earthquake in 1963. A team of international experts in various disciplines and political credos collaborated on a ‘master plan’ for the city using then new and well-meaning methods of interdisciplinary urban planning and sociological experiments.

Ultimately, many of progressive Japanese architect Kenzo Tange’s proposals, in part an adaptation of his 1960 plan for Tokyo, were selected by the UN, although Tange later quit the massive project. His preliminary models and ink sketches were subsequently mistranslated on the ground in Skopje. It seems to be on the periphery that things are most likely to unravel, where entropy often is accelerated by the centrifugal force emanating from power centres. Earlier photographic series of the outskirts of East Berlin and Paris – ‘Marzahn’ (1995–6) and ‘Paris/Paris Banlieue’ (1995–7) respectively – look ambivalent and strangely unlocatable. These photographs equally allow for a nostalgic reading based on Utopian socialist ideals applied on an enormous scale, as well as sending a shiver down the spine because of their imposed conformity and planning from above. Snyder, a lover of detail, unearthed the footnote: in 1961 Charles de Gaulle had flown over the area of suburban Paris by helicopter and demanded that someone ‘put a little order into all that’.4 Socialist Marzahn doesn’t look that different, with its regimented buildings placed like toy blocks on empty fields.

Counter to these suburban housing projects, the relentless crawl of fast food chains that is the subject of Fast Food Project (1999), a series of photographs presented as two video slide shows documenting McDonalds, Pizza Hut, Kentucky Fried Chicken and Burger King outlets around the globe, has a lot to do with adding local touches and the inclusion of regional vernacular elements in the various franchises’ restaurants. In addition, short texts on a video monitor mix corporate policy statements with alternative snippets collected by the artist, such as ‘think globally act locally’, or ‘In Saudi Arabia seating is organized by sex and marital status,’ or the unverifiable ‘McDonald’s is rumoured to be the largest commercial consumer of satellite imagery, to analyse prospective restaurant locations and conduct yearly comparisons’.

A group of photographs documenting a failed property development – Shanghai Links, Hua Xia Trip (2002) – reveals another form of architectural neo-colonialism in a global guise. The gated community ‘Shanghai Links’ – which is actually extremely unlinked and conceptually unhinged – was targeted for North American executives stationed in China. To make the photographs Snyder had to say he wanted to use their golf course. Advertising for the development included statements such as ‘When this development is finished, you’ll never know you are in China’. The installation also incorporates other text, such as the wry description ‘the compound is fenced in with watchtowers and guards, completely isolating it from its surroundings. The expatriate villa community relates to the indigenous environment of Shanghai only in so far as the size of the American-built lawns equals the size of the local farms.’ As a counterpoint, on a monitor is historic footage of Shanghai and its colonial past, with commentary about US influence on Shanghai’s new freaked-out Luna Park skyline.

Considering the process, the great lengths Snyder goes to in order to obtain material is a necessary precursor to appreciating how extremely understated his works end up appearing. An obsessive researcher and private investigator, he uses every possible means – including news agencies, picture archives, cold-calling, faxing, his 1400-channel TV satellite dish and, of course, the Internet – to gather information. One of the main subtexts to his practice is a consideration of the way information is displaced and distributed, and the slippage and distortion of ‘objective fact’ that this involves: imploding the illusion that information is per se good or can be harnessed and controlled. Information is de-contextualized. It is always the product of predetermined formats and an ongoing international game of ‘Chinese Whispers’.

Critiquing bad news through parody as well as highlighting inconsistencies and blind spots by zooming in on revealing details is a central tenet of Snyder’s works. The Site (2004–5) consists of a photo-text assemblage of conflicting media reports about Saddam Hussein’s shanty hideout and spider hole. Here information becomes synonymous with misinformation. What is disturbing about the various reports is that they also seem to involve some kind of brazen product placement. Snyder collected descriptions and photographs of the hideout, focusing on details about the contents of Saddam’s fridge and two Mars bars on the floor. The fact that this kind of detail is not as innocuous as it seems is explored in the video Casio, Seiko, Sheraton, Toyota, Mars (2004–5). This chilling work functions something like a mix of television exposé, Michael Moore documentary and Michelangelo Antonioni’s film Blow-up (1966). The video focuses on the brands and products that have appeared in news and photojournalism in Afghanistan and Iraq since the mid-1980s, including Osama Bin Laden’s various models of Casio wristwatches, M&Ms in aid convoys, the Sheraton Hotel in Baghdad, and the Taliban’s preference for Toyota utility vehicles. It also relates how increasingly soldiers are replacing journalists as the source of images. The work culminates with harrowing close-up footage of the bombing of Baghdad, in which the clicking camera shutters are often louder than the sound of the exploding bombs. A related work shown at the last Istanbul Biennial, Untitled (Iraq) (2003–5), is a grid of amateur postcard-size images shot by soldiers and contractors in Iraq that the artist downloaded from file-sharing websites.

In many of Snyder’s works conceptually reframed documents, texts and pictures blend together to provide hints of unsettling meta-narratives. His artistic method variously recalls seminal works such as Dan Graham’s investigation into serial suburban housing ‘Homes for America’ (1965), Martha Rosler’s anti-Vietnam war collages ‘Bringing the War Home: House Beautiful’ (1967–72) or Hans Haacke’s A Breed Apart (1978), in which the artist criticized the state-owned firm British Leyland for exporting vehicles for police and military use to South Africa under apartheid. Snyder’s own work reads like lines from a global plot so riddled with obscenely telling coincidences and underhand dealings that it would immediately be rejected as too improbable for any work of fiction.

Dominic Eichler is a writer, artist and musician who lives in Berlin.

1 Text from the artist’s catalogue Bucharest Slobozia Dallas Pyongyang–Sean Snyder DZ Bank Kunststipendium, Künstlerhaus Bethanien and Vice Versa Verlag, Berlin, 2002, p.18; based on Gheorghe Leahu’s book Bucurestiul Disparut, Editura Arta Grafica, Bucharest, 1995. Leahu is an architect and watercolourist who covertly documented the destruction of the historic city centre of Bucharest.
2 Ibid. p.23
3 Ibid. p.33
4 Institut d’Aménagement et d’Urbanisme de la Région Ile-de-France. ‘Interview with Paul Delouvrier’, Cahiers, Paris, 1995 as quoted in the catalogue Sean Snyder, De Appel, Amsterdam; Neue Kunst Halle, St Gallen; Portikus, Frankfurt am Main; and Secession, Vienna; 2005, p.17