BY Neal Brown in Reviews | 09 SEP 99
Featured in
Issue 48

Susan Hiller

BY Neal Brown in Reviews | 09 SEP 99

Psi Girls (1999) is a video installation comprising five floor to ceiling projections and a loud soundtrack made by an uncredited percussive gospel choir, whose rhythmic handclapping is central to the work. There is great pleasure to be had in a warm, dark, empty space, listening to beautiful music. But it can also be disturbing: the use of other people's music may go beyond legitimate appropriation and sometimes threatens to contribute disproportionately to the artist's work. Hiller trained as an anthropologist, and her art practice often involves the appropriation of 'cultural artefacts'. The fact that she is an anthropologist may be something about which it is doubtful she should boast - Psi Girls in some ways is like a good pop promo, but one in which the name of the band remains unknown.

The work comprises edits from five feature films, screened simultaneously, each of which last two minutes. They hop sideways on completion, giving a dynamic motion to the space in a syncopated, angry dance of giant moving images. Each monochrome film is tinted a retro colour - sick disco green or naff perspex pink - a sort of groovy disco hell of sub-genre Hollywood imagery. The movies reach a crescendo with the driving rhythm of the unnamed musicians; a raising of the pulse that peaks excitedly and effectively but which is then wiped out in a searing blast of cruel white noise, only to start again. Overall, the effect is powerful: strong, young and rock and roll.

The orderings and reorderings in the work are appropriate as a reflection of Hiller's interest in collecting, a subject she has made work about before. Psi Girls is itself a collection of thematically classified images, arranged and randomly rearranged in an exercise of power and ownership. Collecting is, of course, as much about the empowerment of the collector over the external world as it is about pleasure in the intrinsic worth of the collected subject. A great deal of the subject of Psi Girls then, is the schemata of the work juxtaposed with its ostensible subject: parapsychology.

Psi phenomena are those aspects of the mind claimed by parapsychology to be beyond normal perceptual processes, such as telepathy and clairvoyance. They function partly in this work as Hiller's metaphor for art making. The five film edits are of young females who employ telekinetic skills (making objects move by use of the mind alone) to disrupt the world. A number of pubescent schoolgirls watch as a classmate derails a moving toy train with her mind; a glass travels the length of a table to break, as a child rests her head on the table's surface; an attractive college student balances a pencil on its point, prior to its crashing; a child, wired up by authoritarian 'mad scientists', ignites remote objects to the alarm of the now panicking, foolish males; and another child commands physical objects from the adult world to move at her remote command, in a gross disorder of the possible.

All share a similar conclusion at the end of their two minutes: disorder or damage effected by the young females to the physical world, in contradistinction to their usual disempowered status. Hiller's protagonists defy certain fearful aspects of power relations, such as those between the physical and mental worlds; adult and childhood sexualities; male and female; old and young; and art, artist and viewer.

Between these categories writhe many other possible discourses, but about which Hiller provides no real theory, making these discourses less privileged relative to the overall work than first appear - as if they vigorously rattle the bars of their theoretical cages but can only escape into their neighbour's cage. Hiller abdicates responsibility at the point at which her ideas threaten to become literal - a strategic exit which provides an imaginative space for the viewer, but one which could also be read as a relieved cop out.

Although Psi Girls has panache, it is severe: the reordering of the images and their abrupt severance effected with austere perfection and an impatient authoritarianism. And, despite lacking authorial pronouncement, it seems to contain a creeping, unspoken judgmentalism. While excitingly rich, allusive and spine-tingling, it is also seethingly angry, disordering and destructive - of itself as well - forcing unbounded energies to collide with each other in a wilful compression of anarchies.

Neal Brown is an artist and writer based in London, UK.