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From Russia, With Love A review of SCREENS: A Project About “Community”

by Isaac Raine

February 05, 2019



I can't remember how I heard about the Turkish and Russian Baths, but I started going soon after I moved to New York, three years ago. It was an escape, from my job, from the city, from the world, from myself. It was back to the womb; hot, dark, wet, anonymous- a place to cast off problems and decisions alongside my clothes. Twisting and stretching, I was unforming and reforming myself. Tendons molten, back arched, head up, head down, I would often almost pass out - and for a few seconds not know where I was, or who I was- and then the pieces would come together and I would return to my reality. I loved this fleeting oblivion. I had self-abnegation and self-exploration. The baths were a place of heightened contrasts - hot and cold, light and dark, scuzzy yet purifying, exhausting but invigorating, private and public.

As I continued to go, I became aware of the other bathers.They weren't my companions, but we were here together. What did we have in common? Anonymous, with my head tucked foetaly into my groin, I listened to the conversations around me. They were similarly diametric. I saw two guys drop to floor to avoid the heat, the better to continue their discussion of the beauty of non-Newtonian mathematics. And I also heard a bodybuilder rue his infidelity to his girlfriend and ask how to make amends. Opposite, a bather spoke up. "One word- Papyrus! Women love that shit! It works every time, I promise."

And this was how I met Savannah. Another, different someone was explaining that all that all women wanted was to be told what to do. We exchanged eye contact and then one of us spoke up , albeit mildly, and the other one weighed in. Mon semblable, mon frere! I agreed with her and I liked her face. I didn't know then that she had been the public face of JT Leroy - or that she went by 'they'. I found both these out once I looked them up, after we exchanged email addresses. They wanted mine because because they were planning to shoot a film of the baths.

SCREENS; a project about "community" is Savannah's exploration of the Russian baths - the place, the people, Savannah within it and the world at large. It consists of three screens ( woven rather than cinema), fifteen screenshots and a twenty minute film, in a bathhouse-esque booth, complete with a towel and a few Q-tips.

The film is more ratiocination than documentary. Like The Waste Land, voices intercut and footage is spliced. But the initial snatches of dialogue would seem to provide some statement of artistic intent. So we begin:

One robed figure sings

“You've got to be taught
To hate and fear,
You've got to be taught
From year to year,
It's got to be drummed
In your dear little ear
You've got to be carefully taught.”

SCREENS: A Project About Community, Robots, Screen Still, Essex Flowers Gallery, 2018 SCREENS: A Project About "Community", Robots, Screen Still, Essex Flowers Gallery, 2018

Cut to -

“I want to take advantage of as much interaction, human interaction, as much as is possible, before, inevitably, we turn into robots. Look at this, it’s going to be...”

Cut to -

“And it’s not even going to be about ... political correctness, misogyny, subliminal misogyny, what’s behind the intention.. there’ll be no... There will not be--”

"--"? There will not be- what? A conclusion or clear message. Other than this -

“Some Socrates...

What about him?
He said it best.
Ow, (mumble) Yusef.
He said, all I know is...
And in that Nothing is...

This show is, in part, a plea for uncertainty, in increasingly dogmatic times, where Neo-cons, Liberals, radical feminists, hippies, and body builders are equally (noisily) convinced of their own rectitude, and keen to convince others. The baths may be an escape from the world, but with the bathers come their worlds also. They want to teach you to hate and fear; this is one end of their human interaction. I think Savannah looks for the interaction to not be about political correctness- self certainty- but rather that they should know that all that they know is nothing -and that in that nothing is everything. Some pontificate, some breathe deeply; Savannah shows us both.

SCREENS: A Project About Community, Fake Conducting, Screen Still, Essex Flowers Gallery, 2018 SCREENS: A Project About "Community", Fake Conducting, Screen Still, Essex Flowers Gallery, 2018

This duality continues to their screens, which represent incomplete boundaries, filters; insubstantial walls and thresholds. The screens mark a divide, on either side the binary, but they themselves are essentially liminal. Two are resin coated woven strands of rolled newspaper. Savannah was literally reweaving the news, making it physical - and not quite ornamental nor particularly functional. The colors are equally non clear cut; blurring pastels smears or gherkiny greeny-yellows. Even their form is non-conformist; one an off-rectangle, another a circle that decided to become a tear-drop. The third is a checkerboard of stacked 2x4s, alternating blocks and space. The nothing makes the everything.

SCREENS: A Project About Community, Installation view, Essex Flowers Gallery, 2018, Photo by Marina Winther SCREENS: A Project About "Community", Installation view, Essex Flowers Gallery, 2018, Photo by Marina Winther

This checkerboard is picked up in the small static screenshot stills from the film. They are the wooden screen, disassembled. They make a fragmented screen, a screen of screens. They splice the film once more. We can see it all at once, from one standpoint, but many viewpoints; cubistically, or as from an insect's compound eye.

How do all these disparate elements co-exist? The question is the answer. There is defamiliarization here. Indeed, when I would stretch myself to almost passing out, it wasn't only the oblivion I loved; it was also the ostranenie with which reality came back to me. Savannah is showing us not only the weirdness of the baths, but of the world, and of ourselves.

"This is not documentary!’ Savannah says. "It is a portrait of the baths from one person's perspective and fantasies." So what is real, what is fiction? Just as we can't trust the news, so too Savannah is an unreliable narrator. In their film some bathers do what they really do - lounge, sweat, stretch, shower, tie up their robes. Others sing to the camera, wrestle, massage their breasts and lie about who they are. In one scene, a character unfolds and is swamped by a giant newspaper. One onlooker says he's never seen that before; his companion says she once saw someone bring in their iPad. We can't tell what is what.

When I asked Savannah why they wanted to make this film, they said, initially, that it was because the baths were so full of people performing away. They wanted to capture the bathers and oblige them with an audience. It wasn't till then that I realized how extravagantly I had been performing- manipulating my body into one bizarre position after another. Savannah made me recognize myself and my similarity to my fellow bathers. (The quietest people in the baths are a ballet dancer and an opera singer - who have a real stage, and nothing to prove here.) Savannah appears in the film as an air marshal and as a conductor - ironizing the performance, yet equally culpable.

This encapsulates perhaps another reason - their real reason- for this project; to come to terms with this group of people, of which they had become a part. SCREENS; a project about "community" - it's all in the title. The inverted commas around community are Savannah's ambivalence, and screens themselves. And screens are contronymic - a place to view, and to block our view. This show is about contradiction - belonging, and not belonging, who we are, and how we deal with our place in the world.

SCREENS: A Project About Community, Installation view, Outside, Essex Flowers Gallery, 2018 Photo by Marina Winther SCREENS: A Project About "Community", Installation view, Outside, Essex Flowers Gallery, 2018 Photo by Marina Winther

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