The Feeling Of Being In A Room With A Television: An Essay by Morgan Hamilton on Tear It Up, Tear It Down

The Feeling Of Being In A Room With A Television was written by Morgan Hamilton in response to the Grizzly Grizzly exhibit, Tear It Up, Tear It Down.  The Featured animations and videos of Martha Colburn, Kelly Gallagher, and Kelly Sears are aggressively subversive in both content and form. Each artist tears up image and text borrowed from popular culture in order to tear down the insidious nature of controlled systems of inequity and embedded power structures. While the three artists in this show have been creating work that forces awareness of our political landscape for a decade or more, Grizzly Grizzly brings their work together in February 2017 during the first month of Trump’s presidency, to share stories of resistance and celebrate art’s power as activism.

The Feeling Of Being In A Room With A Television

I spent forty-five minutes asking Google if there existed a word for the feeling of being in a room with a television. After many variations, iterations, and irritations of the inquiry, I gave up. Since there is no single word out there for the feeling one gets while in a room with a television, I will use a portmanteau: telechor.

Counterpoint is the musical term that describes when two separate and independent melodies are played simultaneously to create a new melody. It is difficult to effectively produce, yet easy to understand when listening: each melody offers unique parts of a story and only when they come together can one see the whole for its parts. I entered the dissonant, fidgeting realm of Tear It Up, Tear It Down which was curated with counterpoint at its paramount by Amy Hicks.

The diminutive size of the gallery belies its lofty impact; a large projection on the facing wall obscured the dimensions of the space. I floated into the room weightless, transfixed by the twitching animations of glitter, guns, and guidelines. That polychromatic overture was my first impression of the works of Martha Colburn, Kelly Gallagher, and Kelly Sears. From an undetermined corner, a blaring drum solo filled the room and chewed at my nerves. At first I thought the projection was the work of one artist, but as I watched, I could see that there were three distinct movements creating the whole.

Installation View, Tear It Up, Tear It Down

On the wall nearest the door and to the left of the all-encompassing projection was a page from a magazine. It depicted a barn and some ears of corn, the graininess of the images put me in mind of the 1980s and 90s when magazine pages had heft and you could smell the ink; the colors were earthy and gave me a pang of nostalgia. The page was alone on the wall with no indicators around it and no hint as to how it hangs there. Peculiar blotches of white paint censored some of the ears of corn. Between the page and the glowing colossal projection was a TV monitor playing a black and white video that seemed to consist of newsreel, historical photographs, and government recordings. Seeing the style took me back to my childhood, watching President Clinton’s impeachment news with my mother. I remember asking her how they knew he was guilty, she joked that everything on TV has to be the truth. The video on this monitor looked like a documentary complete with Ken Burns effects zooming in and out of historic black and white photographs. I donned the headphones and listened to the audio track, I heard an ethereal hum and a voice recalling the downfall of an anonymous United States President and the psychosis that developed after he mired his country in a war it couldn’t win. Images of LBJ appear and dissolve as he describes his horrific dreams. While I slowly entered the dream state of Kelly Sears’ parafictional doc The Rancher, I could overhear the caterwaul of the song “Casio Halbzeit”, a heavy drum and synth set. It was difficult to separate the two and so they became one. The fictional President’s speech became “doughy”, he lost his sense of reality, and the grainy newsreel from the 1960s gave the story authenticity while the mixture of sounds in the space transported me out of this reality.

Kelly Sears, In The Vicinity, 2016, TRT:9:20

I sauntered away from the eerie video to the opposite wall; there was a single monitor with a series of videos by Kelly Gallagher, and several magazine cutouts of guns surrounded by glitter, roses, and female figures. The first video, More Dangerous Than A Thousand Rioters, is a story about little-known revolutionary Lucy Parsons. In place of the sense of falling that I felt during The Rancher, I felt at ease, solid on the ground beneath me while watching the super-8 quality of Gallagher’s piece. I encounter the documentary style again as a woman reenacted Parson’s life and triumphs. The warm and placid tones calmed me and I couldn’t help but look over my shoulder to the ghostly black-and-white reel of Sears’ account. I shut my eyes and pushed my feet into the ground. The second video, From Ally To Accomplice, was a jolting change from the first. The glitter and guns came roaring forward, echoing the magazine cutouts that decorate the wall. Endless chains of ephemera snake by, stop-motion flowers breathe and bloom on fields of rainbow sprees. Each video seemed to tell similar stories with varying material, both of the same mind, but with different approaches. I can feel the glow of the ever-present projector on the nape of my neck, I break eye contact with the TV and watch the illuminated wall: guns, glitter, glory. I shut my eyes and centered myself.

Kelly Gallagher, From Ally To Accomplice, 2015, HD digital video and 16mm transferred to video, T RT:17:38

On the wall opposite the projected wonder-show are pieces by Martha Colburn. Myth Labs uses a more intense and aggressive technique than the glittery rhythmic animations of Gallagher. Waves crash, Jesus rises, boat floats, drums bang, cymbals smash, and the colonists come to America. Puritans bless the land and before they die they give meth to the Natives. The jockeying animation style never paused, never let me catch my breath; it made me weak in my knees. Jan Švankmajer and his agitprop ilk would find a home in Colburn’s creations. No punches are held; the story of societal sabotage unfolds before us in a medium typically reserved for innocent story telling. Her craftsmanship not only matches her account of events, it verifies it. The second video blasted onto the screen and a familiar sound rushed me: It was the percussive synth battle of “Casio Halbzeit” that I overheard while watching Sears’ President loose his mind. All of the disparate parts of the video exhibition came together as I watched Join The Freedom Force. Paper puppet protesters, police, and peacekeepers are maimed and attacked and torn apart. It was eerily familiar.

Martha Colburn, Myth Labs,  2008, Video, TRT: 7:30, 2008

All three artists have unique styles and she offers her own viewpoint of events and our world. I returned to the large projected videos I saw when I first came in. I watched them and absorbed them after I got to know each artists’ work, and I understood them clearer. They showed me that reality was at odds with unreality, and reading the paper on any given day since January would verify that. I stepped back and saw that each of these artists and their respective pieces was a movement in an orchestration. The themes presented themselves to me one by one, each a motif mixing in a contrapuntal finale. I saw the exhibition as a whole, each piece inextricable.

Though not each artist involved created with the intention of making a political statement, their work in a world led by Trump cannot be ignored. Sears and Gallagher subverted the documentary format, a format that ubiquitously imbues trust and verisimilitude. There was no hint of mockumentary or satire, just an alternative use of facts. Each voice in Tear It Up, Tear It Down is frustrated for a reason, the artist butts up against power and must overcome it. Easier said than done, but it starts with finding a different story to tell and telling it. In the age of the Internet and hyper-media exposure, truths and facts about our existence are at our fingertips, so for someone to be willfully ignorant of them is dangerous. Kelly Sears, Kelly Gallagher, and Martha Colburn are aware of facts and they used them, skewed them, re-placed them, and transposed them to change the story. Beyond the concept and craft of the video work involved, is the logistics of curating a video exhibition. Curator Amy Hicks mixed monitors and projection, headphones and ambient sound. Those decisions leave the viewer, at all times, with the feeling of being in a room with a television, therefore everything in the gallery has to be the truth.

Morgan Hamilton, 2017

Morgan Hamilton is a visual artist from Florida. He currently resides in New Castle, Delaware and is an adjunct professor at The University of Delaware, where he received his MFA. He is also the curatorial fellow at The Delaware Contemporary. He received his BFA from Florida State University, where he was exposed to artists like Laurie Anderson, Stan Douglas, and Mary Reid Kelley, all of whom influenced his view of video in art. There, he worked for several artists groups and collaborated with a local gallery on behalf of the College of Art. His work ranges from performance and video to sculpture and installation and he has exhibited abroad and at home, from sea to shining sea. He wishes to create future realms whose bedrock is in our present experience. 

Born in rural Pennsylvania, Martha Colburn is an artist filmmaker based in Pennsylvania and Amsterdam. A self-taught filmmaker, she began in 1994 with found footage and Super 8 cameras and has since completed over 50 films. Colburn has made music videos for bands such as Deerhoof, Felix Kubin (Germany) and the documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnson. She was invited to initiate the New Frontiers film and video installation program for Sundance Film Festival (2007) with Meet Me In Wichita and to open the Museum of Art and Design, NY with a live performance of films and music (2008). Her original films and artworks are archived at The Anthology Film Archive in New York City and are in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. She has received awards from the Fonds voor the Beeldende Kunst, the Mondriaan Foundation, the Jerome Foundation and many more. In 2013 her film Metamorfoza was commissioned and performed by the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra. She is a 2015 recipient of the Creative Capital Award.

Kelly Gallagher is an experimental animator, filmmaker and Assistant Professor of Media Arts at Antioch College in Ohio. Her theoretical work investigates the radical and feminist possibilities of experimental animation. Gallagher makes handcrafted colorful collage films, experimental videos, and found footage essays that strive to visually explore histories and movements of resistance. Her films have screened internationally at venues including: Ann Arbor Film Festival, Experiments in Cinema, London ICA Artists’ Biennial, Black Maria Film Festival, Alchemy Film and Moving Image Festival, and Anthology Film Archives. She is recipient of the Ivan Kaljevi? Award from Alternative Film/Video Festival Belgrade, the Helen Hill Award from Indie Grits, and the Audience Award from Brazil’s Fronteira Film Festival.

Kelly Sears is an animator and filmmaker based in Denver, CO.  She uses experimental animation techniques to create hybrid narrative and documentary works. Her award-winning films have screened at international festivals such as Sundance, South by Southwest, American Film Institute, Los Angeles Film Festival, Off+Camera Film Festival, Poland, Festival International de Films de Femmes de Créteil, France, and Tricky Women in Austria.  She’s also had retrospective programs of her short work at Anthology Film Archives in NYC, The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, The Portland Art Museum, and the SF Cinematheque.  Sears is currently an Assistant Professor of Film Studies at the University of Colorado, Boulder, where she teaches advanced filmmaking, animation, experimental documentary, and media archeology.


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