Watching from Within On Liminality in the Art of Daniel Laufer


Text by Hili Perlson


My first encounter with the work of Daniel Laufer was a digital and a virtual one. On a 12" computer screen and without any prior knowledge of the artist’s body of work, I watched a series of his video art – from home. Watching art on a personal computer is a pre- carious matter for all parties involved, as it disrupts the Foucauldian dispositive existing in, say, a gallery space, and which enhances and maintains the power relations between viewer and work, spectator and spectacle (and by extension, between spectator and artist). Nevertheless, if a physical limit is that which institutes an outside and an inside, that which enforces an inclusion and an exclusion, then the art of Laufer can be regarded as a transgression of those limits, both in the sense that his work expands its available apparatus to include the viewer wherever he or she may be, and in the contextual sense of trans- porting the so-called narrative action into a liminal exploration.

The artist’s body of work consists of cross-media investigations of the abstract relations existing between text, paintings, performance and video art. His video pieces thus transgress the boundaries of the digital apparatus and are often grounded in the performative act. In fact, the artist’s video screenings are often accompanied by a live performance which is, at times, carried out by the artist himself. This obfuscation of the limits between the two works simultaneously on view – video and performance – challenges notions of narration, plot, language, space and of the relation between author, originator of the piece and its recipient. When accompanied by a performance, the film extends to occupy the performance space and its viewers as well. So, for example, even the script – which is the origin of the art work for the artist – includes directions for both the actors and the performers. The performers thus complete the narration by either commenting the goings-on on screen, “predicting” the filmed actions or rendering them more complex by seemingly gaining authority over the scene (in a manner reminiscent of a John Smith’s 1976 classic treatise on representation, The Girl Chewing Gum, a work that Laufer playfully nods at in his A Letter to the Girl Chewing Gum, 2008). He embraces the ‘specter of narrative’ to play word against picture and chance against order. The setting and staging of the performance-film becomes a performance repeating and duplicating the experience of the authentic.

In other words, Laufer’s art may constitute another way of thinking the limit: as a frontier or as a zone of indetermination that cannot be one and can neither be the other but is rather a constant be- twixt and between, the space carved by the negation of selfsame and of the relation between one and the other.

In Plot Holes (2010), for instance, he probes the holes that cleave through and subsequently disrupt a love story. And indeed, the pletho- ra of plot holes in the work is overwhelming: the three characters – one man, two women–are trapped in an impossible love triangle, but in- stead of acting out a melodrama, they cite their lines at each other from a script visibly held in hand (a recurring motif in many of his movies). The texts are read out monotonously, where the acting seems to con- sist mainly of the effort required to maintain a solemn, detached ca- dence. The three characters are well aware of the tired clichés they are trapped in and refer to their chagrin with lines like “they use words that everybody copies from someone else” and try to cope with playing out the inevitable ending that “has to follow a script.” But the silences, the omissions and the, well, plot holes, is where the strength and beauty of the art work resides, and where Laufer’s work and its viewer enter the liminal.

The space carved by means of holes and omissions allows for precisely the liminal space in which the tension between possibility and the de- nouement is sustained. The characters shift about within their own in- dividual states of mind. So much so, in fact, that in several of his films (Suspension of Disbelief, Plot Holes, both 2010) the actors step into a dif- ferent realm (or a state of consciousness). These realms are created by means of paintings on glass or paper cut outs on glass panels that are either placed in front of the camera when shooting the film or added afterwards as an additional layer. With this technically speaking rath- er simple manipulation, the artist transports the narration into anoth- er setting, a liminal neither here nor there, a mental projection within the projected work.

The constructed rooms, thresholds to another realm, usually originate from scenes taken on location where the film is shot and then becloud- ed with layering, or from scenes taken in the exhibition space where the film will be presented, and then similarly furnished by the glass paintings. Notwithstanding, these glass paintings are also presented in the exhibition space alongside the film and the performance. As ex- hibition objects, they are dismantled, deconstructed topographies that find their coherence within the context of the film, but also play with the notion of gateways or vestibules which enable the performers to expend their reach from the performance space to the space captured on film, and vice versa.

Another element in Laufer’s work that affects a think- ing of limits is the central role played by language and textuality. Originating from the aforementioned scripts written by the artist, di- alogues and texts in his work are deconstructed and words are given somewhat surprising physical interpretations. Furthermore, the scripts themselves often feature as objects in the films, allowing for the actors to read their own predicament, but also to alter it, refuse it or even to interrupt it (Silence Delay, 2008). The viewer, too, is thus provided ac- cess to the texts. The act of silent reading, of following the script as the piece unravels, transcends the boundaries of the apparatus on yet anoth- er level, and the viewer becomes an active component in the materiali- zation of the art work.

Boundaries between narration and action are obliterated and the lack of authorial voice and authorship gives a sense of volatility to the plot. At times it even seems as if chance enters the story and plays a role in its outcome. With narrative shifts in space and time so central to the work, it is hard to resist applying tools lent from literary theory and criticism to the art works. A defragmentation of space and time affects a question- ing of the credibility of the originator of the literary text; highlighting the fact that memory is a treacherous and unreliable source. In the limi- nal space in betwixt, where both the viewer and the actors move about, portrayals of individual versions and visions of occurrences replace the focus on a singular linear narrative and narration. Perceptions differ when influenced by emotions and are blurred by the unreliability of memory, causing plot, characters and details to become subordinate to the respective voice.

The viewer witnesses a de-subjectivation of the plot; there is no proper subject of the testimony, the one relating the experience does not coin- cide with the one speaking. Laufer’s work thus constructs a threshold severed between the two streams – subjectivation and de- subjectivation – and shows the violence of this non-coincidence, until along with the game of mirroring (added to by the live performance), the work sets forth a feeling of vertigo, a mise en abyme of sorts. With the pieces of the puzzle rather adding further layers to the whole than completing it, the work is inclusive insofar as it exhibits its defragment- ed movement, as it creates a tension by giving and taking away that so peculiar, unspecified locus. The action of the work can only find its completion through the viewer’s witnessing and the subject’s transfor- mation into another.