New York City-based installment and media artist Andrea Callard is a poet of deceptively slight observations about modern urban living. Her delivery is so fluffy, in fact, that it frequently evinces an apathetic restlessness. Her best witticisms, if they can even be called that, reflect a girlish, if sedate, curiosity, which is not to say alarm, toward the natural world’s declining authenticity in the age of rampant urbanity. In her short film 11 to 12, for example, she free-associatively fiddles with the material tropes surrounding the social idea of “vacation” circa 1977: In a particularly giddy sequence, she collects copies of National Geographic atop an ironing board along with a phone book, then leads us through the typical process by which we “discover” a location in a magazine, make phone calls to arrange a trip, then schedule a cab ride to the airport. The barely recognizable joke is that these objects (National Geographic back issues, phone books, and taxis) manage to tentatively hold Callard’s attention for being a trinity of bright yellow rather than one of communicative potential—or limitation. The organic and the man-made are readily connected in Callard’s work as viable distractions—from anything, including one another.
Callard is the missing link between similar metropolitan performance artists Laurie Anderson and Miranda July; she affects the prosaic, discursive, faux-monologist’s voice of the former and the cutely disappointed distance—as well as the penchant for talking animals, unfortunately—of the latter, and all three have at society and its technological advancements as though it were a vast, pied playground. (In a small snippet from another Super 8 film, Callard throws rocks from off screen at an unfinished wall by the ocean; as the stones strike the half-structure’s guide poles they produce a panoply of flat tonalities, like those of a poorly tuned marimba.) But where Anderson responded to her milieu’s de rigueur alienation with ponderousness and July fights off loneliness with an earnest, almost obstinate optimism, Callard feigns an ironic impenetrability.
Half the running time of her current retrospective, Talking Landscape, depicts idle nonsense in her studio loft. We watch her dick around with ladders, papier-mâché spheres, and piezo mics, the last of which she and a friend run through their lips and hair while ensconced in the safety of a glass-protected sound booth. Throughout, Callard’s uncanny visual fretting keeps the material from deliquescence. When she knocks the papier-mâché spheres into a row on a worktable using a pool cue, she alternates angles and light sources often, suggesting an almost hopeless passage of time. When the last sphere refuses to stand beside its brethren, rolling out of position, she momentarily dotes on it. Metaphors for isolation are rarely so boldly commonplace; the ugly sphere is suggestive of spiritual atrophy without lending its sufferers any easy heroism.
Talking Landscape also features a collection of Callard’s slideshows with commentary, most of which are significant primarily as a reference of the installment spaces they spritely index. One series of photos, in fact, taken at a famed art show on which several notable NYC artists of the time worked, is rather cheekily unceremonious. But Callard’s parched, brittle humor is far more successful when wielding temporal juxtapositions. In the aptly titled film Florescent/Azalea, the two titular entities are force-compared with rapid cuts and a sing-song-y soundtrack that simply utters the name of whatever we’re looking at. “Rhododendron…” she intones, spiraling her camera over some vibrant flowers before cutting to the square, sickly green lights that hang over an indoor pool and mumbling “Fluorescent!” The point could be that the foliage and the industrial bulbs are equally elegant and piercingly luminous, but what facilitates this dangerously egalitarian view is the lack of concern with which Callard treats everything she observes.
In her best short, she studies a “serious” New York topic: the importation, propagation, and then declining health of the city’s Ailanthus trees. The piece combines horticultural research and personal anecdote with quietly contemplative footage of the trees themselves, but Callard’s narration still can’t quite take the intriguing, tragic narrative at face value. At practically the climax of the botanical story, she mush-mouths her way through a long passage without breathing, and in the background we hear a nearly funereal cough. This ennui-laden performance is more devastating than passion or even detached exposition would be toward the same material; it spitefully mirrors the manner in which an audience must be convinced to pay scrutiny to any subject matter, even that which has monstrously global implications. But within Callard’s unbothered attitude, too, is a kind of progressive aesthetic salvation. There’s not much worth crying over or laughing about or looking forward to in Callard’s universe; those impulses have been replaced with flitting curiosity, endless experimentation, and fleeting amusement. Her ridiculous interactions with her environment throughout Talking Landscape remind us that artistry is essentially a way of viewing the world. And creation is simply a byproduct of perspective that artists can’t help.