Essay: The longer I sit, the less inclined I am to stand up
Catalogue: Third Floor Emerging Artist Series, Rochester Art Center, Rochester, MN
By Kris Douglas, Chief Curator
tectonic industries The longer I sit, the less inclined I am to stand up.
“ For the millions of us who live glued to computer keyboards at work and TV monitors at home, food may be more than entertainment. It may be the only sensual experience left.”1
To comment both directly and indirectly on contemporary societal conditions, artists often utilize material collected from popular media and turn it against itself. The use of familiar images and concepts, combined with a mode of presenting back to the viewer new forms that mimic or question the original, invites a critique of the broader processes involved in understanding aspects of our culture and ourselves. In the eight-monitor video installation The longer I sit, the less inclined I am to stand up, tectonic industries (Lars Jerlach and Helen Stringfellow) focus attention upon the television cooking program, the cult of the celebrity chef, a cultural obsession with food, and our seemingly endless search for self improvement. Their subject matter has the capacity for numerous societal and cultural comparisons, and their work becomes an appraisal of contemporary Western society in general, its motivations or lack thereof, and the inherent artifice involved in creating entertainment out of an everyday act of necessity.
In this installation, the viewer is confronted with eight television monitors each showing an individual preparing a meal in their own kitchen, following the directions of the Food Network’s 30 Minute Meals host, Rachael Ray. The chief premise of this popular cooking program is that a meal, both delicious and nutritious, can be prepared and presented within the total length of the program. Within the publicized description of the show itself, the notion of either saving or appreciating more leisure time becomes readily apparent—“now you can put great food on the table, and still have time to enjoy your family, friends, or tackle that home improvement project you’ve been waiting to get your hands on.” The videos presented in the installation focus on the individuals attempting to replicate the meal preparation, while the voice and instructions from Rachael Ray echo in the background. The continuous presence of this voice, and the fact that an image associated with this voice is not emphasized, is compelling to the viewer for numerous reasons—Rachael Rays’ voice acts as both a subtle identifier of the topic in question, and provides commonality while accentuating differences across the individual monitors. The voice makes the audience aware of a similar goal between participants, and as we watch the individuals attempting to complete their meals, it becomes difficult to avoid evaluating their progress by judging the speed and quality of their work. Because this activity is based on participation versus passive absorption, we may begin to question the authenticity or believability of the show’s overall principle. Can these people really finish cooking on time? Will their meal be sufficiently similar to that of the professional? Will it taste or look as appetizing as Rachael Ray’s meal? Are we meant to actually record programs such as this, take detailed notes, purchase ingredients, replay the program, and actually follow through?
This work also invites us to consider the current elevated status of the televised cooking program. Once relegated to public television and other education-focused channels, food programming is now big business, with a network of its own allowing for round-the-clock access to programs featuring chefs-turned-personalities to engross the audience. Consequently, these cooking programs ride a fine line between education and entertainment. This video installation allows viewers to consider the important distinction between these increasingly blurred concepts. As television monitors are spreading into schoolrooms, vehicles, restaurants, and other public spaces, we are bombarded with both entertainment and “edu-tainment.” It is also relevant to consider the presentation of this video work within an art center, as cultural institutions are increasingly challenged to recognize, without being completely seduced by, the audience’s desire for passive entertainment. As such, the artists seem to call attention to the context of the physical location of the work— how is the content of a cooking program experienced differently when walking among monitors at an art center versus at home on a couch? As the title of this piece suggests, the more that the viewer remains passive, the more the viewer will struggle to become active, perhaps creating a cycle of unrecognized dependency.
This work also confronts, in an understated way, a cultural obsession with food. Prone to extremes, fad diets, restriction, gimmicks, and labeling foods as “good” or “bad,” we are also a culture, as the quote at the beginning of this text suggests, yearning for sensual perceptual experiences such as those experienced when preparing and consuming food. But can we derive pleasure, purely through observation? Certainly, we experience auditory and visual stimulation, but the cooking program attempts to go beyond this by having the host describe for us how the food smells and tastes, so as to share this experience. If that does not satisfy, then we may find ourselves looking for a convenience food, something much less complicated to enjoy while watching the program. This wanting for pleasant sensory experiences and our attempts to pull them from the television also relates to our sometimes-passive approach to pleasure-seeking and self-improvement, and perhaps our attempts to attain a certain success-by-proxy.
Kris Douglas Chief Curator, Rochester Art Center, Rochester, MN
1 Barbara Ehrenreich, author and social critic
About the Artists:
tectonic industries is a collaborative art partnership founded in Europe in 1999 by Lars Boye Jerlach and Helen Stringfellow. The members met in Edinburgh College of Art, Scotland, where both were pursuing Master of Fine Art degrees in sculpture. Recognizing overlaps in ideals and approach to art, the pair began collaborating on large-scale installations. Lars, a native of Denmark, and Helen, a native of Britain, moved from Europe in 2001 and currently live and work in St. Paul, Minnesota. Their work has been seen in numerous exhibitions including: Tuesday Night, 8pm, Urban Institute for Contemporary Art, Grand Rapids, MI; My wife is so proud of me…, Franklin Art Works, Minneapolis, MN; No Name Exhibitions Project Room, the Soap Factory, Minneapolis, MN; Ready, Set Go!, Anchorage Museum of History and Art, Anchorage, AK; Physical similarities do not necessarily indicate close relationships, CSPS, Cedar Rapids, IA; Untitled III, Soo Visual Arts, Minneapolis, MN; Document, TIXE Art Space, New York, NY and YOU ARE HERE, Citywide Art Event, Various Venues, Nottingham, UK.