Emotional Realism

Curated By Emily Vey Duke and Cooper Battersby

Our use of realism (arguably, of the real in general) has undergone some pretty major shifts over the course of the last 40-odd years. There’s been an explosion of documentation of the self dating back to the invention of the snapshot and still climbing steadily through portapacks, hand-held video cameras, camera phones, blogs, vlogs, you-tube and so forth. The idea is that these media allow access to a relatively “true” or “unmediated” self.

This preoccupation with the real is evident in mass media as well. Never have documentaries garnered so much attention and never has what the British call “factual” programming (everything from Anderson Cooper 360 to The Surreal Life) composed such a huge part of what’s on TV.

Why have we become so fascinated with the real that we have nearly abandoned the practice (if not the strategies and formulae) of fiction? What does the real provide that the mimetic does not?

With Emotional Realism we propose that the truth claim made by works of this nature allows the viewer to identify with the author/subjects more profoundly, to engage with greater mercy.

The second observation we’ve made while compiling this program is that, while the truth claim is an absolutely essential component in making the pieces work, it’s equally important that theworks be self-consciously mediated. A truth-claim is not the same as a claim of unadulterated truthfulness. In fact, undisguised mediation adds another layer of sincerity (or realism) to the works.

By making no attempt to conceal their own artifice—by in fact making that artifice explicit—the artists make works with a greater, more tender authenticity.

There’s a principle from quantum physics (and anthropology) that relates: when a process is observed, it changes. This principle holds at the level of the photon as well as for human behavior. The artists in Emotional Realism acknowledge this rather than trying to conceal it, which allows the viewer to trust in the integrity of the works.

Take, by contrast, the multitude of “confessional” video works generated by earnest young artists, in which the maker speaks directly to the camera about her or his alienation, rage, despair, etc. Somehow these works never succeed at eliciting the empathy the kid so desperately desires. Instead, the viewer has a sense that the artist is being not candid, disingenuous. Phony.

Or take the example of contemporary reality television, where the subjects work hard to maintain the illusion that they are simply living their lives as they normally would. Again, the overwhelming sense is that the participants are not sincere, not open (no matter how much rank laundry they air); that in fact they are a bunch of awful fakers.

It’s the strategies of mediation that mark the works in Emotional Realism out as exceptional –Miriam Backstrom’s nearly sadistic coldness in Rebecca and Kira Carpelan, two works about art, artifice and female power; De Cola and Wandner’s choice to strategically break the fourth wall in 5 More Minutes, a piece about the sense of loss or lack that invariably attends the mother/child relationship; Eija-Liisa Ahtila’s use of professional actors to reenact experiences of madness recounted to Ahtila by the women who had lived them in her work Love is a Treasure; Amanda Baggs’ use of the MacIntosh computer voice Fred in her work In My Language, a compelling description of her experience of autism; and LaToya Frazier’s carefully constructed narrative arc in her work A Mother to Hold.

Far from impeding identification with the subjects and makers of these works, the strategies employed facilitate it, allowing the pieces to function at the top of the range available to artists: the works stimulate our ability to feel empathy.

FEATURING: Rebecka by Miriam Bäckström (40 mins 46 sec, 2004), A Mother to Hold by LaToya Ruby Frazier (22 mins, 2006), 5 More Minutes by Dena DeCola and Karin Wandner (17 mins, 2005), In My Language by Amanda Baggs (8 mins 35 sec, 2007)


Rebecka by Miriam Bäckström (40 mins 46 sec, 2004) In Rebecka, Bäckström makes a first attempt at explicit portrayal of an individual. She borrows the tools of investigative journalism: the recorded interview, the edited text and the intimate photograph. Bäckström presents a filmed encounter between herself and Rebecka Hemse, a renowned Swedish actress. In many ways this interview brings to mind Josephson’s meeting with Barry. Rather than sharing their spontaneous reflections, both actors appear to be reading prepared answers. They play their parts so well that the last thing we want to do is to question their authenticity. Not even when Hemse picks up sheets of paper from the table in front of her are we willing to accept that her answers might be scripted.

A Mother to Hold by LaToya Ruby Frazier (22 mins, 2006) In A Mother to Hold, Frazier depicts an intensely complex relationship with her drug-addicted mother. The artist’s combined role as daughter, photographer, and filmmaker transcends the objective approach of traditional documentary practice, which Frazier believes has allowed many observers to disregard the poor and working class African American experience.

5 More Minutes by Dena DeCola and Karin Wandner (17 mins, 2005) Two women spend an afternoon recreating time with one of their mothers. What begins as play-acting is broken open into a world where the sweetness of love and the agony of having to say goodbye exist side by side. “I want to recommend a short film titled Five More Minutes made by Dena DeCola and Karin E. Wandner. They did it all. They wrote it, acted in it, and directed it. It’s a strong and daring work. We live in such a buttoned–up, fearful, cautious culture. Five More Minutes is an attempt to open us up. And it’s not afraid to take chances to do it. It’s not afraid to be emotional.” – Ray Carney, author of Cassavetes on Cassavetes

In My Language by Amanda Baggs (8 mins 35 sec, 2007) Amanda Baggs is a young woman with autism who has created a powerful and articulate video that ‘translates’ from her world of environmental interaction to the neurotypical form of speech and perception. As well as a stunning view into how she experiences and makes sense of the world, it’s also a forceful philosophical argument concerning how the mainstream understands people who don’t think or communicate in a conventional way. Presumably speech-less (either through choice or development), Baggs communicates to the viewer using a voice synthesiser and on-screen text. A profound and exciting insight into an alternative humanity. Baggs describes the work like this: “The first part is in my ”native language,” and then the second part provides a translation, or at least an explanation. This is not a look-at-the-autie gawking freakshow as much as it is a statement about what gets considered thought, intelligence, personhood, language, and communication, and what does not.”