Lars Laumann’s solo New York debut at Foxy Production is a deep, polyvalent inquiry of, in a word, transcription. The two videos and two lithographs on view forward a riddling chain of propositions about the persistence of ideas beyond their original means of delivery.
The main source appropriated for Kari & Knut, the show’s central video, is an Iranian film version of J.D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey; the artist has overwritten the original narrative with his own, conveyed through subtitles (which falsely purport to be translations of the dialogue), and occasional passages of narration voiced by an young, female reader. The heroine is a Muslim schoolgirl whose walk to school comprises the 1990s, made-for-TV credit sequence, which is of considerable length considering the video is about ten minutes long. Credit is precisely one of the issues brought up by Laumann’s appropriations.
Upon the girl’s arrival to class, she draws on the empty chalkboard as the narrator recounts the publication of Helen Keller’s first book, The Frost King, for which she was accused of unintentional plagiarism. This case is defined as an incident of “cryptonesia,” in which “the person is not deliberately engaging in plagiarism but is rather experiencing a memory as if it were a new inspiration.” Analogously, the onscreen student internalizes Keller’s plight as a reflection of her own frustration with her anti-American teacher and the retrograde attitudes he represents. After repudiating the teacher to friends, she breaks her fourth wall to explain that “my author won’t allow any adaptations of my story,” thus she feels utterly trapped in the political moment of the source film’s production, 1995.
The seam of the video’s loop is footage of a burning book played backward, then forward. In an open letter composed after her book How I Became a Socialist was burned, Keller condemns attempts to kill ideas as futile, which is here corroborated by the image of charred pages blooming back to their original states as the video goes in reverse. The burning book is immediately recognizable as an emblem of censorship’s impotence, and of the power of ideas to overcome material or political forms of suppression.
The two lithographs are individual pages of text rendered in a curious font of fingers-as-letters. One is a haiku; the other is a limerick. Both describe the chilly clichés of alien abduction: probes interchangeably issued by “the strangest fingers” and “those little green men.” Neither poem is spaced, so that the letters run together in a streaming mass. Laumann replicates folkloric accounts of a dubious experience, translating the nonetheless culturally significant story by way of opposing formal constraints resulting in poems.
In the project space in the gallery’s rear, Laumann’s video, Duett, plays on a large flat-screen propped on its side. Amidst black, a tiny chunk of the upper screen plays remixed snippets of two historical figures’ infamous justifications. Each distorted into creepy, synthetic quasi-melodies, Donald Rumsfeld cites “known knowns” and “unknown unknowns” as grounds to invade Iraq; Margaret Thatcher recites, “I know it was right to sink her… and I would do the same again,” about the sinking of the Argentine vessel the Belgrano. While Rumsfeld dissembles with vagaries, Thatcher maintains her absolutism. They undermine each other by embodying contrasting styles of political PR influenced by the communication technologies respective to their eras: top-down mass media of the 1980s, compared with non-linear sound bite jockeying of the new millennium. Their regimes share the distinction of radical conservatism, and Laumann tracks the passing and transformation of a rhetorical torch as another incident of a dangerous idea’s innate adaptability.