Micah Stansell’s new video installation, The Water and the Blood (2011), explores the way in which information is pieced together to create a narrative. Rather than develop a plot, Stansell constructs character sketches and allows viewers to connect the dots. The work is loosely based on an autobiographical story that his father told him when he was young about being swindled out of his herd while trying to make it as a cattle rancher. Stansell was not alive when the events occurred, yet he relates the story through a series of vignettes that appear as if pulled from his own memory, with some of the shots being crystal clear, others blurry.
The 27-minute video introduces us to five inhabitants of a rural Georgia town in the late 1970s: a little girl and her younger brother, their father, a young woman and a cattle rustler. Though the eight channels are fully synchronized, the characters often appear on multiple screens at once, filmed from different angles. At the Museum of Contemporary Art, the images wrapped around three walls of a long, narrow gallery, with the projectors hung so that viewers could move through without their shadows invading the scenes. It was almost impossible to see all the channels at once, so each viewer became an editor, sequencing the shots by which way he or she turned.
Other than the family members, the characters on-screen rarely interact with one another; insight into the relationships among them is gained through a kind of acoustic accretion. Mounted speakers filled the space with a soothing, electronic score that Stansell composed and performed in collaboration with musician Ryan Huff. In addition, the artist placed two sets of headphones on the back wall. The first played sounds from the locations—cattle lowing, birds chirping, a paddle gliding through the water—as well as monologues in which the characters relate various observations, such as that the good guy doesn’t always win (from the little boy) or book learning doesn’t make you a cattleman (from the rustler). The second featured a narration of philosophical musings arranged by the poet John Harkey—some his own compositions and others borrowed from authors such as Gertrude Stein and Henry David Thoreau—that extracted the lessons of the film and broadened their context. With each layer, the audio developed different storylines in relation to the visual imagery, the narrative continually enriched. The Water and the Blood requires a commitment from the audience, but it is a fascinating personal journey that illuminates just how subjective our perceptions can be.
Photo: View of Micah Stansell’s video installation The Water and the Blood, 2011; at the Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia.