Between Early, Prime and Afternoon: Omer Fast at the Wexner Center

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Installation view of Omer Fast: 2001/11 Wexner Center for the Arts, The Ohio State University
Courtesy of gb agency, Paris, and Arratia Beer, Berlin Photo: Mark Steele

“We were going for the ‘faceless Modernism’ look,” says curator Christopher Bedford during a tour of the two-video exhibition “Omer Fast: 2001/2011” at Ohio State’s Wexner Center. (I’d visited the Columbus museum days before Bedford’s appointment as the Director of the Rose Museum at Brandeis University.)  “We attempted to recreate the environment that one would inhabit while watching primetime news in 2001,” he says, as we peruse the aesthetically innocuous, comically “normal” room surrounding Fast’s 2002 video CNN Concatenated.  “It all comes from Ikea,” explains Bedford, “and we were actually a bit fearful that this lamp may be a bit too tasteful.” The lamp looked like a rolled-up, bioluminescent albino armadillo, though surprisingly slightly tasteful. Nearby, a television sits center stage in a faux-mahogany entertainment set, an oversized silver ampersand “accent piece” next to it. From the television blares a jerky monologue enunciated by varying, always-pristine news anchors. Each individual word is a frame depicting a flash of a different newscaster—some reporting on 9/11—which are strung together to form sentences. (Hence “CNN Concatenated,” the latter word meaning “to link together in a chain or series.”) Fast utilizes a sort of supercut stylistically reminiscent of “The Clock,” yet its source material is hundreds of hours of taped new programs throughout post-9/11 2001. Rapidly oscillating through various TV personalities, the monologue is distinctly divorced from anything a news anchor may usually utter: 

Listen to me I want to tell you something

Come closer

Don't be upset and don't get emotional

Just get near me and pay attention please

Look, I know that you're scared

I know what you're afraid of

You mistrust your body

Lately it has been looking more and more foreign

It's been doing strange things

You suspect that it has been keeping something from you

That knowledge of your own death programmed inside it somehow

That it's stored in a primitive organ

That in between the crush of blood and digestion your appendix or spleen sits obviously still like an overgrown traffic island keeping watch over a terrible secret

You worry that this knowledge will arrive at your very last moment, not as a spiritual revelation accompanied by an overwhelming cascade of sensations but as a very public and vulgar betrayal

You're afraid of dying alone but you're even more afraid of dying in public

The newscasters speak as a collective “I” and directly address “you,” the subject. The speaker, acting through the normally emotionless mouthpiece of information, the newscaster, narrates the personal reverberations of what that figure may usually report on: terror, in general, or events of the so-called “war or terror.” Nothing short of eerie is the uncanny feeling coming from a newscaster both confessing his wrongdoings and waxing philosophical on the nature of the ego post-9/11.

I've done hurtful things

I haven't said enough

It seems we've developed a taste for each others weaknesses

That we thrive on consuming each other

No doubt we each have our motives for this

We attack then quickly withdrawal and defend

The exhibition’s second video, Fast’s “5000 Feet is the Best,” was completed almost ten years after “CNN Concatenated” and debuted at the 2011 Venice Biennale—mere months before the United States declared an end to the Iraq War in December of that year. Predictably, “5000 Feet is the Best” represents a more developed output from Fast, in style, composition, and, not to mention, production value. Unlike the homey set-up of “CNN Concatenated,” “5000 Feet” finds itself in a boxy, museum-sized screening room. The video takes a drone pilot, portrayed by a professional actor, as its subject, who narrates several stories of individuals affected by surveillance operations in a disjointed temporal structure. 

Omer Fast 5000 Feet Is the Best, 2011 Digital film, 30-minute loop 
Courtesy of gb agency, Paris, and Arratia Beer, Berlin Stills: Yonn Thomas

We begin with the subject, a white, wiry man in his 40s, walking into a hotel room to begrudgingly be interviewed by a journalist and camera crew. The male subject is continually interrupted by series of phantom beeps, which only he can hear, and which he inexplicably blames on “junk food.” Throughout the 30-minute video, the interview scene repeats three times (“What’s the difference between you and a pilot?” “Nothing.” “But you’re not a real pilot.” “And you’re not a real journalist.”), with each successive scene followed by a separate narrative in which the subject at hand is somehow intruded upon or killed by surveillance operations. Fast again utilizes a tactic seen in his 2009 video “Nostalgia,” which explodes race hierarchies normalized in Western culture by depicting white refugees facing widespread violence and adversity in Africa. Within “5000 Feet,” we see a similar role reversal in a narrative about a family attempting to escape from the Afghan or Iraqi security forces (the location is never made clear). A white, presumably middle-class family drives their camp-gear laden station wagon through security checkpoints manned by East Asian looking men, only to be killed by a drone strike soon after. 

Other accounts in “5000 Feet” include the story of a man obsessed with trains, who spends the day impersonating a train conductor and illegally (and flawlessly) operating a real train—the day potentially the pinnacle of his life. He is caught on CCTV throughout the act, and is later caught by the police while trying to break into his house after losing his keys. (At this juncture the race of the subject switches from black to white.) Another man, an ex-drone pilot suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, appears as a blurred out figure recounting his “wartime” experiences. The drone operator effuses about the precision with which he can monitor and kill his targets, though he sits thousands of miles away at a computer screen. He speaks about the guilt associated with being directly responsible for the deaths of others—to include innocent bystanders, at times—yet he eerily likens his experience to playing video games. The unmanned plane can be two or three miles away from his target, he adds, but 5000 feet is the best.

 

While “CNN Concatenated” meditates on the visual and aural aesthetics of news media address in post-9/11 culture and considers its collective emotional response, “5000 Feet is the Best” acts as a vehicle adapting the terror and pain experienced by citizens of Middle Eastern warzones to a Western audience. Evidenced here is Fast’s talent for breaking down the modes of such staid, obfuscated communication, and reminding us of the humanity of their message.