William Nieberding's essay on In My Shoes by Robert Ladislas Derr

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1 IN MY SHOES ROBERT LADISLAS DERR

2 In My Shoes: Urbana, Illinois, 2011, video still, two-channel split screen The appearance of the Other in the world corresponds therefore to a fixed sliding of the whole universe, to a decentralization of the world which undermines the centralization which I am simultaneously effecting (Jean Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness, 1943 p. 343.) TOWARD THE HORIZON OF INTERSUBJECTIVITY IN BORROWED SHOES Wearing borrowed shoes, a pair of feet performs a sort of fixed sliding on the gallery floor. Seen both from the front and the back, the feet stride forward across paving stones, grass, concrete, and up stairs; never leaving the confines of the rectangular split-screen video projection. The sounds of traffic, insects, and rustling trees intermingle with the memories of the shoes owners read aloud by the artist. Surrounded by Others in a society such as ours it is best the old adage goes not to judge someone until you have walked a mile in his or her shoes. In the installations of In My Shoes, artist Robert Ladislas Derr performs this very act. Wearing borrowed shoes and carrying the memories the owners associate with them, Derr sets out to the streets. He records and presents the experience through video and voice, photography and text. Showing what it is like to walk in another s shoes to temporarily step into the recollected experience of the Other he reveals the self-centered subject as a fragile construction. Derr s installations also bring to light the role that physical objects such as shoes and the pictures and sounds that represent them play in both evoking and delimiting the experience of the Other given through mediated memories. PHYSICALITY OF MEMORY (of the work too) The shoes were selected by the owners of them for inclusion in the performance because of powerful and specific experiences that the owners had in the shoes. One half of the video frame looks down toward the artist s knees, shins, the front of the shoes, and the moving pavement beneath. The other half shows the back of his legs and heels as he walks along. With each successive stride, the dual video images rock and sway. The cameras that record the video are attached to the artist s body, and with each unconscious shift of his weight, the images tilt and glide. The pendular motion is Derr s embodied connection to the shoes imprinted into the medium of video. The rocking of the video image mirrors the motion of the camera itself, and because of this clear connection, the viewer is able to visually retrace the steps of the artist as the images were originally recorded (Iles, 2001, p. 33). For the viewer, the arrhythmic motion is initially disorienting, akin to vertigo. It is a disorientation that in turn mirrors the existential crisis initiated by stepping into the shoes of the Other. Denied the illusory and comfortable sense of control that the steadiness of the traditional video shot provides, the viewer may turn away and choose to ignore what She sees. Alternately She may accept the destabilization and walk along with the shoes that stride in place across the gallery floor. The video produces a feeling at once familiar as recognizable and pre-conscious as the act of walking itself and yet strange and entirely outside of the viewer s control. When the recollection of each memory comes to an end, the artist stops and the images rock and pause fading out before the next memory begins. If the viewer persists, it becomes possible to overcome the disorientation to adopt the stride as one s own, and to momentarily get a sense not exactly of walking in the shoes but more a sense of walking alongside the artist borne simultaneously by his voice and the voice of the shoe owner as his or her memory unfolds projected in time and space beneath the viewer s gaze. The purposeful re-orientation of the projected image from the traditional location of the theater screen to the floor of the art gallery intensifies this sense of personal choice and involvement. The viewer is not a passive receptor of the moving images sitting anonymously in a theater seat. Instead, She becomes an active agent in the process of engaging with the Other and re-creating the memory. In Jean-Paul Sartre s essay The Look, he describes the experience of being in public watching another man about to step on the grass in the park. Sartre describes the arrival of this other individual and the power of the gaze he brings as unsettling; capable of de-centering Sartre s very own being. Trying to see the world through the other man s eyes institutes a sudden rushing away of Sartre s existential identity. Once centered and stable in his monadic self, the presence of the Other causes a radical rushing away of Sartre s subjective sense of self. In the performance of In My Shoes, Derr willingly steps into the shoes of the Other, and invites the viewer to partake in a similar existential quandary. Examining the photograph of the tan New Balance 999 shoes (Urbana) and reading the accompanying text produces a palpable existential pull. The text describes the closeness of walking with a friend in the park through all seasons, but implicit in the memory is a sense of distance and loss: a best friend who has moved on. Viewing the photograph and reading the text invites empathy. The viewer may feel the chill winter wind moving through the bare trees in the park, the flip and catch of the loose toe of the right sole snagging the pavement or grass with each step more so than the left shoe. The viewer is called to experience the experience that these shoes embody. The simultaneous and sequential sense of warmth through the summer walks, of cold during the opposite season, of camaraderie and strength when the friends ran together in the park, and finally a sense of age and loss. The combination of text and image draws the viewer out from a singular, contained, and camera-obscura-

3 In My Shoes: Urbana, Illinois, 2011, color digital print, 32 x 16 like perspective into a space between the self and the Other. Whereas this ocular de-centering creates an existential crisis for Sartre in his essay The Look, through Derr s installation, it is revealed as a necessary and welcome component of existing in a world made rich through the memories and experiences of Others. THE SHOES AS CONDUIT TO EXPERIENCE As long as we only imagine a pair of shoes in general, or simply look at the empty, unused shoes as they merely stand there in the picture, we shall never discover what the equipmental being of the equipment in truth is (Heidegger, 1936, p. 163). In a closely related video performance Hitting a Rock in the Road, Derr simulates a ride on a skeletonized bicycle locked to a rail along side a road in Frankfurt, Germany. In the video, Derr rides the bike that is not only locked, but also further immobilized by the loss of wheels, chain, and seat. The physical object the broken bicycle acts as an aperture through which understandings of bicycling become visible. Derr s fantastic ride on this bicycle brings to light the essence of the once functional piece of equipment. The experience of riding, speed, and freedom are the essence of the bicycle, and this becomes starkly visible in the video from Derr s performance. Similar connections between the experience of being in the world and the physical object are seen in many of Derr s pieces such as Abandon Ship, Across the Dotted Line, and Intellectual Economy. Intellectual Economy consists of two simultaneous video projections on opposite sides of a wall suspended in the gallery. The viewer witnesses the artist repeatedly hitting his head against the wall. The configuration of the projections onto both front and back of a two dimensional surface, allows the viewer to witness the event unfolding as She walks around the suspended wall. The viewer shares the gallery space as the artist appears to bash his head through the very real gallery wall. Derr s In My Shoes reveals a rich functional and existential connectivity associated with the borrowed shoes and similarly engages the viewer. The function of these particular pieces of footwear in the lives of the owners is more than just protection against the path the owner treads. There is an essential, physical aspect of memory contained within the shoes. As equipment in the sense alluded to by Heidegger and illustrated by Hitting a Rock in the Road the shoes generate and focus connections to the world. It is a world at once physically close and temporally removed. The black Crocs (Urbana) evoke the memory of working in a video store and the chronic pain associated with Erythromelalgia just as they reference the act of walking and the protection of the owner s feet. Similarly, the Lugz boots (Urbana) contain the hard work of delivering appliances for Rent-A-Center, memories of the owner s father, a love of shoes, the cultural significance of the Chevy Nova, and the song Chevy Thang as much as they contain the owner s feet. To walk a mile in someone s shoes as Derr does, requires a physical as well as an intellectual commitment to the act of knowing the Other. The shoes are concrete and tangible objects. Through contact with these physical objects, the artist and viewer gain access to experiences that evoke the owner s memories. Derr s use of shoes is a reminder that memory is

4 In My Shoes: Urbana, Illinois, 2011, color digital print, 32 x 16 more than a disembodied function of the mind; it is experience formed through physical connection to the world, both past and present. MEMORY MEDIATED What we call a visible is... the surface of a depth, a cross-section upon a massive being, a grain or corpuscle borne by a wave of Being (Merleau-Ponty, 1964/2007 p ). In My Shoes evokes the memories in four different physical forms. Still photographs juxtaposed with printed text act in concert and in tension with the video projection and artist s voice. Each of these physical forms presents a different experience, a slightly different cross-section of each memory. Seen in relation to each other, they make evident the extent to which each physical medium makes visible but simultaneously modulates the experience of Other. The still photographs and the written texts allow extended contemplation of the shoes and the connections they have to the memories. The pair of black Sketchers (Urbana) are nearly worn out, scuffed and scraped, but still functional. The textual memory that accompanies them links the wear and tear to a relationship that covered a similar distance and eventually fell apart. The brown leather shoes (Urbana) are much more well-preserved, still shiny; held dear like the memory of the marriage proposal that inheres in them. Inspection of the well-worn insides and uppers of the missionary s shoes (Turku) affirms the persistence and endurance of the beliefs expressed by the man who walked in them. The video images and the sounds that accompany them present a remarkably different experience of each pair of shoes. Though also viewed from above, the shoes in the video traverse the surfaces associated with each memory. Some of the paths are quiet and lead through parks, while others travel the hard linear pavement of the urban landscape. Similarly, Derr s voice reciting the memory rises and falls in response to the intensity of sound that surrounds each walk. Derr s legs and feet animate the shoes in the video. In sharp contrast, the photographed shoes stand empty and still. Likewise, the soothing or clamorous sounds that inflect Derr s vocalization are entirely absent in the ordered lines of type that neatly recount the memory. Experientially reading the text or listening to the memory produces a different understanding of both the memory and of the Other. It becomes possible in comparison, to hear one s own voice in the still text and artist s recitation, and to recognize the presence of one s own memories in both the still photographs and projections of the shoes. In other words none of these mediated experiences is quite the same as walking in the shoes of the Other. Even the shoes themselves fail to fully encapsulate the memory that inhabits them. They are stand-ins for the originary first-hand experience. All indexical translations of experience such as these alter the experience represented. Photograph and video, text and vocalization each inflect and delimit the experience. On one hand, there is a loss of data: a single surface comes to stand-in for the existentially rich wave of being that is the experience itself and the memory that evokes it. Memory is itself partial, often fragmentary and vulnerable to creative re-construction. This may be evidenced in the purposeful construction of a false memory the duct-tape covered spaceman boots (Urbana) and the fabricated memory that accompanies them, for example or

5 more simply in the loss of recall. The text that accompanies a poet s sandals (Turku) reads only I forgot. The fictional or lost memories presented by these two examples may represent participant s efforts to inject humor into the piece, but taken as part of the whole memory project, they speak to the inherent unreliability of all mediated experience. Each memory and each physical representation of it, is a recollection a re-collection. The originary impressions and experiences are re-presented to the viewer. As such, each is destined to be partial, possibly misleading and like the arrhythmic glide of the video images on the floor disorienting and not entirely under the viewer s control. The performative walk in the Other s shoes in this installation is simultaneously an examination of the ultimate existential impossibility of conveying the experience. The mediated image is shown to be incapable of fully reconstructing the phenomenology of place and memory. The viewer never fully experiences what it means to wear these shoes. The artist one step closer to the original memory is given the opportunity to wear the shoes, to feel the weight of his own body as he walks the path of the memory in the city or even the specific place where the memories occurred. Even at this close distance, however he remains an outsider in an experience of memories that are not his own. Watching the artist wearing the brown leather shoes worn to propose to Carrie (Urbana), it becomes painfully evident that Derr does not fit in the shoes, neither physically nor existentially. Derr and by extension the viewer is destined to only partially immerse in the experience. Derr inhabits neither in the memory of the man nor the woman who accepted the proposal offered from within these shoes. Both the artist and the viewer share a common fate. Each mediated presentation of the memory draws the viewer out from Her solipsistic viewpoint into the space between self and Other, but the reach exceeds the grasp. No single aspect or viewpoint of an object or memory fully reveals the depth of being behind the thin pellicle of vision. Derr demonstrates that it is possible to walk a mile in the shoes of the Other but also shows that understandings of the Other persistently withdraw toward the horizon of mediated experience. CONCLUSION When the traditional relationship between the projection screen and the passive viewer is physically altered, the act of viewing itself becomes substantially transformed. Derr s purposeful constructions of his video projections juxtaposed with photographs send the prising of the viewer s gaze from the single screen into the surrounding space (Iles, 2001, p. 33) to explore the possibilities offered by this shift of the gaze. His multiplication and relocation of the screen mimics the inherent mobility of the camera itself, (Iles, p. 33), but also invites a more engaged existential connection between the In My Shoes: Urbana, Illinois, 2011, live performances, courtesy A.L. Foglesong viewer and the world evoked through the mediated image. The viewer is able to visually retrace the steps of the artist as the images were originally recorded, (Iles, p. 33), but also invited to re-examine understandings realized through mediated images. Multi-channel video projections and still photographs present a single event from different frequently opposite points of view in Derr s installations. Questions of subjective perspective are heightened by the performative acts recorded. Varied modes of representation depict the same scene, but generate different understandings highlighting the modulating capacity of video, photography, text and voice. The redefinitions of the image screen employed throughout Derr s various installations fragment the single point perspective and destabilize the traditionally passive act of viewing the projected image. Including the observer in the space of the projection allows the ocularcentrism of the video image to give way to more phenomenologically active responses. By complicating the single-point perspective of the camera and screening of the video, projecting the image within the viewer s space, Derr s installations acknowledge the subjective and mediated vantage point as an essential component in understandings of the moving image. REFERENCES Heidegger, M. (1977). The origin of the work of art. In Basic writings: From Being and time (1927) to The task of thinking (1964). New York: Harper & Row (Originally published in 1936). Iles, C. (2001). Between the Still and Moving Image. In Into the Light: The Projected Image in American Art, (C. Iles, T. Zummer (Eds.). New York: Whitney Museum of American Art. Merleau-Ponty, M. (2007). The intertwining the chiasm. In The merleau-ponty reader. (T. Toadvine & L. Lawlor. Eds.) Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press (Originally published in 1964) Sartre, J. (1992). Being and nothingness: A phenomenological essay on ontology. (H. E. Barnes (Trans.). New York: Washington Square Press. (Originally published in 1943). In My Shoes: Urbana, Illinois, 2011, video stills

6 ROBERT LADISLAS DERR Robert Ladislas Derr uses various modes of making that centers on a barrage of questions about life and art. He has exhibited and performed worldwide at such venues as the Schirn Kunsthalle (Frankfurt, Germany), LIVE Performance Art Biennale (Vancouver, BC, Canada), Wexner Center for the Arts (Columbus, OH), Athens Video Art Festival (Athens, Greece), Photographic Resource Center (Boston, MA), American Academy in Rome (Rome, Italy), Independent Museum of Contemporary Art (Limassol, Cyprus), Irish Film Institute (Dublin, Ireland), Art Interactive (Cambridge, MA), DiVA Festival (New York, NY), and Jack the Pelican Presents (Brooklyn, NY). Awards for his work include the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, Ohio Arts Council, among others. Derr has an MFA from the Rhode Island School of Design, and he is an associate professor of art at The Ohio State University. In My Shoes: Turku, Finland, 2009, color digital print, 32 x 16 WILLIAM NIEBERDING essay William Nieberding is a lecturer in Art Education at The Ohio State University, and a photography instructor in Integrated Media and Technology at Columbus State Community College. Dr. Nieberding s research examines correlations between philosophies of vision and the experience of looking at the world through mediated images. This research focuses on phenomenology as an active component in contemporary art and visuality. He has presented this research at national conferences of the Society for Photographic Education and the National Art Education Association. His dissertation Photography, Phenomenology and Sight: Toward an Understanding of Photography through the Discourse of Vision is available online. cover: In My Shoes: Urbana, Illinois, 2011, live performance, courtesy A.L. Foglesong