Teresa Hubbard/Alexander Birchler: Sound Speed Marker at Blaffer Art Museum

Teresa Hubbard and Alexander Birchler’s multidimensional practice is currently on view in their expansive Sound Speed Marker at the Blaffer Art Museum. The duo’s range of collaborative skills and cinematic investments is present in three video installations—Grand Paris Texas, Movie Mountain (Méliès), and Giant—and in the related photographs and an outdoor sculpture. Using as a backdrop the arid terrain of three Texas towns, Ryan, Paris, and Sierra Blanca, the films examine the deep impressions and absences left by the movie industry across the state. The work is propelled by the artists’ fascination with the open circuits of social life, memory, and history that sit just outside the frame of moving images.

Teresa Hubbard/Alexander Birchler. Production Still, Grand Paris Texas. 2009. Courtesy: The Artists, Tanya Bonakdar (New York), and Lora Reynolds Gallery (Austin).

Teresa Hubbard and Alexander Birchler. Grand Paris Texas, 2009 (production still). Courtesy of the Artists, Tanya Bonakdar (New York), and Lora Reynolds Gallery (Austin).

The first work in the trilogy, Grand Paris Texas (2009), opens up with the small town made famous in Wim Wenders‘ 1984 film to track the dynamic role of the city’s abandoned Grand Theatre cinema. Using reflections and testimony from nostalgic elderly residents, film professionals, former Grand Theatre employees, and students to fill in the complex narrative of events that led to the theatre’s demise, Hubbard and Birchler portray a touching emotional landscape of collected memories in order to underscore the profound effects film has had on the city’s politics, imaginations, and social life. A major contribution and response to the “archival turn” in contemporary art, Hubbard and Birchler’s film operates as a kind of cinematic archive—an expertly shaped yet radically open collection point of affective data, research, oral testimony, and geographical information that allows physical actualities and metaphorical consequences to bump against each other.[1] In Hubbard/Birchler’s hands, filmmaking is a form of social archeology or anthropological forensics, entwining the site specificity of installation with the documentary format, turning this film into a multilayered text of physical, psychological, temporal, and economic traces left by the cinema on the community and its inhabitants. [2]

Teresa Hubbard/Alexander Birchler. Production Still, Movie Mountain (Méliès). 2011. Courtesy: The Artists, Tanya Bonakdar (New York), and Lora Reynolds Gallery (Austin).

Teresa Hubbard and Alexander Birchler. Movie Mountain (Méliès), 2011 (production still). Courtesy of the Artists, Tanya Bonakdar (New York), and Lora Reynolds Gallery (Austin).

A team in art and life since 1990, Hubbard and Birchler have a practice that reclaims the utopian impulses of collaboration articulated by the early-20th-century avant-garde, in which work and aesthetic engagement resonate with collective forms of social and political action. Oscillating between individual and shared experience, visual encounters, and aesthetic labor, Hubbard/Birchler move seamlessly between the objective and the subjective to order to recognize the powerful role that the cinema can have in the imagining of new possibilities. Refusing the authoritarian point of view of either the active author or the passive spectator, Hubbard/Birchler’s films draw the viewer’s attention to the processes and people that realize the work by turning the cameras onto the crew, technical equipment, and once in a while, the artists themselves. As the camera pans through the condemned interiors of the Grand cinema at the end of the film, it is as if the shocks and surprises that unfold—the thick dust piled on every flat surface, the animal carcasses scattered across the floor, the uncanny rows of empty chairs, the cobwebs, the animal noises in the rafters of the pipe organ—are shared with the viewer and crew simultaneously, capturing the wide-eyed looks of cameramen and film assistants as they take in the immensity of this forgotten cathedral of movie magic.

Teresa Hubbard/Alexander Birchler. Sunrise Filmset Sunset. 2012. Two Digital Archival Prints, Diptych. 43.5 x 54.5 inches. Courtesy: The Artists, Tanya Bonakdar (New York), and Lora Reynolds Gallery (Austin).

Teresa Hubbard and Alexander Birchler. Sunrise Filmset Sunset, 2012; two digital archival prints, diptych; 43.5 x 54.5 in. Courtesy of the Artists, Tanya Bonakdar (New York), and Lora Reynolds Gallery (Austin).

The impressionistic Movie Mountain (Méliès) (2011) continues the use of oral history to plot the unresolved mysteries of Gaston Méliès’ silent Western that was shot on Movie Mountain near the ranching town of Sierra Blanca in 1911. The legends and local folklore that shape the mystery surrounding Méliès’ lost film resonate with the mythology that has inscribed Texas within the cultures of Hollywood and America. Cattle, cowboys, oil rigs, lonely train tracks, and craggy mountain ranges feature in the two-channel film composition as if they were relics of a time both familiar and lost, caught in a space where “belief and the suspension of belief is held in productive tension” with lived experiences and celluloid fantasies.[3] As curator Claudia Schmuckli states in the catalog that accompanies the exhibition, the artists are less interested in presenting a truthful picture of Texas than in building upon the multilayered idea of Texas—received secondhand from popular imagery and classic films—that oscillates between homage, revision, and critical reflection of the “geography of Texas and its cinematic tropes of representation and presentation.”[4]

In the three-channel video projection Giant (2014), testimonies and interviews are abandoned in favor of a shift toward more dramatic territory. Giant focuses on the abandoned ruins of Reata, the fictional Bennett family home made famous in the 1956 classic film Giant starring Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, and James Dean. Filming over a period of six months in a variety of weather conditions and seasons, Hubbard/Birchler overlap the footage of the ruined mansion with the theatrical staging of a secretary at Warner Brothers carefully typing out the contract between the owners of the land in Fort Davis and the film executives who would later build the set on the private property in 1955. A loosely woven fabric of cinematic textures, sounds, and scenes, Giant turns the skeleton of the fictitious home into a threshold between past and present, reminding us of what Theodor Adorno described as the most powerful attribute of the essay form: not an advancement by methodical, linear operations or a singularity of direction, but making meaning through the “density of its textures.”[5]

Teresa Hubbard/Alexander Birchler: Sound Speed Marker is on view at the Blaffer Art Museum at the University of Houston through September 5, 2015.


[1] Made famous in Hal Foster’s article “The Archival Impulse,” October, Vol. 110, 2004, 3–22. More recent understandings of archival methods and practices in contemporary art have expanded Foster’s view, namely: Okwui Enwezor’s important text Archive Fever: Use of the Document in Contemporary Art (New York: International Center for Photography, 2008); Christine Ross’ book, The Past Is the Present; It’s the Future Too: The Temporal Turn in Contemporary Art (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2012); and Kate Eichorn’s recent text, The Archival Turn in Feminism: Outrage in Order (New York: American Literature Initiatives, 2014).

[2] See Maria Lind and Hito Steyerl’s introductory chapter, “Reconsidering the Documentary and Contemporary Art,” in the edited collection, The Greenroom: Reconsidering the Documentary and Contemporary Art: #1 (New York: Sternberg Press, 2008), 11–26.

[3] See Jeffrey Kastner, “Centers of Attention: Four Essays for Teresa Hubbard and Alexander Birchler,” in Teresa Hubbard/AlexanderBirchler: Sound Speed Marker, ed. Andrea Coppington Lippke (Marfa: Ballroom Marfa Press, 2015), 120.

[4] Claudia Schmuckli, “Reeling, Lassoing, Typewriting: Generative Tension and Conceptual Solidarity in Hubbard/Birchler’s Sound Speed Marker,” in Teresa Hubbard/Alexander Birchler: Sound Speed Marker, 27.

[5] See Theodor Adorno, “The Essay as Form” (1958), trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor and Frederic Will, New German Critique, Vol. 32, 1984, 160.