The Nature of Authority
Dan Friedman

I have been wondering about authority this month. The current drought in my locale meant that I welcomed the rain when it arrived, despite the threat it always brings in the shape of small people thrusting spikes out of their view and up to eye-level. One of the few people I noticed not scurrying from subway to shopfront was wearing a grey T-Shirt bearing the logo "Against All Authority." His general demeanour had made me sympathetic towards him, and I appreciated the iconoclastic drift of his T-Shirt, but it started me thinking about the specific meaning of the phrase.

It is difficult to be "Against All Authority." Authority is another word for respect and context-Authority is how you differentiate between different pieces of advice and instruction that people give you. Some advice is worth taking (authoritative) because it comes from powerful sources, and some is worth taking because it comes from people who have proved that they know what they are talking about. Sometimes authority is deserved and sometimes it is not deserved. I am against all undeserved authority but not against authority per se.

To draw distinctions between different types of actions and words we must have an understanding of the context in which they take place-but how much context is enough? The question "why are we here?" is a trivial question if asked by someone just sitting down to watch a play or a film, but in a theology class, or in an artwork, it can be one of the most profound questions available to us. What would it take, within the artwork, within the social context, for the question to transcend its banal generality? What level of context for his/her questions and answers must an author provide to develop authority?

Along with 'representation' and 'expression,' 'authority' is one of those words that shows the connection between art, law, and politics. Among other things, art is the place where we consider the interconnectedness of actions and the judgments they provoke. We are all hopelessly subjective but, in the face of that helplessness, we have to make binding legal and political judgments on the basis of the representations available to us. Art is one place where we can stop and think about how, and in what ways, we are able to qualify our judgments, given our knowledge of our own experience.

In order to judge things we create borders and limits around what we are prepared to consider. Such judgments are part and parcel of everyday living. If someone at work behaves rudely to me, I can choose to take into account his traumatic weekend or I could just take it as rudeness and feel affronted. It takes effort to try to contextualize events and actions because there are so many constructions to be imagined and as a consequence people follow the line of least resistance and take the most local context they can. It is always easier to feel the affront of the rude remark rather than perceive the larger context in which such a remark may be justified, or at least comprehensible.

At the same time, there is no guarantee that any amount of imagination would provide a more effective or accurate picture of any given situation. It is possible that on the basis of the bad weekend I have imagined for my abrupt workmate, I might strike up a conversation, trying to sympathize with his situation, when all he wants to do is to escape his tedious colleague as swiftly as possible. All we can do is experiment with the borders of consideration to see what works best in what situations.

A film-based artwork that has these concerns about the placing of frames, borders, and limits, at its heart is the award-winning product of a long-term collaboration between Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller. "The Paradise Institute"-a work containing a 13-minute film-was playing free to packed houses (albeit a house with a capacity of fifteen) at the Augustine-Luhring Gallery in Chelsea for most of April. The film is the literal and symbolic focus of the work but, paradoxically, for the film to make sense, one has to shift one's attention onto the film's context and surroundings.

As we all know, 'paradise' is a "place, situation or condition in which somebody finds perfect happiness." However, if you check your etymological dictionary, you will also find it comes from a Persian word meaning a walled park. This makes it easier to understand the poetic justice of the mythical expulsion of Adam and Eve from an enclosed 'paradise.' What could be a more appropriate punishment for those transgressors of borders, than banishment from an idyllic park, or garden, that is literally defined by its border, its containing wall.

From the outside, "The Paradise Institute" is a large, oddly shaped plywood construction the size of a large room with two doors parallel to one another in its nearside. Two or three steps lead up to the lower door and three or four to the higher one. A curator/docent/usherette waits between steps and the waiting queue, to invite/forbid your entry. From the outside the construction appears neat and solid but its contents and its purpose are inscrutable. Even the audiences/observers who emerge in batches at regular intervals-from what we are told by a notice is a 13-minute film-give little clue as to its interior.

Usually after a long wait (only a small number of people can enter at a time), you enter and see that the inside is a representation of a cinema or large theatre. The audience sits in two rows of seats at the back but instead of the booming stereo speakers of commercial cinema there are individual headphones hanging on each seat. The seats face first onto a proscenium arch beyond which lies a model of a theatre that continues the arc of the observers' seats but in much smaller scale giving it an apparently wider scope. Instead of the six or seven seats across the true auditorium, the model set has twenty or thirty, unoccupied seats across its width.

The screen is the focus of both the set and the gallery but, being the size of a large television, it has different scales for the two putative audiences: domestic for the art-observers but vast for the absent model-audience. Once inside we are confronted by a double proscenium with one focus (the frame looking onto the model, the frame of the screen within the model, both focussing on the screen) but the significance of this single focus is doubled by the fact that two very different frames give onto the same screen. The abrupt change in scale provokes a mildly vertiginous sensation that also has the effect of encouraging observers to ignore the model in favour of the screen once the film has started.

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May 2002

jay's head