Urban Army Man
Artspace Sydney 2000
The projection on the wall shows a man loping down the city streets at night, The image is slightly grainy, decayed, partially perhaps through low light, but it feels as if its been slowed down just a little a bit, giving the movements a slight delay as if the limbs are moving under water, so perhaps there's a bit of artifice there too The colours are predominantly in the area of yellow and green. The man has dark eyes and is wearing an US army helmet that has its curves averaged out by the camouflage netting that is stretched over its metal dome. He is carrying a boom box which he either hoists to his shoulder or holds to his front; it's obviously important to him but we cannot hear what is coming out of the speakers. As he moves towards the camera, the camera retreats, so we track his path down the city street at night: sometimes he stops and takes his helmet off and wipes his forehead in a fretful manner, other times he says something directly to the person behind the camera. We can see his lips move but we cannot hear what he is saying. This image is projected large on two walls facing each other, so that we, the viewer stand at a fold in space where Zeno like, we will be for ever approached by this running shuffling figure. This endless progress is accompanied by the sound of a scratchy country-bluesy s guitar riff circling slowly around us like a band halfheard from a distant bar.
It is of course an iconic image that TV Moore is presenting us with in 'Urban Army Man' damn close to a cliche in fact: but rather than it being yet another exposition of post adolescent existential chic, the work invites us to slip through the layers of use and meaning generated by this shifting restless figure as he makes his way through the streets.
First the video clip. The lack of any ambient sound - spruikers calls, car horns - and the homogenising loop of sound recalling distantly Paris Texas or a thousand commercials, reinforces this as does the hint of slo-mo, much loved by MTV to coyly suggest a druggy disassociation. Specifically here there are echoes of the existential walks made through the city by artists as diverse as the M people, in their Unfinished Symphony, the Verve, or Beck with his Devils Haircut: sensitive individuals emoting their personal angst and vision unheeded by the passing multitude. Alienated and alone. Such an image is of course not limited to popular-culture, it in one that lies at the heart of romantic, individualistic constructions of the artist, the poet and the love-lorn, from Villion and his fellow troubadours of the early medieval ages through the innocent abroad in the great wen of the city in Blakes visions, Decadent Painters, Angry Young Men, to the soppier productions of a Ralph McTell or Simon and Garfunkle through to the present day. 60's Rock Music and the 'counter culture' took this image of the alienated artist, combined it with the isolated teenager to make the myth of the last gang, or individual in town, doomed romantically to march to the beat of a different drum, and the culture(s) and the industry have run with it ever since.
'Urban Army Man' amplifies the idea of exclusion and excision further through invoking a group or social, past for our lone runner, a group that has either deserted him or which he has deserted. We, atavistically, find something alarming and thrilling at the idea of the individual leaving the tribe: the idea of the Rogue Male answerable to no-one but themselves. We find this even more thrilling, more terrifying when the individual has left the group in which we have located all the actions deemed outside of 'civilised' behaviour, but which are useful to us: violence and killing. Soldiers are trained in the criminal arts of damage and of war. The strictures of group formation and discipline are meant to reassure us that it is impossible for them to deploy those skills in any other way than those directed by the society as a whole: a group rather than a private undertaking, and so remove them from criminality. The 'Urban Army Man' destabilises our understandings: he is obviously alone, but should be of a group, he should be elsewhere - some distant combat zone, in action, rather than here, in the urbis, which his very presence threatens to turn into a disputed territory. Soldiers or sailors when seen in cities are always spotless, clean, unstained, ruled and aligned, to semiotically reassure that they are not about the business that they have been trained for. The spotless dress-wear uniform reinforces that there are no blood stains on these young men, no smuts from razed village nor the mud of unmarked graves. That they are clean, they are safe, and so are we. Our dishevelled, alarmed, stubbled, urgent runner promises no such security, no such poise, and so immediately erases the line drawn between the social and the criminal.
He that is outside of the group is outside of the law of that group. Such an understanding can be unnerving, promising the non-legislated, the unpredictable, but at the same time it can be constructed to promise the clear, critical gaze of the 'other' who sees through the shared hypocrisies and accommodations of the group. The mythic, idealised 'outlaw'. They have either looked into the heart of darkness and have travelled through to some distant horizon where their actions illuminate the essential corruption of our world - Colonel Kurtz, Travis Bickle, or they are the Robin Hoods who take up arms against the injustices that they have seen. Eitherway the loner is made prophet, commentator on the group that has expelled them. Such constructions came to have immediate currency in the iconographies of American Popular music where Altramont is concurrent with the actions of the Vietnam war. The music - as reinforced in a hundred movies - providing the soundtrack for the war: the war seen as the epitome of the culture that the music was, in theory, counter too. In America and Australia in the sixties and seventies the sight of a disturbed (ex) soldier wandering the street had a weight, an immediacy, denied to contemporary cultures of England and Europe, the end of whose wars lay some twenty years before. In turn, this image is given more weight, occasions a greater rupture, in those very societies such as Australia and America, (England during the 1st World War), where the scene of the battle was 'over there' removed from the eyes and the front yards of the 'folks at home', as opposed to the 'civilian' wars of Europe with their bombings, their blitzkriegs and their resistance movements. This distance from the day to day mess of the matter generates a greater diversity of attitude to the idea of war, encouraging both the despair of the war poet and the jingo-ism of the patriot, with unbridgable distances of belief and experience lying between these postitions.
This complex generation of polarities allows the situation where, depending on your political position to the war and to ideas of hegemony and nation, combat fatigues have come to signify 'resistance', be you a supporter of Che or the NRA.
In turn, through movies such as Taxi Driver, through posters of Che, through ideas of an 'armed resistance, beit from the Weathermen, the right-wing survivalist groups, or Nation of Islam or Public Enemy: the military veteran twists inevitably into the image of the romanticised outsider, seductive, autonomous, misunderstood, visionary. Think of The Clash leaning moodily in their camouflaged trousers by the pillars of the Westway. Despite the fact that the Westway is a flyover in London, and despite the band's studied 'Englishness' - songs called 'Tommy Gun', an acknowledgment of the Army in Ulster and their identification with the urban isolation of their UK contemporaries - the image they have developed to (part) express their stance is informed by America, by Vietnam, which is now that of the 'other', and the same transubstatiation has taken place to the musics of this mythic hallucinatory everyday vietnam, which have become the soundtracks to otherness.
Our Urban Army Man carries a Boombox. We know that many disturbed people on the streets carry either radios of cassette players: sometimes they are listening to things that we can hear as well, othertime these machines act as receivers for messages from other forces and distant stars. In a late photo of the Clash, when they are the Clash in name only, all the others having left, Joe Strummer stands on some barrio, Boombox at his feet. Beck, with his Devils Haircut is carrying one through the streets as well. The boombox was popularised by the urban black hip youth around the time of Wheels of Steel by Grandmaster Flash. It was a portable means of imposing their own soundtrack on their urban experience, and this sonic re-writing of the environment, this impostition of will, became immediately seductive to other musicians and audiences who wished to share the cool, and the outlaw moves of the Urban Black American cultures, their integrity, autonomies and alienation. Slowly the machine becomes the symbol, ceases to be the culturally specific, and moves via MTV to Hispanic youth, post punk youth, to Jamaican English youth in Notting hill to white home boys travelling on the Sunderland Sydney train, each box in each situation playing a similar track in sound - filtered through blues, rock, hip-hop and rap - and in function.
These confluences of style and radical chic have long informed contemporary artists ideas and representations of themselves and their relations to authority; and now they are for ever mediated through the languages of popular music and popular culture, which, looked at dispassionately from the viewpoint of arts practice, has the indisputable advantages of being both stylish and popular. It is perhaps significant that Gavin Turk represented himself first as Sid Vicious well before he made himself into Che Guevara. There is also the enduring myth of the 'outsider', she or he who walks alone as someone outside the bourgeoise belief systems but who at the same time denies and illuminates them, bringing through their actions light and knowledge - a modern Prometheus. These contradictory webs of myth and desire, if ideologies, styles and product are conjured up for us to self-critically dwell upon as we watch the Urban Army Man run endlessly towards us.
this was all that Urban Army Man was engendering, we would be well rewarded
in giving in to its hypnotic lope, but as the advert says there's more.
A couple of days after seeing TV Moores work I was up in Oxford street
when I saw the Urban Army Man coming towards me looking less haunted
than in the video but a thousand times realer, and therefore scary.
Up to that point, because of the MTV fantasy layers of the work I had
presumed that the figure was one of TV's mates living out a bit of art
and rock and roll and possibly bourbon fantasy. But it seems that the
work is a documentary as well, recording the expression of these societal
phantasies in a single individual - an individual who is 'outside' in
a way less comfortable than that romanticised by armchair boho-romantics.
It's an interesting and uncomfortable shift, one difficult to pin down
and decide quite what you think. It's less creepy and exploitative than
Gillian Wearing's video-ing in her studio of alkie and cheapdrug streetkids
that she's struck a up a relationship with - she makes far more money
out of it for a start - but there's an element of that voyeuristic relationship
suddenly in this work, which I think makes this work more slippery,
harder to read and probably more interesting, as it raises suddenly
a wholelotmore questions about the imagining and constructions of the
romantic 'outsider'. As if to promise always another layer of complexity,
TV later tells me that, as well as Urban Army Man, our runner has another
character, Panama Man, where he insouciantly walks the streets as some
antebellum Tom Wolfe, beautifully attired in suit and hat in search
perhaps of his own streetcar named desire.