Towards Omniscient Documentary: Dustin Zemel at FalseFront

Towards Omniscient Documentary, Dustin Zemel, 2011, FalseFront.

I haven’t been able to get Dustin Zemel’s four-channel video installation, “Towards Omniscient Documentary,” out of my head since I saw it last Sunday on the last day the project was up at FalseFront.

It was installed in the darkroom in the back of the space. Four flatscreens of varying sizes wrapped around the small space so I couldn’t see them all at once. There were blurred scenes of a puppet show in a foreign language in a drenched red color. There were scenes of dialogue in an Italian family. It felt like a documentary/home movie, but all of the footage had been manipulated, mostly in beautiful and compelling ways, liquid, color-drenched, a strange patchwork of disconnected scenes (some very short) coming and going, sometimes repeating, sometimes reappearing, sometimes doubling or tripling on the screens around me.

Sometimes I would see the same segment, but manipulated differently. A soundtrack of dialogue, voice over, and moody music emanated from various points around the space, ebbing and flowing…and not tracking, necessarily with what I was seeing. I vaguely got a travelogue. I felt sympathy for some of the people I saw. I longed to see more of where they were.

I will say I was tripped up by the word, “omniscient,” or all-seeing, in the title, and so felt as though I were being watched or felt as though I was supposed to feel that way. And some of the effects were “I want my MTV” distracting, like multiple panes in a single projection.

I went back to see the 8-minute piece again and saw mostly different scenes, women riding bikes, people riding in a car, young people in a bar talking. Then Dustin told me that it’s different every time you go in, with dozens of clips and 30 variables for each clip that are assigned in a random manner. It is an experience that is different for every viewer.

I love that this points to the fact that any video piece, any film we see we each see differently based on what we bring into the gallery or theater. But more important, and I think this is what Dustin’s getting at, it reveals the amount of manipulation that goes into making a “documentary,” including how things are shot, how they’re edited, the soundtrack designed to make us feel a certain way about what we’re seeing.

As I said, the title threw me. And the various screen sizes made me feel that I was meant to prioritize one image over another, or question why I did that anyway. But Zemel looks at this as one in a series of experiments, and I think, particularly in our media-saturated world, where most of our fellow citizens get their information about the world in equally edited and manipulated footage of news events, the project is a worthy one.

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