James Richards and Leslie Thornton’s Crossing:
By Mason Leaver-Yap
The idea of Crossing, James Richards and Leslie Thornton’s very first video collaboration, was first triggered by an invitation to present a public screening programme at the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, in early 2016. Richards and Thornton were invited together, following their recent solo commissions for the institution: the former’s sensual video lyric Radio At Night (2015) was developed in relation to British painter, filmmaker and writer Derek Jarman and his continuing influence on Richards’ practice since college; while the latter’s kaleidoscopic video They Were Just People (2016) scrutinises the banal horror of nuclear war in reaction to assemblagist artist Bruce Conner’s iconoclastic 35mm film Crossroads (1976).* Unlike Conner’s bravura film of the Bikini Atoll atomic bomb tests, Thornton’s video adopts a sluggish pace of terror, appropriating an administrative eyewitness account that describes the moments immediately after the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. They Were Just People revels not in Conner’s appalling beauty of the blast, but the terminus of horror: that of the bomb’s epilogue.
Responding to my proposition that Richards and Thornton select some of Conner’s titles to present alongside their own pre-existing works, the pair asked if they might additionally develop a new video that would combine their personal caches of footage and archival material into a new single collaboratively authored work. Their desire to work together was welcome, perhaps even hoped for, though certainly it was no surprise; Richards has consistently championed Thornton’s work within his own public screening programmes over the past six years, placing his videos in direct relation to that of Thornton’s prolific output of film and video that dates from the 1970s to the present day. Spurred on by Richards’ enthusiasm and Thornton’s generosity, the two have spent recent years sharing their work with one other and presenting their videos together at public screenings and talks. Crossing was, in some sense, inevitable.
When discussing the nature of what they might produce in their first collaboration, we initially thought of the video as taking the shape of an ‘exquisite corpse’, but what they went on to produce far exceeds the chronological call-and-response format of such an assembly format. The result was an intensely-worked video that came about through a process one of the artists has described as ‘getting into deeper water… completely hanging over an abyss’, while the other has called as an attempt to visualise ‘the whole world’. These descriptions give insight into the work’s ambition, and indicate the ways in which its makers wrestled with its content. Crossing emerged not from a linear mode, but from a constant trading and reworking of ideas—a porous movement that switches between menace, anachronism and dream. The work exudes the pleasure of grasping for a new and yet shared language, where one’s decisions flow in and out of another’s.
Harnessing an associative logic that guided its construction early on, Crossing takes the material undercurrents of Radio At Night and They Were Just People as its dual starting points. Both of these aforementioned works commune around the most fundamental aspects of the moving image: firstly, around an obsession with the aperture and the frame, wherein holes—rendered as pits, bullet holes, voids and pupils—symbolise the space of vision or entry into the body; and secondly, both videos restlessly engage with the limits of vision technology, dealing with scopic intimacy and its opposite: the weaponisation of the mechanised, surveilling eye. Crossing braids such impulses together and, in places, inverts its content as if to test the comprehension and veracity of its vision. This is a work full of overlays and sutures, creatures artificial and living. Everywhere in the video one sees not just holes but eyes. This, after all, is a dense habitat, teaming with life—stormy, wet, fecund. (Richards previously described Radio At Night as a work in which ‘the video frame acts less like a window and more like a surface in which activities happen and are divided’, and it is this articulation that prefaces the opening sequence of and continues to punctuate Crossing: a gridded screen that presents glissando dissolves and peepholes that give partial glimpses into Thornton and Richards’ disjunctive, coming world.)
The basic biographical contrasts between the makers of Crossing are striking: gender, age and sexuality are all conspicuous points of difference that the artists have plainly discussed with each other. And yet this intergenerational aspect only makes the resonances between the artists’ methods, preoccupations and material all the more remarkable and idiosyncratic. Theirs is an intensely personal space of head-on engagement, collision and rapport. The title, too, slyly reflects an awareness of such differences as well as space of the work to bridge such divides. While the word explicitly embeds the influence of Conner’s Crossroads (drawing also on the late artist’s interest in psychedelic abstractions of power, as well as his formal use of crosshair grids that appear to simultaneously analyse image space and cancel it at the same time), ‘crossing’ also plays on the notion of dressing oneself up in another’s tastes, or sliding into a role other than one’s own—something fundamental to understanding the composite nature of the work itself. One of the artists referred to the process of creating Crossing as ‘dragging in one another’s vision’, acknowledging the freedom and pleasure that comes with the shared process, which engages—in its initial stages, at least—a sympathetic and singular audience who plays the double role of co-author and absent receiver.
The title also refers to the physical means through which the work practically came about; Thornton and Richards sent video material back and forth between their respective bases in New York and Berlin during an intense one-month period in the run-up to their cinema screening. Richards previously collaborated with Chicago artist Steve Reinke in a similar exchange of material for their 46-minute video, Disambiguation (2009). But where Reinke and Richards had entrusted the movement of DVDs to the rather flexible speeds of the American and British postal systems, Thornton and Richards uploaded their files via digital networks, downloading each other’s material, amending, deleting, inverting concurrently. Feverishly working in their respective time zones (Thornton’s late-night editing would segue into Richards’ early morning work), each version of Crossing accrued more extensions and variations.
When the pair finally met in Minneapolis for the Walker screening, work continued until the final sequence was finished on a laptop in the back of a cab on the way to the cinema premiere. Crossing only gained a physical body once, when it was transferred to a hard drive in the projection booth, shortly before the public arrived in the auditorium. The practical detail of such anecdotes is important. It conveys how compressing one’s material in order to efficiently shorten delivery time pressurises and accelerates the space of collaborative engagement, in spite of vast geographical and temporal gap between makers. Consequently, there is a palpable density to Crossing. Disorientation is maintained throughout; wrong-footing is not about being mistaken but is simply a way of seeing differently. One strains to identify narrative thread amongst the formal repetitions and echoes within the material, but this is a world untethered from sequential logic and language. Rather, it is the imitation of another’s vision, where that vision is imagined from a distance. Crossing is the product of the desire to enmesh personal coherences, to offer oneself up to another’s process. It is a way of visualising a world where, as one of the artists describes, ‘something special can happen that goes beyond conscious expectation or design’.
Mason Leaver-Yap is Bentson Moving Image Scholar at the Walker Art Center.
* Both Radio At Night and They Were Just People are presented in exhibition and cinematic form, respectively, at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London:
Artists’ Film Club: Leslie Thornton, 2 Oct 2016, 2pm, ICA Cinema
James Richards: Requests and Antisongs, 21 Sep 2016—13 Nov 2016, ICA Galleries