The viewer stands in the center of a video installation, surrounded by a circle of ten television monitors, each of which presents a tightly-framed shot of a different face. While it is not immediately clear what all these faces might be doing, the activity clearly demands intense concentration, a commitment to the belting out of sound, some degree of enthusiasm, and a series of expressions that range from what looks suspiciously like agony to what might well be ecstasy. The sheer lack of harmony that is experienced as one stands among the noisy televisions may at first prevent one from realizing that each of the faces is in fact performing its own rendition of the same love song - ‘Killing Me Softly’ - first made popular by Roberta Flack, and subsequently revived by Lauryn Hill. Since no effort is made to synchronize the playback of the different video-tapes, the possibility of lyrical unity among the diverse range of songsters is ruled out immediately, in favor of a grating pandemonium of competing voices.
Moreover, what quickly becomes apparent, is that the words of the song are not so much being spontaneously sung as they are being tentatively re-sung. With the help of the title of the installation (Karaoke), and intermittent glimpses of blurry images and words that flicker and glow behind each singer, we can conclude that the words being sung were dictated to the singers by Karaoke videos that we can imagine having been placed before them at a comfortable viewing distance… a position that must have been more or less exactly where the viewer is now standing. As a result, one has the sense that one is not so much being sung to, as being sung at, though it might be even more accurate to say that we are somehow being sung from…. The monitor against which each singer is framed indicates that - for the sake of the shoot - each performer was bracketed between two identical monitors that were to serve both as the prompt and as the backdrop for each new version of ‘Killing Me Softly.’ Thus becoming temporary vehicles for words that are literally both before them and behind them, the singers are isolated in deep concentration. Despite the circular arrangement of the monitors, each singer seems utterly oblivious to the presence of the others. Neither does one have the sense that the individual singers are truly present to their own performances, as their complete absorption in the words on the screens before them somehow evacuates them in the very moment of expression. “He sang as if he knew me, in all my dark despair. And then he looked right through me as if I wasn’t there.” The love song, language at its most contagious, here becomes emblematic of the violence that is intrinsic to language, for though the love song is the very instance in which we would unburden our most intimate feelings, reveal our most interior thoughts, we have no choice but to do so by means of sentiments and phrases that are derived from a repertory that is known to others and externally prescribed.
Our imprisonment in words that are inescapably imposed from beyond is hinted at in the melancholic lyrics of the song that we never quite get to hear: “Singing my life with his words…. Telling my whole life in his words…. Killing me softly with his song.” In evoking the current conditions facing the self in formation, Karaoke also hints at the complex relation of national, cultural and social desires to the desires of the individual. The formal similarity between Karaoke as a form of entertainment, and the language cassettes used by millions to learn a foreign language, turns out to be central to this work. To learn a language is at the same time to absorb the cultural, social and national values that are built into that language. This is especially ominous in the case of a language like English, which has been and remains a major colonizing force. Not necessarily obvious, is the fact that none of the Karaoke performers is in fact a native English speaker. Each responded to Breitz’s search for individuals whose mother tongue could be `any language except English,’ resulting in a congregation of performers from language backgrounds as diverse as Tamil, Russian, Vietnamese and Spanish. At some level then, Karaoke is an intensive language laboratory, one that has the enrolled students duly reiterating that which is dictated to them, not the nuts and bolts of a language in this case, but the pre-scripted words of a pop song, along with a familiar repertoire of pouting, crooning and eyelid-lowering. Their self-presentation is immediately recognizable to us as a vocabulary of sorts, one that resonates jarringly against the dissonant lyrics and asynchronous music issuing forth from the multimonitor installation, as language is pushed further and further towards opacity, finally collapsing into nonsensical chaos.
DVD Installation: 10 Looping DVDs
Ed. 4 + 2 A.P.Echoing earlier works by Breitz, this discordant choir sings of the acute longing of the individual for public registration, even as it recognizes the extent to which our entries into language and public identity are mediated by our consumption of mass culture. If there is any sense of communality in Karaoke, it is a togetherness that is forged in the joint consumption of a culture that has managed to disperse itself globally. The video installation thus mimics `We are the World’ universalism or Benetton utopianism even as it reflects on the sacrifices and losses that are inevitable in a too easy aesthetic staging of a unified public sphere.