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In Conversation with Teresa Hubbard and Alexander Birchler

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Giant.
Image by Fredrik Nilsen.

During the second month of Hubbard/Birchler’s exhibition, Sound Speed Marker, Ballroom Marfa’s intern, Francesca Altamura, spoke with the artist duo about the works featured in the exhibition, comprising of three films, nine photographs and an installation located in the courtyard.

Teresa Hubbard, born in Dublin, Ireland 1965 and and Alexander Birchler, born in Baden, Switzerland 1962 have been working collaboratively in video, photography and sculpture since 1990. The exhibition Sound Speed Marker will be on view at Ballroom Marfa until July 31, 2014, traveling next to the Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin, Ireland in December 2014 and the Blaffer Art Museum at the University of Houston, Texas in May 2015.

Francesca Altamura: How would you describe the three featured video works, Grand Paris Texas (2009), Movie Mountain (Méliès) (2011) and Giant (2014) to viewers who may not have been introduced to your work before?

Alexander Birchler: There are three video installations, a trilogy, presented at Ballroom, including the premiere of Giant which was commissioned by Ballroom Marfa. All three works explore, in different ways, the physical and social traces that movies and movie making leaves behind.

FA: How has living in Austin, influenced the direction of your current, and future, works?

Teresa Hubbard: We’ve lived and worked in many places and we’ve moved around a lot over the time we’ve known each other — different cities and towns in Canada, Switzerland, Germany and the United States. During the past decade that we’ve been primarily based in Austin, we’ve gotten close to a number of people who are also based in Austin, and they work with us during the research phase, on location and in post production. These are long-term relationships which we really appreciate and have become such an important part of our community.

FA: What was your initial intrigue with the films Paris, Texas and Giant (1956)? Do these films evoke a sense of nostalgic reminiscence for you both?

AB: Both of us, as teenagers growing up in different parts of the world, (me in Switzerland, Teresa in Australia) saw the movie, Paris, Texas by Wim Wenders. In my case, I had no idea about an “image” of Texas when I saw Paris, Texas, the film. Apparently Wenders looked for the “image” of Texas and didn’t find it in Paris. But he had a very specific idea about what he wanted and he created it somewhere else. Our work, Grand Paris Texas started because we were curious about the actual town of Paris, Texas. We wanted to explore the town that is known because its name is the title of a famous movie. When we arrived there, we did what we do in pretty much every town, we went to see what the cinema looked like.

We’ve been photographing movie theater façades for a number of years (the photographic series titled Filmstills). When we saw the cinema in Paris, called the Grand Theater, we were interested in it, but not to any extent more than in any other small town — it was not spectacular in any way. It had a grand name, but that was it.

Initially we took a couple of pictures and we went back on our way. Later we researched the cinema a bit more and found out that it belonged to the city and that it had been empty and out of operation for quite a while, but we still had no idea what the interior looked like. Since there were no pictures, we were curious so we decided to go back to Paris and schedule a visit to go inside the cinema. When we went back, we entered the building with flashlights. There was no electricity and the interior was completely dark. I walked a few steps ahead of Teresa, and I stepped into the main part of the theater. As I entered, in the dark, I could see pigeons were flying around inside the main theater, and I could hear many more of them. So I just walked back to Teresa and said, “This is it!”

TH: For Giant our fascination started with the three-sided facade of the house. In the 1956 Warner Brothers film, Giant, there is an epic, complex plot, but really the central character is the Reata — the grand mansion where all the intricacies of the drama are played out. When we first visited the skeletal remains of the set, it was the scale, shape and the sound of the set that drew us in. It was like a huge acoustical instrument. The set of this house was based on an existing house, the Waggoner Mansion in Decatur, Texas, which we visited while we were doing research. Further research into the pre-production of the original Warner Brothers film added to our intrigue. In most of our works, Grand Paris Texas included, the potential of our ideas begin with an element of architecture. For example, in earlier works, Single Wide or House with Pool, and especially Eight, Eighteen, all share explorations of architecture.

Students from The Khabele School visiting Sound Speed Marker, March 6, 2014. Photo by Jennifer Boomer.
Students from The Khabele School visiting Sound Speed Marker. Photo by Jennifer Boomer.

FA: How does the notion of trace influence the content and structure of your works?

TH: A trace is a mark that something absent has left behind in its wake. The works in Sound Speed Marker find different ways of pointing to those absences.

FA: Viewers experience cinema individually through an emotional and psychological experience, while at the same time cinema appeals to the masses, and is viewed in a collective and public space. Do you feel your works share these cinematic conventions, through their exhibition in a gallery setting?

AB: I think of a movie theater as the reverse architecture of a camera. The way Teresa and I started getting involved in art was out of a fascination for movies and cinemas as the place where stories are told. Historically, cinema is a darkened architecture. Through illumination, a story is told — that’s really why we’re interested in cinema as space. It speaks to projection, reflection, and interiority, which are central to our work. So we are interested in cinema as a concept, as an architecture, but also, even more so, the idea of the dead cinema, the end of cinema.

FA: To what extent do you view these three works as visual ethnographies, and yourselves as anthropological detectives?

TH: We use aspects of these fields and we really enjoy threading these characteristics into the work.