Andy Mann: The Performative Everyday by Jarrett Hayman

Notes written for the occasion of MANN ON THE STREET: Videos by Andy Mann. September 6th, 2014 @ grayDUCK Gallery.

Andy Mann. Video Diary No. 1 (1978)
Andy Mann. Video Diary No. 1 (1978)

The street tapes of Andy Mann, along with a great deal of early video that took the day-to-day as its source material, is often described as verité. While that contended documentary-term has elements of accuracy, one thing it doesn’t have in common with its cinematic predecessor is the erasure of the author. Mann’s tapes are less “fly on the wall”and more fly in your face: The videos are as reflective of their maker as they are of their subjects. When shooting videotape, Mann takes on the persona (or perhaps it is just his personality) of a slightly deranged late-night talk show host, prodding his subjects to respond to him, cackling with laughter. Filling the soundtrack with his voice, Mann forms a commentary not only to the viewer but to the subject. This persona is fitting, as he will eventually literalize the role of talk show host on cable-access television in Houston, several years after these tapes were made. In those broadcasts, however, it is Mann himself doing all of the talking, not to a guest or someone on the street, but to the camera, his life-long companion.

In Washington Square Park Mann offers an introduction to what is about to unfold. In it, he mentions several previous attempts to make a satisfactory videotape, essentially of the same walk from his front door to the titular park. These botched attempts hint at his method, which seems equal parts planning, luck, and clever improvisation. Not only does he improvise with his camera movement, zoom and focus, he also improvises with (possibly) mentally-ill street walkers, potentially violent subjects, children, animals, businessmen–all the characters one is apt to meet on the street. Mann has been highly praised for his innovative camera work, but perhaps he deserves equal praise for his skill in improvising with life, using the camera as a mediator.

One-eyed Bum is a classic example of this skill. It begins with only the sounds of the Bowery with concomitant images of airplanes, pigeons, and water running down a storm drain. Mann seems totally absorbed in the activity of filming when he is interrupted from the end of the block by a bum calling him “TV!” Mann responds with his trademark wit, “How did you know my name was TV?”

Mann takes his performative urges to a new level in Subway Tape. Taking advantage of an empty subway car, he marches from one end to the other while yelling at the top of his lungs – “I’m alone now! As alone as any man can get in New York City!”- his raving punctuated by his sudden, machine-gun bursts of laughter. Here, Mann himself has become one of his own stock street characters, the raving lunatic, the one you pray you don’t find yourself sitting next to on the subway. Interestingly, Subway Tape becomes a commentary on free speech, as Mann shouts, “I wanna kill Nixon! I can say it now!” One is reminded of the special “free speech zones”designated by city authorities for protests, outside of which one may be beaten, shot, or gassed for exercising the same rights as those within. Alone with his camera, Mann takes full advantage of his own free speech zone, the now-extinct zone of privacy.

Perhaps due to the natural environs in which it takes place, Brooklyn Botanical Gardens finds Mann a great deal more subdued than usual. Absorbed in the visual phenomena that surround him, he devotes a great deal of videotape to longer takes of wind rushing through leaves, water droplets bouncing from a  fountain, pigeons walking in circles on the green. However Mann can’t help but enter into conversation when the opportunity presents itself, having a brief chat with a young boy in the park with his brother. Yet the lack of antics, laughter, and danger inBrooklyn Botanical Gardens speaks a great deal to the video-maker’s shift in mood from the street to the artificial countryside.

Unlike the early video that was used to document the performances of artists like Chris Burden (for whom Mann acted as video documentarian), or Marina Abramović and Ulay, Mann’s tapes seem to capture performative tendencies that are inspired by the presence of the video camera itself. As anyone who has watched home videos can attest, the camera tends to affect the behavior of its subject, usually with extended tongues, middle fingers, or the making of silly faces. In the Street Tapes, however, it seems to affect Mann more than anyone else. Perhaps this is due to the fact that these tapes are being made long before video technology was present at every traffic light, bank, and shopping mall in America, and before video cameras proliferated as means to document the nuclear family. When Mann approaches children in Washington Square Park, they seems eager to be filmed, yet don’t quite know what to do. Mann gives them instructions, to which they happily comply. Mann makes no attempt to remove his “directing”from the tape – it’s as real as anything else. Most of Mann’s subjects seem a little ill-at-ease being videotaped, yet exhibit a willingness to be a part of the work. It is less life “as it is”that is captured here than life as it encounters the border of Mann’s own subjectivity. It is a subjectivity that seems too fragile to be exposed without some stale jokes and goofing off to provide some sort of cover.

One gets a closer look at Mann as subject in Video Diary No. 1, recorded over the course of a summer spent in Southampton, New York with fellow video artist Frank Gillette. Here, Mann is consumed by longing, finding himself the third wheel in a love triangle. Each of the tape’s sections begins with an empty chair that is momentarily filled by Mann, who, by simple means of speaking directly to the camera, chronicles the ups and downs and eventual termination of the relationship. It is the most basic of diaristic forms, recently exploded by the advent of YouTube and mobile video technology. Yet, Mann’s tapes have a depth that belies its surface. Here one can see him actually attempt to come to terms with what is happening – it is an ugly, but privileged glimpse into not only Mann’s personal life but the nature of male desire. Away from the city, from streets and from the parks, Mann can only turn the camera on himself.♦