Michael O’Pray Writing Prize

Bank – Basement – Becker

Adam Hines-Green on the expression of horror through both fiction and reality in the LA video art of Julie Becker

Julie Becker ‘I must create a Master Piece to pay the Rent’ installation view at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London

Julie Becker ‘I must create a Master Piece to pay the Rent’ installation view at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London

There’s the feeling that everywhere you go in Los Angeles is the setting for a movie you never saw, and that each fragment of pavement you encounter is archived somewhere on Hollywood film. I spent three months there when I was 18, working in a lab at UCLA killing pregnant mice (sedate, press the blunt end of some surgical scissors across the back of the neck, pull the tail). Then I would cut the uterus open, remove the foetuses and preserve them in wax cubes to be salami-sliced into slivers several nanometers thick so that their primordial gonads could be analysed under a microscope. I watched a movie from a rental store in Westwood every night. My most vivid memory of that time is as a lone individual in that city, with the feeling that the places where I lived, and how I lived, didn’t feel like in the movies. There were elements of drama and horror, but it wasn’t cinematic. It is the same feeling that returned when watching Federal Building with Music, 2002; a projected video work presented on a projector screen, alongside a wooden bench and shelf, and which formed part of Julie Becker’s survey exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London titled ‘I must create a Master Piece to pay the Rent’.

Starting in 1999, Julie Becker began working on the long-term project Whole. She had rented a bungalow in Echo Park, owned by the California Federal Bank, at a reduced rate in exchange for clearing out the belongings of the man who had lived in the basement. He had died of an AIDS-related illness and no-one cared to take away his stuff. Out of the window of the bungalow she saw the California Federal Bank building daily. This trio of bank, basement and Becker, and lines of ownership and power between them, was the driving force behind the Whole project, of which Federal Building with Music is a part. The video tracks these relations and makes visible points of contact between ownership and occupancy, institutional capital and individual struggle.

The video starts with the camera focused on a model Becker made of the bank. Then we see the Echo Park skyline and the real bank building through the window of Becker’s bungalow, followed by a close-up of the bank’s facade and windows, and then back to the model. Much of the video charts the journey of this model bank, tied with rope, being hoisted up and down between the ground floor and the basement through a square hole cut between Becker’s studio floor and the basement living room. We occasionally see Becker’s hands gripping rope in the corner of the footage, and are taken on brief tours of the basement and its furnishings. The soundtrack is appropriated from a cassette Becker found in the car park of the bank by the Mexican group Banda Arkangel R-15. Together the video navigates these components in a hypnotising constellation of the objects and spaces in Becker’s immediate living environment.

It strikes me, then, how explicitly Becker’s work operates as video – not cinema, video. Hollywood cinema features a hero in a professionally executed, collectively accepted illusion; Becker’s video features an antihero in an amateur, individual delusion, albeit one the viewer is welcomed into. The difference between the lived conditions of LA for the individual and its cinematic depiction opens up an arena of fantastical imagination for Becker. It is playful, but regularly tinged with unbearable melancholy. Here, she is director, location scout, cinematographer, editor – she gets to play every role, and in so doing, exerts single-handed control over the narrative of institutions and individuals she has cast as her characters. As the singular video artist, Becker draws a tragic connection between the man in the basement and herself, and the sort of acts of creation and resistance that can be exercised by an individual in the face of overwhelming forces. In the video, the bank is hers because she made a model of it. Where previously the bank had approached real-estate management as a non-contact sport (‘purify the place of this AIDS victim and you can have it’), here they are symbolically hanged and forced to repeatedly encounter the difference between ownership and tenancy.

We should consider the import of the title of the overarching project: Whole. Becker stated: ‘What attempt to move forward isn’t an attempt to become whole?’ Significantly, she came to recognise that the desire to become whole was futile, because in reality there was ‘only ever an exposing of parts’. But the continuing attempt to achieve wholeness enabled some degree of personal progress into territory of greater truth. Becker’s attempt to become ‘whole’ suggests the persistent state of being partial, and that existence is premised on lack – lack of funds, space, community, recognition. It also nods to the fact that one’s own consciousness is partial, never whole. For there is always more – those areas which are hidden by psychic defences, repressed, and which, inevitably, return. It is on their return when the repressed becomes the Freudian unheimlich, or unhomely. This is characteristic of what the film theorist Robin Wood would call ‘the return of the repressed’, representative of the cinematic genre of horror: those elements of ourselves, and of society, that form the whole, but in response to which we would rather remain partial.

In Becker’s world, as in much horror cinema, the horrific is rendered architecturally. Becker’s home is a haunted one. The societally repressed figure of a man who died of an AIDS-related illness is a figure who remained ever-partial: forgotten, unrecognised, whose belongings no-one came to collect. His forgetting haunts Becker’s homely existence from the basement below. In the world of cinema, the home of the horrific usually occupies a para-space: a subsidiary domestic place of support which is largely out of sight, and therefore largely out of mind, but from which it can infest and poison an entire environment. This has its foundations in gothic horror, but continues in contemporary horror films of the past few years, to include attics (for instance, Hereditary) and, of course, basements (The Babadook, A Cabin in the Woods, Don’t Breathe). The most staggeringly resonant of these occurs in Get Out, where the ideal American suburban home seen in most of the film has a basement which serves as the laboratory for transplanting the brains of white people into black bodies, and is paralleled metaphorically in ‘the sunken place’, to which the black ‘soul’, once dislocated from the body through hypnosis, is banished. In ‘the sunken place’ that black ‘soul’ can only scream silently, able to look up at the world through a distant rectangular hole, locked floating in a cosmic basement.

As I sit on the wooden bench in front of Federal Building with Music, watching the repetitive action of the model bank being dunked down into the basement and withdrawn again, it feels to me like this video operates as a twisted, fantastical burial ritual. The classic ghost story, dating back to Pliny the Younger’s description of a haunted house and retold time and again, features a person who died on the grounds of a home, whose spirit roams until someone of courage arrives, finds the cause of the haunting, and provides the deceased with a proper burial. Becker once explained that ‘I guess I wanted to bring him to life again and ask him some questions, as well as honour him just for making it through life as long as he did’. This positions the video as a document of mourning and celebration, accompanied as it is by the unconventional funeral songs of a Banda album, with the hope that the bungalow could be a place to rest for them both. The basement tomb is furnished with the man’s archive – not an archive cared for by any institution, but cared about by Becker, which is enough. And Becker also has an archive that survives her, one that has been cared for, and cared about, which I was sitting in, brought to life again in London.

The survey exhibition of Julie Becker’s work ‘I must create a Master Piece to pay the Rent’ was at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London 8 June to 12 August.

Adam Hines-Green is winner of the Film and Video Umbrella and Art Monthly Michael O’Pray Prize 2018.

The Michael O’Pray Prize is a Film and Video Umbrella initiative, in partnership with Art Monthly. Supported by University of East London and Arts Council England.

2018 Selection Panel

  • Erika Balsom, writer and senior lecturer in Film Studies at King’s College London
  • Hannah Black, artist and writer
  • Steven Bode, director, FVU
  • Stephen Maddison, director of research, University of East London
  • Chris McCormack, associate editor, Art Monthly
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