Godville

Review by Erik Benjamins

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The accumulated text that comprises Omer Fast’s Godville is laid out in a Swiss cheese of a typeface. Designed expressly for this publication by the German firm, Manual Raeder, these letterforms’ curves and junctions are exaggerated by the absence and presence of circular forms, most resembling periods taken out of their normal punctuated placements. A typeface’s architecture built by grammatical marks of the abbreviated, the started, the stopped and the to-be-continued. Such haphazard concatenation is telling of the work’s complicated identity, which utilizes tactics of collage and translation to explore the intersections of performance, American historic legacy, civic identity, and political duty.

 

Godville, the book was published alongside an exhibition of its video counterpart, realized in 2005 at Midway Contemporary Art in Minneapolis. The two-channel video work presents ten interviews of “character interpreters” that work in Colonial Williamsburg, a living-history museum. Locals are employed to perform the daily routines of colonial life. Fast questioned the residents both in-character and as their present-day selves, resulting in content that quickly jumped across time and identity.  To further complicate the spatial-temporally slippery footage, it was then aggressively edited and remixed, world-by-word. The finished product “tells the story of a town whose residents are unmoored and floating somewhere in America between the past and the present, between reenactment, fiction and life.”

 

At first one would think that the printed form of Godville, featuring transcriptions from three of the ten original interviews, would be far easier to digest compared to the serial-killer-ransom-note aesthetic of its video counterpart: choppy, awkward, disharmonious, jagged. There is indeed a gracefulness when reading versus listening to the transcriptions. The artist’s collaging snips, first heard and made unavoidable, are quiet in written form. Throughout the book are “restored afterthoughts,” that serve to momentarily return recorded interview phrases to their original spoken strings, before remix. These moments appear in the form of a smaller text, neatly tucked in-between the generously double-spaced primary content. These annotations are the fleeting sweet spots of contextual anchoring, like getting air when practicing somersaults in the public pool. These “afterthoughts” frequently bring humorous, poetic and shocking double readings that veer the reader off course, while simultaneously functioning as a savored point of connection to the original interview.

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Sentences appear to make sense, but still wear the marks of aggressive sampling. The reader is introduced to the three individuals and tumbles over their performed past and personal present. The reading tempo of Godville constantly slows and accelerates, like reading an October article and brunch menu simultaneously. Banal obligations and impassioned frustrations interweave to accentuate the messiness of performing political identity. Frances Southall laments the difficulties of motherhood and the domestic space in the past and present. Jack Burgess is a Desert Storm veteran who plays a member of the Williamsburg militia. Will, a black man who plays a slave, grows angry and frustrated with Fast’s questions that purposefully collapse realities. The Swiss cheese text is consumed quicker than the brain registers constant awkward disjunctures, like a militiaman dealing with Gulf War Syndrome.

 

I immediately struggled with the text, stopping and starting and stopping again, particularly when the “restored afterthoughts” provided momentary rooting in some sane sense of connection to the piece’s process. Before making it halfway through the first chapter I decidedly changed my strategy, letting the text wash over me, fully accepting to return and start over. Fast’s role as an aggressive translator and clever collager resound clearly across both iterations of Godville. While the video capitalizes on frenetic audiovisual schisms that outright confuse, yet wonderfully engage, the publication opts for a gentler approach by taking the audiovisual out of the equation. In promoting a circular, muddled, humorous space for reading, Godville the publication exhausts its medium to provocatively investigate conceptions of political engagement, civic duty, and historic legacy as they emanate from a small town in Virginia with a haunted past.

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Omer Fast’s Godville, (Revolver Verlong and Midway Contemporary Art, 2005)

 

Images: Cover and interior image from Godville

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