Surveying the American Cultural Habitat by Hayley Silverman is a video composed of a short clip appropriated from a Bollywood musical which the artist slows down, plays in reverse, plays in forward motion again, and, then, in reverse again in an endless loop.
The action of this slowed down, reversed, and endlessly looped clip involves a South Asian woman holding a video camera in front of her face as she slides horizontally into the middle of the frame, removes her eye from the camera viewfinder (which is pointed directly at “us,” the viewers of the clip) and, then, smiles at “us” in a sort of half-awed, half-patronizing gesture of approval.
Also, the soundtrack of the video is a piece of music which is itself slowed down, played, reversed, and looped, resulting in a low, ominous undercurrent to this otherwise brightly colored and happy imagery.
As one begins to view through this loop, perhaps the first thing one tries to do is rationally understand it—to deconstruct all of these elements described above and, then, piece them back together into a satisfying story.
For example, the collision of the anthropological-sounding title—Surveying the American Cultural Habitat—with imagery involving a South Asian woman pointing a video camera back at “us,” the viewers of the clip, might lead one to say that the work is in some sense, anyway, inverting the practice of “othering” back out to the “American” viewer who is watching the clip.
It is not the “American” who is surveying her cultural habitat; but she who is surveying the “American” cultural habitat.
But, as one continues to view through the repetitions of the loop, one may realize two additional things:
1. First of all, as one watches the repetition of the clip, one’s understanding changes each time—each repetition involves the present experience of the clip—yes—but also both the viewer’s ever-increasing past understandings of the clip as well as their future predictions for their understandings of the clip.
Thus, each time one views through the loop, one experiences a different clip with a different understanding which it affords.
2. And, second, due to this continuous change in understanding, it becomes difficult to assume that any effort at rationally understanding the clip will ever come to any ultimate fruition.
Every time one thinks they understand it, the next time one views through the loop, that understanding is mutated by the experience of comparing the understanding to the actual viewing of the clip.
And, at that point, one might catch on to another level of understanding in the work:
What the viewer is show to be othering here is (in its own way) the video itself.
By looking at the work in the hopes of decoding it, dissecting it like a forensics report, one is going to miss it every time as it continuously slips out of one’s grip.
As such, one’s attempts to understand the work must then be conducted with a certain humbleness—an automatic understanding that no understanding is final.