Waterfowl Impoundments and New Media Voodoo Dolls

February 11, 2020

I want to briefly write about a couple experiences that are mostly related by temporal proximity. But perhaps juxtaposing them in this blog post will reveal some deeper, hidden truths about the universe.

On a recent bike ride, I passed by several 'waterfowl impoundments.' I'm not sure if these are unique to North Carolina or can be found across the country, but this ride was really the first time I had encountered a 'duck jail' (as my friend Patrick refers to them) up close. I stopped to take some photographs of the Lower Little Creek waterfowl impoundment (off of Farrington Road).

In most respects, this structure is entirely unremarkable -- but in other ways, it's totally unusual and captivating. Without knowing the purpose, the structure might appear as a minimalist pyramid. Approaching the structure on foot (and not just zooming by it along the road) is also pretty remarkable: as you walk, the flat ground slopes into a mound that then gives way to a concrete walkway rising from the water/jutting from the turf. As jarringly rusty and brutalist as the structure appears, the metal and concrete harmonize with the trees, grass, and creek.

A few days after the ride, I was in Milwaukee and had a chance to visit the beautifully designed Milwaukee Art Museum. One of the highlights from the visit, I saw a piece by Tony Oursler, MMPI (Self-Portrait in Yellow) (1996). The work comprises a small yellow cloth doll, pinned to the ground by a metal folding chair. A projector a few feet away from the doll protrays a video recording, an extended close-up shot of Oursler's face as he recites lines alternating between haunting and mundane. "At times, I cannot feel the top of my head...I like to watch television...Sometimes I hear voices which no one else can hear...Animals are better than people..."

I was transfixed by the piece when I first encountered it. Located somewhat awkwardly right by a stairwell and not in main gallery space, the voice in the recording nonetheless echoes throughout the floor and even up in the mezzanine, beckoning would-be visitors to listen and find the source of the sound. Although the composition of the piece is modest both in terms of size and material, the work is strangely affecting. In particular, the projection of Oursler's face onto the doll's head seemed to animate the object trapped beneath the chair, the glow seeming to emanate from the doll rather than the projector. The cable leading from the projector to the VCR is noticeable but could perhaps be read as a techno-umbilicus, supplying a life force to the doll. I couldn't help feeling that Oursler has imbued something vital of himself on the recorded tape -- something now enlivening the doll on the museum floor.