High Anxiety

Still from Good Boy Bad Boy, Bruce Nauman, 1985. Courtesy of Barbara Balkin Cottle and Robert Cottle


“Let’s build a city that lives like a virus,” growls a deep-throated man’s voice on the left channel. “Let the virus come back…Step back for a moment and survey what we have from afar.” On the right channel, another man, softer, brighter, is on a similar wild reverie: “I’m a prick dancing on ice, a warm cock on ice, a pointless hard-on, a silver beacon.” Their voices build, overlap, interrupt, complete the other’s thoughts like the Velvet Underground’s “The Murder Mystery.” Here, clarity is sidestepped; you lose track of what is being said and float on the juxtaposition of garbled meanings, English so coiled you start to question it, as when you hear the phrase “frozen tundras” so many times it starts to lose all logic. You also listen closer, hoping you can find something to control in this webbed density. You cannot. You give yourself up to a vast, unsettling, uncategorizable poetry of doom. But poetry, nonetheless.

The piece is called My flesh to your bare bones (2010). The deep voice is Vito Acconci’s, reciting a poem about Antarctica. The soft voice is the sculptor Oscar Tuazon’s, responding to Vito’s stream-of-consciousness barrenness. Barbara Balkin Cottle and Robert Cottle are the collectors of this piece who own some of the most cutting-edge, provocative video work of the late 20th century. In posthumous tribute to Robert (known as “Cottle”), Barbara has now curated six works from the Cottle Collection to be shown at UTA Artist Space in a show entitled “High Anxiety.” It’s the first time most of these videos have been shown in Los Angeles. “High Anxiety” was an oft-used phrase of Cottle’s—and, now in 2022, an all-too-apt one, as this landmark video collection opens during the most extremely angst-riddled and nerve-racking time in recent U.S. history.

The Cottles began collecting art in the late 1970s, starting with a series of prints by Sol LeWitt. However, they soon went beyond pursuing an “encyclopedic” collection of painting, sculpture, and photography. Barbara tells me, “We were interested in pursuing art that went beyond paintings. We were on the search for something more—digging deep into the conceptual nature of a work.” The reasons why it has to exist. They were guided by Duchamp’s famous statement, “The creative act is not performed by the artist alone; the spectator brings the work in contact with the external world, deciphering the work, interpreting its inner qualification. He [sic] thus contributes to the creative act as well.” In Barbara’s case, the act of curating the videos that appear in “High Anxiety” is the act of creating. She plants the idea in the viewer-participant’s mind: “What ties these all together?” We might answer: Frustration. Pain. Fear. Guilt. A sense of danger. Shock. You certainly don’t enter these works detached, relaxed, looking to be sated or comforted or confirmed in your knowledge. It’s remarkably un-audience-pleasing — while, at the same time, bold in how it confronts deep, fundamental questions of human existence, its morality and decline in times of degradation.

Presented are two seminal video works from the 1980s by Bruce Nauman. Good Boy Bad Boy (1985) has only shown in L.A. once before. In Good Boy (which Barbara deems “a real crowd-pleaser”), two schoolmarm types in deceptively neutral clothes (Joan Lancaster, white woman; Tucker Smallwood, black man) stare at us on two separate screens, softly, as if we were attending grammar lessons in high school. Today’s lesson: How Ideology Forms (not as heady as that sounds). The schoolmarms recite and re-recite a litany of simple statements: “I was a good boy, you were a good boy, we were good boys: that was good. I was a good girl, you were a good girl, we were good girls: that was good. I was a bad boy, you were a bad boy, we were bad boys: that was bad. I was a bad girl, you were a bad girl, we were bad girls: that was bad. I was a virtuous boy…” We cycle through seemingly every conceivable human sentiment or task—I was a virtuous man, you were a virtuous woman, we were virtuous beings, that was virtue; being evil, being bored, being alive; playing and fucking and loving and hating and pissing and sleeping and paying—until the climax: “I don’t want to die, you don’t want to die, we don’t want to die: this is fear of death.” The list starts from morality, exactly what we first begin to distinguish in infancy when we’re first learning how to speak. It’s “good” to eat, to be good; it’s “bad” to cry, to steal. This is indoctrination into “civilization.” We then go from “good” (a kindergarten word) to “virtuous” (a concept tweaked and gnashed about from Inferno to Wuthering Heights to Sula). We always go back to the basic things that form us in our infancy. We end with increasing vulgarities: sex, then love, then shitting, then death. As the white woman and the black man rinse and repeat the same statements for nearly an hour, their deliveries become gradually more animated—and agitated. Ten minutes in, she repeats “I have sex, you have sex, we have sex, this is sex” in a sultry, saucy demeanor, while “I love, you love, we love, this is love” is cooed in the honey dulcet tones of a ’50s babysitter calling her Johnny on a corded white telephone. Fifteen minutes in, evil repulses her (she adds a hilariously offended, distraught waver to her voice that’s reminiscent of 1960s Katharine Hepburn). Living gives her relish (suicide: unimaginable! uncouth, even!). And she is cocksure of the good life coming to her. Meanwhile, to the black man, “the good life” is said as if a put-on, a laugh of an idea. In its suggestion of wide existential terrain within constraints, Nauman’s video resembles, somewhat, Richard Serra’s list of action verbs that he wrote out in the late-’60s: “to roll, to crease, to fold, to store, to curve, to lift, to impress…” Serra’s list, though, is embroiled in endlessness, heaviness; Nauman’s list, in its sing-songy levity, is quite finite. Scarily finite. Even though we think our capabilities of emotion are limitless, we, in fact, only react within a limited set of emotions and states-of-being. “This is fear of death”: fear of a finished point. That’s the ultimate anxiety. Lancaster’s and Smallwood’s voices overlap each other, resulting in a barrage of barked statements that start to lose their patina of a school-lesson satire and take on a quiet assault on our sense of self. I’m useless, you’re useless, we’re useless, this is existence.

Clown Torture (Dark and Stormy Night with Laughter) (1987) has never shown in Los Angeles and is the only one of Nauman’s Clown Torture series that is still privately owned. It was the first video that Barbara and Cottle ever bought. According to Barbara, Clown Torture “hit me like a ton of bricks.” Its relentless double-screened attack on the viewer’s senses and sanity reminded her of Duchamp’s “the art of ideas.” When Barbara first encountered it, she said she felt what the first viewers of Duchamp’s work must have felt. There are two screens, each of which bears a menacing clown. On the left screen, a female clown laughs on a loop, with sinister artificiality, at the victim-viewer. On the right screen, a male clown tells a bottomless joke, a sort of Thousand-and-One-Nights story, as he contorts himself into sick postures, jerked arms, bent legs: “It was a dark and stormy night, three guys were sittin’ round a campfire, one of the guys said, ‘Hey Jack tell us a story,’ he says, ‘all right: it was a dark and stormy night, three guys were sittin’ round a campfire, one of the guys said, “Hey Jack tell us a story,” he says, “all right, it was a dark…” As Nauman himself said in a 1988 interview, “this circular kind of story, for me, goes back to Warhol films that really have no beginning or end. You could walk in at any time, leave, come back again and the figure was still asleep, or whatever.” And fear goes on—whether you’re in the space or outside checking your smartphone to find directions to the beach. With Clown Torture, we have the opposite of the finitude of Good Boy, Bad Boy; the bottomless laughter and the never-ending story stretches into an infinite monotony—and it’s just as unbearable. These works force us to confront a void from which there is no opportunity to turn away. There’s no rudimentary, dishonest narrative rise and fall à la Stephen King’s IT; the torture has no ending, much less a happy one.

The other shorter video works, collected throughout the 1990s into the 2010s, pack a punch even in their smaller run-times. Douglas Gordon’s 6-minute The Making of Monster (1996) shows a man (Gordon) approaching the mirror, wielding scotch tape and a sinister pair of scissors, as he Lon Chaneys his body into a pig-like horror: tape over the nose, eyelids dropping open on both sides, lips stretched apart. The mask of a perfect ego is shattered. Gordon takes off the mask of our empty-bitter souls by putting on a mask (all that scotch tape). The spectacular grotesquerie Gordon creates out of his face is just who we are when we don’t reach for that morning makeup.

Cory Arcangel’s Paganini Caprice No. 5 (2011) takes a glut of grainy YouTube videos of amateur guitar players, extracts each of their individual notes, and uses Gould Pro software to mash together the titular Paganini violin piece at its infamously rapid pace. There’s a new cut for each note, so there are literally hundreds, seemingly thousands of guitars-and-arms that flash on screen for barely a millisecond before it’s on to the next guitar-and-arm. The piece is treasured for its volcanic continuation; Arcangel, meanwhile, emphasizes a melodious discontinuation. We hear the Caprice, sure, but it’s through a flurry of blotchy early-2000s videos, a chaotic raining-down of distorted, electric bleeps and bloops that morphs into a choppy whole in spite of itself. It’s the sound that lurks beneath the illusion of the smooth, seamless feed that feeds you so much content your brain could burst.

Finally, William E Jones’s Shoot Don’t Shoot (2012) is a flicker-type film compiled from a faded 16mm print meant only to be shown to cops in training. “For the purpose of this test,” says the flat, authoritarian, “neutral” narrator from the original film, “regard yourself as a police officer in an offscreen situation.” It puts us in a disturbing position as we are the people to whom this film is addressed. We are forced to take on the brief position of being arbiters of morality, deciding on the worth of a black man’s life who, as the film instructs, may or may be a felon wanted by the police. The same footage of the same man walking up to a cinema ticket booth to watch a film adds further ironic bite. We think, “What movie is he there to see? Where did he buy those fabulous pink shirts and yellow pants? Where did he come from? Where is he going?”— all the quotidian details that the original film asked its audience, an officer-in-training, to forget…now becomes the explicit text of Jones’s re-working. In both cases, the narrator tells us, we should not have shot. But shot the man was.

Amidst the barrage of images—degraded, censored, banal, outrageous—that assault us every day, Barbara and UTA Artist Space have crafted a zone to contemplate the commotion. You cannot relax. We go through our present lives seeking to control the digital cacophony; here, in a controlled environment, chaos runs rampant. It is our inescapable, messy reality. Barbara is fond of quoting Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer, which was a book she read 40 years ago, “and it changed [her] life.” She has always been on the “search,” as Binx Bolling searched. “What is the nature of the search? you ask. Really it is very simple, at least for a fellow like me; so simple that it is easily overlooked. The search is what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life…To become aware of the search is to be onto something. Not to be onto something is to be in despair.” Barbara and Cottle went on the “search” together. According to Barbara, “we had an amazing journey and I wanted to share a bit of it with the community I live in now and pay tribute to him.” Even in these chaos-stoking works, which discomfit and jar and might even lead one to despair, comes an awareness, a space for contemplation of one’s dark condition, a consciousness of one’s own condition (as the psychoanalysts might have it). The rest is up to you.

Carlos Valladares is a writer and critic from South Central Los Angeles, California. He studied film at Stanford University and began his PhD in History of Art and Film & Media Studies at Yale University in fall 2019. He has written for the San Francisco Chronicle, Gagosian Quarterly, and n+1.