Lesbian Mountains in Love – Interview with Gilbert Vicario
Gilbert Vicario (GV): What inspired you to create this split screen love story? Does it come from a love of structuralist filmmaking?
Christopher K. Ho (CKH): Structuralist filmmaking certainly informs Lesbian Mountains in Love insofar as its constitutive elements—the split screen, the dialogue’s source (from romance novels), the subtitle’s pacing, and even the vector between the viewer’s binocular vision and the doubling of mountains—function in relation to the other elements, the aggregation of which yields a structured and self-contained formal and experiential field. But the piece differs also in several regards, not the least that Lesbian Mountains in Love is a video, not a film (which would not readily allow for a split-screen format). This distinction is a key, since the very notion of self-containment is as antithetical to video as it is affined with structuralist film. If structuralist filmmakers recursively ground their work in the medium of film—for instance Michael Snow’s reflexive rhyming of film’s inexorable forward momentum with a continuous zoom in Wavelength—video, in its digitized dispersal, offers no clear underlying support. Its “constitutive heterogeneity,” to use Samuel Weber’s characterization, confounds containment .
Lesbian Mountains in Love resists containment several ways. First, its duration, 43’:04”, is longer than most contemporary art viewer would spend in front of a work. (The few who stay for the video’s entirety may catch the four words of spoken, rather than subtitled, dialogue near the film’s center.) Second, the video invokes a temporal register far greater than that of film, and indeed of any medium: geologic time. The hundreds of millions of years that the mountains, El Popo (outside present-day Mexico City) and Mount Rainier (in Seattle), await tectonic plate movement to reunite them exceed not only the parameters of art and technology, but of humankind, who as a species occupy only a fraction of that time. Lastly, the video focuses on meaning as well as structure: the welling up of emotion, the surfeit of pathos, the animating and anthropomorphizing of that which seems inanimate. In these ways, it opens up terrains beyond that of structuralist film: emotive as well as formal, ecological as well as phenomenological, existential as well as structural.
In this sense, the split-screen format plays a double role. As you suggest, it nods towards structuralist film. It also references the bilateral symmetry of a human face, which allows us as viewers to project onto the mountains emotions and problems that are our own, thus generating meaning.
GV: Can you talk a little about the time segment spacing between the dialogue (subtitled) and John Cage? Or does this relate to music composition more generally?
CKH: There are seven segments of dialogue, each excerpted from one of seven tragic-romances that pulp novelist Nicolas Sparks published as of 2008, the year of Lesbian Mountains in Love. The sequence of segments corresponds to the order of the books’ publication. Much of each book was excised so only love dialogue remained, which I then further edited down for flow, with no rearrangement or additions. The process was entirely subtractive. (Only two minor alterations were made to Sparks’ original text to indicate the time span that the mountains had been waiting.) Each subtitled dialogue segment is separated by gaps of four minutes and thirty-four seconds—one second more than Cage’s landmark 4’33”. During these gaps, slight climatic variations and the sound of a gentle breeze indicate that the projection is not a still.
The coincidence of a contemporary writer of popular fiction and a revered avant-garde composer is purposeful, even polemical. At its most simplified, Cage shifted focus from work to context. Nuances aside, this shift’s ramifications remain deeply felt in artistic production today in the corollary binary sets it implied: object/frame, autonomy/imbrication, high art/everyday, event/incident. I was interested in third terms that transcend these now-ossified binaries. Fiction is one such term. It approaches content as context and vice versa, and thus sidesteps the necessity of choosing one term or another. Likewise, romance, in all it multifarious complications, might present a third term.
GV: How does this piece fit within your overall artistic philosophy since you are not a video artist, per se?
CKH: I am interested in demarcating art’s outer limits of possibility, a process that necessarily entails multiple projects of diverse mediums. It is my hope that in retrospect, my body of work will constitute a ‘map’ of contemporary art. Whether this happens or not, or if such a map is legible or not, is to be determined. Even more complicated is that while art’s limits of possibility are historically determined, they constantly evolve; as curator Kelly Baum recently observed, the project of contemporary art is precisely to “install difference, non-identity, and exteriority” .
On that hypothetical map, Lesbian Mountains in Love occupies the territory focused on time, a leitmotif in art since the 1960s at least, and one which figures deeply in my recent work. Further, Lesbian Mountains in Love addresses a particular historical problem. I finished editing Lesbian Mountains in Love at the tail end of 2008, a year in which the shortcomings of institutional critical art, which privileged operations like subversion and social transformation, became starkly plain. Endogenously, that particular artistic trajectory had run its course, and become somewhat academic. Exogenously, the economic downturn pressured the anti-capitalist precepts of institutional critique. Why critique that which was failing, that which was already down?
Lesbian Mountains in Love preserves the political component of traditional institutional critique (in its ecological impulse), but not necessarily its end goals. The recourse to landscape fingers a problem that unifies, rather than divides, people. It underscores humankind’s commonality in face of something that seems familiar (mountains) but in fact is radically alien: El Popo and Mt Rainier predate any politics of ours, and will surely outlive humankind as a species. They will themselves be subject to even greater forces like erosion, and live through several other ice ages, the last of which will become permanent when the sun extinguishes. How does taking this long perspective alter and inform our notions of the political?
Gilbert Vicario is Senior Curator at the Des Moines Art Center.
 Weber quoted in Rosalind Krauss, A Voyage on the North Sea: Art in the Age of the Post-Medium Condition (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1999). Section X of Krauss’ long essay succinctly distinguishes structuralist film and video.
 Kelly Baum, “A Questionnaire on ‘The Contemporary’: 32 Responses,” October 130 (MIT: Fall 2009), 96.