DETROIT — The caller speaks with an urgency that borders on desperation. He is disturbed but polite, engaging, and inquisitive.
“I was angry,” he says. “I walked right out of the bank, I spun around — I had a milkshake in my hand — and I hurled it at the plate-glass window on your bank. Not my finest moment, I’m going to be clear about that.” He employs the measured tone that acknowledges the need for assistance in the face of confounding circumstances. The customer service representative is baffled, but attempts to help within the limited scope of his power to do so. The situation comes to an unsteady resolution, and another begins.
These conversations are orchestrated by artist Frank Heath, and the finished works are video collages that incorporate found footage, staged effects, and slow-moving B-roll shots of birds, buildings, and the spread of a McDonald’s Shamrock Shake on hot pavement. Heath collaborates with performers, in this case, actor Jesse Wakeman, to initiate conversations with call center representatives, under the guise of service requests that quickly devolve into open-ended registers of existential distress — in the case of the above scenario, the infiltration and destruction of the narrator’s memory palace by a pigeon, which he suspects was a retaliatory gesture for the milkshake incident. This work, titled “War Pigeon” (2017) and a second one, “The Hollow Coin” (2016), are on display as part of Red Room, a solo show at Young World.
“The Hollow Coin” revolves around a false nickel that holds an SD card containing video footage of a phone booth burning in a field. From a pay phone, Wakeman calls a customer service representative to say that he “accidentally” used the nickel to place the phone call, and because the footage contained within means “everything” to him, he would like someone from the phone company to retrieve the contents of this pay phone, sort out the nickels, find the one from 1986, discover the footage within, and upon viewing it, let him know if “the violence in this image is terrifying in a sad way (like a beheading video), or terrifying in a threatening way, like watching a company testing a new line of self-destructing public infrastructure.” As this conversation unravels, we watch the footage of the video, bracketed by establishing shots and B-roll.
Heath’s works are mind-bending in their complexity, containing nested narratives — during the course of “The Hollow Coin” service request, Wakeman touches on an anecdote about the Russian intelligence officer Rudolf Able, whose identity as a spy was uncovered when he accidentally used his hollow nickel, containing a coded message, to pay for a newspaper. The narrative arcs also hold logical inconsistencies — Wakeman could not have used the nickel to accidentally place a phone call, when the call being placed was the one that reported the incident.
“Some pieces of information are contained within others, but there is also a sense of a non-hierarchal network, where banal ‘insignificant’ details carry the same weight as what seems like a major point,” said Heath in an interview with Hyperallergic. “I’m also interested in the process of how these conversations unfold and how a viewer (and the person we are interacting with on the phone) pieces together what’s happening, how we move through the information and have to piece it together as we go and the tension that produces.” It is significant to note that Heath is not the only one making a recording of this exchange — as is almost always the case with customer services calls, there is a record of the incident made by the call center, as well.
The works on display in Red Room are incredibly dense, and underscore, for me, one of the perennial problems with video art — galleries are a terrible place to experience it (though Young World, which is off the beaten path, is better than most). It would have been very difficult for me to be able to parse Heath’s intricate, existential constructions without the privilege of being able to review them later, on a personal screen, in a setting with fewer distractions. This reflects in no way on Heath’s work, or Young World’s choices in presenting it, but a larger sense that the art world still struggles to accommodate video art in a manner that is accessible to viewers.
But given time and space to absorb some of his ideas, Heath’s works are bold, transformative, and refreshingly human. At the opening, he acknowledged that it sometimes takes several tries to get the right kind of conversational arc — not every customer service representative indulges in metaphysical philosophizing, but some are surprisingly sympathetic. Wakeman’s presence as an actor and his ability to convey vulnerability is quite engaging, and the conversation that takes place around “War Pigeon” becomes a kind of support call, almost more befitting an emotional help line.
“I don’t think you vandalized the building,” the customer service rep reassures Wakeman. “I feel like you need to figure out what you need to do to make it right — and I feel like that’s what you think the pigeon is there for — that once you make things right, the pigeon will go away.” Heath’s narrative arcs are humorous and Wakeman’s earnest delivery is deeply gratifying, but there is never a sense that the joke is at the expense of those who receive his calls. These are people designated to help, and they are doing their level best, in an unusual set of circumstances.
“I think these conversations are a way of coopting this space of programmed, predetermined conversation and setting up a situation where this person can contribute something unexpected, some kind of reflection on the material forced upon them,” said Heath. “You might say something outside their job description.”
Though Heath’s works are challenging, funny, and confusing, the takeaway is an extremely reassuring sense that one is not alone in a chaotic and uncaring universe — that there is always someone there to take your call.
Red Room continues at Young World (6130 Casmere St, Detroit) through July 15.