A pair of 1950 black-and-white films puzzles Fareed Armaly.
In the American B-movie The Next Voice You Hear, James Whitmore plays a frustrated factory worker whose life is changed when he hears the voice of God over the radio.
In the French film Orpheus, directed by Jean Cocteau, Jean Marais plays a French poet mesmerized by a car radio that repeats coded messages from denizens of the Underworld.
“Why do the Americans hear God and the French hear the Devil?” Armaly said. “I think it reveals several layers of cultural differences. I’m intrigued about the differences between France and America in the 1950s. It was really a time of transition for mass media, because radio was being replaced by television. I also think the conservative political and cultural atmosphere of our times matches the 1950s.”
Armaly said the two films seem to epitomize the split between American populist sentimentality and the French intellectual avant-garde.
Born in the United States to Palestinian and Lebanese parents, Armaly has spent most of his adult life living in Europe and the Middle East. This is his first project in the United States in 10 years, although he has shown extensively in Europe, including an installation in 2002 at Documenta 11 in Kassel, Germany, that dealt with the history of Palestine.
In his ArtPace installation called Orient(n)ations, two televisions on opposite walls play the movies simultaneously. Spread around the gallery are several chairs equipped with wireless headphones tuned to five different FM radio programs that Armaly produced with collaborators or found on the Internet.
The entire installation is oriented to compass points, and an atlas is prominently displayed, providing participants with the opportunity to determine exactly where they stand in the world. Armaly is concerned that the U.S.’s wartime politics and corporate homogenization of media ownership are creating a narrow, divisive climate with little tolerance for other cultures’ viewpoints.
“If people think it’s just radio programs, they miss the point,” Armaly said. “I wanted to work with people and create a dialogue. All of these programs deal with the two films, but not in ways that you might expect. People can start with my ideas and then go off in their own directions. To move between the programs is to change your orientation.”
The French film theorist and author Raymond Bellour analyzes and compares the two films in a radio program called Two Screens. The Wizard of War, drawn from “Ken’s Last Ever Radio Extravaganza” broadcast on Austin’s KOOP, is an experimental soundscape that overlays songs such as We’re Off to See the Wizard with sound effects and spoken word excerpts.
Elliot Sharp’s DevilWire Radio is a collection of avant-garde compositions including Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Helicopter String Quartet, Todd Dockstadter’s Apocalypse Pt. 3 and the Bedouin Sumsumiya Duo’s Autar 1. Martin Spinelli’s Code 1 is based on the short wave Cold War spy communications called Numbers Stations that probably inspired the otherworldly broadcasts in Orpheus.
Classic blues and folk music such as Leadbelly’s Take This Hammer and Pete Seeger’s We Shall Not Be Moved are featured in German cultural critic and art historian Dietrich Heißenbüttel’s fond reminiscences about growing up listening to his father’s collection of records from the American Folkways label.
“Although the 1950s are considered a time of conformism, there was actually a lot of avant-garde experimentation going on,” Armaly said. “John Cage was composing, the New York School was emerging and you had the whole beatnik subculture.”
“And I think this parallels what we see going on today. The political climate may be conservative, but there is a lot bubbling beneath the surface,” he said.