Paul Pfeiffer is known for his fascination with the idea of spectacle as well as how technology adds a different dimension to how we interpret and experience “the visual language of spectacle.” Pfeiffer often manipulates digital media to deconstruct and reinvent images of spectacle, often in the form of sporting events.
In one of his earlier installations, Dutch Interior, Pfeiffer reconstructs an archetypal American home in the form of a dollhouse to be observed by outside spectators. Pfeiffer’s inspiration came from the horror movie, The Amityville Horror, in which he became fascinated with the role cameras play in the creation of fear and pseudo-reality. He noticed that throughout the film, this image of the family’s staircase kept appearing at the heart of the disturbing scenes. As the movie viewer, you are constantly either looking up or down this set of stairs as the family navigates their way through their haunted home.
Pfeiffer chose this staircase as the basis for Dutch Interior. In the installation, the viewer is presented with two images. The first, most obvious, is a live-feed projection of the interior of the dollhouse, which consists of an almost identical recreation of the Amityville main stairway and entrance. The projection, placed on a 18x13 foot wall, is being streamed from a tiny camera placed at the top of the dollhouse staircase so the viewer is looking down the steps onto the foyer.
As the viewer moves closer and closer to the wall they can see light shining through a tiny hole in the wall. As they look through this peephole they can see into the actual dollhouse diorama which sits just on the other side of the wall. However, now they are looking up the staircase, up at the camera that is hidden. In this way, Pfeiffer creates a sort of continuous loop in which the viewer both acts as the spectator and also becomes part of the spectacle itself.
Pfeiffer is also intrigued by the idea of horror and how it is created. He sees the staircase from Amityville Horror representing that disturbance in the family’s life; their home becoming this “unhome,” removing them from their state of comfort. Horror films are able to accomplish this sense of terror via point of view. The camera acts as both the actor’s eyes as well as creates this satanic other view which hides behind bushes, glances around corners, etc.
However, Pfeiffer reinvents the setting of the horror film into a piece of art, therefore removing the immersive experience the film offers. In Dutch Interior, the staircase is no longer a sight of horror, rather, it becomes a way to realize and examine this idea of the other without all the screams and suspenseful crescendos.
The viewer of the installation has no reason to fear as they themselves have become the other, the unseen seer.
Pfeiffer references reality TV as relating to his thoughts on cinematic spectacle, he mentions how unnatural it is for actors to perform in front of a perceived audience and passing it as reality.
The boundaries between what we define as reality and what technology and popular culture defines as reality has become even more blurred in today’s society. Dutch Interior was created in 2001, pre smart phones and before social media became a staple of everyday life. Now, more so than ever, we are made to be spectacles for the internet world to observe. How we present ourselves through social media outlets has become, for some, the definition of reality. In a way, we go through life anticipating that we will have an audience, even if that is an online one; constantly taking pictures for Instagram and narrating our lives through ten second videos on Snapchat.
In one of his more well-known projects, Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, Pfeiffer further investigates spectacle, specifically within pro-sports.
The photo series includes altered images from NBA games. In the photographs, Pfeiffer erases and blurs all hints of contextual detail.
Although Pfeiffer removes the crowds, bright lights and sport logos from the images, these are the things that fascinate him. The extent to which our culture glorifies and dramatizes these events can distract from the reality of the situation. In Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, Pfeiffer transitions into getting his own footage from the games as opposed to downloading images off the internet. In the process of capturing footage, Pfeiffer was distracted by how focused the cameramen and audio technicians were in the midst of the uproarious crowds. While they are present, at the scene of these events, they are creating and documenting a reality for TV crowds.
The perfect images created by increasingly advanced technology have manipulated our sense of reality which some would say is terrifying in its own right.
Another work which plays with the way people perceive their reality is The Paradise Institute by artists Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller. In the 13-minute visual, guests sit in a makeshift theater where they look over a miniature balcony onto a miniature theatre which displays a movie. Whilst watching dramatic characters act on the screen, the audience is also presented with an “aural action” of a pretend audience. Through headphones, they hear an invisible companion sitting next to them offer them popcorn, a cellphone ring, etc.
Similar to Pfeiffer’s piece, the audience is introduced to a new way of looking at reality through a cinematic lens, creating a hyper-perspective of reality. While The Paradise Institute creates an illusion of reality, so too does Dutch Interior manipulate the way in which one perceives themselves relative to a manufactured reality.
Dutch Interior (2001) at MIT List Visual Art Center, Cambridge, MA
Stills taken from video: