Michael Stickrod (b. 1978)
At the End of the Line, 2002
Vacation Money, 2003
Vacation Tapes, 2008
Like all good family home movies, Michael Stickrod’s videos principally portray generational relations. Yet unlike their vernacular alter egos, Stickrod’s movies never simply preserve precious family memories for future recollection (although they function perfectly well in this regard). Rather the primary memories documented in these videos are typically long past the moment of filming and what is represented is oftentimes the act of recollection itself, registered through layers of mediation. Again and again technologies of recording and playback appear alongside loved ones, suggesting a possible parallel between generations of media and family. Through their extended meditation on transmission—whether first-person narratives recounted to the artist, old audio cassettes rescued from the attic, or the act of painting portraits or transforming “live shit” into potable water—Stickrod’s videos follow the cyclical routes between natural forces of life and death and the numerous artificial conduits that recycle and broadcast our living bodies back into a pre-assembled world, which is already in progress.
Life, death, and the various circuits of transmission that connect the two states of existence are repeatedly and powerfully juxtaposed in Stickrod’s Vacation Money (2003). Following a series of still images taken from color Polaroids of the artist’s mother, Saundra, sitting by the family pool with a small portable television set as faithfully nearby as her pet pug, we hear her voice plainly declare “I used to be so scared of dying.” As she continues to recount her fears of death and her recurrent disbelief at her continued existence through the years, the image format changes from family snapshots to an extreme close-up tracking shot of her arm and foot, the rainbow hued horizontal scan lines of the video footage, recorded from a television set (a small rectangular reflection is visible around the center of the screen), recalling the pre-digital age of VHS as well as the morality of the depicted subject. This succession of fragile media generations is reiterated in Saundra’s description of her long-suffering father’s steadily horrific decline to death entailing blindness, gangrene, amputation, and strokes. This bleak, Job-like voiceover is countered by brilliant digital footage of Saundra tending a small garden under the shade of a tree. This evidently more recent video (we hear at one point Saundra speaking to her son who is manning the camera) suggests that she has escaped her ancestor’s fate, despite the looming wheelchair behind her. Yet the final pan of this pastoral scene, which follows Saundra as she stubbornly pulls her wheelchair along the lawn only to disappear as the camera moves past a large tree in the foreground, presents a premonition of the world without her presence. (She died in 2008 at the age of 64, the same age that her father died, of “complications from diabetes”).
If the flowers in her garden portend the vital process of growth and decay, which along with the serene spring setting, suggests the naturalness of death and assuages the preceding morbidity, the remainder of the video, which surveys Saundra’s artistic output as a painter, reveals the redemptive capacities of the act of transmission in both its familiar and medial manifestations. Providing an almost textbook instance of the Freudian concept of sublimation in which traumatic anxieties are redirected to more healthy creative endeavors, Saundra’s hobby, which she states, she began as if in “a trance” following her father’s death, provides a crucial genealogical link between her attempts to evade her father’s gruesome fate and her son’s own artistic practices grounded in strategies of repetition and remediation. It also, one might argue, complicates the amateur status of her endeavors, considering not only the money she began to earn for her work, but the complex ways in which she redirected the earnings into summer vacations, expanding her artistic practices into what can easily be described as the fields of performance, “new media,” and documentary.
Indeed, learning more about these vacations in Stickrod’s Vacation Tapes (2008), the question arises, which was the greater artistic practice, the month-long road trips across America, conscientiously documented by Saundra on her portable cassette recorder, or the appealing paintings that paid for them? The video begins, as in its predecessor, with Saundra discussing parental loss, this time, the death of her mother when she was nine years old, only to quickly move on to her early career as a model where, she recalls, she had to stand on a pedestal, statue-like, further expanding her auspicious artistic faculties. Again a striking juxtaposition of video footage and voiceover sets two distinct temporal moments into alignment as Saundra describes the “fantasy-like” summer vacations afforded by her paintings against scenes from a Midwestern winter. Uncovering a lawn chair from a heavy layer of snow, like a long forgotten buried chest, she describes these trips as a “treasure.” This act of recovery dramatizes both Saundra’s memories of the vacations as well as the redemptive capacities of the audio recordings she made during theses vacations documenting the mileage, expenses, and most importantly conversations between her and her children, which serve as the primary soundtrack for the remainder of the movie. Time and space are compressed as these distant recollections and archival recording reverberate against the seemingly timeless tasks around the house, like cleaning the pool, that emblem of summer languor, now apparently in a state of dilapidated disuse. This ricocheting effect is itself dramatized in a scene in which Saundra carefully polishes the vanity mirrors in her bathroom, which, as she pivots one plane, reflects the image of her son filming her. It becomes strikingly prophetic when the playback of Saundra’s voice announces that the family is passing New Haven, Connecticut, the city where Michael would go on to study art decades later. The movement across time and space is itself presaged by the rolling of the car wheels, and the axles of the cassette recorder suggesting how such technologies of recording and storage allow for a sort of time travel not only to recover past memories but, however unconsciously, into the future as well. Saundra’s multifaceted (multimedia even), aesthetic practices reveal how vacations, like all art, are principally about making memories rather than their preservation, which always occurs after the fact.
The creative, fantastic exploits of transmission, transformation, and preservation recounted by the artist’s mother and materialized in her striking paintings and meticulous audio cassettes find a distinctly masculine, lowly, and even sculptural pendant in Stickrod’s movie focusing on his father’s labor. At the End of the Line (2002) is ostensibly a scrupulous and colorful description of the some of the processes and personalities found at the Southerly Wastewater Treatment Plant, serving the region surrounding Columbus, Ohio. If the artist’s mother was able to ingeniously transform life’s misfortunes into marvelous slivers of reality every summer for herself and her children, Stickrod’s father, Richard, takes a more literal route in his account of the transformation of human excrement into something useful. In his voiceover he first uses the word “shit” to describe job-related politics and the sheets of plywood and large stones that get caught in the grates of the screen house before he invokes the term to actually describe the tons of fecal matter that course through the pipes of the plant. The movie follows the “wet stream” process of waste treatment in which a series of gravitational and chemical procedures remove debris and contaminants in the water. Stickrod père, who early on in his account declares that he has worked as a mechanic at the plant for over 17 years, speaks with a casual authority and demonstrates his extensive knowledge of the techniques of transforming sewage into potable water. He also seems to experience great joy when pointing out all the ways that the presumed purity of the final product can be compromised. This contamination is evinced in the caked debris that covers the machinery picked up by his son’s camera. Applying the language of systems theory to the crude but nonetheless systematic waste treatment process one might say that the Southerly plant makes manifest the inevitable distortion that accompanies any transmission of information or material. Although the process is designed to produce potable water that resembles the element in its natural state (according to a brochure available to visitors of the plant, the treated water is pumped back into the neighboring Scioto River), as is evident by the various chemical treatments, the final product, while generally safe and clean, is a thoroughly mediated and impure product. Similarly, while the waste activated sludge, known as “cake” is either incinerated or sold, according to the handout as a “popular gardening product known as Com-Til” Richard warns us that he wouldn’t be caught dead using it in his yard, as it still contains “live shit.”
As the various tales of infection around the plant attest (twice we hear stories of coworkers like “Dimwit Denny” who get hit in the face with forceful streams of shit) working at Southerly can be a matter of life and death. Just as the massive 220 pound slabs of “human grease” distilled from the water treatment process serve as sculptural analogues to Saundra’s portraits in oil (and the murky aeration basins provide uncanny doubles to her backyard swimming pool), the entire plant can be seen as a foundry of sorts, or perhaps more appropriately, the insides of a cassette recorder, where the various conveyor belts, gears, and tanks take in the still vital debris of living, and rather than recording and storing it, act more like eraser heads, transforming it into a blank, colorless substance which can be reused. One doesn’t need to hear Richard mention the fetuses that occasionally arrive in the screen house to understand the mortuary-like aspect of the plant, made explicit in the pathogen filled tanks and the incinerator used to transform the cake into useable compost. At the Southerly Water Treatment Plant, life and death take on a distinct material form, becoming matter itself. This sludgy debris, like the aging industrial behemoth that conveys it along its belts and down its pipes into its tanks, becomes in Stickrod’s film a monument to the precarious and ever-changing nature of all forms of life as well as the inevitable material transformations that awaits us all at the end of line (“it’s always going downhill”). And yet, the film also subtly reminds us of the transformational capacities that occur every day in our own bodies, suggesting in a way the spirit of Saundra Stickrod -- both her creeping illness and death as well as her ever-transforming sphere of creative production -- as well as the limits of our own creative, mediating capabilities. After all, at the end of the line, most of what we produce is still “shit.”