Rayelle Niemann

The Brooklyn Queens Trilogy

by Erik Dettwiler

Toast / Can / Liberty

Everyday Banalities – Grand Gestures

Grasping reality is a difficult endeavor. In the 1960’s, Canadian media theoretician Marshall McLuhan concluded that any apparatus that records something makes something else possible, enables something new to evolve which did not exist before. A text, an image, or a piece of music—comparable to a factory-made product, endlessly duplicated and distributed across the globe. Anyone who records something creates new realities. Duplicated realities of one’s own routine structures.

In the installation The Brooklyn Queens Trilogy, three black-and-white videos are shown. Two of them—Can and Liberty—are based on a spontaneous, tourist-film approach, while the third film—Toast—has been staged and precisely choreographed. The subjects chosen for the films refer, on the one hand, to encoded signs representing the American way of life and to a general, globalized mass culture. On the other hand, they symbolize the banalities of everyday life.

In Toast, Dettwiler deconstructs the ritualized gesture of raising one’s glass at an art opening or making a toast at a special occasion, and he does it with an autistic-like perfection that ends in slapstick-like poses. The social, communicative significance of toasting is not addressed here. The protagonist’s clothing—the hat, sunglasses, and gloves—evoke distance and isolation. The bared teeth degenerate into a stylized smile devoid of life or vitality. The body language is stiff in gesture.

In contrast, Can shows an endlessly duplicated object of consumption in the main role: an aluminum can underneath a subway bridge as it is being swept back and forth by the wind on a busy street. As an observant eye, the camera follows the ease and spontaneity of the can’s movements, which are underscored by the sounds of traffic. The banality of the scene reaches its climax when a car drives over and squashes the can. The ultra-aesthetics of an art opening and the tongue-in-cheek reference to the can in art history are juxtaposed by this everyday situation common around the world. An indifferently discarded can is liberated from both its practical and its higher purpose—it has become tin again, nothing more than a scrap of metal.

Liberty’s first shot suggests the American Statue of Liberty. Then the camera shifts and the real setting is revealed: the figure shown is a statue of an angel in a graveyard. Gravestones become visible. The engraved names are testimony to people of various confessions, while the location and arrangement of the gravestones reflect class structures. The camera’s perspective allows a comparison of the stones to houses. Wide streets run between them. The romantic atmosphere of a European graveyard—with its parks, greenery and flowerbeds—is utterly lacking here. This is a view of a stone city of the dead. Skyscrapers can be seen in the distance. The eternal hum of traffic can be heard from a nearby highway. Freedom—does death offer the freedom people so frantically strive for in life, regardless of the consequences?

"How admirable he
who does not think ‘How transitory is life’”
when he sees lightning.”

In Brooklyn Queens Trilogy, we do not encounter images normally associated with New York—that city which continues to symbolize endless possibilities, success and freedom. Erik Dettwiler has captured on film not so much locations, as non-locations. He has made the spaces in between accessible, exposed the gray areas moving between the shadows of the loud, shrill world of New York.

The title of Dettwiler’s installation is a reference to the successful American author Paul Auster, whose New York Trilogy tells the melancholy tales of the unassuming lives of people, whose secrets can only be safeguarded in a place like New York. With Queens, the artist is referring on the one hand to that part of city which is home to the graveyard and the location of the video sequences. On the other hand, he is referring to drag queens—those eternally loud, shrill, often tragic figures who sport smeared lipstick and long, fake eyelashes, and trail feather boas behind their swinging hips. These are images of people who are as much a part of New York as bankers, art opening visitors, and the homeless. Brooklyn tells the story of emigration to America. It reflects the continually redefined hierarchies between ethnic groups, the violence, the wrangling over space, power and existence.

Brooklyn Queens Trilogy employs the art of omission, the art of reduction. Like a haiku, this "three-line video” sorts through the events of the city that never sleeps, creating an image which questions a rapid pace, and which inspires us to pause and reflect.

© Rayelle Niemann, Zürich, July 2001


Erik Dettwiler filmed his videos in New York in 2000. This text was written in the summer of 2001, meaning that both were created before the events of September 11, 2001. Erik asked me to revise the section of the text referring to New York as the place symbolizing endless possibilities, success and freedom. Instead, however, I chose to write a brief epilogue so as not to alter in retrospect the attitudes of the time toward the symbolic significance of New York and the images that represent it. As I watched the attack on the World Trade Center live on television, among the things that came to mind were this project and its new significance. I also had to wonder which perspective of New York Erik would have chosen had he traveled to the city after September 11th. Which images would emerge today? What would I write now? Questions without answers.

Whether or not art would change after September 11th was a much-debated topic, but up to now—with the exception of individual works directly addressing the subject—I have not noticed a difference. It is business as usual, at least on the surface. The September 11th events are being exploited by politicians and companies for ideological purposes. The memories of the events and the insecurities resulting from them remain buried in our subconscious. How we each address the subject is closely linked to our own individual constitutions. Only time will tell us how these events affect life and art. Historical events make artistic works superfluous, or they assign them even greater significance. Artistic expression, the moments of creation, must withstand the future and with it, the change in the way art can be perceived. New York—still the place of dreams, of the underground, of quick success, a place of critical, creative people, a historical place, a place of contradiction, a place which seems continually willing to reflect itself in the images others project on it.

© Rayelle Niemann, Zürich, February 2002

Translation: Louisa Schaefer, Cologne