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Mai 68/Comeback Special (74 min) by Gordon Schmidt

Exhibited in the 2-person exhibition Be Young and Shut Up! >Galerie Werner Whitman. Montreal, Canada (2006)

Introduction to the work
by Karen Cunningham

Mai 68/Comeback Special is a video work made by over laying original B/W 16mm film footage of the student demonstrations in Paris during May 1968 with the audio from Elvis Presley’s famous televised ‘Comeback Special’ of the same year. The resulting hybrid, a projected digital video made from combining two readily available specific historical documents, found in a public library reflects a subjective and D.I.Y approach to the reading of historically meaningful cultural events. The work questions not only the inherent disparity of social and cultural events at the time but the very way in which nostalgia enables and encourages the paralleling of these events in order to produce, as defined by Barthes a ‘Third Meaning’, a meaning not present (in this case) within the source but rather existing between the two aligned materials. A meaning which “extend[s] outside culture, knowledge, information; analytically, it has something derisory about it: opening out into the infinity of language ……….it is on the side of carnival" (1)

In extension to the video projection the piece also includes an army surplus blanket folded and placed on the floor. The blanket has a utilitarian purpose as well as operating as a sculpture (or more accurately a ready-made) a physical object consciously placed in a gallery context. It works as a support along with the extensive duration of the piece as an invitation not only to view the work, but to take part in it. As one sits on the blanket watching the imagery of the demonstrations and sit-ins the viewer becomes complicit with the work, the fact that it is ex-army and surplus signifying the excess involved in all industries, be they entertainment or military.

In contemporary descriptive terms the Mai 68/Comeback Special (74min.) video is a ‘mash-up’; a whole piece of work made from 2 or more pre-existing sources. The footage of the student demonstrations has been edited to the length of the Elvis’ audio recording thus giving the piece the duration of 74mins. Stamina is not the request here though, as whether you view the piece at the start, middle, end or indeed anywhere in between you will experience the problematic condition of history; that there is no ‘one’ history, and of culture; that re-invention is equivalent to cultural progression.

In case you are reading this text away from the work or have missed some of the 74 min the video starts with the opening number of the television special if you’re looking for trouble, you’ve come to the right place (2). As the audio recording plays a succession of images featuring demonstration placards are inter-spliced with footage of protesters in the streets of Paris. At another point in the video Hound Dog plays whilst images of a young and ‘hip’ looking students smoke cigarettes and a screen printed poster with the words “be young and shut up” is held before a group who appear to be raising hands in a democratic decision about its use or design. The scene could scarcely be more avant-garde and underlines the legacy of designs relationship with revolutionary movements (for example soviet propaganda posters). The seemingly arbitrary connections between ‘image’ and ‘text’ (or rather lyric) which provide new meaning for each other propels the work and continues throughout the video. When Hound Dog was first performed on TV in 1956, Elvis’ stage performance provoked a media backlash against his suggestive dancing. This stance was indicative of 1950’s Americas inability to comprehend the notion of a ‘youth culture’. By the time Elvis preformed his ‘Comeback Special’ his behaviour no longer seemed radical and had been absorbed into the mainstream.

The experience of Mai 68/ Comeback Special (74min.) provides both a sensation of entertainment (no mater how academic the intention there is no denying the pleasure of hearing Elvis rock-out in his ‘Comeback Special’ or the visual enjoyment of the Goddard like imagery of young ‘cool’ revolutionaries) and at the same time it provokes questions of a more political nature. What room is there now for successful proletariat action ?, has there ever truly been any such success ? For although for a while the civil actions of May ’68 brought power to the people (at one point two thirds of the entire population were on strike) a month later the French government banned most left–wing organizations. And as for Elvis ? well, yes ‘The King’ did return, but only for a while. Remember ‘revolution’ also means ‘a complete circular movement made by something’ or someone (4)

* 1 Barthes, Roland The Third Meaning: Research notes on some Eisenstein Stills. 1970

* 2 Trouble, Elvis Presley

* 3 OED 1995 version


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