I share a few things, other than facial hair, with U.K. visual artist and poet Ross Sutherland. There’s an interest in how we humans find patterns in our experiences, in culture, and in our own thought processes that help us understand—maybe the better word is “fool ourselves”—about who we are. There’s also Sutherland’s fascination with popular culture and how he sees himself refracted in its mesmerizing glow.
That’s partly why I was so moved by Sutherland’s Stand By for Tape Back-up, a miraculously accomplished hybrid of poetry, documentary, rap and video art, when I saw it at Hot Docs earlier this year. I watched it on a small monitor with headphones on and was blown away by Sutherland’s voice over VHS tape recordings of Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Jaws, Ghostbusters and various television bits. When I heard he was coming to New York to do a live rendition of the piece at UnionDocs, I was beside myself. I was so excited, in fact, the good people at UnionDocs asked me to conduct the Q & A after Friday night’s showing.
Sutherland reminds me of Spalding Gray, another artist who could turn himself into an empathetic and hilarious medium through which we can understand the human condition. But Sutherland does it in a way that is particularly Gen X, riding on the backs of Will Smith and Bill Murray as he wrestles with the grief over his deceased grandfather and his own depression. In the film, he goes back and forth over the images while he tries to sort out his own feelings.
And I’d contend that the cyclical pattern of his thinking isn’t just an act. I spoke with Sutherland before he went on stage and, actually, I found him to be even more rhythmically intriguing when we were having a casual conversation. I think he experiences the world in a way that most of us only get a glimpse of, and he’s turning that into art.
What is equally exciting is that there are people in the documentary world who get how Sutherland’s work—although not documentary, per se—is related to the nonfiction form and how it in fact can inform the way we see and do documentary. So Charlotte Cook, who was until recently the programmer at Hot Docs, and her team there, deserves crazy props for bringing Sutherland across the Atlantic. The Hot Docs screening directly led to Austin’s Fantastic Fest hosting the first live reenactment of Stand By in the U.S. in September. And then UnionDocs, the great Brooklyn venue for documentary art and big ideas, also gets kudos for bringing it to New York City.
An irony about Stand By is that it contains a poison pill; it uses copyrighted material that could never allow it to be properly distributed to the general public. For that reason, I am so grateful to be one of the lucky ones who got to see and experience Sutherland’s brilliantly supple mind unspool through a plastic tape.
I wish everyone could have a chance at it. He’s taking Stand By back across the Atlantic, but I believe he’s open to coming back, if some forward-thinking programmer wants him. In fact, I just heard while I was writing this, that there may be some possible U.S. dates to be announced soon.
Anyway, Sutherland is also working on another piece. Something about palindromes. I plan not to miss it, even if I can’t keep up.