Erin Colleen Johnson’s ‘Hole’ at Vox Populi

The story of stories

Erin Colleen Johnson’s Hole, on view at Vox Populi Gallery thru May 31st, is a thought-provoking video installation that strikes at the heart of communication: developing a connection and sharing one’s knowledge. To do so, Johnson tries to learn a unique skill — ice fishing. For an artist working in northern California who has never stepped foot on a frozen lake, she began her quest (where else?) on the Internet. But Johnson’s foray into this unusual new venture did not end there.

Looking up, looking down: Erin Colleen Johnson, "Hole" 2012, video installation. Film still (of an ice-fishing how-to video from YouTube). Used with permission.

A white screen in the floor’s center, flanked with two low stools in an otherwise empty gallery space, invites us to walk in, sit, and look down. “Every Friday,” Johnson’s voice begins, “I’d get in a box and call Tom.” Tom Johnson (no relation) is an ice fisherman from Minnesota she discovered on the Internet. Tom agreed to talk with her every Friday, and, over the course of six weeks, he taught her how to cut a hole in ice. He suggested she find a small dark space to sit in, so in California’s Bay Area, Johnson held her phone while sitting in a box in her home. She was looking up in the dark, listening, as Tom explained how to cut the hole while (usually) in his ice-fishing shack.

Johnson attempts to learn Tom’s ice-fishing practice, but through mediated means, the Internet and the phone. Interestingly, Hole’s imagery does not convey the act of ice fishing. Rather, the installation reveals how Johnson figured out how to do so. Tom exists in Hole, as he did for her, through his voice only, an aspect she alludes to through Hole’s sometimes-blank footage. YouTube clips of ice-fishing how-to videos glow from the floor’s screen as her phone conversations with Tom stream through the room — and the story of a shared experience evolves.

Their conversations, Johnson said, created a “productive gap” because she never saw his process, so she could neither replicate it nor understand it exactly. The gap Johnson describes is innate to narrative knowledge, knowledge gained through story. Theorist Jean-François Lyotard noted that narrative knowledge is key to social bonds because it is legitimized through the storytelling process, not through evidence.

In the end, Hole shows Johnson’s perspective looking up in her cardboard box as light streams down from a newly cut hole. Tom, we imagine, is looking down into an ice-rimmed hole in his fishing shack with light from the water’s reflections filtering up. Johnson and Tom do not reach similar ends, but they begin in the same place — with Tom’s story. Hole suggests that the narrative exchange Johnson sought through technological means can yield antithetical ends — the interpretive difference, though, is central to the practice of passing down ideas, to narrative knowledge.

As we sit above Hole looking down, we become a part of the story as well. Hole considers a complicated meta-narrative and reminds us that the story’s rhythm — felt in Tom’s voice and its varying iterations as it passes from person to person — remains a vital aspect of social bonds despite our ability to communicate with one another electronically.

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