UPDATE May 21, 2014: Six Iranian participants in 24 Hours of Happy were arrested on Tuesday, May 20, and “forced to repent” on national television for that appearance. They posted a home-made video on YouTube that garnered 165,000 views and drew the attention of Tehran’s police chief, who called it “vulgar” and ordered the arrest. This despite Iranian president Hassan Rouhadi saying a few days ago that censorship is bad and his country should “embrace the Internet.” The New York Times has more details on this unfortunate development.
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“24 Hours of Happy features 360 consecutive performances of “Happy,” Pharrell’s Academy Award-nominated contribution to the soundtrack for the animated children’s film Despicable Me 2. Accessing the official website, the video will begin playing at the beginning of whatever performance is closest to the viewer’s time of day.”
In the canon of avant-garde video installation artists, French entertainer Yoann Lemonie and directing team We Are From LA would seem unlikely candidates. A director of pop videos for Katy Perry and Taylor Swift, Lemoine is best known in France for his musical alter ego Woodkid. We Are From LA’s output seems to consist of glossy Vimeo uploads for obscure indie bands and French pop acts. But in collaborating with Pharrell Williams in the creation of the video for Happy, this team has, perhaps unintentionally, created a unique cinematic object able to stand alongside the works of Christian Marclay and Douglas Gordon.
Advertised as the world’s first “twenty four hour music video,” 24 Hours of Happy features 360 consecutive performances of Happy, Pharrell’s Academy Award-nominated contribution to the soundtrack for the animated children’s film Despicable Me 2. Twenty-four of the performances, one at the top of each hour, are provided by Pharrell himself, with the remaining time given to hundreds of different dancers, including a smattering of celebrity cameos. These segments cohere into a slow progression through Los Angeles, with each iteration of the song accompanied by a single unbroken tracking shot following the performer.1 At the close of every take, the camera rises or pans to a static aspect of the frame, ranging from the blank of the night sky to the metallic sameness of a bus ceiling. When it descends again, the performer has changed along with the take. There are, technically, no cuts made, but the transitions are a form of lacing, echoing the six conspicuous cuts in Hitchcock’s 1948 “one take” experiment Rope. The filmmakers have admitted to some sequential manipulation in terms of performance time, and freely utilize the benefits of time-neutral indoor locations like bowling alleys and theatres to mask temporal inconsistences. But the sun rises over performers in Griffith Park and sets as dancers move across a freeway overpass eleven hours and a few miles away, providing a consistent sequence of both time and space. Given that it is made up of a single geographic loop, identifying a beginning and end point for the piece is essentially impossible. Accessing the official website, the video will begin playing at the beginning of whatever performance is closest to the viewer’s time of day.
In both its cyclical construction and its runtime, 24 Hours of Happy elicits at least superficial comparison to Christian Marclay’s recent art gallery phenomenon The Clock (2010). Precise where the previous film is approximate, The Clock uses a panoply of footage from thousands of films to create a collage of associative editing. The film moves, in linear time, between bell towers, wristwatches, hourglasses and alarm clocks. Sometimes the time pieces are front and center, occupying the entirety of the frame. Other times, they lurk in the background or are obscured behind an actor or object. Far from just an extended cinematic look-and-find, The Clock includes many moments leading up to and preceding the confirmation of time. The absence of clocks onscreen creates a comedic tension, making sudden punch lines out of an actor telling the hour by the sun or asking another for the time. Just as in 24 Hours of Happy, the film is exhibited in synch with the day itself, matching second for second the progression of time beyond the screen.
But these two films share far more than just surface-level similarities. Through time and repetition, both create a liminal space in which the viewer’s reaction is almost endlessly malleable, creating parallel trains of relative geography. Happy travels physically through Los Angeles, while The Clock travels intertextually through cinematic memory, but both are exercises in recognition. The Clock alternates between glimpses equally obscure and recognizable. Movie stars come and go with the same fleeting malleability as the faces of countless timepieces. A moment passes even as we struggle to identify its source. Even as reminders of time are constantly in view, we find ourselves becoming temporally disoriented. It is common to hear of viewers who find themselves planning to watch the film for only a few minutes, only to emerge an hour later without any intention of having “spent so much time” watching the film.2 Likewise, watching 24 Hours of Happy, we may know an intersection that a dancer is crossing at 7:15 p.m., or suddenly alight on the appearance of a place we may have been, either in our own geographic lineage or in the endless accumulation of “LA” that so occupies our pop-cultural landscape. At around 2:00 p.m., Pharrell dances through a train station. People in the background pass by, trying to ignore him, his energy clearly making them uncomfortable. Then faces of recognition emerge. “That’s a famous person,” people seem to whisper to each other. Slowly, a crowd begins to form, granting the performance a sudden legitimacy. We find ourselves performing a similar act as the viewer. For most, even those who live there, it may have become impossible to separate Los Angeles from “Los Angles.” Endlessly fictionalized and reported on, this is a city we feel we know, even if we have never been there. But moving through a day’s worth of its streets and buildings, Los Angeles becomes elongated, revealing itself as long stretches of the mundane and unrecognizable anchored by brief glimpses of Hollywood Boulevard and Magic Johnson. We see a dancer, and, knowing that this video (and LA itself) is the realm of the celebrity cameo, we strain to determine the performer’s identity. It is the effect of sitting outside a café in Los Feliz and seeing a man suddenly escorted into a waiting limo. Was that a celeb, we ask ourselves? Was that someone we know?
24 Hours of Happy shares this demolition of the recognizable with another notorious example of long-form filmmaking. In 1993, video installation artist Douglas Gordon created 24 Hour Psycho (1993), in which the titular horror classic is slowed down to a speed that elongates it to a daylong runtime. It is crucial that Psycho is a film so well known that even those who haven’t seen it could potentially dictate plot points through nothing more than the effect of cultural osmosis. Early in the film, a title card reads “Two Forty Three PM,” while the camera moves one tiny frame at a time toward an open window. We remember this scene. We know that it is an establishing shot and something is about to happen. Even if we have not seen the film itself, we have been trained by countless other films to expect a cut, a face, an interior. When the cut does not come, the manipulation of time disorients us. Slowed down to a glacial pace, Psycho becomes suddenly unrecognizable. Even those who know the film well might report being unable to place themselves within its newly expanded temporal space. One must look for landmarks. A shower, a bird, the twisted face of Anthony Perkins. In between, a viewer becomes lost in narrative and time.
In both Psycho and Happy, ubiquity is deconstructed by time, while Happy and The Clock use variations on the familiar and the obscure to recontextualize and find connections between geographic, temporal, and cultural space. All of these works stand as vast cinematic canvasses on which any number of readings and viewer reactions can be considered and explored. It is hardly surprising, however, that they are part of such different conversations, one inspiring fan tributes and active Youtube comments sections while the others earn aesthetic critiques and discussion among the artistic intelligentsia. An upbeat pop song presented on an attractive website, no matter the artistic relevance, will of course elicit a different response than an abstract, contemplative work like 24 Hour Psycho. And while interpretations can be endlessly debated regardless of authorial intent, it is this intent that leads to subsequent choices of availability and presentation. Populist accessibility and online ubiquity would never cross the mind of someone like Gordon, while the creators of Happy would balk at the idea of selective exhibition in limited locations. Gordon’s intention in his extended manipulation of a familiar object was to explore themes of “recognition and repetition, time and memory, complicity and duplicity, authorship and authenticity, darkness and light.” Marclay created The Clock to allow viewers to ruminate on what he sees as an ever-increasing economy of time, the narrowing schedule of the modern world. Though it is difficult to find an overarching statement of artistic intent, one can assume that 24 Hours of Happy was inspired by the impulse to make an incredibly long music video, by necessity designed to attract page views and sell Pharrell CDs through a vast integrated scheme of social media and fan participation. That all three works arrive at similar territory seems like insufficient grounds to place them in different camps of artistic legitimacy, while reaffirming the theory of intentional fallacy.
An extended advertisement replete with celebrity cameos and dancing mascots would be, on the surface, anathema to the guarded elitism of a modern art gallery, a representation of a kind of crass commercialism that museums purport to condemn. No self-respecting MOMA would ever stoop to exhibiting work so blatantly market driven. But this duality is one that simultaneously strips too much credit from “commercial” work and lends too much to the elitist realms of those like Marclay and Gordon. Even with its accompanying pop song and online availability, 24 Hours of Happy can be interpreted as cinematic metaphor, just as The Clock can be dismissed as a piece of exclusively priced, niche market commerce. Regardless of Marclay’s artistic intentions, any claim of noncommercial ambitions is deafened by the $467,500 asking price that recently accompanied a copy of The Clock. It may have been less than a decade since twenty copies of Mathew Barney’s Cremaster Cycle went on sale for $100,000 each, but it is clearly an accepted museum practice to treat an endlessly reproducible DVD or digital file with the same cachet as a singular piece of sculpture or painting. And this practice is not being argued here. It demonstrates that the differences in the ambitions of 24 Hours of Happy and The Clock are simply matters of causality. For Pharrell and his directors, the aim was to entertain and sell DVDs, with the perhaps unintentional side effect of cinematically mapping Los Angeles in a single, contagious loop and sparking personal examinations of cultural and personal memory. For them, commercial interests preceded artistic ones. That this relationship between art and commerce for works like The Clock is simply the same elements in reverse, with big money following big ideas, indicates not much distance between Vimeo and MOMA. More importantly, it indicates the potential for just as much artistic resonance in popular entertainment as there is in the bowels of the most esteemed modern art gallery, if we are only willing to dismiss false dichotomies and open our eyes to it.
- Though unseen, the key performer here is Steadicam operator Jon Beattie, who shot the video over a period of just ten days alongside DP Alexis Zabe. During the shoot, crew of as many as thirty moved ahead of the camera’s route, acting as both motivators for the performers and runners to notify the camera operators for needed exposure adjustments. [↩]
- The LA of Happy is made up of a series of equally selective signifiers. Though the producers purported to select a wide range of ages, ethnicities, and personalities for their dancers, this is not a work of social representation. Most of the performers were trucked in from out of town, making this a city symphony where residents are reduced to the role of background extras. This is an LA with no homelessness, no history of racial violence or political corruption. Twenty-four hours is more than enough time to make any number of statements about contemporary Los Angeles. That the creators managed to fill this much time with so little thought is almost an accomplishment in itself. [↩]