by Diego Aguilar-Canabal
A sky refracted into prisms floats in abstract space. Indecipherable rituals conjure planets out of balls and quilts. An amphibious news anchor floats over the sea, beckoning humanity to return to the water. These are the dreams and prophecies of Oracle Plus, the avant-garde audiovisual performance duo of Floridian sisters Steph and Miel Lister.
“It’s a dedication to confusion,” the Lister sisters explain, though Steph qualifies that their video work, now featured on a new DVD from Resipiscent Records, is also a form of “propaganda.” The bewildering thrusts categorical barriers ajar, throwing the arbitrariness of distinctions such as content and form, televangelist infomercials and news, art and commodity, into full relief.
Rooted in an aesthetic of home video and public access television—most footage is shot and edited at Berkeley’s public access TV studios—there’s constantly an undercurrent of warm intimacy broken up by cold, impersonal interruptions. It can be an unsettling animation of Windows 95-esque shapes, a soap-opera green-screen montage, or a spooky, distorted voiceover, but the net effect is making the viewer squirm from start to finish.
If you can make it through, it feels like the sort of squirming humanity deserves today. It’s about as arbitrary and uncomfortable as the false distinction between nature and technology, is it not?
Steph explains that part of their technique is rooted in an effort to undermine modern narratives around environmentalism, driven by a passion for the environment that is nevertheless modern and synthetic in countless ways. “The aesthetic that people normally associate with environmental art is so far removed from people’s daily [experience],” she says.
That’s part of the reason for the surreal infomercial extolling the virtues of returning to the sea, not unlike our distant mammalian cousins, the whales. “You’re going to have to get used to getting wet, because the ocean’s going to rise…We don’t know how fucked up and dire shit is gonna be.”
And among other things, that folksy, twee compartmentalization of the “environmentalist” brand is ripe for undermining.
“It’s weird to think of all these different channels—like now you’re on the news, now it’s the commercial, now it’s the talk show,” Miel explains. “We’re inspired by all these different forms of consumed media that you would come into contact with and not question. We’re sort of trying to parade them around, with these costumes…like now it’s a news anchor, but then it turns out it’s really a clown. Something about a false foundation just seems really pertinent to what’s going on right now in the world.”
”I think it’s because of this impostor syndrome,” Steph adds, “we connect with things that are, maybe, accidentally received as art. We’ve done performances out in public where people weren’t made to receive it as art immediately.”
On First Friday celebrations in Oakland, Telegraph Avenue blooms with commodified art with a hyped tourist-trap tour of local art galleries surrounded by a phalanx of food trucks—a perfect setting for the sisters to confuse and enrage passers-by with a senseless “human statue” performance.
“That was always to me the most magical moment,” Steph says, “where people are confused, it’s just pure reaction.” Behind the veils of artifice, manufactured meaning, and ritual consumption, it may be possible—or so these performances suggest—that the only genuine appreciation we’re capable of in this day and age falls in the realm of confusion or outright disgust.
“One of my favorite reactions that I keep coming back to,” reminisces Miel, was when an onlooker demanding to know if the sisters were members of a cult.It’s ironic, in a sense, that when we see a performance so confusing, we might assume it’s the product of a perfectly regimented, ordered ritual for someone else.
The sisters have to a large extent accepted this as the ultimate fate of their art.
“Once it’s out there in the world, it’s no longer about you,” Steph says. Resipiscent Records founder James Decker also notes, with some frustration, that releasing video work in a physical format has become vexingly impossible in this day and age. After all, who buys DVDs anymore? Do you? (You should get this one, of course.)
The “psychodrama” aspect of the performance, as the Oracles dub it, in a way extends into the artifact itself, potentially baffling audiences the world over, fully without their control. Letting your art guide you can sometimes be a powerful tool for creation: “One thing we did for the DVD was realizing that we had these recurring concepts and themes in our live performances, and trying to recreate them in the studio context,” Miel explains. “There’s often so much going on [in a live setting], we had to distill some of the ideas.”
The disembodiment of the artwork is apparent in the process Steph calls “surgery,” in which recorded footage from performances gets dissected into just one of many movable parts in a studio production. Sometimes there’s even “live surgery,” where a recording is projected onto the studio green screen while other footage is recorded in tandem with it.
Long story short: if you were hoping to be less confused by analyzing their creative techniques, you might be up shit creek without a VHS player.
“We want to tear down this illusion that something like the news is a perfectly constructed thing,” Miel adds. “Or even just existing.”
Oracle Plus will be performing at a release party for the DVD on Sunday, April 1st at The Lab in San Francisco.