Paul Rooney: Lost High Street

Paul Rooney: Lost High Street (2008). Art Review, London, Issue 25 (September). P.136.

Collective Gallery

You probably think that you’re reading an art review, but in fact you’re on an open top tour bus circling Edinburgh … for eternity.  The tension caused by the Cold War, between two Orwellian super-states, hardly helps to ease your paranoia as you start to realise that you are caught up in something that is beyond your control.  It all started so innocently too, a sunny day in a beautiful city accompanied by Eileen, a charming if somewhat droll tour guide, and your bulky 1980s camcorder.  But something happened, something terrible.  Feelings of déjà vu turned savagely in to terror as you started to recollect certain places and certain moments, your accidental involvement in a deep political event for which, in some previous life, you were brutally reprimanded. As the bus begins to repeat exactly the same tour (again) and you are unable to get off, as your camera’s objective eye re-records exactly the same footage, you wonder whether this is some kind of latent punishment for what you might or might not have done in that other life…

You probably think that you’re reading an art review, but in fact what you have read so far is a narrative representation of one Paul Rooney’s latest video pieces, Lost High Street (2008).  Most of this piece is seen from the narrator’s perspective, through shaky, bleached footage taken from the back of a tour bus and showing the typical historic sites of Edinburgh; the plot is filled out by the delusional narrator, played by Rooney himself, who offers a textured, lyrical and engaging voice over.  Some short sequences include more complex, layered images, where we see, for example, the aforementioned handheld footage indirectly, the footage being viewed on a television screen within the film itself. We also catch a brief glimpse of Rooney with the camera and see Eileen momentarily strumming a guitar to the intermittent, raucous indie/punk soundtrack, also composed by Rooney.  These metafictional moments constitute an added layer, but only supplement what is already a very rich narrative. It doesn’t seem that Rooney is trying to frame this narrative, as with a lot of metafiction, to construct an ‘objective distance’ from which to view the work ‘self-consciously’. And this, for me, is what makes this piece successful – it’s not about standing back and considering it as a series of formal devices, it’s about an imaginative performance that we all participate in to some degree.  Rooney’s successful prose and ability to entertain are not merely incidental features of some more abstract critical engagement, but are integral to the force of the work.

Lost High Street is one of two video pieces in this exhibition, the second being Monster (2004).  Both tie in with Rooney’s continuing interest in the way people adopt roles and positions within language and space, but it is obviously the vibrancy of the former that attracted this reviewer’s attention.  As a final note, I think it is significant that  Lost High Street takes its name, not from David Lynch’s Lost Highway, which also deals with displacement and time loops, but to Hank William’s country/western song of the same name (the lyrics appearing in the soundtrack).  Where the former is the critics’ choice of postmodern cinema, the latter earnestly issues forth from a nascent popular culture.

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