The Conversation


By Nicole Davis

Rosenberg-case eavesdropping inspires a feast for thought at The Kitchen

Family members often figure in Jenny Perlin’s art and films, but for her latest installation, which opened at The Kitchen last weekend, the relative who inspired “Transcript” happens to be one she never met. He was Marshall Perlin, a lawyer who unsuccessfully sought a stay of execution for Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the Americans accused of supplying the Soviets with atomic-bomb secrets. After their deaths, Perlin tried to prove that the punishment meted the couple didn’t match their crimes. The government never recanted its actions in Perlin’s lifetime, but an ongoing movement to re-open the case persists, and the files he obtained are considered damning evidence of foul play by the F.B.I. and the Justice Department. Known as the Perlin Papers, they’re currently housed at Columbia University’s Law School, where Jenny Perlin first became acquainted with her distant relative’s legacy.

“Transcript” is based on just a few of the 250,000 declassified documents Marshall Perlin amassed in one of the first successful applications of the 1966 Freedom of Information Act. Along with files pertaining specifically to the Rosenbergs, the Perlin Papers archive reveals an alarming, and at times absurd record of domestic-government spying from the 1940s to the 1970s on hundreds of Americans tangentially connected to the couple. Among the items that will be featured in future installments of Jenny Perlin’s eight-part project are the doodles of a man convicted of espionage and details of various women’s banal, everyday activities in New York, from buying stockings to going to the movies.

“I didn’t want this to be about the Rosenbergs,” Perlin said before unveiling the first two parts of her series. A petite woman with cat’s-eye glasses and short, stylish brown hair, she calls to mind — in this context at least — a thirtysomething Harriet the Spy. “I really wanted it to be about peripheral characters and the way a net of government activity can sweep in lots of people.”

We meet four of these anonymous characters in “Transcript,” which is based upon what informants did and did not hear when they eavesdropped on a dinner party at 106 Bedford Street in October, 1953, four months after the Rosenbergs were executed. All that is left of that surveillance is a 12-page transcript of the poorly recorded conversation, riddled with gaps and guesses at what was actually said. Perlin has played upon the government’s attempts to fill in the blanks by copying down each word the spies imagined they heard, such as army and torture, as well as (inaudible), a constant refrain in the transcript. She then created a 16mm stop-motion animated film of these words and an evocative series of shots taken in the dimly-lit corridors of an anonymous apartment building. While all this rolls on adjacent walls of the installation, we hear the muffled dinner-party chit-chat, which Perlin hired actors to read aloud like an old-time radio show, filled with Red Scare intrigue.

“I was interested in the visual relationship to the sonic,” she explained. “So if you write the word inaudible, what do you hear?”

Perlin is known for her documentary approach to art — in particular, her signature stop-motion animation of hand-copied words, phrases, and ephemera, inspired by a Walter Benjamin aphorism about understanding a text better through copying it, rather than reading it. She’s used audio recordings in the past, and often weaves current events into her work. In 2004’s “Possible Models,” for instance, she tackled the Patriot Act and its effects on U.S. immigrants. But espionage is a new subject for the Brooklyn-based artist.

“My work has not dealt with surveillance in the past… but our current policies on surveillance kept me motivated on this project when it became frustrating.”

Frustrating? “The sound design was really challenging,” Perlin said. “I didn’t know how to make things inaudible.” Ultimately, she worked with a sound designer to muffle the actors’ voices, and used the simple changes of jazz records to create the haunting atmosphere. In the installation, two imposing sound cones hanging from the ceiling emphasize this interplay between what can and can’t be heard; stand under them, and the words become easier to hear — but only slightly.

Perlin says she doesn’t consider herself an activist in the marching-in-the-streets sense, but she does see this as her own way of voicing her dissent on Bush’s domestic wiretapping program.

“People say they’re apolitical.” But that can change, she emphasized, as one is swept into the net. “It’s a question of how things that are happening out here” — she gestured to indicate the world around us — “affect the minutiae of everyday life.”

“Transcript” can be seen (and heard) through Feb. 10 at The Kitchen, 512 W. 19th St., 212-255-5793, thekitchen.org.