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Travis Diehl: "Frame by Frame, an Artist Distills What Sports Cameras Blur"

Paul Pfeiffer, Fragments from a Cruxification (After Francis Bacon), 1999. © Paul Pfeiffer. Courtesy Paula Cooper Gallery.

What would a basketball game be like without the ebb and flow of two teams, without the roar of the crowd? Like Paul Pfeiffer’s videos. The multimedia artist, whose first career survey in the United States is on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (MOCA) through June 16, began with a suite of videos in which the whole seething, popping commotion has been removed from found live footage, leaving the central monumental figure of an athlete.

In “Fragment of a Crucifixion (After Francis Bacon),” from 1999, the Charlotte Hornets’ star power forward Larry Johnson rocks back and forth, alone on the court, screaming in victory or agony. In “Race Riot,” hands reach in to brace a fallen Michael Jordan — his iconic jersey, number 23, is blank.

“The work has no sound,” Pfeiffer said on a snowy afternoon last month in East Harlem, his spoon poised above a bowl of soup in a Mexican cafe near his studio. “As much as I’m interested in the crowd, I’m trying to figure out ways to create an experience that aren’t just merely deafening.” Both works are displayed on tiny screens in MOCA’s “Prologue to the Story of the Birth of Freedom”: “Crucifixion” loops on a portable projector mounted close to the wall at the height of a religious icon; “Race Riot” on the foldout screen of a camcorder in a vitrine. They’re small, they’re silent — and they’re just for you, an intimate confrontation with extravaganzas meant for millions.

Pfeiffer, 58, is one of a handful of major contemporary artists to treat sports with such reverence. By stripping away the pageantry he’s isolating the pain and contradiction that draw people in. His work, which ranges from poster-like photographic prints of lone sports stars to Christlike wood carvings of a shirtless Justin Bieber, resides in collections at the Museum of Modern Art and the Tate, among others. In a way, he admits, it’s a provocation to seriously consider facets of mainstream entertainment that might seem antithetical to fine art. He called his nods to religious themes, particularly in his titles, “unorthodox” in a secular art milieu. But it’s not really sports, or religion, or pop music that interest him — it’s the faith of the crowd.

Religion and sports stay at the cutting edge of broadcast media, he told me. “It’s where you see concerted efforts to experiment around what forms of messaging will reach the crowd most effectively, in the megachurches and in the stadiums.”

Pfeiffer, born in Honolulu, had what he calls a missionary education. His parents were both church musicians, and his father was one of the first U.S. ethnomusicologists to study the Philippine Islands, recording Indigenous music on reel-to-reel tapes. When Pfeiffer was 10, his parents took over the music program at Silliman University, a Presbyterian school in Dumaguete, the Philippines. In his last year of high school, they moved to a Navajo reservation in New Mexico. The swirl of heat, colonial architecture and Christian fervor simmers in Pfeiffer’s art.

He studied printmaking at the San Francisco Art Institute in the mid-1980s, earned an M.F.A. at Hunter College in 1994, then attended the theory-heavy Whitney Independent Study Program in the late ’90s. With its focus on identity and multiculturalism, “the political atmosphere of the ’90s was real important to me,” Pfeiffer said. He joined ACT UP; co-founded Kambal sa Lusog, a Filipino gay and lesbian group; and was a member of Godzilla, a loose collective of Asian American artists.

But Pfeiffer found that portrayals of race and identity in American culture, including art, were often reductive. “The politics of race as a public discourse in the U.S. equates visibility with agency,” he said. He wanted to scramble that assumption. He pointed out that, in his videos, “what looks like erasure is actually camouflage,” as he uses Photoshop to cover parts of figures, replacing them with images of the crowd.

Clara Kim, the chief curator at MOCA and the organizer of Pfeiffer’s survey, points out that once Pfeiffer peels the trappings away, the bodies at the center of the action are Black and brown. “It’s not just racial politics,” she said in an interview, underscoring his subtlety as an artist. “It’s also the notion of how communities are formed, how society is formed through the grand spectacle of sporting events and celebrity culture. And how that formulates a sense of belonging or difference in the context of an American culture and an American identity.”

Pfeiffer offered that Colin Kaepernick’s decision to kneel during the National Anthem, to acknowledge police brutality and social injustice, and the backlash; and the debate over pay for student athletes, “speak absolutely to the productive nature of sports as a filter on society, whether you love it or hate it.”

And where would sports be without mass media? After graduate school, Pfeiffer took a job at Parsons School of Design in New York teaching digital media. In 2000, exploring Photoshop after-hours in the computer lab, he made his breakthrough work, “John 3:16,” centering and cropping thousands of clips of basketballs in an animation resembling a golden sun hovering amid the chaos of a thousand flash-cut NBA games. The video was in the first Greater New York show at MoMA PS1 in 2000.

The way Pfeiffer edits images is meticulous and tactile, frame by frame and click by click. The erasures aren’t perfect, and aren’t meant to be. In an ongoing series of videos, he displaces one or both fighters, and sometimes the crowd noise, in footage of famous boxing matches, from the 1975 “Thrilla in Manila” to the 2015 heavyweight bout between Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Manny Pacquiao. The result is something like shuffling, juking bas-reliefs or ghosts. Invisible punches ripple through visible flesh.

These fights, between individuals, also carried the weight of nations: Mohammed Ali channeled Black America, and crowds gathered in Manila to watch Pacquiao, a Filipino politician, on giant screens.

In 2006, as the old Wembley Stadium in London was being torn down and replaced, Pfeiffer zeroed in on an Ur moment of broadcasting: the 1966 FIFA World Cup final between West Germany and England, one of the most-watched television events in British history, held at Wembley. In his three-channel installation, “The Saints,” the picture runs on a silent, isolated monitor; in another room, in split screen, he showed cutaway images of the faces of 1,000 Filipino people, many of them queer-presenting, he had hired to reprise the ’66 crowd’s English and German chants and cheers — their renditions of “Rule, Britannia!” and “Deutschland über Alles,” inside a Manila IMAX theater. This performance added a third point to the geopolitical triangle of London and Berlin, outsourcing the original emotion from Europe to the Pacific.

Making “The Saints” gave Pfeiffer an appreciation for the art of crowd control. “I realized that to get the sounds I wanted, required more manipulation than I had originally expected,” he said on the phone. He ended up plying his hired crowd with Redbull, and dividing them into teams.

A decade later, as racist rhetoric percolated into the mainstream during the Presidential election, he turned his camera on the traditions of the American South.

In 2016, Pfeiffer was a visiting faculty member at the University of Georgia, in Athens, whose Bulldogs are one of the top football teams in the country. “To me, a football game is a religious event,” Pfeiffer said. When he visited Sanford Stadium, he immediately gravitated to the Redcoats marching band, 450 pieces strong, carefully timing their salvos to whip up the home-field crowd. “The role the band plays is music production my parents would do at a service,” he said. Pfeiffer contacted the band’s director, Brett Bawcum. “He was talking about things he was doing to manipulate emotion in a very open, kind of technical way,” said Pfeiffer. They related as artists.

Pfeiffer began filming the band in action, gradually adding a crew of videographers and sound technicians. Footage from three home games became a video installation titled “Red Green Blue,” for the three colors of a TV screen, and debuted in 2022. Like his first projects, the video heightens the essence of the spectacle, but does so by exploring the margins: brass musicians’ puffing cheeks, producers cuing commercial breaks, players’ ankles on the sidelines. The camera also drifts outside the stadium, across the road, to a weathered Civil War-era cemetery; the chatter and fight songs fade to crickets and distant planes. These peaceful moments couch the contest in an eerie grace.

The collaboration led to a spectacular night at the storied Apollo Theater in Harlem. For the 2019 Performa Biennial, Pfeiffer had 50 members of the band perform, even roam backstage, while video-linked to the rest of the Redcoats players in Athens. The plan was to reprise the set, cues, stops and starts from the most recent game, the annual Military Appreciation Night, minus the action on the field.

Although the Redcoat Band stopped playing “Dixie” in 1971, they still rounded out each game with “Tara’s Theme” from “Gone with the Wind.”

“I’m saying, Paul, I can’t play ‘Tara’s Theme’ at the Apollo Theater,” Bawcum recalled in an interview. “And he understood, but he pushed back a good bit.” Ultimately, they pulled the tune — and the band retired it at home, too. Now they end each game with “Georgia on My Mind.”

What’s next for the artist? For years, Pfeiffer said, he’s been fascinated by another watershed in American culture: “The Exorcist.” He remembers being disturbed by the way adults around him discussed the 1973 film, with a mix of disgust and titillation, like a ghost story.

Pfeiffer wants to work with a scene that supposedly sent people running from the theaters. As the priest, sound recorder in hand, interviews the possessed girl, “he throws holy water on her, and she erupts in this kind of soundscape,” a cacophony made of field recordings of bees and a slaughterhouse and backward human speech, like a crowd of demons. “It was this new kind of perceptual experience,” he said, a bit awed, “that the existing apparatus wasn’t ready for.”