The two works on view evolved from the artist’s research into now-public FBI documents of secretly transcribed conversations from the Red Scare of the 1950s. Addressing the expansive net of espionage during the McCarthy era and the resulting paranoia about hidden enemies, Perlin’s work underscores parallels to current anxieties surrounding privacy and surveillance in contemporary America.
For the 16mm film (transferred to DVD), Transcript (2006), Perlin hired actors to re-create a dinner conversation between two couples in October 1953. The conversation was covertly recorded in a Greenwich Village apartment four months after the execution of alleged spies for the Soviet Union, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Against a background of jazz music, the couples discuss being called to testify in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee about their possible roles in the “Commie spy ring.” Perlin’s audio version of this conversation captures the paranoia the couples felt toward each other and their future and is accompanied by static images of a desolate, mysterious corridor in a New York City apartment building. Much of the dialogue in Perlin’s film is muffled, reflecting that the original conversation was not entirely audible to the spy. The second element of this exhibition, a 16mm stop-motion animated film loop, titled Inaudible (2006), lists a succession of words that the FBI could not hear or imagined were being spoken in the conversations that inspired Transcript.
Both works are part of Perlin Paper series, a multi-part project that takes its title from the name of an archive at Columbia University Law School. This archive contains 250,000 documents related to the case of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. For two decades after their execution, the FBI spied on hundreds of people tangentially connected to the case. The archive is named for the artist’s relative, Marshall Perlin, a lawyer who forced the U.S. government to release the papers in the early 1970s.