Please Call Stella is a video art installation by the Clarksville-based duo Kell Black and Barry Jones — both of whom also teach art at Austin Peay State University in a department known for its focus on new media. The installation was inspired by the Speech Accent Archive at George Mason University, a project that collects audio recordings of native and non-native English speakers as they utter these enigmatic instructions: "Please call Stella. Ask her to bring these things with her from the store: Six spoons of fresh snow peas, five thick slabs of blue cheese, and maybe a snack for her brother Bob. We also need a small plastic snake and a big toy frog for the kids. She can scoop these things into three red bags, and we will go meet her Wednesday at the train station."
The phrase includes nearly every sound in Standard American English, which makes it invaluable for studying the accents of various speakers. Black and Jones cut up audio recordings from the archive, manipulating the instruction's text and adding different soundtracks before marrying it all together with three projections of moving images. The resulting series of short videos explores the poetic possibilities within the phrases as well as the archive's potential as a rich reservoir of human voices.
With "Text," an English woman is heard speaking the instructions while corresponding white text pops up on the screen against a colorful, scintillating background. The whole display is set to a delightful percussive soundtrack that brings an ebullient, playful mood to the dictation. In "Hip-Hop," booming beats establish a hypnotic groove while Black and Jones set borrowed footage of dancers against a repeating rap of "Please call Stella." A Gene Kelly cameo elicits nostalgia, and a quick, jittery clip of Napoleon Dynamite dancing is surprisingly angular and kinetic. The most memorable cameo of all comes in "STELLA!" A distraught Marlon Brando raises his hands, squeezes his eyes shut and screams "Hey, Stella!" in a jerking, repetitive loop that transforms iconic anguish into insistent absurdity.
Video art apologists often contrast the setting of the gallery with that of the cinema in order to differentiate between movies and installations of moving images and sound. Many claim that a different audiovisual grammar is at play in a video art piece as compared to that of a movie. While these are important considerations, they can be taken too far. A video artist may abandon narrative or use silence and repetition in a way you'd rarely see at a weekend matinee, but the finished work is either a powerful combination of sounds and images or it is not. Despite the appearance of Mr. Brando, Please Call Stella is not a movie. It is, however, most definitely a work of art.
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