Every Era All at Once: On the Set of Janet Cook-Rutnik’s “Crime Seen”

By David Knight Jr. Tuesday, August 20th, 2013 Categories: Features, Updates

When I ask Janet Cook-Rutnik to tell me a little bit about her background, she begins like this: “In 1969, the day Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon, I landed in the Virgin Islands ready to begin my real life.” I admire the gift for storytelling she displays by pairing those two images of uncertain arrival. And there’s something else striking about that sentence. There are a lot of expatriates in the Caribbean who have a habit of framing their life stories as an escape from “real life” or “the real world”. In Cook-Rutnik’s personal narrative, she’s on an opposite trajectory. I like that.

Janet Cook Rutnik on set. All photographs courtesy of the artist.

Janet Cook-Rutnik on set of ‘Crime Scene’. All photographs courtesy of the artist.

In the four decades since she arrived in the U.S. Virgin Islands, Cook-Rutnik has established herself as one of the territory’s most prolific artists, first as a sculptor and a painter, and more recently in the realm of video and installation art. Since 2003, she has been collaborating with several artists and scholars on a collection of pieces called The Transfer Project. In 2017, The U.S. Virgin Islands will commemorate the 100th anniversary of transfer from Denmark to the United States, and the purpose of The Transfer Project is to inspire reflection on “the possibilities and the losses” that are woven into the last century. Often the theme of the project has been migration – the constant flow of people in and out of these islands since Transfer, the threads that connect us to the rest of the region, the U.S. mainland, and beyond. “In considering issues of relevance to the Caribbean and the small islands within it, migration seems the most  profound and constant fact of life,” Cook-Rutnik says. It may also be the hardest fact of life for us see with clarity, not only because it has bred such endless diversity of experience, but also because it demands a stance of total compassion, an embrace of what makes us least secure.

Cook-Rutnik’s newest project, entitled “Crime Seen”, is a shift in focus. While previous works in The Transfer Project have focused mostly on the turn of the 20th-century, this latest installment is firmly planted in the Danish colonial era, and specifically the world of the sugar plantation. This is perhaps a controversial change in direction, but Cook-Rutnik insists that her work remains reflective rather than dogmatic. “Because contemporary art is conceptual, cerebral, addressing social issues, it has become a new form of ‘knowledge production’, but my work is not intended to educate, but rather to stimulate thought. I’m trying to raise questions rather than make statements. The fact is that no one is interested in rehashing the past – colonial history is very complex, its imagery is rich and brutal – it is the often unacknowledged foundation of the economic world we live in – all the seeds of justice and injustice, wealth and poverty were sown during this pivotal transition from the old world to the new.”

Kayla Clendinen on the set of "Crime Seen."

Kayla Clendinen on the set of “Crime Seen.”

In the context of contemporary life on St. John, where injustice has not remained safely hidden away in the past, all of this is difficult to approach. For many of us, St. John is less an unclear history than an unsatisfactory present in which the island, now confusingly marketed in some places as the The Beverly Hills of the Caribbean, appears increasingly divided and hierarchical. St. John has had its self-anointed discovers since at least the 15th century and the latest – in a strange twist – has been the Nashville music industry selling a mass-media version of tropical escapism. The power to shape personal identity on St. John seems mostly to flow from the aggressive machinery of the tourist economy and a relationship of dependence with the mainland. Meanwhile entire realities become buried.

Will reflection on Danish colonial history help us sort through all of this? Are we even comfortable and secure enough to have a dialogue about history that celebrates multiplicity, a dialogue that acknowledges histories plural? I am not sure.

Regardless, it is with the baggage of an island that I arrive at the ruins of Estate Catherineberg on St. John with media artist Bill Steltzer. Cook-Rutnik, who has chosen this historic site for the photo shoot portion of “Crime Seen”, has not yet arrived. Neither have the models, a few coming from St. Thomas, who will be posing in Danish-era costumes in conceptual scenes around the ruins. Karen Samuel, a St. Johnian artist known for her painting but who has joined this project as the costume designer, is waiting in her car, parked below the sugar mill. Bill has brought his camera equipment and technical expertise. I have come as an observer.

As Bill Steltzer sets up his camera equipment in the room below the sugar mill – a circular room which may be a chapel, and which is unique to this plantation, at least on St. John – the models begin to arrive and change into costume. I notice a pattern of silence, not quite discomfort, but introspection. As people disappear into their assigned historical roles of plantation owner, overseer, field laborer, it becomes clear that as a group we mostly lack the shared impressions and values to talk about the past. But there are moments on St. John when different time periods clash in startling ways. One of the models, Kalon Frett, shares his fond childhood memories of listening to his grandmother speak Negerhollands, a Creole language that was spoken in the Virgin Islands until the 20th century. Meanwhile, a National Park vehicle appears and a ranger questions what we are doing in the ruins (our permits are in order), while every so often curious tourists poke their heads below the mill, confused and apologetic, asking if we are filming a movie.

Deanna Somerville on the set of “Crime Seen.”

Deanna Somerville on the set of “Crime Seen.”

Cook-Rutnik, for her part, is not intimidated by the past or the present, and her energy on the set of the photo shoot is something to admire. New things seem to be occurring to her at the project’s every turn, and her blend of improvisation and perfectionism – she rearranges some scenes several times – is exciting. “All art for me is an experiment and each piece is a surprise – one must have a plan and an idea, but the final work will always be something different, something unexpected.” As I watch the events of the day unfold, I begin to see that what interests Cook-Rutnik about the colonial era is its highly damaging effect on human relations. The Danish colonial setting is almost incidental. The photo shoot turns out to be mostly abstract, driven by the symbolism of props. A colonial wig stands in for authority. A doll for innocence. Gauze bandages suggest the wounds we inherit from our histories.

Karen Samuel bandages Clendinen for the photo shoot.

Karen Samuel bandages Clendinen for the photo shoot.

When I ask Janet how art based on history can avoid “yellowing into polemic or evaporating into pathos,” a quote I borrow from Derek Walcott, she responds with good humor. “I am interested in learning about the effect of the past on the present. Recently I came across William Faulkner’s comment that ‘Not only is the past always present, it isn’t even past’ which is funny, frustrating, and true. As we look out at the world around us, we see the vestiges of the past here: the overgrown grass, the ground eaten down to dirt by goats, the ruins, stone monuments to past glories and infamies; and then, there is the internal landscape. Why do we feel the way we do at times – inadequate, full of shortcomings, unable to measure up or satisfy the expectations of those who came before us, or perhaps guilty because we just want to be free of it all? Depending on how one approaches the burden of history, it can become a kind of quicksand that accomplishes nothing more than adding insult to injury. The living, breathing reality is that he who knows it bears it well and quietly.” Quicksand: Cook-Rutnik uses the same term again later in our conversation. The more one struggles not to be determined by history, the stronger the pull?

Weeks later, when I meet Cook-Rutnik for lunch, she is still thinking of ways to approach the subject of her piece without raising divisive issues. Where, after all, is the line between appropriating another’s history, and reflecting on the sprawling human universe that exists inside the compact and complicated histories of the Danish West Indies? I don’t know the answer to that question, but Cook-Rutnik seems to be instinctually headed towards a more fragmentary presentation. “I am contemplating a large exhibition that will include a 3 dimensional installation with figures, photographs and fragments of images from the shoot we did, and photos of paintings from the 18th and 19th centuries that deal with Colonial history and little known facets of the period. I want to start with an open dialogue with local scholars in order to achieve some common ground to work from,” Cook-Rutnik says. It may be the only way to talk about the sheer instability of the past as it melts into our current perceptions. “[The representation of history] requires a falsification of perspective,” W. G. Sebald wrote in The Rings of Saturn. “We, the survivors, see everything from above, see everything at once, and still we do not know how it was.”

Josh Germain on the set of "Crime Seen."

Josh Germain on the set of “Crime Seen.”

St. John is a small place, and our concerns, the daily politics of this society, any so called “quarrels with history” we might have, may appear inconsequential to those for whom tiny islands are only a source of pleasure. I ask Cook-Rutnik about this issue – the dissonance involved in talking about St. John in the language of contemporary art when it often feels like the language of someplace far away – she expresses some pessimism, the first I have heard from her:

“We are not [an equal] part of the US, we are not an island nation, we are not foreign and we are not domestic – we simply do not exist. If this is the language you are talking about, which relates to identity in the broad sense of geographical, national, ethnic concerns, then yes, it’s true this island’s voices are often not heard.”

This sounds to me like the inevitable condition of artists working in dependent territories. The struggle is not just to learn to express, but also to simply exist; to assert, as Janet Cook-Rutnik is always keen to do, that each life, each world, is as “real” as any other.

David Knight Jr.

David Knight Jr. is a writer from St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands who is currently based on St. Thomas. He is the co-founder and co-editor of the online journal Moko. His criticism has appeared in ARC, The Caribbean Review of Books, Caribbean Beat, and The Caribbean Writer.