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Art as evidence

Murder, suspicion and doubt in Lauren Tyler Norby's manufactured criminal investigation

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There's a curious new storefront at 111 W. Front Street, where The Brink Gallery used to be. In the window, cheap slat blinds are drawn but turned open so you can peek through. On the glass, in an elegant font, is the new occupant's name: Crumley & Vaughn Private Investigations. From the sidewalk, it looks anonymous enough, as plain and innocuous as the law offices down the street. But go inside, and you'll find that Crumley & Vaughn Private Investigations isn't some service for finding out if your wife's sleeping with her secretary or if your potential business partner has a criminal history.

Go inside, and you'll find yourself in a strange space—a room that has the clean white walls of an art gallery, the little black-and-white TV set and long cabinet record player from your grandmother's house, the chalkboard from your elementary school class and the solid wooden desk your teacher sat behind. This is the office of Crumley & Vaughn—and it's the physical site of an expansive and complex new conceptual art piece that Lauren Tyler Norby has arranged around Missoula through the month of March.

The piece, which is also called Crumley & Vaughn Private Investigations, exists here, at 111 W. Front Street, and online, at crumleyandvaughan.com. It also exists as a surreal comic book called Adventures of Electra and Agamemnon, the yellow notebook-paper pages of which are affixed to the back wall of the Front Street space. It exists as a series of profile sketches—some cartoonish, others realistic—that are spread out on the office desk, alongside a pipe, a cigar box, a Roman bust, an old-fashioned camera and a hardcover copy of Dick Tracy. It exists as a series of audio clips that play in the office and are available online. It exists as a series of emails from Pat Stuart, who, we discover, is the office manager of Crumley & Vaughn Private Investigations. It exists as a series of screenprints and as blown-up black-and-white photos. It exists as a map of downtown Missoula with string connecting pins to sticky notes. It existed, on the night of March 21, as a five-act puppet show that entailed heavy audience participation.

And this is just a sample of the overwhelmingly disparate objects, ephemera, performances and allusions that compose Norby's beguiling piece. It's a lot to keep track of, but it helps if you begin at the beginning, with a seemingly simple question: Who killed Lauren Hawks?

This was the question that was scrawled at the top of the office chalkboard when I went to visit The Brink Gallery last week. The question was written over the ghosts of erased words—and it has probably been erased, too, by now.

It's a compelling question, but it immediately leads to others. Who is Lauren Hawks? for one. The answer, according to Norby, mastermind of her imagined death, is that Lauren Hawks is a fictional girl whose father supposedly died in a drunken-driving accident a few months ago and who, herself, was murdered in downtown Missoula in early March. As Norby—writing as office manager Pat Stuart—wrote in an email sent to subscribers to a listserv:

In Crumley & Vaughn Private Investigations at The Brink Gallery, artist Lauren Tyler Norby has pieced together evidence for a fictional murder mystery. - PHOTOS BY CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • photos by Cathrine L. Walters
  • In Crumley & Vaughn Private Investigations at The Brink Gallery, artist Lauren Tyler Norby has pieced together evidence for a fictional murder mystery.

"Lauren Hawks' death was both sad and shocking to everyone in our community, but as a former client of Crumley & Vaughn Private Investigations, her passing is particularly distressing. Although Ms. Hawks' father's death was ruled accidental by the police, our office does not believe that the evidence is conclusive. To have a second violent death within the same family in less than six months is highly suspicious, and lends credence to Ms. Hawks' concerns about a conspiracy surrounding her father Jim Hawks' death."

On behalf of Crumley & Vaughn, Pat Stuart asks her readers to "keep your mind sharp and help us bring this young woman's killer to justice." And this is what Norby asks of visitors to his show. He asks for participation—that we come into Crumley & Vaughn, immerse ourselves in the suspicious nature of Lauren Hawks' death and contribute to providing a solution to the mystery of her murder. In so doing, Norby transforms the traditionally passive experience of going to an art show into the more immersive and active experience of, say, going to see a crime film. He gives the viewer not just objects or performances but also a narrative that binds his art together, into a story. And he asks his viewers to help move the narrative along to its ending, to solve this manufactured mystery. On First Friday, participants were fingerprinted as "persons of interest" to the crime. And in the closing reception on March 28, those participants can take home screen prints that Norby made of their fingerprints.

The participatory element is an effort by Norby and gallery owner Jennifer Leutzinger to engage Missoula art-goers and push them beyond their rootedness in First Fridays. "When I first talked to Jennifer at the Brink about doing the show, we had discussed some of the interests we both had in some boundaries we wanted to push and different things we like and didn't like about arts shows and about Missoula's art scene," Norby says. "One of the things is that everything hinges on First Friday, and then these galleries are so quiet for every other night of the month—every other day of the month. And that's such a shame, because they're these beautiful spaces and there's great work and they're a great space for things to happen in."

While the procedural nature of a crime investigation has given visitors a reason to return to the Brink—and the makeshift office of Crumley & Vaughn—the mystery those visitors are trying to solve is so obscure that it's difficult to find out what the clues might be, much less where they might be or how they might be pieced together. The question of who killed Lauren Hawks is hard to answer when you aren't even sure who she is—and it's hard to care much about her death when you don't know anything about her life.

But while the coherence that's crucial to a good mystery is missing from Crumley & Vaughn, the show is rich with suspicion, doubt and possibilities. What's being interrogated doesn't have as much to do with Lauren Hawks as it does with all the objects, recordings and spaces—real and virtual—that her imagined death engendered.

"I do have all of these interests, and merging them—and presenting them cohesively—is something I've struggled with for a long time," Norby says. "I consider it less of a struggle now. It's a process and it's an evolution."

Norby, in other words, isn't as interested in the crime as he is in the evidence. And with Crumley & Vaughn Private Investigations, the evidence—the art—Norby has assembled is impressive in its scope and ambition. It makes you want to see more, even as you wonder what you're looking at.

Crumley & Vaughn Private Investigations ends with a closing reception at The Brink Gallery Fri., March 28, from 5 to 8 PM. Free.

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