Artist Project: Jack + Leigh Ruby’s Car Wash Incident

5.5 / Slapstick and the Sublime

Artist Project: Jack + Leigh Ruby’s Car Wash Incident

By Simon Lee, Eve Sussman July 9, 2014

I’ve been a fan of Eve Sussman’s work from the first moment I watched her film Rape of the Sabine Women (2007) during a screening at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. I loved its cinematic texture—the way in which plot was secondary to the visual elements—and how Jonathan Bepler’s original score kept insisting on being present as a diegetic element. Since then, I’ve had the pleasure of viewing several of her collaborations with the Rufus Corporation and with Simon Lee. The thing that I love about her work, and the work of her collaborators, is how they use the vernacular of classic Hollywood and foreign film to propose poetic responses to the central and deceptively simple question, “What makes a movie?”

I think almost immediately of her 2011 video installation whiteonwhite:algorithmicnoir, which offers a full reveal of the structure of entertainment. Shot primarily in Central Asia, the video feels like the fevered dream collaboration of Jean-Luc Godard and Franz Kafka. An algorithm generates the sequence of shots on a moment-by-moment basis, with the upcoming selections queued on a monitor at the side of the room. Each viewing presents an entirely new film. While the editing structure is an essential element of whiteonwhite, the settings, production design, camera work, and acting are all clearly in dialogue with the conventions of American film noir, which makes the piece feel only more like an endless labyrinth to get lost in.   

Lee’s recent installation MOTHER IS PASSING. COME AT ONCE deconstructs the “structure of entertainment” in even more extreme ways, turning the essential elements of cinema—picture, sound, and motion—on their heads. The pictures in this case are giant collages. Motorized screens, which circumnavigate the gallery on a custom-built track, provide the animation by literally setting the pictures in motion. The “projections” that illuminate the piece are made only from shadows of objects and people within the film. The soundtrack, composed of found letters and their fictional responses being read aloud, drives whatever narrative can be read into the piece’s constituent parts.

While working on this issue, I approached Sussman to see if she might be willing to share some thoughts on the ongoing dialogue her work sparks around the intersection of and differences between entertainment and art. Rather than prepare a didactic essay, she suggested that she and Lee present a reaction to the subject based on their recent work as co-producers on a work by (former) con-artist sibling team Jack and Leigh Ruby, Car Wash Incident. The film installation is based on an actual scam carried out in 1975 by the Rubys, who became infamous for their insurance frauds that involved the falsifying of video surveillance and photos (for which they eventually served time in an Australian prison).

The resulting collaboration is a dual-screen, eight-audio-channel piece that circles and folds in on itself. True to Sussman and Lee’s previous collaborations, Car Wash Incident is meticulously shot, cast, and edited. It has the feel of a classic ’70s suspense film but never fully gives over to the action it builds toward—the scam. Rather, the film is a reenactment of the making of one of the pieces of ephemera used by the Rubys to commit their crimes, one of the falsified photos from the car-wash scam. By making a film about the making of a film that was used as a false index of “what really happened,” Sussman and Lee have constructed yet another hall of mirrors, forcing viewers to consider what is real and what is fiction and ultimately ask themselves anew, “What makes a movie?” —Jonn Herschend

Jack + Leigh Ruby. Matt's Convenience Store Robbery, evidentiary photo 21; 1975. Courtesy of the Artists. Photo: Leigh Ruby.

In 1975 Jack + Leigh Ruby’s neighbor Matt, the proprietor of a local convenience store, was having trouble making ends meet in the flagging economy of deflating upstate New York. Sandwiched between a defunct clothing shop and a car wash, his livelihood was threatened when a discount supermarket opened in town. Matt’s plan to revive his business hinged on procuring a liquor license and transforming the store into a bar. This required cash Matt didn’t have.

The Ruby siblings had patronized Matt’s store since childhood and were determined to help their friend out of the bind. Hence—Jack in his early 20’s and Leigh barely 19—they hatched their first endeavor as facilitators for insurance claims. They smashed the backdoor, ransacked the store, staged a robbery and created a handful of photos of suspicious characters engaged in questionable activity in the neighborhood.

This marked the beginning of twenty plus years in which Jack + Leigh became adept at fabricating false evidence for individuals who needed to call in their insurance adjustor. The Rubys' successful run ended in 1998 when they were caught in a fraud in which they robbed their own house.

In 2012 they embarked on a new career. They entered the art-entertainment-industrial-complex.

Jack + Leigh Ruby. Car Wash Incident, 2013; two synchronized projections, eight audio tracks on eight discreet channels; 00:40:00 (00: 06:00 excerpt). Courtesy of the Artists and Galerie Anita Beckers, Frankfurt

SON: Did she say anything to you?

MOM: I….forget.  I don’t think she said anything to me, but if she said something to me it was…nothing  important.

SON: Nothing important, Mom?  I mean, did she say something or not?

MOM: Nothing important, like she said “oh thank you” or something like that…but nothing...

SON: Did you give her...

MOM: Why are you asking me all these questions?

SON: Well, I heard you talking, did she say anything?

MOM: I thought you were kind of nervous. What is making you so nervous?

SON: Nothing, Mom. You don’t have to worry about anything.  I just want to make sure that you got rid of that bag.

MOM: Well, you know, when you’re nervous, I get nervous.

SON: You don’t have to be nervous Mom, it’s fine.

MOM: It doesn’t take anything to make me nervous.  So, you should know better.  I don’t need, I don’t need this aggravation.  It’s hot out.

SON: Mo-mom, c’mon it’s wha—

MOM: Watch out! You almost hit that guy.

SON: Do you know that guy?

MOM: I don’t know him, no. We almost hit him. I think you…I think there’s something wrong.

Excerpt from Car Wash Incident
Dialogue: Karen Hatch, Keppie

Jack + Leigh Ruby. Car Wash Car Wash, 2013; lenticular print. Courtesy of the Artists and Galerie Anita Beckers, Frankfurt. Lenticular Photography: Monia Lippi.  

MOM: Crazy Neighborhood! ... I…I..just took the bag from her and she…

SON: It’s alright, Ma, just go ahead and get in the car.

MOM: She really doesn’t like me, I can tell.

SON: She seems real pretty. I thought maybe that was the pretty girl you’re talkin’ about all the time.

MOM: I wasn’t talking about her.

SON: You know, you keep harassing me about bringing home a pretty girl.

MOM: Er, well, when are you uh—Yes! I want you to meet a pretty girl, I want you to get married and move out.

SON: We talked about this a million times, Ma.

MOM: I could make, I could, like, rent your room…and it would really help me out.

SON: Alright, if this errand comes through...if this errand comes together like I think it’s going to I am going to move out and you’re gonna wish I moved right back in.

MOM: Oh, now I feel bad. I do love you, but, it’s hard! Ever since your father died.

SON: Ohhh, don’t talk about that now, Ma....You ever been to this car wash before?

MOM: No, no. It looks like a dump.

SON: Yeeup. How much is it to get your car washed here?

MOM: I don’t know…I bet it’s not too expensive, though.

SON: We still gotta go to the grocery, right?

MOM: Yeah, I do, I do. Uncle Frank’s coming over for dinner tonight.

SON: Frank again?

MOM: Yes. I know you don’t like him.

Excerpt from Car Wash Incident
Dialogue: Karen Hatch, Jeff Wood

Jack + Leigh Ruby. Car Wash Incident, 2013; photo from model for set design for Car Wash Incident. Courtesy of Simon Lee and Eve Sussman.

Notes

  1. Car Wash Incident features Colleen Burke, Willie Cottle, Karen J. Hatch, Keppie, Algis Antanas Kizys, Sophia Lesnewski, Marsha Pels, Annette Previti, Gianna Reyes, Jim White, and Jeff Wood.
  2. Car Wash Incident was supported in part by Panavision NY and Fuji Film.

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