An Artist’s Dozen: Todd Frugia speaks out at ROOMS Productions

Now, Speak. “My hair is falling out, my hair is falling out, my hair is falling out, my hair is falling out. All over the place in little red armies of individual hairs looking at me these hair people I try to throw them out. Like a red atomic bomb that went off all over my pillow. I feel some sense of loss.” I think I want to watch her, like this–three inches from the screen–for hours. I can’t tell you her name or even what she’s talking about–herself? Cancer? I didn’t have time to find out because a moment later I got distracted by the guy next to her (with the dreds) who I heard saying “Spilling squids.” This strange alliterative sentence caught my ear and, bashfully, I shuffled over to stand before him.

Todd Frugia’s “12 Speak,” which closes this weekend at Rooms Gallery in Pilsen, is complicated. Twelve small monitors are constantly playing back footage of free-speaking people. Sometimes one breaks down and Frugia will haphazardly restart the broken one irrespective of where the others ones are in their process. This ease with which the work can start back up perhaps stems from Mr. Frugia’s formal education and interest in theater. Similarly, he has co-opted the narrative element of theater for his current work. He says that he took what he liked from theater and brought it to art, and vice versa.

His intention for a purposeful, ambient space was skillfully accomplished (“theaterfication,” he called it). Fabric draped over windows cast tranquil light on the cool, quiet hardwood floors. Frugia and his wife own Rooms Productions, located in Rooms Gallery, and operated subsequent to their day jobs. Todd is a video producer, writing scripts and shooting commercials. I wondered, from actor, writer, director, artist, producer, how did Todd define his vocation? “[My] vocation?” He had never thought of it that way. “If you want to call me an artist, call me an artist. You want to call me an actor, producer–I don’t care. I have ideas I just want to express.”

So while it may be an “idea,” according to Todd, “12 Speak” is first and foremost a cacophonous sound that hits you the moment you walk into the gallery. You may expect all this noise to emanate from the tiny monitors, which are pleasantly arranged in a line down two separate white walls. There’s also a soft, thumping drum playing in the background as indecipherably as is each voice from the monitors. Unless you focus on it. The viewer, then, is responsible for his experience at “12 Speak.” He can choose, as Fugia says, “step back and take it as a whole,” and he will hear only noise. Or, he can choose a particular screen, step within a few inches in front of it, and share in the intimate thoughts from one of the eight men and four women featured. Some are them are shy; many are quite funny, sad and poetic. The artist humbly anticipates that perhaps this noise/focus paradigm holds some parallel to life.

The rules employed to make this piece are fairly simple. Inspired largely by Buddhist principals, Fugia expects that someone else could take this procedure and create his own “12 Speak.” In fact the number twelve is not its own source of meaning. Frugia said it could have been 15 Speak or 16 Speak if not for time and budget constraints. This is fitting with Todd’s belief that the work is “not completely dogmatic.” In fact he originally intended for it to be a single film, then once filming began he realized everyone needed his or her own monitor. Todd said he was open to change and the idea that work develops. “Meaning is where a lot of artists get tied down,” he says. While he strays away from “too much definition,” he does, however, believe in the power of ambiguity and mystery. He lets his visceral reactions guide the direction.

Watching the faces, I had a worrisome thought. What would happen to Frugia’s “12 Speak” ten, twenty, fifty years down the road? When I asked him this, he didn’t deny that unlike a painting, the complicated set-up is difficult to reproduce. But he maintains that there is a timeless aspect to the piece. “I don’t think man will ever change,” he said, “He won’t stop being egotistical, scared, lost. Life is really hard–complicated, rather–wherever you are.” Circumstances, he conceded, change the technical meaning of this difficulty we face. Yet “12 Speak” does not intend to unite us by appealing to this shared experience, necessarily. It’s more about embracing the reality, in a given moment, in our lives, of pain, not shying away from it even though it may reveal a weakness. The work makes you think, “I do have those thoughts, I do think that way.”