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During the 1970s, American artist William Wegman created seven reels of short video works including many created in collaboration with his canine companion, Man Ray. Distinctive from both other artists’ use of video in the era and his own work in other media (most notably, photography), the vignettes and sketches that comprise his prolific early video production provide a site for understanding the nature of human-canine collaboration in screen media – and the possibility of canine artistic agency – prior to the 21st century boom in interspecies art. These video works have received minimal scholarly attention beyond Susan McHugh’s 2001 analysis,1 which established how their “pack aesthetics” (or collaborative production) troubles the notion of singular artistic agency. Further displacing anthropocentric aesthetic agency, this article focuses on the intra-action2 of human and nonhuman playmates, focusing on human-canine entanglement through play. I revisit the videos through new frameworks, not only accounting for developments in animal studies, posthumanism, and new materialism since McHugh’s article, but also centralising the concept of play (as befits the videos’ depiction of joint engagement in non-serious games/activities). Drawing on intersections of new materialism and play theory developed by Loretta Fois3 and Brian Massumi,4 this article considers how play and improvisation in Wegman/Man Ray’s video art create radically different dynamics to Wegman’s later photographic work featuring his signature anthropomorphism of Weimaraners. The framework of play helps us to reconceptualise what is occurring between human and nonhuman participants as “a co-constitutive event”,5 with video art and West Coast Conceptualism providing a forum for playful “entangled intra-relating”.6 This re-examination of Wegman/Man Ray’s 1970s video art demonstrates how the absurdist, conceptual humour is generated by playful intra-action between human and nonhuman “actants”7 and invites us to reconsider the centrality of play to human-canine communication and aesthetics onscreen.

William Wegman’s Video Works 1970-1977

Wegman’s 1970s videos do not exclusively focus on Man Ray, although videos such as Spelling Lesson and Dog Duet (a.k.a. Two Dogs) tend to be the most well remembered and frequently mentioned.8 The 142 videos contained in Spit Sandwich and Reels 1 to 7, made between 1970 and 1977,9 can generally be placed into four categories in which Wegman plays with 1) his own body; 2) props; 3) language; or 4) Man Ray. This article focuses on the latter category, using human-canine play to better understand the videos and their appeal. However, it is important to acknowledge that Wegman’s range of videos employ different kinds of play. For instance, in line with other early video art’s exploration of the body, Wegman plays with his own body in videos such as Stomach Song, Tonsil Song, Elbows, Bubble Up and Nosy. Wegman’s use of humour locates him in his West Coast Conceptualism context (discussed below), along with other artists such as John Baldessari, but in contrast to the many of the most iconic examples of early video artist using the body such as Vito Acconci’s Pryings (1971), Marina Abramović’s Art Must Be Beautiful, Artists Must Be Beautiful (1975), or Bruce Nauman’s Art Make-Up (1967-1968) and Stamping in the Studio (1968).10 Another common category of video sees Wegman playing with props, for example, jiggling a roll of sticky tape (Dancing Tape), spraying deodorant (Deodorant), pointing to the features of a product or object (Dual Function; Massage Chair; Crooked Finger, Crooked Stick; Straw and String), or playing with other domestic objects or children’s toys (Hot Sake; Hidden Utensil; Caspar; Hobo on Train). The prop use facilitates incongruity humour, with some videos functioning primarily as visual puns, while in other videos the incongruity operates between image and language (when Wegman holds a prop onscreen as he tells a story or anecdote). In the latter type, prop use is more supplementary to a play with language – another common category of Wegman’s videos. The language-focused videos often feature Wegman on screen, for example, Reel 3 begins with a series of videos (Stick and Tooth; Emperor and Dish; Lucky T-Shirt; Rage and Depression; Speed Reading; Born With No Mouth) in which a seated Wegman tells short humorous stories in his deadpan style, typically with one or two props.11 A variation on these medium-shot framings of Wegman are close-ups of his mouth as he tells a story or struggles to recite the alphabet (Contract; Bad Movies; Oh Boy, Fruit; Alphabet). Some of the language-focused videos do not feature Wegman on screen but instead use voiceover with a shot of written text (Copyright; Name Board; Criticize; Sanforized) or a static shot of a prop (Anet and Abtu; In the Cup; Peck and Chuck; Peck and Chuck B). The use of props, language and text in these videos reflect the way that puns in art “create new associations and meanings through word play, and the relationships between text and images.”12 While my interest is in nonhuman animals and Wegman’s play with Man Ray, the new materialist and play frameworks explored in this article can similarly be applied to the above categories of Wegman’s videos to understand the collaboration with different nonhuman actants such as the props and the video apparatus itself. 

Deodorant

Stick and Tooth

Contract

Wegman was frustrated that viewers tended to assume the videos were exclusively about Man Ray: “although I used him in only about 10 percent of the photographs and videotapes, most people think of him as omnipresent in my work.”13 I would suggest the glossing over of other types of videos is because the Man Ray ones are often more engaging; they go beyond Wegman’s solo performances to utilise relational and collaborative cross-species artistic agency with typically playful scenarios that have unpredictable outcomes (as exemplified in the challenging games of Treat Bottle and Ball and Can, discussed below). Furthermore, as I argue in this article, the interspecies play contributed to the inventiveness of his video art and came to shape his subsequent artistic output. Videos focused on Man Ray, or on Wegman and Man Ray’s interactions, comprise approximately a third of the videos. While Wegman’s videos are typically very short (commonly under one minute and rarely above two minutes), of the six longest videos (between three and eight minutes in duration), half are focused on Man Ray: Cape On (4:39), Treat Bottle (4:18), and Ball and Can (6:28). Beyond his appearances in Reels 1-7, Man Ray also features in two separate (comparably long) colour videos, Man Ray, Man Ray (5:23) and Gray Hairs (5:10). Man Ray, Man Ray is “an ironic parody of the biographical documentary” in which the deadpan narration about the life of human artist Man Ray is “hilariously at odds with the corresponding visual enactments of the canine Man Ray”.14 Gray Hairs is a close-up study of Man Ray’s hair as he sleeps – the camera pans over his body, with the double-exposure overlaying two different areas. In this intimate portrait, different sounds of Man Ray’s panting and breathing accompany the hair-filled frame, with the final shot showing his nose against the microphone. 

Grey Hairs

These separate videos – and the centrality of Wegman’s dogs in his subsequent film, video, and photography work15 – cement the significance of Man Ray in Wegman’s video art (and his oeuvre more broadly) and are shaped by the human-canine intra-action (or “mutual constitution of entangled agencies”16) documented in the 1970s reels.

Animal Artistic Agency

Wegman was not unique amongst American artists working with animal collaborators in the period – for instance, Carolee Schneeman’s cat provided the authorial eye in Fuses (1967) and a coyote co-starred in Joseph Beuys’ I Like America, and America Likes Me (1974)17 – but his long-term and transformative collaboration with Man Ray raises interesting questions of animal aesthetic agency. “Agency” here can be defined simply as the role and control that the animal collaborator has in determining an artwork’s outcome, aesthetics, and meaning. Man Ray’s role in Wegman’s videos opens up questions of agency including how “Man Ray emerges not as a mirror for the artist but as an active contributor to an artistic process geared to critique rather than to sustain artistic narcissism.”18 McHugh’s analysis not only points to canine aesthetic agency in Wegman’s early video work, but also to “how the interlacing of human and canine engagements with the art-making scene compels reconceptualization of human as well as animal aesthetic agency.”19 McHugh argues that Wegman’s work with Man Ray “troubles the erasure of the animal in contemporary conceptions of artistic authority,”20 an erasure that has since been grappled with in 21st century art, arts criticism, and animal studies. McHugh’s examination of Wegman’s video art – and Man Ray’s artistic agency within the creation of these works – contributed to the era’s scholarly and artistic critical examination of the role of animals in art. Another quarter of a century later, Wegman’s video art warrants further examination in light of these and other developments including critical posthumanism and feminist new materialist theories of agency, as well as developments in interspecies art. While Wegman’s later work with dogs stands in pointed contrast to his 1970s videos, undermining “a sustained critique of the confluence of anthropocentrism and artistic agency,”21 such a critique has been taken up by other artists and theorists in the 21st century. Contemporary interspecies art underscores how “artistic agency does not have to be understood as the capacity of some exceptional human genius but rather as a distributive and relational phenomenon.”22 Wegman’s 1970s reels remain an important precursor to the animal turn in contemporary art and the surge of interspecies art, which “in its ideal form… is dialogic and respectful in its engagement with the animal involved and attributes a value of its own to the creativity of the non-human participant.”23

McHugh explores the marked contrast between Wegman’s 1970s experimental video work and his later dog images to elucidate the radical potential of the former. She notes a shift in his work from the 1970s to the 1990s, arguing that later images “reflect increasing restrictions on what I term the ‘pack aesthetics,’ or collaborative production of art and artistic agency, that distinguish some of the early pieces.”24 McHugh is most interested in Wegman’s early work with Man Ray as it “communicates the idea that dogs contribute to the art-making process.”25 I agree with McHugh that in Wegman’s later art, “the human artist regains control over the terms on which dogs contribute to the production,”26 and thus, similarly find it less interesting than the 1970s video art. Even by 1983, Craig Owens identified that Wegman’s Polaroids “appear to reinstate the aura of mastery that Wegman once refused,” not only through technical virtuosity but because “Man Ray is used in an entirely different manner… Man Ray behaves less, as in earlier works, as a foil that deflects Wegman’s designs on him, and more like a passive and submissive model.”27 While McHugh and Owens demarcate work of the two periods in terms of canine aesthetic agency, it is worthwhile also noting that some qualities developed in the videos carried over to later canine-focused works. For instance, the deadpan humour that marks many of his language-based videos – and the incongruity humour that commonly underpins the videos’ jokes – is sustained in his photography in the serious posing of a dog in human clothing (particularly haute couture) or his “anthropomorphic verticals,” in which the human limbs of Wegman’s assistants poke out of the dog’s clothing to creating humorous dog-human hybrids (in a kind of inverse of the Tails video where Man Ray’s tail pokes out from behind Wegman as the punchline). 

Tails

New Materialist Theories of Play

Fois extends our understanding of artistic agency by applying Karen Barad’s theory of agential realism to creative play between human and nonhuman counterparts. Fois’ analysis of the jam – “an informal and collaborative creative gathering” that contains “a sense of shared ownership and agency” – provides a useful framework for understanding play in the context of creative production (or what Fois terms “creative play”).28 While “jamming” is particularly associated with musicians, the term has been applied to a variety of artforms and is applicable to the improvisatory and performative video art created by Wegman and Man Ray. In bringing together Barad’s agential realism and Hans-Georg Gadamer’s theory of play, Fois interprets the jam as not only a “ludic dialogue” but “a transformative event of genuine intrasubjective dialogue.”29 Pushing McHugh’s recognition of animal agency in Wegman’s art further, by using Fois’ Baradian framework of creative play, we can understand Wegman and Man Ray’s “jamming” as intra-acting. The players or agents are then not bringing individual artistic agency to the work, but rather, agency is created through the dialogic relationship established in play. Fois’ take on the jam de-centres the human by positioning them as a participant (as opposed to the only protagonist) in the entanglement.30

Like Fois, Massumi draws on a classic theory of play – in this case Gregory Bateson’s “A Theory of Play and Fantasy”31 – to underpin a new materialist understanding of human/nonhuman improvisation and creativity. Massumi notes that “Bateson’s discussion of animal play revolves around difference,” which is productive for Massumi in developing his concept of mutual inclusion, defined as a “reciprocal imbrication of differences.”32 Massumi’s starting point of difference – and reliance on play theory – lends itself to understanding Wegman’s 1970s work, as there was a playful focus on difference and duality from the beginning of his West Coast output as exemplified in the diptych Light Off/Light On (1970) and Big and Little (1971),33 which carries through to video works such as Milk/Floor and Dog Duet. In Massumi’s understanding then, “Play is a dynamic complex, an integral field of differential action, diversely cohering in mutual inclusion,”34 which in turn is a productive way of thinking about the human-canine play in the Wegman/Man Ray videos. The unscripted pro-filmic antics between Wegman and Man Ray in the studio (marked by repetition and variation through daily practice) find apt description in Massumi’s conception of play as “the arena of activity dedicated to the improvisation of gestural forms, a veritable laboratory of forms of live action.”35 Building on Massumi’s suggestion that “the power of variation learned in play, the improvisational prowess it hones… gives an animal the upper hand” (for example, in combat or flight from a predator),36 I posit that Wegman gained an “upper hand” in the art world through his play with Man Ray, as it enabled him to hone his improvisational prowess and provided his work’s inventiveness or “the new.” As a playmate and artistic collaborator, Man Ray helped Wegman inject a sense of frivolity into the ‘serious’ use of video in the period (such as the documenting durational performance centred on the human body) and shifted Wegman’s focus from performance to play and from narcissism to dynamic human/non-human intra-action, which distinguished his work from contemporaries and aided the development of his aesthetic and canine-centric brand.

Context for Play: Californian Conceptualism, Body Art and Video Art

Wegman was associated with West Coast (a.k.a. Californian) Conceptualism, an art movement that can be understood as the context for play in his video art. According to Miguel Sicart’s theory of play, play is contextual and “all contexts of play have rules of some type.”37 West Coast Conceptualism was a conducive context for play, variously described as having “a decidedly whimsical air,”38 “a wide comedic streak” and “a tendency to prefer zaniness to braininess.”39 Artists associated with Californian Conceptualism produced work “that aligned arid didacticism with visual jokes and wordplay,”40 a hallmark evident in the categories of Wegman’s videos outlined above. His videos can be regarded as “part of a current of so-called ‘visual puns’ that was especially successful in Los Angeles at that time.”41 Before/On/After: William Wegman and California Conceptualism, a 2018 exhibition at The Metropolitan Museum of Art (The Met), presented the development of West Coast Conceptual art as a response to the East Coast variety, “where it was this very mandarin, severe form of image-text combination.”42 Curator Doug Eklund reflects that it was “as if these artists were trying to deal with the view that New Yorkers had of LA,” for instance, in their work’s inherent “self-aware dumbness” and use of “failure as an aesthetic strategy,”43 which are exemplified in Wegman’s videos. Reflecting Conceptualism’s interest in chance and failure, Wegman’s humour is underpinned by themes of discrepancy, frustration, disappointment and failure: “the failure of words to correspond to images, feelings to expressions, actions to results.”44 In Conceptualism and its predecessors (like Fluxus and Neo Dada), chance was a way to challenge the artist’s control, and the role of chance in Wegman’s games with Man Ray additionally challenge the human artist’s control through interspecies collaboration, miscommunication, and shared agency. 

The context of West Coast Conceptualism is important for understanding Wegman and Man Ray’s play because on one level, what is being played with are the rules of Conceptualism. In Sicart’s theory of play, “Rules are another prop that can be targeted by the transformative capacities of play,”45 and in Wegman’s videos, the rules of Conceptualism are targeted and transformed. Through an art history lens, the play and the humour of Wegman’s videos can be interpreted as a response to mid-century East Coast Conceptualism: “it took a real jokester to truly turn these paradigms around, to show how opaque and forbidding orders could actually reinforce stoic notions about art.”46 For instance, Cat Kron reads Spelling Lesson, a short video in which Wegman corrects Man Ray’s spelling of “beach” (“You spelled it B-E-E-C-H… We meant beach like the sand”), as a “canny parody of Conceptual prescriptivism”47 (reminiscent of John Baldessari’s 1972 video, Teaching a Plant the Alphabet, and perhaps making fun of Joseph Kosuth’s work). The types of humour that Wegman uses to play with Conceptualism’s rules (such as puns, nonsense, absurdity, and “dumbness”) is consistent with other West Coast artists’ work. As Eklund argues, the references and jokes about art are “an extra layer” but there is “an immediate layer where you don’t have to have that knowledge to ‘get it.’”48

Another important context is “the aesthetics of narcissism”49 that marked early video art, which collaboration with Man Ray helped Wegman circumvent or break away from. Starting with the example of Vito Acconci’s Centers (1971), a 20-minute work in which Acconci films himself pointing at the centre of a video monitor, Rosalind Krauss finds “a narcissism so endemic to works of video that I find myself wanting to generalize it as the condition of the entire genre.”50 Krauss identifies Acconci’s use of the video monitor as mirror to be a structural characteristic of the video medium (as it was used by artists in that early period from the late 1960s), with Bruce Nauman’s Revolving Upside Down (1968) and Lynda Benglis’s Now (1973) providing further examples of “the double effect of the performance-for-the monitor.”51 Wegman’s videos echo this use of the monitor as mirror, as he has explained in accounts of his process: “I arranged the monitor, the camera, and myself in this sort of triangle that made it more of a performance for myself. I could see what I was doing and modify it from there.”52 With this set-up, “Positioned as both subject and object of the look, he reenacts the narcissistic fantasy of simultaneously occupying two positions, of being in two places at the same time.”53 However, as Owens’ psychoanalytic reading suggests, Man Ray disrupts this narcissistic fantasy in Wegman’s work. Wegman himself recognised the important role Man Ray played in this respect: “There’s always the risk in video of putting yourself on TV, being narcissistic. I think Man Ray diverted all that.”54 What is exposed in the videos is an “ultimate failure of the ego’s narcissistic attempts to appropriate the other as one of the modes of its consciousness, of itself” because of the way Man Ray came to represent a “third person” or “that measure of alterity that can never be fully assimilated or mastered.”55 The explicit refusal of mastery and theme of failure in the videos led toward a different mode of human/nonhuman relationality: “when we laugh at Man Ray’s foiling of Wegman’s designs, we are also acknowledging the possibility, indeed the necessity, of another, non-narcissistic mode of relating to the Other – one based not on the denial of difference, but upon its recognition.”56 The shared agency and entanglement forged through the Wegman/Man Ray videographic play resists the potential narcissism of early video art and instead works toward a co-constitutive event or what Fois terms “thirdness” (“an act of creation” that “brings new consciousness and an awareness of the other”).57

His videos are also consistent with other characteristics of early video art, such as the use of the human body (typically the body of the artist-practitioner) “as its central instrument,”58 though I suggest that Wegman departs from this in turning his focus to Man Ray’s body in videos including Eyes of Ray and Gray Hairs. McHugh has noted that “Formal aspects of Body Art structure pieces such as Treat Bottle,” describing this video as “a mirror in form of Stomach Song.”59 Failure is another characteristic of early video art (e.g. Richard Serra’s Hand Catching Lead, 1968) reflected in Wegman’s videos and similarly often connected to humour. Wegman eschewed the “aesthetic of boredom” that marked the video art of his contemporaries, instead presenting short, punchy and humorous sketches that were influenced by advertising, television, and comedians such as Bob and Ray (whose improvisation, deadpan style, and satirizing of the medium they worked in is reflected in Wegman’s videos).60 Both through these formal departures and Man Ray’s presence, Wegman was able to avoid video art’s “aesthetics of narcissism.” With Man Ray either comically mirroring Wegman or disrupting his narcissism, their video art plays with what Krauss calls “the narcissistic enclosure inherent in the video-medium.”61 In their counterpoint to the aesthetics of boredom, Wegman and Man Ray’s humorous improved scenarios prefigure the format of 21st century canine-centric social media videos. While the present article focuses on the art historical context for play in the Wegman/Man Ray videos, the centrality of humour, the format of the sketch, and the influence of television and advertising foreshadowed aspects of animal-centric videos in more recent media culture. Short videos of dogs proliferate in digital cultures, with pets (and other non-human animals) hyper-prevalent on photo- and video-sharing platforms such as Instagram, YouTube and TikTok.62 The circulation of this imagery is shaped by social modalities of the attention economy, the cute economy, and neoliberalism;63 this is a distinct context from 1970s video art, yet there are surprising similarities between the videos worthy of elaboration in future research. 

Categories of Wegman/Man Ray Videos

Below I examine the videos featuring Man Ray in Wegman’s 1970-1977 reels, categorising them according to the five different types of interaction or play in order to reveal the dynamic of their artistic collaboration and the videos’ potential for playful intra-action. The first type are simple plays with canine attention, concentration, or engagement, representing a kind of fascination with dogs’ fascination with us (thereby containing a mirroring that is commonly seen across categories). Videos in this category involve Wegman playing with Man Ray’s gaze by using a prop such as a treat or tennis ball (Raise Treat; Dog Duet; Two Dogs) and/or language that Man Ray recognises (including his name in Calling Man Ray, “do you want to go…” in Man Ray, Do You Want To?, and “ball” and “get it” in Dr. Joke). The minute-long Moby Dick, in which Man Ray sits centre frame with his gaze slowly moving side to side following an offscreen sound, captures the simplicity of this common type of video. The most well-known of this group is Dog Duet, in which the synchronous gaze of two dogs (Man Ray and German short-haired pointer) follows an offscreen object in different directions. The popularity of this video may be attributable to the beauty in the synchronicity (and then mirroring, when at one point their heads turn in different directions), as well as how the viewer’s attention mirrors the concentration of the dogs’ gaze, and the fact that the conceit also operates as a game with viewers (as we become curious about what the dogs are looking at until a ball is positioned right in front of the lens at the end). 

Do You Want To

Calling Man Ray

Dog Duet

There is a play here with suspense and, as McHugh argues, with manipulation: “The video quietly reverses its structure of human manipulation (teasing the dogs with the ball) by positioning the shared intelligence of the dogs as coming before the human, ‘magically’ revealed at the end.”64 In new materialist terms, this video foregrounds the shared agency of the performance on screen and illustrates Fois’ argument that “in play the inseparability of nonhuman elements such as sound, movement, animals, and material objects come to the forefront through validating the embodied dynamics of human and nonhuman factors.”65 More than in still photography, Wegman’s videos display these embodied dynamics, for instance, in Dog Duet’s balletic yet unpredictable movements and the shifting relations between human and nonhuman participants (including the spectator). 

The second category of Wegman/Man Ray videos involves physical mirroring or intimacies, showing the commonalities and connections between their interspecific bodies. In Milk/Floor, for example, Wegman moves on hands and knees from foreground to background, dribbling a line of milk on the floor. Once he has moved off screen, Man Ray enters and retraces the line, licking up the milk until his nose hits the camera’s lens and the video ends. Tails is a game that also serves as a visual pun: Wegman is curled over with his head resting on his hands while Man Ray barks, wags his tail, does a play bow, and then goes behind Wegman where his upright tail lines up with Wegman’s body (appearing as though the wagging tail belongs to Wegman). In Growl, it is a canine voice coupled to Wegman’s body – a dog growls on the soundtrack while Wegman onscreen mimes the action in time. This one-minute video is simple mimetic play but also displays the incongruity humour and theme of difference common in Wegman’s art. Starter similarly uses what Robert W. Mitchell categorises as third-level play (teasing or mimetic play) as Wegman holds a microphone near Man Ray’s mouth and presses on his nose, playing with his growls (the title suggesting imitation of a starter motor). In teasing play, “actions are used to instigate or manipulate others in a surprising or irritating way,”66 which we commonly see Wegman engage in with Man Ray. 

Milk Floor

Milk Floor

Starter

Night Song involves mimetic play with human and canine vocalisation – both curled with heads together on the couch, Wegman makes whiny humming noises into the microphone and Man Ray starts to echo. Another intimate game between the two is The Kiss, in which their bodies fill the frame as they lie next to each other on the floor, with Man Ray’s head above Wegman’s as he tries to get the treat that Wegman holds in his mouth. In Stalking, the camera’s body becomes involved as a third actant or player in the intimate intra-action (in contrast to its standard fixed position in Wegman’s videos). This video presents Wegman’s (presumed) point-of-view of Man Ray inviting him to play, using a very close and mobile camera that provides a sense of what it feels like to be invited to play via the canine behavioural gesture of a “play bow”. The camera is less filming than playing with Man Ray, moving in closer to respond to the play bow and further provoking Man Ray’s excitement, affectively responding to his running around in mirroring the frenetic action. The soundtrack also contributes to the dizzying game, with thumps of the play bow, Man Ray’s scrambling paws running on the floor, and his play barks. Stalking is distinctive in its clear illustration of human and nonhuman actants entangled in a responsive and improvisatory co-creative process, presenting a proximate and affective encounter with the playful agential forces of the dog and the camera. 

Night Song

The Kiss

Stalking

A third category of Wegman/Man Ray videos sees the pair playing with props or toys, including technology (particularly the microphone). Their play in the studio with the video apparatus initiated their collaboration:

I brought him into my studio when I was just starting to do the video in LA, and he was always really interested when I was trying to figure out how to hook the stuff up. He seemed to get this really weird attachment to the microphone. It’s almost like a bone so in one video I threw it to him and he retrieved it, and it made this horrendous sound. So he was always helping me think of stuff to do and he was really my art partner.67

Microphones feature in several videos, for instance, in Tube Talk, Wegman and Man Ray use a long white pipe with microphone inside to play both physically and with sound. Wegman encourages Man Ray to “go on, get it” as he taps the tube and holds it up while Man Ray playfully tries to grab it (his success marking the end of the video). Drinking Milk presents an extreme close-up of Man Ray drinking a full glass of milk. Once he finishes, he laps up the milk that overflowed, nudging the glass around and moving right up to the microphone that comes into view as the cup is moved to the side (and the camera follows). The final shot of Gray Hairs, showing Man Ray’s nose against the microphone, echoes this conclusion, and this video in general plays with the abstraction of the sounds of Man Ray’s panting and breathing caused by the microphone’s close proximity. Videos in this category involve a study of a Man Ray’s interactions with or reactions to human tools, such as a microphone or an alarm clock (in Wake Up; Alarm A; Alarm B). As with Stalking, the audiovisual apparatus is a nonhuman actant in the collaboration, entering the game and partially determining the play. 

Tube Talk

Drinking Milk

Wake Up

Another category of Wegman/Man Ray videos involves Wegman setting up challenges for Man Ray to complete, which provide an embedded narrative structure including a resolution (and pay-off for the viewer) with his success. For Treat Bottle, Wegman puts a glass bottle containing a treat on the floor. Man Ray sniffs the treat and tries to get it out of the bottle (using his paw and nose, pushing it around the floor, and picking it up several times in his mouth). Distinctive for its longer duration and the way the camera follows the action (as most of Wegman’s videos involve a single static shot), this video creates tension in the question of whether and how Man Ray will get the treat, but also in the danger of the broken glass after the bottle breaks. Ball and Can (6:28) is similarly longer than other videos as Wegman (and the viewer) wait for Man Ray to complete a challenge. Here Man Ray, seated with a can in front of him, repeatedly chews a ball a few times and then drops it, each time missing the can. Wegman periodically adjusts the position of the can to where the ball was last dropped, repositions Man Ray to sit centre frame, and demonstrates getting the ball in the can. The viewer and Man Ray are initially aligned, not knowing the object of the game, but then we become invested (and perhaps impatient) to see him get the ball in the can. This video exemplifies themes of failure, frustration, and cluelessness, which are further underscored in the following category.

Treat Bottle

Ball and Can

A final category involves play with incongruity, absurdity, or misunderstanding – playing off the species difference and their different languages as Man Ray and Wegman interact. Interestingly, these videos that emphasize difference and incongruity (as opposed to connection, intimacy, or mutual play) tend to be the ones that other critics have discussed the most. The above-mentioned Spelling Lesson, which Wegman has described as his best video,68 is exemplary in this category. Wegman similarly takes on a teacher role in an absurd situation for Smoking, in which he explains to Man Ray how to smoke and encourages him to try it. Man Ray is attentive to Wegman’s words but turns his head away every time Wegman brings the cigarette close to his mouth, sometimes standing up and moving away. Wegman is persistent until Man Ray walks off. As McHugh’s analysis of these two videos highlights, they both present Wegman and Man Ray “onscreen together in situations that directly address human-canine interactions” and display their “frustrated attempts at communication”:69

the videos make plain the clash between species-specific cultures that makes the interspecific premise simultaneously evident and preposterous. In other words, their sharp demarcation of the limit of cross-species understanding reveals a distinct, if limited, exchange of ideas between dog and man and across overlapping systems of thought.70

These videos underscore difference and a fundamental absurdity in trying to get Man Ray to conform to human activities such as spelling and smoking.

Spelling Lesson

Smoking

Read in the context of other Wegman/Man Ray videos however, they can also be (less generously) understood as an expression of Wegman’s frustration with Man Ray’s lack of conformity to his instruction and artistic intent. Other videos in this category take this further in ways that further reduce the interspecies mutuality of play displayed in different categories of Wegman/Man Ray videos; they instead see Man Ray manipulated to Wegman’s choreography or developing artistic focus on the posed Weimaraner (central to his iconic photography). In Cape On, Man Ray sits centre frame with a cape draped around him, slowly moving his head side to side (his gaze clearly following an offscreen object). After a cut, Man Ray is positioned to face away from the camera and the action is repeated, the slow turn of his head side to side showing him in profile. This video fits with the category of plays with attention, but more significant is the foreshadowing of the dressing up and posing of dogs seen in Wegman’s famous Polaroids. In this moving image version though, the posing is disrupted when Man Ray jumps up and turns around, too excited by the game to stay posed. On The Ball involves a series of formal poses and again uses cuts (rather than one long take) to show different positions of Man Ray’s body (serving as an early precursor to Alphabet Soup, in which Wegman’s later Weimaraners – Fay, Chundo, Batty, and Crooky – configure the letters of the alphabet with their bodies). While On The Ball omits any instruction or interaction between Wegman and Man Ray involved in achieving these positions, Cord Walk displays its physical manipulation of Man Ray’s body onscreen as Wegman pulls a cord attached to Man Ray’s back leg in different directions. As with Cape On, Man Ray disrupts the action at the video’s conclusion, walking off with the cord dragging behind him. 

Cape On

On the Ball

Cord Walk

Coin Toss similarly displays Wegman’s physical manipulation of Man Ray, positioning him with either his head or tail facing the camera according to the outcome of each coin toss (a conceit that reflect Conceptualism’s interest in chance). Man Ray stands perfectly still, cooperating but yawning several times (which is a marker of situational stress or anxiety in dogs). Wegman also physically manipulates the cooperative Man Ray in New and Used Car Salesman, pulling up his lip and poking his paws to demonstrate that Man Ray trusts him (as part of his car salesman pitch that he’s a trustworthy and kind person). Although McHugh finds that in this video “the cross-species interaction signals the development of a dialectical form in which canine-human interaction and artistic self-reflexivity intersect,”71 in general videos this category are less reliant on “a shared agency in which the distinction between subject and object, I and thou, player and playee is blurred”72 (i.e. intra-action) and instead see Wegman manipulate Man Ray akin to the way he utilises other nonhuman props (reinforcing a subject/object separation that is closer to a Cartesian cut than an agential cut). In this category, Wegman undermines shared agency by insisting on Man Ray’s passivity, using him as a prop or posable object (as he then does in photography with other Weimaraners in subsequent decades).

Coin Toss

New and Used Car Salesman

Beyond these above key categories of Wegman/Man Ray videos, there are also some videos in which Man Ray’s regular presence in the studio as Wegman’s collaborator is evident as he makes incidental cameos or accidentally appears in shot. In videos such as TV Plunger, Stereo System, and Fast, Man Ray appears onscreen but is not central to the play – his presence serves as a simple disruption or distraction. While most of the videos are comprised of one shot, Audio Tape and Video Tape, Video, and Furniture, are edited videos in which Wegman incorporates shots of Man Ray, crafting his appearances in ways that acknowledge and reinforce Man Ray’s developing celebrity. Audio Tape and Video Tape, in which Wegman extols the benefits of video tape (such as instant playback), features a few shots of Man Ray (and commentary on how Wegman’s dog commonly features in his tapes), which is the first acknowledgement of Man Ray’s celebrity within the videos themselves. Man Ray’s entanglement (in the Baradian sense) with the video apparatus is reinforced in Video, which features the repetition of a shot of Man Ray lying on the floor and looking up. These videos are less about interactive play than Wegman playing with the image of Man Ray (a precursor to his Weimaraner-centred image-creation in his later photography). 

Conclusion

This article has undertaken a due re-examination of the Wegman/Man Ray videos in light of 21st century theoretical developments, particularly intersections of new materialism and play theory. Where McHugh’s 2001 analysis centred around aesthetic agency, I have turned to human-canine play – and new materialist ideas sparked by play theory – as a framework for the post-anthropocentric possibilities of Wegman’s early video work, including shared human/nonhuman agency in creative play. In categorising and analysing the range of Wegman/Man Ray videos through play (and the play contexts of Californian Conceptualism and early video art), this article has explored the transformative possibilities of videographic creative play for inter-action between human and nonhuman (particularly canine) collaborators. Creative play, or “jamming”, challenges anthropocentric individualism and it served to resist an aesthetics of narcissism in Wegman’s video art and to facilitate humorous exploration of artistic control, chance, failure, and agency. If, as Barad writes, “individuals do not pre-exist their interactions; rather, individuals emerge through and as part of their entangled intra-relating,”73 then arguably Wegman as an artist did not pre-exist his play with Man Ray – he emerged as such (and was successful and famous) because of their entangled intra-relating as documented in the 1970s videos. The Wegman/Man Ray videos – and the ways in which they contrast with Wegman’s contemporaries’ and his own later work – help us to appreciate how video art can operate as a realm for play that recalibrates human/nonhuman relational ontologies onscreen.

Endnotes

  1. Susan McHugh, “Video Dog Star: William Wegman, Aesthetic Agency, and the Animal in Experimental Video Art,” Society & Animals, 9, no. 3 (2001): pp. 229–51.
  2. Karen Barad, Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning (Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2007).
  3. Loretta Fois, “But First, Let’s Jam: A New Materialist Twist on the Ontology of Play,” American Journal of Play, 14, no. 3 (2022): pp. 233–53.
  4. Brian Massumi, What Animals Teach Us About Politics (London: Duke University Press, 2014).
  5. Cynthia R. Nielsen, “Gadamer on Play and the Play of Art” in The Gadamerian Mind, Theodore George and Gert-Jan van der Heiden, eds. (London: Routledge, 2021), p. 143.
  6. Barad, Meeting the Universe Halfway, p. ix.
  7. Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2010), p. viii.
  8. This may be in part because Wegman showed these two videos when he first appeared on Late Night with David Letterman in 1982.
  9. This article relies on the DVD compilation, William Wegman: Video Works 1970–1999 (Artpix, 2006).
  10. Wegman himself contrasts his short videos with how other artists using video in the period “tended to be just using the whole reel, like 30 minutes of jumping up and down or whatever.” He describes his own videos as being more like 30-second television advertisements. Wegman in Sarah Cowan, “‘What can an audience tell the performer?’ William Wegman on his video work from 1970–1999,” MetCollects, 22 March 2022.
  11. Several videos on Reel 4 use a similar set up, such as Saw Movies, Cocktail Waiter, and Nail Business.
  12. Sheri Klein, Art and Laughter (London: I.B. Tauris, 2006), p. 17.
  13. Wegman in Martin Kunz, William Wegman: Paintings, Drawings, Photographs, Videotapes (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1990), p. 19.
  14. Man Ray, Man Ray; Accident; Gray Hairs,” Electronic Arts Intermix, accessed 30 January 2024.
  15. Wegman is best known for his later photographic work (including commercial work) featuring his Weimaraner dogs, which have appeared in museums and galleries, calendars, coffee table books, children’s books, and magazine covers for The New Yorker, National Geographic, and French Vogue. Wegman and his Weimaraners (ten in total over his 50 year career) have also gained fame through film and video works for Sesame Street, Saturday Night Live, and Nickelodeon (as well as a half-hour 35mm film The Hardly Boys that screened at Sundance in 1996). As art critic Cat Kron describes, “Wegman’s oeuvre is often presented as a bifurcated curiosity: Art historians cite the 1970s experimental videos as auteurish gems, while pop culture latched upon his proto-Anne Geddes commercial portraits of his Weimaraner dogs.” Cat Kron, “The Californian Artists Who Made Conceptual Art Funny,” Artsy, 20 (January 2018).
  16. Barad, Meeting the Universe Halfway, p. 33.
  17. I am grateful to art historian Dr Caroline Wallace (La Trobe University) for enriching my understanding of the art historical context and providing feedback on an earlier draft of this article.
  18. McHugh, “Video Dog Star,” p. 240.
  19. McHugh, “Video Dog Star,” p. 236.
  20. McHugh, “Video Dog Star,” p. 229.
  21. McHugh, “Video Dog Star,” p. 246.
  22. Jessica Ullrich, “Animal Artistic Agency in Performative interspecies Art in the Twenty-First Century,” Boletín de Arte-UMA, 40 (2019), p. 71.
  23. Ullrich, “Animal Artistic Agency,” p. 72.
  24. McHugh, “Video Dog Star,” p. 229.
  25. McHugh, “Video Dog Star,” p. 246.
  26. McHugh, “Video Dog Star,” p. 246.
  27. Craig Owens, “William Wegman’s Psychoanalytic Vaudeville,” Art in America, 71 (March 1983), p. 103.
  28. Fois, “But First, Let’s Jam,” p. 236.
  29. Fois, “But First, Let’s Jam,” p. 237, 246.
  30. Fois, “But First, Let’s Jam,” p. 245.
  31. Gregory Bateson, “A Theory of Play and Fantasy” in Steps to an Ecology of Mind: Collected Essays in Anthropology, Psychiatry, Evolution and Epistemology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1972), pp. 177–93.
  32. Massumi, What Animals Teach Us About Politics, p. 3, 4.
  33. Paul McCann, “William Wegman: a profile,” Wallpaper, 11 October 2022.
  34. Massumi, What Animals Teach Us About Politics, p. 76.
  35. Massumi, What Animals Teach Us About Politics, p. 12.
  36. Massumi, What Animals Teach Us About Politics, p. 12.
  37. Miguel Sicart, Play Matters (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2014), p. 8.
  38. Will Fenstermaker, “No Dogs Allowed: How William Wegman Broke the Rules of Conceptual Art,” The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 23 May 2018.
  39. Holland Cotter, “West Coast art (not laid-back),” New York Times, 12 July 2013, p. C21(L).
  40. Kron, “The Californian Artists Who Made Conceptual Art Funny.”
  41. Pedro de Llano, “Excerpts from a Conversation with William Wegman,” William Wegman: Drawings and Videotapes, Los Angeles 1973 (catalogue), 2016.
  42. Doug Eklund in Fenstermaker, “No Dogs Allowed.”
  43. Doug Eklund in Fenstermaker, “No Dogs Allowed.”
  44. Kim Levin, “Wegman’s Video: Funny Instead of Formal,” William Wegman: Video Works 1970–1999 (DVD booklet, reprint of 1982 catalogue essay for Wegman’s World exhibition at the Walker Arts Center, Minneapolis), p. 8.
  45. Sicart, Play Matters, p. 8.
  46. Fenstermaker, “No Dogs Allowed.”
  47. Kron, “The Californian Artists Who Made Conceptual Art Funny.”
  48. Eklund in Fenstermaker, “No Dogs Allowed.”
  49. Rosalind Krauss, “Video: The Aesthetics of Narcissism,” October, 1 (Spring 1976), pp. 50–64.
  50. Krauss, “Video,” p. 50.
  51. Krauss, “Video,” p. 54–55. The influence of Nauman’s studio videos (including the studio setting, repetition, and focus on the body) is evident in Wegman’s work. Wegman says, “I really liked his work when I was teaching in Wisconsin in the late 1960s,” and this was a factor in his move to Los Angeles. de Llano, “Excerpts from a Conversation with William Wegman.”
  52. Wegman in Cowan, “‘What can an audience tell the performer?’”
  53. Owens, “William Wegman’s Psychoanalytic Vaudeville,” p. 106.
  54. Wegman cited in Levin, “Wegman’s Video,” p. 9.
  55. Owens, “William Wegman’s Psychoanalytic Vaudeville,” p. 108.
  56. Owens, “William Wegman’s Psychoanalytic Vaudeville,” p. 108.
  57. Fois, “But First, Let’s Jam,” p. 246.
  58. Krauss, “Video,” p. 52.
  59. McHugh, “Video Dog Star,” p. 235.
  60. Wegman told Levin, “I liked dumb TV: Ozzie and Harriet, California used car ads. Baldessari used ‘in’ jokes in terms of art. I taped Bob and Ray off the TV.” As Levin notes, Bob Elliott and Ray Goulding’s humour was likewise “based on absurd expectations, inadequacies, and things that don’t work.” Levin, “Wegman’s Video,” p. 7, 8.
  61. Krauss, “Video,” p. 64.
  62. Claire Henry, “Regarding the Dignity of Dogs: Failures of Perception in Viral Videos,” Ctrl-Z: New Media Philosophy, Issue 6 (2016).
  63. Jessica Maddox, The Internet is for Cats: How Animal Images Shape Our Digital Lives (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2022), p. 15.
  64. McHugh, “Video Dog Star,” p. 243.
  65. Fois, “But First, Let’s Jam,” p. 235.
  66. Robert W. Mitchell, “A Theory of Play” in Interpretation and Explanation in the Study of Animal Behavior (Vol. 1: Interpretation, Intentionality, and Communication), Marc Bekoff and Dale Jamieson, eds. (Boulder, Col.: Westview Press, 1990), p. 212.
  67. Wegman in Cowan, “‘What can an audience tell the performer?’” The video Wegman refers to here is likely Microphone at the start of Reel 1.
  68. Wegman in Cowan, “‘What can an audience tell the performer?’”
  69. McHugh, “Video Dog Star,” p. 235.
  70. McHugh, “Video Dog Star,” p. 236.
  71. McHugh, “Video Dog Star,” p. 231.
  72. Fois, “But First, Let’s Jam,” p. 242.
  73. Barad, Meeting the Universe Halfway, p. ix.