we can’t rewind, we’ve gone too far
– The Buggles, “Video Killed the Radio Star”
The late ’60s and early ’70s saw, alongside the social and political upheaval of the time, tremendous changes in artistic modes and practices, particularly in the fields pertaining to the moving image. At this moment, the very idea of medium was thrown into crisis: while in the past medium had been the established criterion for different artistic vocations, suddenly its material determination seemed insufficient, for the very notions of space and physicality were now in question. For Rosalind Krauss, the term “medium” seemed “too contaminated, too ideologically, too dogmatically, too discursively loaded”: the word itself was bound up in the culture against which the avant-garde rebelled (1). Shattering medium, then, meant reinventing the concept of medium and adjusting it to these ideological or dogmatic anxieties. By implication, the crisis in medium extended phenomenologically to the space of exhibition, the gallery, and the ways in which an artwork was perceived by its audience. Ultimately, fracturing art forms brought about, or reflected new concerns of personal subjectivity. If medium was no longer limited to physical determinants, then the spectator, in a sense, was freed from his/her body. The space or distinction between work and audience was definitively altered, and in many cases, broken down altogether. In Anthony McCall’s Line Describing a Cone (1973), for example, the film projection became a celebratory event and an occasion for a shared experience of the sublime. As liberating as these possibilities seemed, however, works such as Bruce Nauman’s Live-Taped Video Corridor (1970) imported darker implications of monitoring, control, and a permanently fractured subjectivity never to be regained. By examining these two works, I will investigate how the vectors of radicalised film practice and the emerging video art cut across and helped shape a landscape of artistic dematerialisation and post-structuralist thought.
In her seminal essay of 1966, “Film and the Radical Aspiration”, Annette Michelson sketched a historical project begun with the medium’s turn of the century experimenters and developed through the work of the ’20s’ avant-gardes, notably in the Soviet Union, France, and Germany. As the youngest of the artistic mediums, Michelson contended, cinema was the most promising, invested with “the revolutionary aspirations of the modernist movement in literature and the arts, on the one hand, and of a Marxist or Utopian tradition, on the other”. Shortly after its invention, however, the history of cinema diverged: while independent filmmakers continued the tradition of the “radical aspiration”, Hollywood transformed film into an industry, feeding into a system of capitalist exploitation precisely attacked by its artistic counterpart. After the advent of sound, Hollywood swelled and grew in popularity, developing a sturdy formula for industrial film practice and production. Cinematic radicalism, outlined in the early promise of Lumière, Mélies and Vertov, was driven underground. By the late ’60s and early ’70s, the medium was regaining its aesthetic footing in independent production circles, though in a peculiar way. As Michelson explained, “Cinema, on the verge of winning the battle for the recognition of its specificity – and every major filmmaker and critic the last half-century has fought that battle – is now engaged in a reconsideration of its aims” (2). Its subversive political potential was thrown in crisis, in spite of achieving artistic recognition, or perhaps because of it. At some moment in the evolution of cinema, from its invention, its mid-century marginalisation, and its ’60s actualisation, the nature of the “radical aspiration” changed. Somehow the modernist vision had become anachronistic.
As Michelson described, film had branched into two avant-garde strains: one which took on the Hollywood challenge by distorting and recombining its forms and conventions (i.e. genre, narrative structure) and another which rejected it outright, turning instead toward “pure cinema”, a term which we shall soon see as problematic. The former, as a method of détournement, tended to stay within the distribution circuits of commercial film. However much it altered the Hollywood formula, it stuck to some level of coherence, for its subversive content was only potent in a recognisable context. The latter radicalised itself through innovation at the level of content, through the formal rigidity of the structural film, and in production, in the insistence on the generally anti-narrative “personal cinema” or “first-person film” made by the individual filmmaker (as opposed to the politique des auteurs espoused by Godard and Resnais). The essential logic of these films was modernist, reasoning that cinema, driving to its medium specificity, found itself increasingly concerned with its physicality and therefore the space of its exhibition. Structural, or conceptual film, had an “essential … concern with materials and language” which “took the form of a general subordination of interest in representation, especially of narrative, and a corresponding emphasis on the materials and resources of the medium, on the conditions of production and display, and on the specific kinds of signification of which film is capable” (3). Film became its own subject, and in it was embedded a critique of illusionist Hollywood cinema. Michael Snow’s Wavelength (1967), for example, replaced the “actor” with the action of the camera, which is to say its slow but determined zoom. As Michelson wrote in the June 1971 issue of Artforum, with Wavelength, “Snow has redefined filmic space as that of action”. The terms of space and action would prove problematic indeed (4).
The next step was to move beyond celluloid to the projection apparatus. Hollis Frampton signalled this shifting emphasis with his 1971 essay, “For a Metahistory of Film: Commonplace Note and Hypotheses” in which he emphasised the integrality of cameras and projectors in the functioning of a greater machine, the film machine. The act of filming, then, could no longer be distinct from the event of projection. A film did not end with the final edit, but continued into the theatre, through the light of the beam. Frampton’s film machine severed the autonomy of the filmmaker by raising the moment of projection to equal significance. In other words, film could no longer be solely concerned with celluloid. The formal aims of structuralist film were radicalised by Frampton’s essay, which seized on the physicality of film as the ultimate formal element. “If film strip and project are parts of the same machine”, he argued, “then ‘a film’ may be defined operationally as ‘whatever will pass through a projector’. The least thing that will do that is nothing at all. Such a film has been made. It is the only unique film in existence” (5). If the only “unique” film ever made was the one that is “nothing at all”, then all other film had been in some way redundant. Films had always been “about” the same thing: film itself, or its formal structure. Nowhere is film more repetitive than in the ritual of its screening, from the standard theatre architecture of ordered seats and giant screen to the many social customs associated with movie-going. To innovate, the avant-garde needed to push film out of the black box, the darkened theatre, into the white cube of the gallery space. In order to continue the “radical aspiration” of avant-garde criticism and negation, filmmakers had to transgress cinema proper and move into the territory of art.
At this moment, the plastic arts were undergoing similar renovation. Krauss noted a pervading sense of the end of art, with conceptual, minimalist, and process art seeking to reinvent the idea of Art, by turning art into idea. These works, “dematerialized” or freed from the physicality of painting or sculpture, thus “secured a higher purity”, at a remove from art objects’ recuperation into commodity forms. To be an artist, Joseph Kosuth argued, meant ridding oneself of medium specificity. With these new forms of art, one could no longer tie an art form to purely material form. The radical outcome of modernist reduction was therefore generalization, Art with a capital A. Donald Judd, on the other hand, reasoned that the collapsed distinction between mediums, the hybridisation of forms, created a new kind of specificity, or a new order of artist altogether (6). The debate found its more fertile articulation in film.
The art community had long been interested in film, attracted to its social significance and populist dimension, as well as its potential for exploding medium-specificity. Many avant-garde filmmakers had migrated from the plastic arts, and through their careers continued parallel projects in multiple mediums. In the post-war period, however, and accelerating towards the late ’60s, artistic exchange between the two realms proliferated. If, given the era’s sensitivity to the space of exhibition, we can posit their respective loci in the theatre and the gallery, each saw promise in the other’s home. If plastic artists were attracted to cinema’s access to mass culture, filmmakers working towards a “radical aspiration” reviled Hollywood’s commodity recuperation of the medium. Likewise, the high-art signification of the gallery was an outlet for filmic aspiration, while plastic artists were concerned with escaping or transgressing its pristine white walls.
The two strains merged in the gallery and transformed it, producing hybridised works that challenged notions of cinema and art alike, being neither one nor the other, but existing at the point of their intersection, a fertile and polemical field indeed. A work like Wavelength was claimed from both ends, and the “Foreword in Three Letters” of the September 1971 issue of Artforum, devoted to film, elaborated the terms of the debate. The film community, affirming painting as the essential modernist medium, saw its emphasis on opticality reflected in cinema. Structural film was especially vulnerable to these painterly concerns and as Peter Wollen argued, it “thus represented a displacement of concerns from the art world to the film world rather than an extension” (7). From this position, Peter Gidal attacked Michelson’s critique of Wavelength on the terms that it defined space in terms of action. To him, the point seemed obvious, for all films – gangsters, westerns, comedies – relied on action. He attributed her analysis to ignorance: “at least she tried”, he wrote, “Which is more than one can say for most ART critics”. Michelson coolly responded that her argument was based on the “redefinition of action as the movement of the camera itself”, which in some ways seated Snow’s film at the core of medium specificity, and in others blew it apart (8). For wedged in their arguments was the tacit understanding that they, in fact, inhabited “opposite ends of a dialectic”. Wavelength presented an insoluble conflict for the film and art worlds, similar enough to challenge the marked borders of each and different enough to puzzle their patrollers.
For cinema is unlike the other arts in that its specificity derives from a wholly composite structure, combining attributes of painting, sculpture, theatre, and music – vision, space, motion, and time – into a single form. Its homogenous core is essentially heterogeneous. As an invention, it borrowed most heavily from the forms that preceded it, making pastiche its essential strategy and tying itself inextricably to the development of other artistic domains. It is “not whether we are dealing with an art”, as Benjamin wrote, “but whether or not the emergence of this medium has not transformed the nature of all art” (9). If the arts were interrelated to the extent that a change in one would resonate in the others, what did it mean for cinema, the ultimate or composite art, to seek its own specificity in Michelson’s terms? Traditional definitions of “sculptor”, “painter” or even “filmmaker”, as we have seen, had already begun to break down by the ’60s, crumbling into an all-inclusive, transcendent Artist. The generalist move, however, may have found Judd’s specific answer: not the eradication of medium but a medium of a new order, finding its perfect paradigm in cinema or more specifically the odd hybrid of cinema, visual art and performance known as installation art.
Anthony McCall: Line Describing a Cone (1973)
Line Describing a Cone was the first film to engage the three-dimensional attributes of physical space, addressing most urgently the sculptural qualities of projection. By use of a fog machine, filling the room with a dense cloud, the beam from the projector shoots onto the screen in volumetric tangibility. What begins as a single point on the screen, traced by a thin line from the projector, curves around into an arc, finally rejoining the original point in a complete circle. By the end of the 25-minute film the beam takes on the shape of a cone. As the lowered projector is set away from the wall, viewers can participate in the projection by walking through, around, and under the beam, sitting or lying down, looking in and around the beam: perceiving it from a multitude of vantage points within the gallery space. The cone, of course, is of variable length and proportion, determined by the space of projection. Hypothetically, its projected base extends infinitely.
The idea of projection arises from geometry, drawing a connection between the points on one plane to a line or surface of another. As used in cartography or engineering, projection is an educative tool, allowing one to better understand a subject through extended and therefore abstracted viewing. In McCall’s work the 16mm image of a circle in the projector enlarges onscreen, and the volumetric cone connecting the two circles is the literal proof of projection. It demystifies the leap from celluloid to projected image by showing what exists, semi-tangibly, in between. By foregrounding the mechanisms of the film machine, Line Describing a Cone is essentially instructive. The parallel evolutions of geometric design and volumetric “solid” occur slowly, offering time for viewers to study and explore the projection from multiple perspectives. As an illustration of its title, it is without mystery, laying bare the phenomena of projection.
Distilled to light, celluloid, and screen, the film offers a critique of popular or commercial cinema, which turns the spectator’s attention away from these elements, and clouds their essential drama with the “action” onscreen. As Line Describing a Cone demonstrates, the gallery-exhibited film experiments were embedded with the “radical aspiration” of the structural film vein, struggling against the Hollywood system that had debased cinema into profit-oriented entertainment. One of the primary objectives, then, was to lighten the opacity of the darken theatre. By projecting films in a dimmed gallery space, the film machine is exposed and critical consciousness enabled. “In contrast to the hypnosis induced by the pitch-blackness of the cinema, within which the single bright screen seizes our minds in its distracting grip, the dimly lit gallery engages the viewer in a wakeful state of perception” (10). An important function of these hybridised film works was to render visible the mechanism of cinema for Brechtian aims of critical contemplation. By transferring the projector from booth to gallery pedestal, pulling the screen away from the wall, or, as in Line Describing a Cone, drawing attention to the play of the beam, projection becomes film’s central event. Gerald Mast writes: “Indeed, the emphasis on projection as the aesthetic event consistently forces our attention on how a work of cinema is received and perceived rather than on what cinema is” (11). Line Describing a Cone thus absorbs Benjamin’s critique of cinema’s “shock effect”, for the viewer is empowered to create actively new subjectivities rather than having it forced upon him/her in a relentless stream of images (12). As an event, McCall’s work is more a sculptural object to behold from multiple perspectives than a film that can be watched. Furthermore, the hollowness of projection, its illusory nature, is exemplified by the hollow cone itself. Its density is apparent only if one remains still, and as the film encourages spectatorial mobility, the viewer soon perceives the emptiness of the beam by walking or passing his/her hand through its semi-tangible ephemerality.
The cone is not a fixed entity, but is shaped by the room it inhabits and the people who intercept its radiation. Its structure is entirely dependent on environment and the only constant is the celluloid itself; all other elements – the dimensions of the room, its relative darkness, the effectiveness of the fog machine, and the audience make-up – are held as variable. Line Describing a Cone extends itself outward, for its limits are externally, and not internally determined. The greater the size of the room, the larger and longer the beam. At the presentation of Line Describing a Cone for the Whitney Museum’s 1999 Cool World program, McCall related an anecdote in which, on an exceptionally foggy night in upstate New York, he and some friends projected the film across an open field. The unobstructed horizon, a powerful projector, and dense fog offered an irresistible opportunity for testing the hypothetical. When the projector was flicked on, the result was sublime: the cone shot out as far as anyone could see, and its vanishing point was invisible.
The idea of projection also has deep psychological resonance in projective tests, which, according to Encyclopaedia Britannica, “employ ambiguous stimuli … to evoke responses that may reveal facets of the subject’s personality by projection of internal attitudes, traits, and behaviour patterns upon the external stimuli”. The projection becomes an abstracted figure of a subject, cast before him or her in coded form, and available for psychological examination. In other words, it is the study of an individual’s outward effects as the imprint of internal motives. The play of external revelation of the internal is exemplified by the model of Plato’s cave, in which one is illuminated from behind, able only to see her dancing shadow on the wall before her. In this way, the shadow becomes a rudimentary form of the mirror image, abstracted and exaggerated, for projection is an errant double; it is more accurately a caricature. The projected reflection or shadow needs to be unpacked, sorted, and scaled down before it is interpreted with any accuracy. Yet this is the key to self-knowledge: only by looking away from the light can one “see” oneself in a reflection broken by distance and delay, the distorted image of projection. As in Plato’s cave, the light of a projector shines from behind; the image is rendered visible not by throwing light directly on it but by filtering it through, for celluloid actually impedes the extension of light. Cinema is created through light’s obstruction, not its revelation. Paradoxically, an image is rendered visible only by the partial blocking of the light that passes through it. We see the volumetric cone only through the bleariness of fog; self-knowledge comes at the cost of near-blindness.
Yet one does not ordinarily see oneself in a film. The temporal imperatives of film processing assure us that what cinema reveals in its long projective arm is the behaviour of other people, or as Kracauer attempted to uncover, the psychology of a society. In Benjamin’s analysis, film offers the possibility of “apperception”: “Evidently a different nature opens itself to the camera than opens to the naked eye … the camera introduces us to unconscious optics as does psychoanalysis to unconscious impulses” (13). The individual moviegoer, however, remains anonymous, hidden in the dark, and voyeuristic. What she sees does not correlate to her own image and indeed she relishes the exploited difference with borderline perversity. For several hours she leans forward in her seat, trembling with anticipation and desire to be fed the next series of images. Beside her sit other spectators, similarly engrossed. Rather than confer on their shared obsessions, however, they exit the theatre hurriedly: postures fugitive, eyes downcast.
In Line Describing a Cone, by contrast, participation is an essential feature. By making the projection and not the projected the central drama, the film empties itself of psychological expectation and celebrates instead the phenomenon of cinema itself. As one viewer remarked, the experience is intensely intimate, for not only does one come to understand cinema at its basic level, that understanding is facilitated by the interaction of people in the audience. “No one can resist putting their hand in the light”, he said, citing the childlike fascination imparted on each viewer, the sharing of multiple viewpoints (“try standing over here”) and the deferential taking of turns when stepping into the light. Looking at the film literally means looking at other people. Instead of studying a projected image, people stand at eye-level, contemplating not abstractions but real bodies. The nature of this viewer’s memories attest to a holistic experience shared by many, rather than the witnessing of an event as one in an anonymous crowd. Re-enacting Plato’s cave, the clouded cone returns the projected self-image: one can see oneself in Line Describing a Cone, for the lowered beam makes it possible for anyone to step inside and see the resultant shadow. In contrast to the guarded anonymity of the theatre-bound film, the sharing of perception is crucial to Line Describing a Cone. There is no optimum “seat”, or rather, the best vantage point is in the multitude of perspectives. The film becomes an occasion of discovery, but instead of mystification, its sublimity comes from the celebration of what one already understands: the film as its own subject. It is without suspense, for the end of the film is already given away by its title, and throughout the projection the completion of the two-dimensional circle and three-dimensional cone are mentally supplied by gestalt recognition. Yet still there is climax, for when the circle finally closes the audience often applauds. Unlike the Hollywood film, which relies on a strategy of delayed gratification to “captivate” its audience (who, feeling vaguely unsatisfied, departs before the end of the credits and rarely, if ever, stays to clap), the cheer at the end of Line Describing a Cone is like the appreciation of a sunset: at once demystified and sublime, the celebration of the thing itself and a liberating, infinitely extending transparency through which people suddenly see each other.
Bruce Nauman: Live-Taped Video Corridor (1970)
By the late ’60s, when cinema had existed for nearly a century, Michelson announced that the septième art was on the verge of gaining medium recognition. Why had it taken so long? Frampton suggests an appropriately material explanation, the emergence of new technological forms. If, as he writes, art forms do not begin as such but pass on into art only after “its proper epoch has ended and it has dwindled, as an aid to gut survival, into total obsolescence”, then film’s waxing artistic signalled to the end of “its proper epoch”: in other words, the end of film (14). He situates this “death” in a metahistorical trajectory of technological innovation, from the changes photography affected in painting to the way cinema pigeonholed photography into its own corner. In a Greenbergian analysis, the advent of new technologies hunted the older ones back to their mediums, squeezing out the barest essentials of medium specificity. Just as photography “died” with the advent of cinema, passing on into art, a new technology emerged in the late ’60s to profoundly change the nature of cinema: video.
In the popular imagination, video meant television, just as cinema meant Hollywood. Though television was invented in the ’30s, it wasn’t implemented on a large scale until the mid to late ’50s. By the ’60s, the political potential of televised media was beginning to be realized, most dramatically in the historic Kennedy-Nixon presidential debate and in the post-Tet Vietnam War coverage. Television, as audiences were beginning to understand, had more than just entertainment value: it could affect the outcome of real political events. In 1964 video was invented, and though it was not widely used, it offered the possibility of individual manipulation of the medium, rather than the one-sided nature of television viewing. By the time Howard Wise mounted the landmark “TV as a Creative Medium” exhibition of 1969, the Sony Portapak, released on the market in 1965, had revolutionized the medium by making it lightweight, relatively cheap, and widely available. As Davidson Gigliotti remarked, “New names and faces had appeared on the scene every year since 1965, but until the Spring of ’69 there had been no centre, no real cohesion, no sense of a community of purpose. After the show at the Howard Wise Gallery, it was possible to identify oneself as a video artist, and to recognize other video artists” (15).
Cinema, video’s immediate predecessor, felt the brunt of the new medium’s self-assertion. In Expanded Cinema, Gene Youngblood insisted that with the advent of video, “movies no longer provide the most realistic images so they’ve turned inward” (16). The shock was Oedipal in nature, for the burgeoning medium claimed to do all that cinema could do, and better. If cinema spoke the language of the masses, television lived in the home; if cinema broke down and recombined other art forms, television dissembled the image itself. Achieving specificity, then, meant one foot was already the grave. Michelson’s essay rung as a battle cry, trumpeting the need for “new aims” of the “radical aspiration”, even if those in the film community were not sure what those would be. One thing was clear: cinema could no longer define itself as the newest art form, for video had arrived and was poised to take over the moving image.
What was left was form. If Frampton’s passage of “whatever” through a projector was the defining criterion of film, even in expanded modes of production and exhibition (Line Describing a Cone is resolutely called a film), then video was something wholly other. The projector, so essential to film, had no place in the video machine. The video apparatus, quite aptly, was a black box: an enigmatic object which, even if dismantled, remained opaque. Thus the crucial formal distinction between film and video found its locus in the screen, the interface of a filmed image and its perception. In film, the screen represents the limit of projection but in video, no such projection exists. Instead the television monitor produces its own light. Film’s literal transparency, the passage of light through translucent celluloid, is blocked by the enclosed system of the television set. Whatever critical contemplation was enabled by the psychology of projection was no longer possible in video. It was “a rebuke to the ‘aura’ of the unique, fetishized art object of modernist doctrine” (17). The couch potato, as the ultimate emblem of passive consumption, drifted without anchor in the sea of images evoked in Debord’s spectacular society: absorption without contemplation, experience without memory. (This distinction, of course, fell away with the introduction of video projection, but at the time chiefly monitors were used in art contexts.) As Sam Weber contends, television is both “here and there”, a familiar living room object that is always linked to something far away, or put differently, an object that exists through the momentary condensation of dispersed electronic signals. Line Describing a Cone‘s transparency of projection was mystified by television, which dissembled, translated, and repackaged the image instantaneously before it appeared on the monitor. Television, or video, threatened to undo the work of the projection-conscious works of the late ’60s and early ’70s by transforming the white cube into a new kind of black box.
Where McCall’s work celebrates and promotes audience mobility and interaction, formal transparency, and on a symbolic level, the outward expansion of the cone structure, Bruce Nauman takes those elements and inverts them with Live-Taped Video Corridor (1970). This installation was the last of a series of corridor installations between 1968 and 1970, and begun as a prop for the video, Walk with Contrapposto (1968), in which Nauman walks back and forth in 20-inch wide space between walls eight feet high and 20 feet long. This set was recreated for Performance Corridor (1968) where the spectator could experience the same “claustrophobic discomfort” of the tight and narrow space (18). By 1970, Live-Taped Video Corridor combined the video and architectural qualities of these earlier corridor pieces into a single narrow passage, 20 inches wide and roughly 12 feet high and 32 feet long. At the far end, two television monitors were stacked: the monitor on top broadcast live video feed from a camera hung above the corridor’s entrance, and the monitor below displayed a previously recorded tape of the same space with no one in the corridor. Upon entering, the viewer sees his own image on the upper monitor, but because of the camera’s positioning, only his back is visible. As he draws closer to the other end, the image of his back grows smaller, for he is moving away from the camera. The closer he approaches his video double, the smaller it becomes.
Two essential elements, presaged by Walk with Contrapposto and its prop, Performance Corridor, are at work in Live-Taped Video Corridor: the corridor structure and the video feed. Though Nauman never specified precise dimensions, the corridor is a fixed structure, freestanding, and meant to evoke a kind of space not ordinarily encountered: long, narrow, and uncomfortable. Only one person can fit through it, and just barely. If Line Describing a Cone encourages emphatic viewer interaction, the participation called for by Live-Taped Video Corridor has an ironic twist, for participation comes to mean witnessing one’s own shrinking figure, taking steps towards one’s own diminishing body. Individual subjectivity, then, is confined to the dictates of the corridor walls. Vision is restricted to a single direction, and choice reduced to one of two monitors. The presence of the taped and empty corridor further undermines the video double by calling into question one’s temporal, as well as spatial certainty. The light is before the viewer and not behind, illuminating nothing but the dead end of the corridor. Instead of responding to its environment, Nauman’s work creates its own closed circuit prison, collapsing space where McCall’s piece opens onto the sky.
The video element of Live-Taped Video Corridor recalls its antecedent in Walk with Contrapposto, in which Nauman paces along the corridor with his hands clasped behind his head, suggesting a prisoner’s posture. With the idea of contrapposto, Nauman evoked for his video an idea of physical contortion as deformed by the rigid definitions of space. Confinement inhibits movement and thus cripples the body. The imprisonment of the physical body is enacted in the television monitor, where the video body is encased. Furthermore, with the image of the monitor being present in the camera’s gaze, the body is forever caught in an endless loop of mise-en-abîme feedback. The idea of the projected double as a subject of critical contemplation is precluded by the surveillance circuit, where the double is recorded and held captive by the camera. To see one’s own back suggests that one can only see things after they have happened. Vision, in this case, is utterly futile. We are denied the image of our own face, and even if we turn around, that vantage point exists solely for the camera. Not only can we no longer watch the film; the film watches us.
By the ’70s, French intellectuals were steeped in an investigation of the nature of subjectivity and subject-formation. Krauss stressed the significance of Derrida, who “built demonstration after demonstration to show that the idea of an interior set apart from, or uncontaminated by, an exterior was a chimera, a metaphysical fiction” (19). If the deconstructive turn could resolve binaries, it could also blow them radically apart, rending the self-identical as self-different. On all fronts, the subject was fracturing. In some cases, such as Line Describing a Cone, fractured subjectivity functioned to liberate. The viewer was freed from the trance-like domination of the movie theatre, just as Barthes’ reader reigned supreme in S/Z (1970) and “Death of the Author” (1977). Video art brought with it the temporal immediacy of the camera and the possibility of live transmission. For the first time, one could see oneself being filmed. It was as if the shadows of Plato’s cave had been replaced by mirrors. The double appeared not in abstraction, but full colour vitality. The duplication was so startling, in fact, that it threatened to take on its own autonomy. In Live-Taped Video Corridor, the self-image one is granted, the back of one’s head, though not a familiar one. Stepping into the corridor, the visitor is fascinated by his own image, watching it, in some ways, as if it were not his own, for the position from behind is implicitly voyeuristic. Though he recognizes the figure in the monitor as his own, the closer he moves to meet it, it pulls away, resisting him: the insistence of the self-different. In film projection, where all images that pass through a lens emerge distorted, critical contemplation was built in, and the spectator, with a little conceptual help, could interpret the signs and shadows – the “ambiguous stimuli”– before him. The video camera, by contrast, brought to the monitor an image of the double that could not be dismantled. As Foucault wrote of Bentham’s Panopticon, in Discipline and Punish (1977), “Visibility is a trap”. To be seen is to be vulnerable, yet power is not determined so much by who sees, but who doesn’t see: “power should be visible and unverifiable” (20). The locus of power is, in fact, seated in the one subject to that power. It thrives on the paranoia of the unseeing. Thus the visitor to Nauman’s corridor occupies both positions. He sees his double, but his double does not see him. In a space framed and looped by camera and monitor, the visitor finds himself in a dialogue of power, subject to his own gaze. Someone is watching, and that someone is him, for in the 20-inch margin of the corridor walls, the view of the monitors is reserved solely for the visitor. As Marcia Tucker wrote of Nauman’s work, “Man is the perceiver and the perceived; he acts and is acted upon; he is the sensor and the sensed. His behaviour constitutes a dialectical interchange with the world he occupies” (21). Live-Taped Video Corridor is private torment, subjectivity eternally at odds with itself.
The lower monitor is an example of what Nauman called “Recording Phenomena”, including the “Presentation of recordings of phenomena as opposed to stimulation of phenomena. Manipulation or observation of self in extreme or controlled situations”. This involved both “Information gathering” and “Information dispersal (or display)” (22). By offering a vision of the corridor, empty, as if the subject had never entered at all, the conditions are set for “emotional overload”. The monitor shows the viewer the picture of his own absence, forming the literal limit to the image of his double as the furthest it can recede. If McCall’s piece tends towards infinite expansion, the second monitor in Nauman’s bears a gravity that tugs toward infinite withdrawal. It is the absolute along which the image in the upper monitor asymptotes, for as he draws near and the image of his double shrinks, the top monitor begins to resemble more closely the bottom. The close proximity of absence and presence, a twin with its incomplete double, causes the viewer to mentally supply his own image in the bottom monitor in an attempt to bring accord to the visual rhyme. As the eye skips between the two, however, the mind also works to resolve the upper image to the bottom. The figure on top, consequently, becomes contaminated with hallucinations of temporal and spatial disorientation. The “projected” double is destabilized, gliding between the two monitors, resisting the intervention of the viewer’s actual body.
“If television is both here and there at the same time”, Weber posited, “then, according to traditional notions of space, time, and body, it can be neither fully there nor entirely here” (23). Television is primarily a transmitter of distant signals, and its function in one place is to provide a link to another. Yet with television, there is little sense of scale. All is presented as equally immediate; distance no longer has meaning. If television literally means far-sightedness, or seeing at a distance, depth of field is its cost. What is far away is no longer perceived as such, and what is near can barely be seen at all. A single, flat terrain is all one sees, the vastness of the beyond which one does not comprehend as the beyond, eyes confronted with the “paradoxical combination of increased power with increased vulnerability”. Television is less constituted by a kind of subject or image, but rather, as Weber wrote, “another kind of vision, a vision of the other” (24). It sees all, even the self, as other. Benjamin’s “shock effect” returns in unexpected form, tele-vision replacing local vision, or the ability to see oneself. Live-Taped Video Corridor suggests that when tele-vision usurps our own, we can see nothing at all.
The significance of surveillance was presaged by Frampton, who wrote, “It is customary to mark the end of the Age of Machines at the advent of video. The point in time is imprecise: I prefer radar, which replaced the mechanical reconnaissance aircraft with a static anonymous black box” (25). Radar, which comes from “radio detecting and ranging”, offered the possibility of tracking a subject, just as video made possible live simultaneous surveillance. What Frampton saw in radar and Nauman in video was film’s greatest threat, for surveillance not only collapsed the space of projection, it split the subject and held it captive, giving the key to the prisoner himself, the unseeing double. The subject constructed his own prison in the infernal circuit of self-identical and self-different. What is most disturbing is that in both radar and Live-Taped Video Corridor, the tracking device elides culpability for it is simply placed, immobile, transmitting a certain kind of vision. In the Foucaultian schema, the subject is his own and most effective policeman. He himself chooses his nightmare.
Citing what Weber called television’s “constitutive heterogeneity”, Krauss questioned the centrality of closed-circuit surveillance in television theory: “the fact of the matter is that television and video seem Hydra-headed, existing in endlessly diverse forms, spaces, and temporalities for which no single instance seems to provide a formal unity for the whole” (26). Yet I am tempted to argue that the lack of formal unity, like fractured subjectivity, follows the logic of surveillance theory. Unlike cinema, whose only “unique” film was that which was never made, television “above all differs from itself” (27). As television is watched and films are seen, its tantalizing essence hinges on uncertainty. The paradigmatic televised event, Weber remarked, is the sporting event in which the outcome is unknown. (Indeed, if Line Describing a Cone were ever shown on television, I doubt few people would stay on that channel.) Every film ends, except that unique one that never begins, but television, like surveillance, never shuts off. It never has to, so long as one believes in the blinking red light. As Foucault demonstrated, control is only a matter of perception. In television, the walls of entrapment are built by the viewer himself.
From the back end of this story calls another voice, that of the many institutional attempts to build and preserve film history, such as Anthology Film Archives’ (est. 1971) Essential Cinema Program. In the late ’60s and early ’70s, numerous film and video department were established in universities and museums, and organizations such as the New American Cinema Group (est. 1961) and Electronic Arts Intermix (est. 1971) worked to archive, distribute, and organize programs of film and video alike. If cinema, driven to obsolescence, was passing into art, it was also entering history by the hands of those determined not to let its passage go unrecorded. At the same moment, efforts such as the Department of Media Study at the University of Buffalo (est. 1971) indicate an attempt to accommodate, or reconcile film to its new technological cousins. Cinema was being prepared to greet the video age, fortified with history and bolstered by scholarship and criticism. Most of these institutions continue to thrive today, and the Whitney Museum’s Film and Video Department (est. 1970) recently mounted the exhibition, “Into the Light: The Projected Image in American Art 1964-1977”, surveying the film and video installations of the period. The implication of Frampton’s suggestion, where obsolescence is the condition of a medium’s passage into art, is that the renewed generational interest in film suggests another end: the breakdown of the film machine as caused by the proliferation of digital media. Scheduled on the heels of the “Bitstreams” exhibit, an ambitious foray into the emerging field of digital and computer art, it is as if the two shows were paired as part of some grand curatorial design. Historicisation, however, is only possible in hindsight. At best we are careful observers, collecting facts and recording symptoms that will eventually be compiled into Frampton’s metahistory. Before we venture into the light, we must serve our time in the dark.
- Rosalind Krauss, “A Voyage on the North Sea”: Art in the Age of the Post-Medium Condition, New York: Thames & Hudson, 1999; 5
- Annette Michelson, “Film and the Radical Aspiration”, Film Culture Reader, P. Adams Sitney, ed. New York: Film Culture, 1970; 420
- David E. James, Allegories of Cinema: American Film in the Sixties, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989
- Annette Michelson, quoted by Peter Gidal, in “Foreword in Three Letters”, Artforum, September 1971
- Hollis Frampton, “For a Metahistory of Film: Commonplace Notes and Hypotheses”, Artforum, special film issue, ed. Annette Michelson. New York: Artforum, September 1971; 35
- Krauss; 10-11
- Peter Wollen, “The Two Avant-Gardes”, Readings and Writings: Semiotic Counter-Strategies, London: Verso, 1982; 97
- Op. cit., “Foreword in Three Letters”; 8-9
- Walter Benjamin, quoted by Michelson, “Film and the Radical Aspiration”; 409
- Chrissie Iles, “Into the Light: The Projected Image in American Art 1964-1977”, catalogue essay. New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 2001; 2
- Gerald Mast, “Projection”, Film Theory and Criticism, Mast, Gerald and Cohen, Marshall, eds. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985; 267
- Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”, Illuminations; 238
- Ibid; 236-7
- Frampton; 34
- Davidson Gigliotti, quoted by Marita Sturken, “TV as a Creative Medium: Howard Wise and Video Art”, Afterimage, Vol. 11, No. 10; May 1984. Video History Project, www.experimentaltvcenter.org
- Gene Youngblood, Expanded Cinema, New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., 1970; 79
- Electronic Arts Intermix catalogue. Introduction. New York: EAI, 1991
- Peter Schjeldahl, quoted in Bruce Nauman. Exhibition Catalogue and Catalogue Raisonné, Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 1994; 26
- Krauss; 32
- Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan, New York: Vintage Books, 1977; 200-1
- Marcia Tucker, “PheNAUMANology,” Artforum, New York: Artforum, December 1970; 39
- Bruce Nauman, “Notes and Projects”, Artforum, New York: Artforum, December 1970; 44
- Samuel Weber, “Television: Set and Screen”, Mass Mediauras: Form, Technics, Media, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996; 120
- Ibid.; 113, 121
- Frampton; 35
- Krauss; 31
- Weber; 110