Mediamatic Magazine Vol. 2#2 Simon Biggs 1 Jan 1987


To the Artist' s Voice

In a number of video tapes that where to be seen at the European video festivals this fall, there is evident the desire of some artists to extricate themselves and contemporary discourse from a paralysis that has resulted in large part from an intellectual dynamic generally referred to as Post-Modernism.


Theo Eshetu - Questa e' Vita (1986) - Theo Eshetu

From a state where everything goes and yet nothing contains particular significance for fear of fixing meaning and thus leaving the sign open to deconstruction - a tendency can be seen to be emerging that seeks to place the artist definitively, relative to his subject, ideologically and ontologically.

Although this activity has never ceased outside the hermetic world that plays with such notions as Modernity and its passing, now artists apparently cognizant of the problematics involved around this territory are desirous of penetrating its boundaries in an attempt to place themselves and their reader relative to it and each other. Whether such a project can succeed, whether the self can be definitively placed relative the Other (subject) and thus avoid ambivalence is questionable, but that the attempt is being made is important, even if at this point it is too early to draw conclusions. Nevertheless, various traces within this space can be mapped so as to at least address the particularity of the individual artists objectives and their similarities.

In KEN FEINGOLD's The Smallest Particle (USA 1987, 8 MINS) a series of sequences of exotic (Other) cultures (India, Thailand, Indonesia, etc) rapidly succeed one another suggesting an anarchic form of the 'anthropological' documentary. What at first appears an arbitrary edit of busy markets, temples, exotic dancers and confused tourists (artists?) is paralleled by a subtext composed of a small number of sequences (a westerner unable to leave his hotel, visitors to a temple placing money in urns, a boy dancing and a man telling stories), their particular significance stated by the subtle use of sound - its capacity to echo alongside other images and thus act as a means of linking diverse material and to suggest specific associations.

The contrast between this fragile associative dynamic and the force of the more anarchic (perhaps unread) material foregrounds the processes with which the artist has had to deal, particularly those centering on his alien status to the subject and potentially exploitive position. FEINGOLD's work consciously questions the place of the artist relative to his subject (the problematics of reading) in an attempt to find a way out of the paralysis generated by post-structuralist analysis, hoping to reclaim not only significance but also the particularity of the artists vision and thus the ability to act. In a sense it is an expression of the drive to find an individual voice, valued as such, in a space where constructs of objectivity and subjectivity have failed to function.


The Motherland (1986) - Juan Downey

JUAN DOWNEY's work has certain similarities to that of FEINGOLD in its abiding interest in the Third World and the somewhat disjointed development of its material, However, unlike FEINGOLD, DOWNEY - a Chilean - is reflecting on a subject of which he is very much a part. For DOWNEY the problematic is not that of the alien addressing an exotic subject but of the prodigal son forever unable to return to his original context; the Exile. In Motherland (Chilli 1986, 7 MINS) the prodigal narrative is intercut with sequences of PINOCHET receiving Eucharist, images of the artists own birth (as a goose) and memories of the familial home. In the personalization of the symbolic elements DOWNEY seems to wish to establish a personalized voice that accepts a degree of obscurity in exchange for its rewards.

THEO ESHETU's attempts to reclaim a mythical genealogy from what he perceives as the anarchy of televisual culture in Questa e' Vita (Italy 1986, 12 MINS) are, on the other hand, of a highly questionable nature as images cut loose of intention in the artists obsession with and ultimate acquiescence to media forms. Rather than develop an argument for his own personal space ESHETU lacks either the necessary control or conception of the central issue, the question of the singularity of the authorial voice, in addressing the diversity of possible readings within the work. What emerges is a distasteful piece of video which flies in contravention of the artists obvious intent, seemingly promoting the very values he seeks to condemn and relegating the piece as sexist and racist. Where DOWNEY has made his own position quite clear ESHETU's inability to particularize his own voice renders the piece beyond his grasp and thus open to interpretations outside or in direct conflict with his original conception. It is the fear of this eventuality that has made it difficult for the authorial voice to be relatively fixed in much work of the past decade and yet it is in the very lack of definition that a work is rendered potentially confused or meaningless.

JUAN DOWNEY's installation About Cages (1987), presented at the World Wide Video Festival in The Hague, successfully moves into very difficult territory in this regard with a soundtrack composed of two voices, one that of a prison guard and the other extracts from ANNE FRANK's diaries. The torturers confessions conflict with FRANK's record of the victim whilst Downey's own voice is established in the way in which he places these two elements in relation to the 0video of a caged bird beating its wings within its prison - the victims prison, the artists, the viewers - itself placed within a cage populated by canaries.

A sense of between-ness is apparent in DOWNEY's installation and, although mapped in an entirely different context, this is also the theme in TONY LABAT's Mayami: Between Cut and Action (USA 1986, 14 MINS). In this piece, which takes a fictional space between the end of one thing and the beginning of another, all the elements appear to be in flux, its central character taking on an uncertain sexuality and role relative to its environment - the half-world of the film-set. The relationships between author, actor and subject are reviewed, the question of roles appraised, perhaps their impossibility engaged. LABAT explores the space between opposites not as an intermediary space but as something else, an elusive dimension that precludes deconstruction.


Meet the People (1986) - Silver, Shelly

SHELLY SILVER in Meet The People (USA 1987, 17 MINS) also addresses the notion of roles and expectations. What at first we take as a series of autobiographical statements or musings by actual people facing us directly from the screen become more difficult to interpret as their texts intermingle and cut across each other. When the final credits role we discover that in fact all the characters were played by professional actors, somewhat reminiscent of the reconstructed television interview with which we are all familiar, however in Meet The People it is impossible to verify the 'truth' value of what is being said. SILVER's own drift of imagination is played out by the voices without any other existence than that which she gives them, creating a double entendre where her own voice, although not articulated itself, is the only one left fixed as the objective eye of the camera is parodied.

In direct contrast to SILVER's fictionalization of the Other's voice is the massive project of DAVID LARCHER, entitled EETC (UK 1986, 69 MINS), which is unashamedly autobiographical in nature. LARCHER utilizes video as a means to review his own life events, presenting the viewer with what is essentially a fragmentary diary (just the 'high' points), at times lucid or impenetrable, depending upon which events one can empathize with from personal experience. In this way the piece cuts through many layers of discourse in what could be interpreted as a naive manner, except that the sophistication of its maker is continually made evident in its philosophical pyrotechnics.

Stylistically the work refers to much of the psychedelic film-making of the sixties (LARCHER having been one of its premier exponents at the time) and one could be excused for thinking that the artist had been asleep for the past twenty years, however his apparent control of the video medium and how he brings it into direct conflict with film should dispel this misconception. Via this means LARCHER is able to come into contact with his subject, his own personal experience, with both an intimacy and distance that makes the work intensely personal (to the point of discomfort) and yet intelligible.

The capacity to reclaim the authorial voice from the miasma produced by the breakdown of clear author/reader distinctions is central to many of the works discussed here, however BILL SEAMAN's and ELLE SEBRING's The Boxer's Puzzle (USA 1986, 5 MINS) is especially focused on this process, particularly as the authorial presence is plural.

In SEAMAN's previous work Telling Motions (seen at the WWVF last year) various intertextual strategies were explored and in The Boxer's Puzzle this process is extended to incorporate multiple authorship. It could be said that someone should tell BILL SEAMAN that he can't sing (in fact it has been mentioned) but the way in which his voice personalizes is akin to the pseudo-naivety of LARCHER's work, foregrounding the authors presence within the piece. Composed of rapid edits and music, with images of a young man 'shadowboxing' and of a woman in fashion magazine like poses, The Boxer's Puzzle opens up a new dimension for 'music video' without ever making reference to or echoing the music video clip. The layering of the modes of delivery allows an internal critique to emerge that reflects the 'virtual' narrative of the piece - the necessity to shadowbox ourselves but place the Other as the object of our self-pugilation. That the work was made by a man and a woman informs a possible reading regarding their relative status, although this will always remain conjecture.

In a sense The Boxer's Puzzle, although dealing with sexuality, has circumvented much of the debate around sexual politics by internalizing dualism within the individual - that is, by recognizing the sexual ambivalence of the Self and the manner in which interpersonal dynamics can be seen as expressions of internal conflicts, perhaps reflecting upon recent Post-Marcusian Feminist discourse.

MARIANO MATURANA's Agua ( NL 1987, 4 MINS) addresses sexuality in similar territory, although in a very different way. In silence two figures (male and female) attempt to ‘mate’ or touch across a split screen. Consisting of this single sequence the figures appear to float upside down in fluid, abstracting or generalizing their appearance and thus enhancing their metaphorical capacity as ciphers of the poetic and erotic.

MATURANA engages sexual discourse in such a way that Agua transcends them endless debate of diminishing returns regarding much of the dialectics around sexual politics. Where many artists either ignore such issues, thus inadvertently producing pieces of an exploitive nature, or are paralyzed by the ideological confines of the dominant discourse, in Agua the artist renders the beauty and tragedy of interpersonal/sexual encounter in almost abstract terms. In this way the work may be read as the coming together of two figures or as the notion of coming together in general - as perhaps the attempt to bridge the space between author and reader.

The exploration of the binary self is also extrapolated in GRAHAM YOUNG's Accidents In The Home No. 15 (Domestiques) (UK 1986, 2.28 MINS) in what is a short but technically exacting and dense work. The central character observes himself in an ambiguous time/space and after a short interval as observer begins to interact with his own apparition, resulting in fragments (a bicycle wheel, a cup of coffee) of each 'space' engaging one another in a manner that offers a surreal reconciliation of opposites.

Permeating the work is the sense of another presence not so much governing the occurrences but rather interrupting their flow through exacting a playful wrath upon its subjects - subjects that in turn reflect upon this authorial presence. The characteristics of control and communication, of things being in their correct place such that their capacity to signify is affirmed, are parodied with a gentle but incisive wit.

In many ways YOUNG's Accidents In The Home series, of which this is the fourth (the numerical subscripts are randomly selected) appear to be the perfect art-videos, being short, immediate, intimate and poetic. Many works at the World Wide Video Festival this year continued the recent trend towards cinematic ambitions and pretensions, particularly in terms of scale, and the question arises as to how many video-makers are in fact frustrated filmmakers. A number of film-makers have also moved into the video field, notably represented here by CHANTAL ACKERMAN's televisual documentary of ROSE LEIMA GOLDENBERG's play Letters Home (itself based upon SYLVIA PLATH's correspondence with her mother), which further confuses notions about just what it is that video is like.

In I Do Not Know What It Is I Am Like (USA 1986, 89 MINS) BILL VIOLA has produced a work of immense scale, an immensity exaggerated by the concentrated and infinitesimal detail that the artist brings out in his subject. Although filmic in length this work could only have been satisfactorily realized in video for a number of reasons, not least of which is VIOLA's manipulation of an audience expectation that would not accompany a filmic presentation.

VIOLA's new work probes the limits of the constructed Self as the artist looks for his own transcendence in mineral, vegetable and animal subjects. The presence of the Other, its 'mind', is discovered in a stone, a dead bison, a bird - the artist reflected in the eye of an owl - a fish. The artist consumes the fish whilst an elephant invades and shifts the domestic environment. A chick hatches from an egg whilst a snail evacuates a golden Ark. A zebra is strobed, the audience is strobed (and thus observed). Fijian firewalkers seek to transcend their own sense of Self, to make the Self as to Other.

VIOLA seeks to uncover notions of the Self, its motility and yet inability to address or become the Other, whether that is organic or cthonic, a process or force; a cosmology that represents a world from which we attempt to extricate ourselves, thus disallowing access to the Other (the world) and therefore stripping our own existence of significance. VIOLA appears to wish to re-engage that which has been lost in an attempt to redress the excesses of (post) modernity.

Structured in five parts - Il Corpo Scuro (The Dark Body), The Language OJ Birds, The Night Of Sense, Stunned By Drums and The Living Flam - I Do Not Know What It Is I Am Like was originally conceived and produced as an interactive video disc which allowed the viewer instant access to any desired sequence and therefore a high degree of control over the reading (editing) process, affirming that which places video as video relative to other time-based audio-visual media - its intimacy and programmability.

If you'd like to quote something: Biggs, Simon. "Reclamations." Mediamatic Magazine vol. 2 # 2 (1987).