Moving On II: Sensation

John Haber
in New York City

Video Acts and <Alt> Digital Media

One thinks of an object as something palpable, change as something visible. At a touch it ceases. It appears again as soon as one steps away. Movies create its illusion by setting one apart in the audience. Turn up the house lights, and that illusion, too, is gone.

So is the moving image one more illusion, one more casualty of Postmodernism? Why not just reach out and touch to be sure? Shows of the earliest video art and new interactive media—at P.S. 1 and, appropriately enough, the Museum of the Moving Image—try just that. Cory Arcangel's I Shot Andy Warhol (American Museum of the Moving Image, 2002)

Weighing time

Do new media have anything at all in common? I might be facing a faded image projected on a bare wall or a flat panel I can only wish I could afford. From 16 mm to 512 megabytes of DDR-RAM, video and interactive art have grown as broad and accepted as any medium—or all of them at once. They seem united by nothing more than a refusal to call themselves painting, a lingering novelty, dimmed light, and one more thing: they take time.

They may not represent time, like most movies or like still images resembling contact prints by Barbara Crane of Chicago architecture. However, they make it visible—or palpable. One looks nervously about while deciding whether one has stayed long enough to get the point. Yet the image itself may have run ahead, refused to move, escaped logic, or leaped into eternity. Perhaps they remember film after all. Think of the static, impersonal universe of Andy Warhol's Empire, a steady shot of the Empire State Building.

New media may serve as a direct challenge to painting, sculpture, and installation alike, for they refuse to sit still. One takes it for granted. It is what they do. It is what one sees. In this and an accompanying essay, I want to look at two attempts to ground that experience in an appeal to nature.

A preceding part asks if one can explain moving images by the nature of vision. Here, in the second part, I ask if one must turn instead to the tactile—the performer in front of the video camera, the user of interactive art. I again find that each explanation comes, gratifyingly, with illusions of its own. Readers looking for a ringing conclusion may prefer the first part. Readers tired of all the arguments may feel grateful that this part gets down more or less firmly to art.

Painting has felt comfortable dealing with motion only when it can afford to put its own illusion on display. It catches the fly in trompe l'oeil, the cat leaping from a ledge in Chardin's still life. Mostly, though, museums—not to mention much of art history—encourage one to dwell on permanence. They put barriers even around installation art. Even in praise of Leonardo, they cannot resist pointing to The Last Supper, its oil on plaster peeling into oblivion, as an abject failure, at least until Peter Greenaway rescues it in new media. One expects the image still to be there when one turns away and when one looks again.

From performance to new media, art may well have been turning all that on its head. The physical action of artist and viewer can now reinsert time into the visual arts, as palpable as loss. If time does weigh heavily on one's hands when it comes to new art, I want to ask now about its weight.

Fact or fiction

The human body need not turn illusion into a fact of nature. It comes from a shared construction never fully in anyone's control. The cameras in stores and airports put both chance movement and the act of surveillance itself under suspicion. Sometimes, artists manage to embrace them both.

Video art grew out of performance, with its confrontation between artist and viewer. It grew out of Minimalism, with the work always part of the viewer's self-created environment. It grew out of cult movies, with artists forced to fall back on the cheapest cast of all, themselves. Computer art, too, begins with materials in the viewer's space—a screen, a mouse, a game box. It begins with a physical act—a power surge, a mouse click, an encounter with a camera.

And then the image starts to move. That already suggests the interdependence of the body, motion, and illusion. However, it leaves plenty of room for shuffling the terms. One can insist on physical experience, right in the middle of art and culture. Alternatively, one can insist on the sleight of hand, right in the middle of an encounter between human and machine.

A choice like that goes back well before video and interactive art anyhow. One sees it in the function of art long ago within religion and rituals, which video and film can also enact or reenact. One can see it in what Michael Fried has called the theatricality of art before Modernism. People gesture to each other and the audience, and then what?

Two shows, both in Queens, make very different choices. At P.S. 1, a survey of early video art draws on a large private collection, from Pamela and Richard Kramlich. "Video Acts" sticks to single-channel video. The viewer simply looks on, and no multiplicity of images breaks into the artist's performance. The moving image collides with the artist's body, like a hard fact.

At the Museum of the Moving Image, "<Alt> Digital Media" collects over a dozen works of interactive art. As one clicks, the moving image dismembers the viewer's body, rendering it as one more illusion. Conversely, an eye that never leaves one alone returns that illusion to the hard facts of vision, culture, and power.

Taking pains

A strong bias makes for lousy history. An obsession, however, makes for great collecting—and a fascinating, exhausting exhibition. "Video Acts" may not work as, for goodness sake, yet another retrospective of video art, but it illuminates video's history all the same.

P.S. 1 packs well over 100 video monitors into a maze of rooms, like a clearance sale for home electronics. I cannot imagine how many hours it would take to watch it all. More than one headset per monitor—or just more speakers set at low volume—would have helped a lot to focus one's attention. Ironically, the display unsettles the show's very emphasis on grit, authenticity, and a single channel. Jacques Derrida writes of the "logic of the supplement," and I felt much the same paradox here. Caught amidst two dozen screens by one artist, one creates one's own multi-channel work, and no one image, body, or moment has the last say.

Pipilotti Rist, with one work, adds a touch of color and contemporaneity. (Pipilotti Rist in retrospective will add more.) Nonetheless, "Video Acts" pretty much keeps to the 1960s and 1970s. Like a good deal of politics and culture back then, it seems determined to take back reality. This is art in your face.

One sees it in the selection of artists, with large, busy rooms for performance art by Marina Abramovic, Vito Acconci, and Bruce Nauman. One sees it in the selection of works. Nauman paces endlessly in a small square. In the show's one huge wall projection, where a corridor overlooks the basement, he rubs a layer of caked color onto his skin. For all these deadpan physical exercises, one might never know of the more distanced, mocking pose of his Clown Torture.

Delightfully, one sees it, too, in the insights it brings into familiar and unfamiliar works. In this context, one sees the lessons of William Wegman to Many Ray on video not as humor, but as man and dog, nose to nose. One sees his pretence of a deodorant commercial not as mockery, but as a thin guy exposing his hairy armpits. As Dara Birnbaum spins again and again before finally morphing into Wonder Woman, one sees not a cultural icon, but a woman's struggle. Nam June Paik looks less like a trickster playing with battered TV tubes, more like a recorder of Merce Cunningham's every move.

I got a long-overdue exposure to Abramovic and her legendary collaborations with Ulay. Her recent Chelsea performance had an overwhelming sense of danger and complicity. Here, one gets some action. As Ulay rams into her or holds an arrow, bow stretched taut before her breast, one feels two heartbeats. The operative word is painstaking, with the emphasis on pain. It made me curious why Kiki Smith has reserved her most painful images for sculpture, her occasional video for softer dreams.

Of mice and men

The Museum of the Moving Image, in turn, knows about entertainment and illusion. One can, after all, wander upstairs to take in film history and the making of movies. One may not even associate the place with art, new media, or, golly, real people. No wonder the art press has pretty much skipped the show, sad to say.

Its three rooms nominally have different themes, related to constructing form, working with texts, and learning from games. An additional work in the lobby, discussed in the first part of this essay, does not even belong nominally to the show. Yet I see them all as very much of a piece. They all use interactivity to highlight one's sensation of one's own body. These works take time to understand, because one cannot see a moving image without doing the work oneself.

Software art often hews too closely to stale genres like video games and new-age music, sometimes both at once. So do some of the artists here. Dan Tarap invites one to alter variables, from wind speed to the very force of gravity, that give the ocean its motion and natural beauty. Still, the soft colors and scientific pretense amount to an overgrown lava lamp. Mark Amerika's Filmtext has something to do with text. It sounds to me, however, like a high-tech cross between techno and elevator music.

Computer art is always a work in progress, at least as long it relies on Apple or Windows. Screens keep freezing faster than the staff can reboot them. Technology can also run afoul of an artist's imagination. Toni Dove's simulated dancer answers a user's voice, but voice recognition has a long way to go. So do the stock responses, which never clarify the point of her Depression-era actor for today. Even these pieces, however, have a sense of humor and a lively mean streak.

I laughed out loud at PuppetZoo and PuppetTool, by a collective named LeCielEstBleu. Animated animals roam the range, like a bad National Geographic special, just clunky enough not to look real. With a mouse (appropriately enough), one can make them twist, dive, or hurtle into the air. I loved most watching them land, never quite gracefully.

When Cory Arcangel creates I Shot Andy Warhol, he puns on the movie of the same name. However, it adds a shooting match of its own. Armed with a toy pistol that shoots electronic impulses, one targets cartoon images of Andy Warhol as they appear on screen, while Warhol's influence remains as elusive as ever. I missed his arcade image ten times on my first go-round. Then again, I can never hit up with a famous artist in real galleries either.

Paranoia and pleasure

The show works best when it conveys the paranoia with which one confronts technology—or simply other people. Jean-Paul Sartre and office workers would probably call them both hell. Works like these present culture as an impenetrable nexus, art as a shooting match, people and animals as barely half real.

A Is for Apple, by David Clark, builds a network of texts and images around the Beatles. I did not get the title at first, much less a scheme with references to Central Park, Jesus, and more than I can remember. I saw only a room, with the silhouette of a sax player and odd references to Jacques Lacan. Slowly, I stumbled on something about John Lennon, with a voice-over that still made little sense. Finally, once I saw the overall shape, things got funnier. Hey, even Jesus fits, at least if one remembers Lennon's lament about who gets more attention—except perhaps during Bible study at the Bush White House.

In NewYorkExitNewYork, by Martin Lenclos and Priam Givord, one can shift vantage point freely in Time Square. Although assembled from hundreds of photographs, the big screen starts to feel downright tactile. More engagingly still, Camille Utterback's Liquid Time Series, New York, conveys the sensation of pushing through a rush-hour subway station far from the lone, dark platform in a Lorna Simpson video. As one moves within a square, marked with tape on the floor, the screen projects one's image as half dissolved verticals among others.

Potent Objects, by Utterback and Adam Chapman, tempt one to discover the human in the souvenirs of an anonymous past. As one shakes a small glass sphere, snowflakes fall around a faintly discernable person. A dancer adjusts her arms as one slide weights on an actual balance beam. She seems desperate to hold her pose and her beauty.

These works define the body as neither wholly human nor wholly represented, wholly alive nor wholly digital, wholly remembered nor wholly to come. One brings one's own presence into a complex of commerce and computing. One enters into a paranoid scheme neither wholly an artist's, one's own, nor a broader culture's.

Still, call it a happy, almost liberating paranoia. I never feel as relaxed shoving through a real, dirty subway station or listening to real conspiracy theories. Perhaps I try too hard each day to forget my own bodily motions—and my own illusions. Then again, they belong together.

BACK to John's arts home page

I saw "<Alt> Digital Media" in early February 2003 at the American Museum of the Moving Image. However, the exhibition will have changed in March, after which "work will be added" to this ongoing exhibition (and, I assume, taken away). "Video Acts: Single Channel Works from the Collections of Pamela and Richard Kramlich and New Art Trust" ran through April 30 at P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center.


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