projection 6:

TVs & Bodies
A selection of work by experimental video artists

4pm / 28 Sep 2008  
Upstair at the Ha'penny Bridge Inn (Dublin)

The question of whether to shoot a film on video or celluloid has, in recent years, been largely reduced to a question of affordability and convenience. Experimental cinema has always taken such matters of medium a little more seriously. Almost every experimental filmmaker I’ve met has asked me whether I shoot on film or video, always with the implication that this was not simply a matter of economics but a defining philosophical and aesthetic choice.

Along similar lines, the Experimental Film Club has always made a concerted effort to project films on film when possible, in recognition of the fact that some of these works lose their magic, and much of their meaning, when they are shown on video (Pip Chodorov calls it the equivalent of exhibiting photocopies of paintings). The corollary of this is that experimental films originating on video also often have meanings and affects that are inseparable from their native medium.

When we talk about video we are of course talking about a constellation of formats and technologies that have existed and evolved in various contexts over the past half century, and the ways in which they have been used by artists covers an even wider spectrum. This programme aims to take four filmmakers from different points on that spectrum—two who were central to the inception of experimental video in the late ‘60s, and two outstanding contemporary video artists—to suggest something about the ways in which the position of video in the avant-garde, and culture in general, has shifted in the past 50 years.

When Nam June Paik and Aldo Tambellini began working with electronic media in the 1960s, video meant one thing: TV. Both artists came to video by way of sculptural and environment-based art, and it was the physical TV set which was their port of entry. Although Paik is the more widely recognised of the two, both featured in the seminal 1969 video installation exhibition, “TV as a Creative Medium” at the Howard Wise Gallery in New York, in which TVs were put into all sorts of unlikely sculptural and environmental contexts. The impetus for environment-based art was generally a desire to break down the traditionally passive and disengaged structures of art exhibition. The introduction into this context of that most passive and 2D of forms was seen by artists as a way of reclaiming and (sometimes literally) redesigning an incredibly powerful and dominant form of communication. As Paik put it, "Television has been attacking us all our lives – now we can attack it back."

The inherent problem with this kind of project was finding ways to subvert and circumvent technology that had been designed for reverse aesthetic and political purposes. The critic David E James has argued that “since video depends on advanced technology and on technological systems integrated at the corporate level, it is always possessed by the corporation, always besieged by its values.” As both Paik and Tambellini became more engaged in creating their own video content, their response to these problems tended to oscillate between the destructive and the constructive—on the one hand critiquing and deconstructing TV’s conventional modes, and on the other hand attempting to invent alternative ones.

GLOBAL GROOVE (1973, 29mins) features elements of both, and encapsulates many aspects of Paik’s work, combining elements of his ‘60s installations and various avant-garde art performances alongside kitschy world TV clips and trippy experiments with video synthesisers—all mixed together in a dizzying collage. The video proclaims itself as “a glimpse of the video landscape of tomorrow, when you will be able to switch to any TV station on the earth, and TV Guide will be as fat as the Manhattan telephone book”—and its position as a prophecy is complex, at once critic and participant.

Tambellini’s BLACK TV (1967, 10mins) also takes a subversive, collagist approach, but with a considerably darker edge. Utilising ‘60s news footage of race riots, police brutality and Vietnam, Tambellini described the film as being “about the future, the contemporary American, the media, the injustice, the witnessing of events, and the expansion of the senses.” It was this notion of expanding the senses that pre-occupied most of his work. While Tambellini was vitriolic in his opposition to mainstream television (he once called TV “the assassin of reality”), he also saw in it immense possibility as an abstract form of aesthetic communication. Since the technology was here to stay, and as Tambellini saw it, was “affecting all social and human interaction as we have previously known it to be”, it was imperative to find ways to appropriate it artistically.

Almost forty years later, the cultural climate has shifted in some key ways. Video-making technology has never been more democratic or accessible, but corporate images are also more ubiquitous and invasive than ever before. The internet has achieved the global synchronisation Paik visualised in Global Groove, and many of the techniques of the ‘60s avant-garde have been co-opted and neutralised by commercials and music videos. It’s hard to imagine works like the first two in this programme being made today—at least in an avant-garde context—and it’s particularly hard to imagine anyone holding out any hope in the radical aesthetic possibilities of such an increasingly obsolete format as broadcast television. While there are, of course, an endless range of video works being produced today, it’s the argument of this programme that the chosen pieces by Stephen Dwoskin and Maximilian Le Cain represent something distinctly contemporary about video’s cultural role in this environment.

Stephen Dwoskin has been an important figure in experimental cinema since he began working on film in ‘60s New York. One of the central concerns of his work has been described by Paul Willemen as “the relations of desire that can be woven between the camera's way of looking, the subject's wish to be seen, the filmmaker's irrevocable 'separation' from what he wants to see and show, and the viewer's relation to this intricate network of imbricated desires.” These concerns predate Dwoskin’s use of video, but since Dwoskin began working solely with video in the 1990s, his style has found a perfect niche in this context. NIGHTSHOTS (2007, 33mins) is a strong example of this, consisting of three frankly intimate encounters between Dwoskin and different women, all filmed in pitch black using infrared nightvision. The film’s formal devices are unavoidably reminiscent of such key cultural landmarks as the Paris Hilton sex tape, but the results are a million miles away, creating a ghostly impressionistic effect that is actually quite revelatory, all the more so for being founded on such basic formal means.

Maximilian Le Cain is a product of a different age. The 29 year old Cork filmmaker has been working on video since his early teens, developing a prolific body of work in which the relation between video and memory has become a central theme. In FORGOTTEN FILMS ( 2005, 10mins), Le Cain refilms the rushes of an actress from an abandoned fiction work of several years previous, and transforms it into a stunning and moving, melancholic study of memory and distance. Le Cain has described his films as “the memory of images already perceived, thought about and digested”, and there is an implication in his work that video is not just a metaphor for this process, but that the act of recording, revisiting, re-editing experiences through video actually changes one’s relationship to and remembrance (or forgetting) of those experiences. The technology has, as Tambellini assured us it would, reinvented our relationship with reality.

Both Dwoskin and Le Cain’s films are essentially portrait films, in which some kind of personal relationship between filmmaker and subject is implied; and although both use very video-specific formal methods (most of Forgotten is reflimed on a TV screen, and Nightshots is made possible by the nightvision function now standard on most camcorders), neither is self-consciously concerned with video as a medium or its wider context: the spectre of the mass media is nowhere to be found in these films. Unlike the earlier videos—which have the feel of being interventions, the work of renegate artists infiltrating enemy territory—Dwoskin and Le Cain are artists for whom making video is just a natural part of living.

40 years ago Paik argued that "the real issue implied in art and technology is not to make another scientific toy, but how to humanise the technology and the electronic medium.” Indeed, in anticipation of Cronenberg’s Videodrome (1983), Paik often brought TV into bodily situations in his installations—as in his famed “TV Bra” installation, visible in Global Groove. Today, that process is almost complete: video-making is an integral part of many people’s daily lives and social interaction; it is, as Dwoskin describes it, an extension of our eyes, but also of our memory, our feelings… it might as well be part of our body. The catch is that this state of affairs hasn’t resulted in any widespread release of individual creative potential. It has, in fact, largely disconnected us from real social and physical concerns.

It seems significant, then, that both of our contemporary filmmakers are concerned with intimate, one-to-one encounters. Dwoskin has described his use of film- and video-making as “a way of being with others … a way of touching other people and perhaps them touching me”. He describes his relationship with his subjects as one of dialogue, not voyeurism. “It’s not about looking at something pretty,” he says: “it’s about getting involved.” While Le Cain’s concern with memory may leave his camera’s gaze a little more distant from his subjects, his work is still very much haunted by the spectre of physical connection—even if it is, as Dwoskin put it, the way in which “eyes meeting can be like flesh touching”.

If in 1969, making videos was a way of taking control of a powerful, corporately controlled technology, in 2008, when everybody’s making videos, the problem seems to be how to take control of and get in touch with our own lives.

The question now seems to be, how to humanise us.

Curated by Donal Foreman.

For more information on the artists: