The Human Being in the Electronic Landscape
"The space created in an artistic text expresses not just social relations but an artistic model of the universe."1
At the beginning of this century, art displaced the human figure from painting, marginalising such genres as the portrait that had been inherited and transformed by photography and film. In the modern era, man no longer inhabits the landscape - the landscape ceases to include him. Rilke, in Worswede (1902), had linked this displacement to the advent of abstract art, warning of the risks which such a removal would present: the exclusion of morality and beauty from the art world.
This unhinging of the relationship between subject and environment, initiated with the absorption of the figure into the background (impressionism), with its reduction to a ghost, a dark shadow which spreads itself across deserted squares (De Chirico), and with the meshing of the gears of a machine which swallows and destroys it (futurism), continues to deepen as the end of the century nears.
What is the space of the human figure in the electronic landscape? Convinced that an art which places itself in opposition to the representation of the world as it is (postmodernism, citationism, appropriationism), refusing to monumentalise its derelicts, must place the human figure in a meaningful context, rich with conflicts and syntheses, it is useful for us to examine the place of the subject in video art. What characterises her/his relationship to the environment, to her/himself and to others?
In the late 20th century, electronic media have substituted the notion of space as a container of objects with that of space as a continually changing process, extending itself far beyond any visible limits. One of the essential themes of video art is that of boundless space, a fluid space in constant movement typified by the recurring image of running water in electronic imagery. It is a sort of anti-space which shares the cosmic qualities of both the living and the inert, widening itself to infinity and narrowing itself to the tiniest slit. Viewing the earth from a satellite, observing its projection outward towards the cosmos, affects the modalities of terrestrial orientation, above all eliminating the distinction between exterior and interior, high and low, pushed by forces which simultaneously act centripetally and centrifugally.
The subject's role is both that of the errant and that of the clairvoyant. It is that of the wanderer, aimlessly retracing paths and repeating gestures, and, at the same time, of one who stops to watch a fragmentary, shadow-filled world or who, more often, turns to gaze at the mental landscape within himself.The Transformation of Subject in Image
"The love-hate relationship we have with our bodies," write Horkheimer and Adorno, leaves its stain on all modern civilization. The body, like something inferior and servile, is derided and abused, but at the same time desired as something forbidden, reified, estranged2."
Video, like "burlesque" in another epoch, mistreats the body. It proposes and emphasises new and different postures in a space-time continuum in which conventional relationships between objects and the body no longer hold, in which the body is eaten away by the light to become diaphanous, withered and de-figured, while the object, freed of its hierarchical and functional relationship with the human body, saturates the space of the still-life. When there is no longer an environment which welcomes the subject, and with respect to which the subject acts and reacts, both body and space become autonomous, unbound by reciprocal ties, empty landscapes void of spatial/temporal definition, still lifes, landscapes cluttered with objects. The subject is overcome by the world and, vice versa, shuts it out so as to better concentrate on her/himself.
The physical occupation of a place and the intervention in the environment, be it the uncontaminated mountains of Michael Snow's film Région Centrale, or the swamp in Bill Viola's The Reflecting Pool, are a relational modality which has continued to reinforce the unity between subject and nature. The artists of Land Art ventured out into vast spaces with heroic and mystical inspiration, "marking the landscape" with tools as light and simple as the hand that draws a line -Walter De Maria's Lines. Three Circles in the Desert (1969) - or as heavy as the bulldozer used by Jan Dibbets in carrying out his 12 hours tide object with correction of Perspective (1969). The human figure has not been completely eliminated from the electronic landscape; it persists in the heroic and absolute performance of a subject which, beyond words, beyond actions performed for specific aims, affirms his or her existence, letting out a primordial scream, rolling in the mud, etching out signs of writing, desiring the other, but ending up collapsing back into her/himself.
In the works of Land Art (and in this sense, Gerry Schum's 1969 Land Art and 1970 Identifications are representative shows), the presence of the human figure is irrelevant and, if not entirely absent, at least reduced to a silhouette. Instead, the monitor is occupied essentially by the "autonomous object of great dimensions," consisting of the natural site chosen and inhabited by the artist.
On the contrary, the presence of the body is absolute in the performances conceived for video of the artists of Body Art , whose aim was just the opposite: to do without landscape (which risks rendering spectacular), and instead to create a work which is "inseparable from its maker." These are artists who spring into action in front of a fixed video camera in empty spaces where there is no boundary between background and figure. Vito Acconci stretches his open mouth to occupy the entire frame, keeping it open as proof of his willingness to accept the other into himself. His open jaws threaten and, at the same time, accept penetration by the other, initiating a dialogue with a "you" beyond the frame of the monitor (Open Book, 1974). The video camera is used almost as a mirror which returns one's own image to oneself, confirming in a sense its presence and consistence in front of self and other, in an elementary perceptive exercise which sanctifies the body of the artist as work of art. "I am making art," John Baldessari repeats (not without irony) as he touches various parts of his body, disassembling them so as to frame the individual pieces: legs, arms, etc., as if his body were impregnated with art.
In the films and videos of Bruce Nauman, Robert Morris, Vito Acconci, John Baldessari and others, the subject has an active presence; his position in front of the camera and the few spectators brought together for the performance affirms the postulate "I am the artwork," almost as if attempting to convince himself and the spectator to believe in the truth of his actions and declarations. Even in the absence of context, the artist's performance is not a solipsism but rather, addresses a virtual audience. The world is excluded since the negation of its system of commercial, material and social relations means the affirmation of a new world and a new art; its exclusion serves to surround the artist with a void within which to create anew. The subject is active in attacking the world, experimenting with primary structures and with verbal and corporeal communication. It deconstructs and compartmentalises the body, but does so in order to concentrate on single parts (the hands, in Richard Serra's case), a communicative intensity capable of throwing light on the whole. This utopian project to change society through art can be seen as well in the performances of Joseph Beuys, whose personal existence itself was a sort of challenge in the face of the world and its multitude of forms.
In the 1980's, this active, aggressive subject of Body Art, which eradicates the world in order to change it, gives way to a fragmented subject, so overwhelmed by multiplicity that it is no longer able to form a whole. In Gary Hill's Commentary or Mouth Piece, the exclusive presence of a cartoon-drawn mouth or of the artist's mouth which opens and closes as he speaks, causes the viewer to forget the subject and concentrate on the verbal and phonetic function. The subject is the image of the organ which allows the utterance of words, of speech which implies no particular listener. The wide-open mouth, as if ready to swallow the world, opening and closing to articulate (often silently) words - hands which grasp nothing occupy the entire screen, devoid of any context whether animate or inanimate; it is a subject which carries out no actions nor has any frontal gaze.The Still Life
The landscape depicted by Land Art is an exotic, natural landscape: rivers, mountains, deserts, the sea, sandy beaches... In the decade to follow, it is substituted by a metropolitan non-landscape, by a quotation of a landscape, by dispersed, inarticulate elements which once made up a whole, which has since disintegrated.
The Protagonist is one who watches, sometimes shown as the clairvoyant, the fortune-teller, one who observes the scene without participating, having with it only an optical relationship. The scene of the world, overgrown, presents indifferently things and people and, while the subject is reduced to corpus, the landscape is represented as natura morta, still life, populated by objects wrapped in themselves. It is a space saturated both optically and phonically, where there is no difference between interior and exterior. But while the still life painting of the baroque expressed the decomposition brought about by time on living things at the height of their beauty, in the case of today's still life, the representation is of the devitalisation of the still-living, its reduction to object.
The screen in Gary Hill's Primary Speaking, with its bands of colour in the background, is divided into two adjacent frames, into which are randomly inserted a great variety of images: objects and body parts, faces, hands, torsos, empty chairs, suitcases, plates of food, half-eaten apples, eyeglasses, playing cards, shells, hands which break a baguette, others which buckle a belt. These are inanimate images; the only action is that of the cutting from image to image on the monitor, the two frames like two eyes capturing images in their gaze.
In Dara Birnbaum's videos, the woman has a relationship with the world, either a destructive one (as in Wonder Woman, where the vamp's dizzy spinning causes the explosive disintegration of everything she meets along her path), or a contemplative one (as in The Wisp, in which the protagonist is a clairvoyant who stands immobile, at a slight angle to the camera, gazing at the world from a window; a world which is depicted in a tiny frame at the bottom of the screen: ordinary people passing along the street of New York's Soho, together with inanimate objects, such as flowers and leaves.) In this relationship between the self and the world, the second term is irrelevant. It is nothing more than a variation, a presence which neither disturbs nor distracts the clairvoyant's flow of thoughts, thoughts which are expressed verbally by a persistent voice which constitutes, together with the images which the protagonist watches without seeing (since she is concentrated entirely inward), the dominant theme of the video. "I interrogate myself," the voice says, "I don't really know what the others think or what they are." She is motionless, and the space of the monitor, the room of her thoughts, in which the face is absorbed, becomes a milky white substance, "image-colour."
In Canon: Taking to the Street, where poetry and revolution are equal aspirations, women's faces pass one after the other, isolated by the camera amongst a group of demonstrators. The face of each young woman, extracted from the mass, does not, however, take on individuality. They do not become portraits, neither as individuals nor as groups; the faces are indistinct, indefinite, fleeting, smudged with a blue-violet colour and covered with writing. Space, time and theme are localised in the verbal text.
The only true character in Birnbaum's videos is the woman who watches, the author who devotes a varying amount of space to the world according to the prevalence or portrayal of her self, who can't stand separation for fear of invalidating herself and disappearing.
In Paul Garrin's video, Home(less) is where the revolution is, the identity of the group is defined by the violence of the police who attack the tent-city of the homeless, forcing the inhabitants out of their own (makeshift) homes. These are not the timeless, context-free scenes of violence broadcast on the evening news, but rather socially identifiable situations which are kept hidden by the media. At the same time, the speed of cutting, which alternates clips of the policemen's faces with those of the homeless, makes it almost impossible to identify the two sides in the struggle, to observe their expressions, actions and reactions, to determine the social roles of the victim and the aggressor. Both risk being perceived as unreal figures, mannequins, computer simulations of cartoon characters.
This brings to mind Eisenstein's 1925 film Strike, in which there is a balance between the single person and the chorus, between the individual and the collective. The social class (the proletariat) is a group, a mass which is organised so as to move in unison, but it does not by virtue of this unison lose its singularity, its beauty, the presence and consistence of its individual members, its character and temperament.
The image of the human being produced by video production is light-years away from the lively, forceful, charismatic bodies of Eisenstein's workers. Since the former undertake no task, no adventure, no struggle, they remain immobile observers, daring not even to openly challenge the video camera. Rather than carry on a dialogue, they voice their own internal thoughts, a solipsistic activity which, rather than turning to the written text in this age of dominant oral communication, they express verbally. For this reason, there is no narrator nor audience of listeners. A self, therefore, which progressively loses its physicality to assert itself as a voice, as a figureless sound track, becoming a chromatic magma which surrenders its solidity to the black and to the white.
Survival seems possible on the condition that one accepts the gradual substitution of parts of one's body with electronic instruments, as occurs with Nam June Paik's female "robot" Charlotte Moorman, subsequently replaced by Frankenstein, a true robot which strolled Madison Avenue. With two monitors in place of breasts, resting on her inseparable cello like antennae and eyes, Charlotte is a living installation, made of various organic and inorganic materials. In virtue of its hybrid nature, it mixes East and West, high and low culture, publicity and news...
Towards a New Mimesis
In order to achieve a relationship with the world, it is necessary to identify the place of the subject in mass society, to acquire faith in the gaze and in the face, to restore the concept of mimesis and insist on transcendence and utopia.
The theme of Irit Bastry's trilogy Passage to Utopia is that of the weight of the past. However, whereas in Leaving the Old Ruins, Irit debates the idea that tradition "like this man running away heavy with landscape, heavy with landscape and memory," is something from which we must purify ourselves but which, at the same time, we need to appropriate; "we must learn again how to create art... they then will create art and not a mirror of this contaminated place"3, in the subsequent work Traces of a presence to come, the author aspires to an absolute purification so as to return our memory to its virgin state, in which "anything can be written in." Only in this way can the storyteller direct his or her listeners towards transcendence. In order to create a new world "dissolving one's concept of time and place," one must succeed in "breaking any known alphabet." The characters who appear in Passage to Utopia are figurines framed in rectangles within the black of the monitor, advancing and receding, shapes and silhouettes. They are not real people in flesh and blood but, rather, faces seen from behind or in profile, blurred because there is always some diaphragm which doesn't permit them to emerge completely. They are bodiless outlines which are absorbed in the black frame, in the white or the colors, rapidly losing their form. They are tiny figures or giant, threatening ones, distant and unreachable, wandering in deserted streets. The voice provides the continuous thread, the band which holds the images together.
It is a pictorial and plastic space, densely woven to contain various places without connoting them directly or creating relationships amongst them, as they are purely mental landscapes. These are "image-colours"4, movements which change tone and absorb within themselves the limited variety of forms which represent the world in miniature. And they are dream-images which turn to the infinite to express themselves through dissolves, superimposition, non-framing - effects which, since nothing (the plants, buildings, streets) is real and solid, tend towards abstraction. Everything is reduced to forms and colours, or disappears in the ripples of the water, alternately whole and fragmented. The only concrete images are the hands which trace letters on paper, symbol of a prehistoric activity, writing, which therefore takes on a mythical and mystical aura.
In a road movie like Sophie Calle and Greg Shepard's Double Blind (1992), all seems to be real and solid: there is a plot (a trip taken from New York to San Fransisco by the two artists armed with video cameras); there is a destination, a conflict and its dissolution (the marriage). But actually, everything is turned inside-out, beginning with the male and female roles and the genre itself. Instead of the journey representing the freedom of the individual who searches for new values outside the routines of everyday life, this is a claustrophobic trip inside a car, with the cameras turned not toward the exterior, but inward in a dialogue between one another.
In this electronic road movie, all of the places visited by the protagonists - New York, Boston, Chicago, New Orleans, Los Angeles, San Francisco - provoke a feeling of desolation and solitude, both internal and external. Repeated rituals on never-ending highways, identical motels and restaurants, as if in a series, where nothing stimulates the fantasy and no adventures occur; these are just stops on an infinite trip in which there are no connections between places, people or stories.
The video production that we have examined so far enables us to depict the traits of a new mimesis springing from the theme of our analysis: the radically transformed relationship between the human figure and the landscape. First, the boundary between organic and inorganic, between animate and inanimate, between mental and physical has become obsolete, allowing free interchange. The gears in the machinery shown in Bill Viola's Anthem (1983) are anthropomorphised, like huge jaws opening and closing. Interior and exterior, mental and physical, subjective and objective no longer present themselves as polar opposites; in this sense, the subject and the world interchange properties. In Anthem, both nature and man have the same rhythm, a single, identical pulse, and it is unimportant and unnecessary to portray the human figure in images because his living and thinking traits are qualities instilled in animals, plants, in the snake sliding up the trunk of a tree, in the flame-spewing chimneys, in the long, deep whistle of the ship, a cry that might also be that of an animal in the forest. Even death, destruction, rubble, and pain are redeemed, contrasted not with images of their opposites, but with the force of their own pain, the sense of loss, the violence which they unleash. Thus, in Anthem, the immobile child at the center of a gallery constitutes, like that place from which to part and to which to return, the center which gives meaning to the world's gaze.
The distinction between abstract and concrete has also fallen away. Realism is no longer identified with a strictly ordered reality, modified through the action of the subject, supported by a distinction between night and day, between real and imaginary. In Bill Viola's work, there is integrity in the relationship between the self and the world, in the sense that the two terms are distinct but at the same time blurred; they reverberate against one another in that moment between sleep and waking, a time no less real than daytime, the time of consciousness.
Still lifes, landscapes or portraits are presented as original, archetypal images (not at all symbolic) tensed to preserve a relationship between subjective and objective, to re-propose it as the connective principle of a work which aspires to organicism.
To tend to reorganise the fragmented multiplicity of the real in order to open oneself up to spirituality and universality is the task of art at the end of the century. Art must be driven by the tension to integrate - without being totalising - instead of to fragment, to invent instead of to copy, to weave dialogues without renouncing for this reason the negative path.
Rome-Hèrimoncourt, July-August 1994
Thanks are due to Gianfranco Mantegna, to the CICV of Montbéliard Belfort for aiding in the research, and to the Whitney Museum of American Art for their invaluable support.
(Translated from the original Italian by Thomas Rankin)
1Jurij Lotman, "L'asimmetria e il dialogo nelle strutture pensanti," in La semiosfera, Marsilio, Venice, 1985, p.63.
2 Max Horkheimer, Theodor W. Adorno. Dialektik der Aufklärung, Philosophische Fragmente. Querido Verlag Amsterdam, 1969, pp.249-250.
3 Irit Batsry, Traces of Passage, Edition du Centre International de Création Vidéo Montbéliard Belfort (Monograph edited by Pierre Bongiovanni), 1993, p.136.
4 Gilles Deleuze, Image Temps, Les Edition de Minuit, Paris 1985 (L'immagine-tempo, Ubulibri, Milano 1985, p.59).
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