Saturday, May 17, 2008

Maximizing Indeterminacy: On Collage in Writing, Film, Video, Installation and Other Artistic Realms (as well as the Shroud of Turin), J. RONALD GREEN

The truth is that my nervous system, interposed between the objects which affect my body and those which I can influence, is a mere conductor, transmitting, sending back or inhibiting movement. This conductor is composed of an enormous number of threads which stretch from the periphery to the center, and from the center to the periphery.

Henri Bergson, Matter and Memory [1]

Charles Simic, in his poem "The Puppet Show," writes

The infinite number of lines

That join to me things and beings,

So that a diagram

Of any moment in my life

Looks like a child's scribble...[2]

This almost describes Jackson Pollock's gestural paintings, Marie Menken's short film on light-writing from her Notebook series (c. 1950), Mary Lucier's video performance installation Fire Writing (1975) and her related closed-circuit video installation Untitled Display System (1975/87). Lucier describes her two aforementioned works as a kind of writing: "Applying the methodology of writing to camera technique was a means by which I sought to extend video's referents beyond its own limited history. I was interested in the displacement that occurs when one tool is assigned the function of another." [3]

Yet this is not the same idea of writing as the cinema "writing" that was called for in Alexandre Astruc's famous 1949 essay, "The Camera-Pen": "[Film d]irection is no longer a means of illustrating or presenting a scene, but a true act of writing."[4] Lucier's is less a true act of writing than an allusion to the imbeddedness of the expressive gesture in a material, mediated situation, which she demonstrates not just through the Menken-like and Pollock-like video images themselves as gestural, expressionist art, but through her own performance of "writing" within a formal installation that demonstrates not just the human gesture but the material situation of that gesture and its technological apparatuses. Her work also alludes to something akin to the "expansive Derridean notion of ecriture--understood as a 'theoretical hypothesis' which replaces the notion of sign with that of 'trace,' referring processes of signification back to a differential movement whose terms are unassignable and unfixable." [5]

Even if such allusions are not so expansive or so specifically "unassignable," the abstracted mimicking and representation of writing is a familiar theme in the visual arts. Lucier's Fire Writing fits this thematic tendency, and Simic's fragment of poetry illuminates the artistic impulse of writing as a suggestive instance of an urge to represent situatedness. Simic's scribble, Lucier's writing and Deleuze's passage from the visible to the "legible" are indicators of a relation to communication, in the expanded sense of the word that means "to join or connect."

This idea can be posed against Rosalind Krauss's influential characterization of the video medium as essentially narcissistic in her 1978 essay "Video: The Aesthetics of Narcissism." As important as Krauss's essay was 20 years ago, it seems that the artist's body's fascination with itself in the "mirror" of video space is a fascination not just with the body's self, but also with the way others see it (as Krauss later made crystal clear in Passages in Modern Sculpture [1981]); with the body's objective relatedness to specific sites; and with the body's general situatedness. These concerns are not essentially narcissistic and not necessarily anti-analytical in the sense that made Freud pessimistic about the curability of narcissists. In fact, Krauss's footnote on Freud highlights the difference rather than the similarity between narcissism and the works of video art that Krauss chose to focus on:

Freud's pessimism about the prospects of treating the narcissistic character is based on his experience of the narcissist's inherent inability to enter into the analytic situation: "Experience shows that persons suffering from the narcissistic neuroses have no capacity for transference, or only insufficient remnants of it. They turn from the physician, not in hostility, but in indifference." [6]

Krauss's narcissistic video artists--Vito Acconci, Lynda Benglis, Bruce Nauman and Richard Serra--are anything but indifferent. They have enormous capacity for transference, and they insist on the analytic situation, including the body's situatedness. Acconci's videos are social statements, and the self-centeredness shown by Krauss to be undeniably intrinsic to the video medium is demonstrated by Acconci in a way that also ironizes video and self, transcends their self-centeredness and explores their situatedness. Serra's Boomerang (1974) demonstrates the ability of video to make the self strange. Nauman's and Benglis's works are similarly analytical. It is through video that essentially curative work is proposed and attempted and such work is, like Freud's talking cure, communication.

What is odd about Krauss's findings of narcissism in video art is that, until the birth of the Internet, video was the greatest communication machine of all time, especially when combined with its parent, television. Historically and conceptually prior, however, are video's powers of collage. Once that method was possible, then it was the power of communication--the portability or broadcastability of the collaged result--that gave the medium such a huge claim over our lives. As critics such as Andre Bazin and Noel Burch have insisted, this power and this claim did not simply occur naturally. As a vehicle of collage, video is a direct descendant of cinema, which is, in turn, a direct descendant of photography.

In "The Object of Post-Cinema" Gregory Ulmer's discussion of photography sets the stage for the emergence of installation art and reveals a deep affinity between video and installation as each uses a different register of the real, the readymade, the "object itself," as an element of discourse via collage. Ulmer's specific thesis, which centers on the emergence of a "post-criticism," a kind of criticism analogous to postmodernism and poststructuralism, relates collage (and object "mimicry") directly to writing and includes ideas of writing such as the "essai concret." [7] A literal "concrete essay" would be comprised of not words representing things but things, as in installation art. But this is not a new idea. In Book II of Critique of Judgement (1790), Immanuel Kant discusses landscape gardening as a kind of concrete painting, an idea that is suggestive of installation art.

Ulmer casts collage as perhaps "the single most revolutionary formal innovation in artistic representation to occur in our century." [8] Collage was introduced by Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso into painting through use of "actual objects or fragments of objects, signifying literally themselves," [9] expanded by Marcel Duchamp's invention of readymades, reused by Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg to critique abstract expressionism and inherent in "collage machines" such as photography, film, television, video, computers and the Internet. But has all of this culminated in installation art?

There seems to be a descendancy or a teleology in which each new generation of collage machine and of collage informed art is a larger set that incorporates the preceding sets. Cinema incorporates photography; video and television incorporate cinema; and computers and the Internet incorporate all of the above and writing as well. One is tempted to say that installation goes one step beyond the digital, incorporating painting, sculpture and all of the other collage machines including the digital. That this begs the poststructuralist questioning of grand narratives and species-like "descents" goes without saying; but for the moment, I want to see where such a story might lead.

Installation is surely related to the grand narrative of collage (treating things in the world as units of signification), but not necessarily to the collage machines themselves. Installation art and the digital realm are recent but separable tracks of collage discourse. [10] The evolution of the collage machines suggests that the same teleological culmination that can be claimed for installation art can be claimed for the computer/Internet. Up until the time that the digital made its presence known, each new collage machine evolved from and contained the material vestiges of the previous collage machine. This is particularly true of cinema, which was actually a modified use of 35mm photographic strips that had originally been manufactured for still cameras.

The idea of the phylogenic evolution of the collage machines modulates again with the invention of video/television, since the basic image, though still designed as a "still," is constructed out of highly fluid and dynamic electrons; the video "still"--produced by a fast-moving raster, an electronic ray-gun-like beam--is like Lucier's firewriting or Simic's scribble under extreme discipline. Video would seem to be a huge material and formal step, since it set the stage for the digital.

In a pioneering essay on the history of video art published in Millennium Film Journal in 1996, Jon Burris predicted that video will soon be subsumed by the digital multi-media, that video has been merely a precursor of the moving image within the digital domain, and that the analog age will soon be over. [11] He argues that both the "interior" (medium conscious) and the "exterior" (socially conscious) strategies of early video art were thoroughly modernist, the interior because it explored the essence of the medium in a technologically Greenbergian way, and the exterior because it was technologically utopian. The interior strategy was too narrow. Nobody cares much any more about the relation of vertical hold to artistic expression. The exterior strategy was too broad. The liaison of ecology, cybernetics, philosophy, technological theory and politics with video art is legitimate, but none of those alliances is essentially utopian.

In moving forward from the "failure" of modernist approaches to the video art of the late '70s, Burris argues that the postmodernists moderated the adversarial position of video art toward popular culture and mass media. Artists turned to television, making work that was more traditionally narrative; they backed away from their explorations of the video medium itself, instead making statements with the medium. All of the previous concerns--seeing what the machine could do in all of its ramifications and permutations, e.g., the work of Shuya Abe and Nam June Paik, Stephen Beck, Dan Sandin, Bill and Louise Etra, Steina and Woody Vasulka, and many others; seeing what the implications, of the "wired nation" would be, e.g., Paul Ryan, Frank Gillette, Ira Schneider, the Video Freeks, Video Free America and many others--became normalized and narrowed, treated as content within more mainstream media productions. Burns characterizes this trend as a contraction of video's options and concludes that it is no longer a d eveloping medium, finally characterizing video art since the late '70s as a rearguard action.

I would characterize the situation differently. First, it should be noted that the most detailed part of Burris's article deals with the modernist period that he claims ended in the late '70s. As the part of video art that most needs to be recorded for history's sake, Burris rightly has discussed it first. His survey of the later period of "normalization and narrowing" and of "rearguard" action is much less detailed. If the details were filled in, the picture would include the "rearguard" 28- and 56-minute works of innovative television that Burris mentions, but it would also include some works by modernist artists such as Tony Oursler and Bill Viola who continue to invent non-rearguard video. The full picture would also include a new generation of non-rearguard postmodernists such as Sadie Benning, Helen DeMichiel, Stan Douglas and Jane and Louise Wilson. Christine Tamblyn characterized DeMichiel as an example of an anti-establishment deconstructionist and as a collagist. She quotes DeMichiel as saying:

I rob the image bank compulsively. I cut up, rearrange, collage, montage, decompose, rearrange, subvert, recontextualize, deconstruct, debunk, rethink, recombine, sort Out, untangle, and give back the pictures, the meanings, the sounds, the music, that are taken away from us in every moment of our days and nights. [12]

According to Tamblyn, DeMichiel used video as the most advanced and accessible manifestation of new video editing technology. Burris presumably considers that kind of work characteristic of the video medium's further formal mainstreaming. However, it might also be characterized as a continuing teleological movement toward larger sets of collage works, as a further development of video as a discourse of the relations of the whole.

A detailed picture of the "rearguard" era would also reveal a continuation of the kind of interactive video art that Burris discusses in relation to Gillette's, Dan Graham's and Ryan's feedback-related installation works. Margaret Morse, writing on video installation art in 1990, focused on the intensely psychological character of these kinds of video installation, in which "the visitor is enclosed within an envelope of images, textures and sounds." She describes highly localized, individual-body-centered feelings: "it was as if I my body had come unglued from my own image." [13] Morse is then quick to connect feeling with social context, body with environment:

We lack the vocabulary for kinesthetic "insights," for learning at the level of the body ego and its orientation in space. (Perhaps such learning principles might be considered "Deweyian" a "figuring within" as opposed to the "reading" of literature or the "imagining" of pictorial art.) These hypotheses attempt to articulate this kind of experience, in the preliminaries to a poetics of video installation art... [that] address in turn: (1) the conditions of existence of the art form; (2) its plane of expression and different levels within that plane; (3) the disposition of bodies and images in space; and (4) the temporal and experiential passage, reflections toward a metapsychology of video installation art. [14]

I would expect such an article as Burris's to lead up to the work of the present day, including manifestations of video installation art such as those sampled in Barbara London's survey at the Museum of Modern Art in 1995, Video Spaces: Eight Installations. The grand narrative of extracting and remounting, or resituating, chosen pieces of "given" reality--pieces whose connections to former realms is acknowledged as evolving--continues.

For example, Bill Viola's Slowly Turning Narrative (1995) takes two single-channel video image-streams and, by projecting them onto a gigantic rotating mirror, redistributes them around the room, mixing them with other images that the mirror gathers in, including those of the spectators in the room. Douglas's Evening (1994) is a three-channel, three-layer collage of the three major networks' news programming over the years. Gary Hill's Inasmuch As It Is Always Already Taking Place (1990) disassembles the human body into "life-sized" video body parts, then "plays" each body part on an appropriately sized and carefully positioned video monitor. Chris Marker's Silent Movie (1994-95; commissioned by the Wexner Center in Columbus) is a tower of video monitors each running a different program of fragments--many of them "montages" themselves--taken from silent cinema and reintegrated by the installation into an homage to the silent film era. Silent Movie is a monument to the silent film movements, especially emphas izing editing (Soviet montage, German psycho mimesis, American continuity); it is a celebration of a former collage machine (film) by a later collage machine (video) in a sculptural collage form (installation). The discourse of collage also runs through all of the other works in the Video Spaces show.

Is video just another element in installation art, like a sofa or painting or a book or a performer or a layer of pennies or dirt or straw on the floor? Yes and no: yes, because video, like any element in an installation, is treated as a resituated object representing, in part at least, the interrupted, or decised, discourse from which the object was drawn; and no, because video, as a powerful and recent collage machine, represents a discourse very like installation itself, thus opening installation work onto otherwise unavailable vistas of inscription through a very special kind of fenestration.

But video offers not only fenestration, a (gallery) room with a (video) view, but also "durations." Henri Bergson's idea of duration refers to the thing that "happens" when one experiences the workings of "the whole," whose relations are open and changing. The evolving discourse of collage and the technologies and aesthetics of collage machines have a privileged relation to the whole in that they use "real" objects that "represent themselves," and thus are not finally abstracted, but remain connected to the whole.

Duration in Bergson is also the thing that "happens" when the animal nervous system evolves beyond the contractile stage where, as in amoeba, the whole body contracts immediately in a predetermined, automatic fashion whenever anything is touched. Beyond that primitive stage of animal life, the brain with its perceptual devices works precisely to introduce "duration" into the animal's relations with the outside world. To introduce the idea for conceiving of future action requires not only perception at a distance but memory, an "idea" of the past so that future actions can be predicted and programmed based on stored models--template-like models of "the past" used as possible futures. Superimposing memory and possibility implies duration; it is the human animal's version of the present, and it is not unlike collage itself. [15]

Bergson says that the function of the evolved animal brain is to provide duration, specifically for the purpose of sorting out the best possible actions in response to the particular channels of perception that continuously report on the "outside," objective world. The brain, in contradistinction from the reflex contraction of the amoeba, is an indeterminacy device that is not predetermined. Increasing the distance that can be assimilated by human perceptual systems also increases the time that human perceptual and cognitive systems have available to sort out optimal human actions in relation to the changing material world. Technological extensions help to do this. The farther human perceptual devices such as telescopes and radio signals probe into the universe, the more time humans will have to take action against what would otherwise be unimaginable and abjectifying acts of the gods.

If human sight and hearing in conjunction with the human brain comprise an indeterminacy device that is "simply" explained by the need to optimize human action in the world, then image and sound technologies can be seen as extensions of those functions. Speaking, writing, painting, sculpture and the collage machines are systems of such shared perceptual devices; but they are also shared memory. They represent past events that can be superimposed over present events to produce duration and enhance indeterminacy for individuals as social beings. The digitalis the latest analogy to the brain, which is the greatest indeterminacy device we know of. The more complex the array of perceptual and digital devices, the greater the indeterminacy and the greater the chance of our species to optimize its actions in the world.

The arts are a realm of our extensions of perception, memory and indeterminacy that are associated with what Bergson calls "affection" or feeling. [16] Affection as desire leads humans to what they want or need, and affection as pain warns them of what threatens. Immediate threats cause physical pain; distant or possible threats cause psychological pain. Affection motivates action. Perception and affection are related in several ways: perception is "outside" the body; affection is "inside" the body; an increase in "intensity" of perception may increase affection, e.g., an increase in the intensity of touch will turn into pain; affection increases with increased proximity of the perceived to the perceiver, since the body is at risk precisely at the juncture between itself and what it perceives; with extension and distance, perception and affection tend to become representation--what is distant, and potentially beneficial or harmful, must be represented as such to the perceiver/feeler, who is local. The indete rminacy apparatus decides what action to take; the more indeterminacy that the apparatus can handle, the more optimal the results will be.

Writing, painting, sculpture, the collage machines and the digital become part of the "memory"--an important part of the affective memory--and the arts provide the superimpositions needed to optimize human affection in relation to the larger reality, a reality whose nurture and threats we must respect. The feeling of respect for reality, for the whole, is Edmund Burke's sublime.

The digital becomes a crucial next stage in artistic and larger survivalistic indeterminacy. Computers are analogous to the brain and the Internet is analogous to the nervous system. This new extension of the human central nervous system is a huge increase in the controlled complexity of the human body's interface with the rest of the material world, with "nature." Burris is right to emphasize the digital in his critique of video:

Soon to be subsumed by multi-media--the digitization and manipulation of sound and image on computers--video during these first thirty years will eventually be seen as a discrete and unitary phase, the precursor to the moving image in the digital domain. Once that happens, it will be time for a full consideration of the dynamics of its formation, for the analog age will be over and many of the issues which seem ambiguous to us today will stand out with considerable clarity. Only then will we know whether the first videomakers had set the foundations for an art form of lasting importance, or whether video art will have been only an interesting curiosity. [17]

That we are entering a digital age in which terms such as "multi-media" subsume terms such as "video," "cinema," "photography" and even "painting" and "writing" is undeniable. It would be a mistake, however, to see the digital and multi-media as replacing those earlier modes. The digital is the latest thoroughly material collage machine. It is a mistake to imply, as Burris does, that the end of the analog age means the down-grading of the analog mode. That would be like saying that after animals and humans evolved and the age of the central nervous system had begun, that the rest of the body was no longer important, and that the physiological devices for perception at a distance (such as vision and hearing) were to be downgraded owing to the new, utterly Protean capacities of digital code. The advent of the brain and the central nervous system allows for vast elaborations of technological analogs to the human body. Computers are, like brains, utterly material; they both subsume, are subsumed by and prolifera te analog systems and without those analogs computers would be utterly worthless. Non-analog computing is comparable to the kind of subjectivist philosophy that reduces human consciousness to a dimensionless point that somehow projects all experience as if from nothing.

Non-digital, analog mediums--e.g., writing, painting, sculpture, collage machines and installations--are perhaps analogous to "the body" of a digital "consciousness." Those mediums get subsumed in the digital. But those other mediums are not dead in the sense that critics like to pronounce discourses such as the novel and the theater dead. The analog age is no more over than is the material age.

We do not have to wait for the digital age to think of video as being assimilated, becoming only a part of multi-media or the media arts as have all previous collage machines. Video has already chosen to be promiscuous, just as all mediums and discourses have done. One finds photography and cinema within video genetically as well as representationally, as Burris has shown. It seems reasonable to look for larger models to explain how video art emerged and where it is heading. To say that the digital age will supersede the analog age suggests a kind of technological determinism that begs the interesting questions that are larger than technology.

Clearly collage is a grand narrative that incorporates some major concerns within writing (including poetry and criticism), painting (from Braque to Rauschenberg to Laura Lisbon), Ulmer's collage machines (photography, film and video) and the digital. Burris emphasizes video's relation to a digital future, but he could easily have pointed at the end of his article to the extensive exploration of installation by video artists today (he did cover certain installation artists from the first period of video); in fact, the issue of Millennium in which his article is featured explicitly treats video and video installation. Video installation is a pervasive phenomenon in the art world. [18]

This split between installation and the digital as trunk lines of future video art can be resolved at the level of collage. The digital is the latest collage machine, [19] and installation is the expansion of mainstream plastic-art activities--primarily sculpture--farther into the realm of objects in their expanded field of relations with other objects. That expanded field itself includes language, language-like systems and digital code. Which of these two directions-installation art or the digitalis the more artistically compelling? Is one or the other more pervasive, more subsuming, more "indeterminating" and thus potentially more relevant and profound?

The digital seems more compelling since it will soon pervade human activity and in many ways control and direct it. It is easy to counter digital supremacy, however, since objects and object relations already pervade human activity regardless of the incursion of "the simulacrum." The digital helps humans handle object relations. Nevertheless, the realm of the digital will demand overwhelming attention in years to come, since it must be assimilated. Its assimilation will, nonetheless, have to be into object relations and the analog realm. It is only in the analog realm that humans can feed and reproduce. The digital will be important, but it will be primary only in the realm of representation. It is a collage machine dealing with virtuality, a radically reduced, transposed and de-indexicalized version of object relations. Installations can include the digital; but the digital cannot really include installations, only virtual installations. This is a trade-off the digital realm is willing to make, given the ma ddening lack of plasticity in the realm of non-virtual installations. But the losses in the trade-off can be too easily ignored, resulting in illogically exaggerated concepts such as Jean Baudrillard's simulacrum and the hyper-real. Though the idea of the simulacrum is important as a naming of a new disease, Baudrillard plays Madame Curie to his discovery. To claim primacy of the digital over the analog may risk idealism. Code is not and cannot ever be everything; and digital code, though powerful, is not unique. Writing is code, as are painting and the collage machines that precede the digital.

All code must have material support. To a significant degree, the support is part of the message, part of the art, part of the discourse. With the coming of the expanded field of art (seen particularly clearly in sculpture, thanks to the work of Krauss), the material support of art has been explored as a network of forces that extends from very proximate and literal (the shape of the stretcher of a painting such as the paintings on Frank Stella's early custom-made stretchers--the stretchers are literally and referentially the "support") to very distant and figurative (Hans Haacke's inclusions of the geographically removed, neo-colonialist actions of corporations that financially "support" his installations at various museums, and thus his inclusion of ideology as material support). The reasons behind the art world's concern for exploring the support of art needs to be kept in mind when considering the implications and the future of digital art in relation to the analog realm. The analog realm is not just "ou tput" and "interface" for the essentially digital; it is the entire support for the digital--it is prior and primary.

The digital presents serious problems in its relations with human discourse in general and with art in particular. Painting, throughout its history, has been fundamentally concerned with its relation to the real world. Ideas about, attitudes toward and strategies of realism have been central to it from cave art through abstract art. Photography, the first collage machine, advanced this central concern by mechanically introducing the indexical tracing of the real world. The tracing of hands by the early cave painters was both an iconic and an indexical (as well as a symbolic) act of signage; photography mechanized such acts, especially that of the icon and index. Cinema and video then inherited the gene of indexicality from photography, first introducing photographic motion, then photographic real time, e.g., temporal immediacy (live TV and video). The problem with the digital collage machine that comes after cinema and video is that the indexical gene radically mutates. One can find the gene in certain circu mstances, but it has become entirely virtual and thus unstable. Any instability in the indexical is a problem by definition, and thus inherently fatal to the host idea of index.

This problem is only a problem if one expects the digital to perform the work of the previous collage machines; it is not a problem if one expects the digital to do the kind of work that painting or sculpture do. There can be no doubt, however, that the photographic collage machines are being digitalized at a rapid rate. This is the sense in which Burns is right to say that the digital is the next era. But what will be the relation of the digital to its support? How will digital art engage with current art-world concerns about the material relations of objects? No doubt that concern will emerge in digital art, but not without recognizing the continuing primacy of the analog realm.

One of the most compelling current installations in relation to this issue occurs outside of the art world. The Shroud of Turin has been placed on display in such a way that it serves as an example of the complexity of the relations of collage machines and objects, and of analog and digital. A close analysis of the shroud's installation and reception "settles" the question of the primacy of analog or digital realms. The shroud was installed not just in the old-fashioned sense of installing a work in a show. This installation was site-specific, elaborate, performative, ritualistic and fraught with meaning in its own right:

Hung lengthwise over purple drapery high in the dark nave of the Turin Cathedral, the shroud bears the faint traces of a man's face, limbs and folded hands, visible even behind the bulletproof, hermetically sealed glass casing and steel frame. [20]

Believers want to prove that the shroud is not art, that it is the one, true burial shroud. For the vast majority of those who are interested in the shroud, authenticity--the shroud's relation to the indexical--is the issue. In spite of the centrality of that issue, it is easy to see why the New York Times chose to use a picture of the shroud's image projected onto the wall rather than the shroud itself. This photograph of the shroud's image represents the "fascination" that the Times refers to in the headline, "Power to Fascinate Intact..." The image is in color so that the luminous blue light of the slide projector adds a technologically enhanced aura to the inherently ghostly figure; this figure of light is made to hover above the furniture of the museum on an invisible wall. What we are looking at is a half-tone newspaper reproduction of a photograph of a projection of a slide of a photograph-like image of, allegedly, Jesus.

This chain of indexical meaning is important to the reception of the shroud and its installation, and the indexicality centers on the idea of photography:

Modern fascination with the shroud, and scientific testing, blossomed in 1898, when on May 28 Secondo Pin took the first photographs of the shroud during one of its rare viewings. While developing the film, Mr. Pia was astounded to see that what had been faint markings on the linen appeared as a dear, fully formed image of a man on the photographic negative. The cloth shows the front and back of a man's body, and its markings are actually a negative image--photographic negatives reveal the positive image in seemingly three-dimensional.... [21]

That a photograph played a part in revealing the "photographic" nature of the shroud is semi-coincidental; nevertheless, a deeper logic of photography underlies the "modern fascination" with the shroud and pervades the debate over its authenticity. The purchasers of the best-seller that called the shroud a literal "snapshot" of the Resurrection are presumably looking for something so important to them that they are willing to accept the contradiction that something can be literal and still need inverted commas around it, and that an image of a dead man can directly, indexically represent the defeat of death. Part of what these people are looking for is a concatenation of effects--an apparatus, an institution, authentic evidence--that defeats time and death, in the sense discussed by Susan Sontag in On Photography, Roland Barthes in Camera Lucida and Andre Bazin in What is Cinema? [22]

The obsession with the recreation of an integral reality of our own image underlies the profound importance of realism as a mode in the arts and sciences and it continues in today's editions of the myth, including the fantastic and the digital. It matters that the flights of wishful thinking provided by Hollywood and television are believable, that they are "just like reality." The same is true of pornography, ethnography, the evening news and digitally produced virtual reality. In all of these realms the modern answer to the need for "reality in our own image" is provided by the collage machines. And photography has played the key role owing to its intrinsic indexicality; its decisive, interventionistic powers of d[acute{e}]coupage, assemblage, montage; a certain amount of plasticity in its elementary materials; and its portability. But recently the digital has transformed the realms of plasticity and portability. The portability of the digital is instantaneous and global. And the plasticity of the digitali s so competent at realistic effects that it has become virtually indexical, and virtual indexicality is a logical contradiction. This conflict between the indexical photographic foundations of the collage machines and the new digital plasticity can be seen clearly in the controversy surrounding the Shroud of Turin.

In a listing of some of the pros and cons of the shroud controversy, the Times mentions that, on the one hand, the shroud "is a negative image and not a painting. No medieval forger would have been likely to depict such an image, not knowing the principles of photography"; and on the other hand," [t]he images over the eyebrow with the coins--which only became visible with photographic enlargement and computer processing--could have been enhanced recently on a computer." [23]

It is clear why photography is important to the debate over authenticity; and it is understandable that the next generation of digital collage machines has entered the lists since certain of its capacities for plastic revision of original material can aid in authentication. The computer enhancements mentioned above provide one of the key points supporting the shroud's authenticity: "Some scholars say that over the right eye and the left eyebrow appear the impression of two coins with the letters (TIBERIO)Y K(AISAROS), or Tiberius Caesar, dating from 30-31 A.D." [24] The problem, however, is that these same details also count against authenticity, since computer enhancement can be tantamount to forgery. The computer, with its radically unstable indexicality, cannot be relied upon to resolve this problem; and it is this problem that makes all the difference.

Significantly, two large-scale approaches to publicizing the shroud have been adopted. First, an ecstasy of communication, in the sense complained of by Baudrillard when he says, exaggeratedly, that "[t]here is no longer any system of objects," [25] and when he says that:

today there is a whole pornography of information and communication, that is to say, of circuits and networks, a pornography of all functions and objects in their readability, their fluidity, their availability, their regulation, in their forced signification, in their performativity, in their branching, in their polyvalence, in their free expression....

It is no longer then the traditional obscenity of what is hidden, repressed, forbidden or obscure; on the contrary, it is the obscenity of the visible, of the all-too-visible, of the more-visible-than-the-visible. It is the obscenity of what no longer has any secret, of what dissolves completely in information and communication. [26]

As the Times puts it, with regard to the shroud:

Now, at its unveiling, for the fourth time in this century and at the cathedral's 500th anniversary, there are scores of new, revisionist scholars who are casting doubt on the doubters and broadcasting their findings over the Internet. On the cusp of the millennium, the shroud has taken on yet another significance--the odd marriage of ancient faith and cyberspace.

...[V]isitors can reserve a viewing time by telephone or over the Internet, and 835,000 have already signed up....millions more will be able to click onto a live Internet hookup to the nave of the cathedral. (http.://

Every detail, theory and countertheory of the relic's remarkable history are chronicled and debated on more than 30 Shroud of Turin websites... [27]

This ecstasy of communication surrounding the shroud amplifies rather than diminishes the aura of the shroud itself as an object, the opposite of what Walter Benjamin predicted in his famous essay, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," and the opposite of Baudrillard's claim of a loss of a system of objects. The "museum without walls" effect of the collage machines has indeed made the shroud more accessible to the world so that everyone has ("pornographic") access to it. But the ecstasy of access merely confirms the aura of the original; it confirms the interest of the multitudes in the fact of the shroud's indexicality, its uniqueness. If that uniqueness were a moot issue, there would be no ecstasy of communication about the object and no "mechanical" reproductions of it. It would be just another burial shroud, of interest to a handful of scholars.

The second approach to publicity about the shroud is the choice to open access to the object itself through an installation. This approach would be considered old-fashioned and pre-modern, except that it comes at a time when installation has a new meaning. The shroud's installation, taken in the old-fashioned sense, confirms the continued importance of material reality in the age of communication and virtual reality. It is significant that three million people visited the shroud's exhibition in 1978 and three million were expected again in 1998. Many more will "visit" it virtually, but for the same reasons that will bring the three million to the object itself--because of its indexicality, the same indexicality that made photography such a potent challenge to painting. Today painting remains potent because of its indexical relation to real materials (i.e., because of aura), and photography remains potent because of its indexical relation to real objects (i.e., because of aura).

This fact confirms the undiminished interest in the modern era's celebration of unique objects, of religious and artistic aura, of heroic individuals and of the creative genius of authors and artists. This fact is inherent in the art world's interest in installation. Installation is evidence of the expanded field of authorship, in the knowledge of which one must understand the always-already constructedness of any individual, no matter how original and creative that individual. However, the expanded field does not finally diminish the individual; it expands and extends the individual. Any individual who understands her/his place in the expanded field of the subject has in a sense incorporated that field and has individually expanded her/his capacities for indeterminacy. By understanding determinacies better, one increases indeterminacy for-oneself. Thus, it should be no surprise that installation art is evidence of the need for an extension of individual artistic "genius" into the realm of situatedness, of m aterial object relations.

The rise of installation art is a recognition that our society needs examples of how to arrange the protean world of objects under consumer capitalism. The rise of installation art indicates that, (consumer) society needs to learn how to read and how to "write" diverse situations of object relation. After semiotics and poststructuralism, all things human, and many things inhuman, are seen as "in code."

The digital and installation realms comprise complementary, not contradictory, art practices. One must insist, and artists are insisting through installation art, that code only exists when it is matter, and it only matters when it is objectified; and when it is objectified, it is unique, specific and potentially a determining factor in relation to individual human bodies.

Installation has always been a kind of collage, even before the word collage emerged to name a conscious discourse. Older forms of installation, such as sculptures in piazzas, paintings in churches, furniture in country houses or sculpture, paintings and furniture in museums, demonstrated an ability to carve, shape or manufacture objects, or to loot or purchase such objects, and then install them elsewhere. The resulting arrangements of those reassemblages had great, often overdetermined, meaning. Contemporary artists have appropriated the discourse of object appropriation for purposes of conscious artistic expression.

Those old-fashioned installations often included books and manuscripts, letters and writing desks, just as current installation art, such as that by Ann Hamilton, often includes. Her work demonstrates the assimilation of the writerly collage machines--whose apparatuses and support systems were explored formally and ideologically in the 1970s by the film artists of the New American Cinema and by the Structuralist Materialist filmmakers of Great Britain--into the lifeworld. Hamilton's 1996 show at the Wexner Center in Columbus, Ohio included numerous, often humorous, prosthetic devices and several elegant film and video installations that update the work of the late media artists Horns Frampton and Paul Sharits. It was a massive exploration of the way we live with collage machines. In some ways, those machines were treated as McLuhan-like extensions of man, technological indeterminacy devices; but the prosthetic devices sometimes implied crippled postmodern bodies. More optimistically, they evoked a material, palpable eroticism enhanced by a video glow. The digital was treated in that spirit in Hamilton's show. The video logo for her CD-ROM piece The Body as Object Ann Hamilton 1984-1996 was the show's most tactilely erotic image, a probing digit, a "digital" work as caressing, articulating, probing as a finger's touch, a pun by which body and soul seem intimately to communicate.

Collage has given the world a new legibility, has made it physically segmentable, composable, revisable and re-readable. The world has always been readerly: the ancients were always on the lookout for auguries and signs of the world's meaning in, for example, the entrails of animals, the flight of birds, the movement of planets and the weather--it was part religion, part science. Moderns still read the world's geological strata, weather and DNA, but modern collage has made the world increasingly writerly; we are unintentionally rewriting the weather through ozone depletion, and we can edit DNA. The ancients also "wrote" and edited their environment, but less extensively than they read it. Increased writerliness is part of what Simic intuits as a diagram of his situation in the world in "The Puppet Show" what Lucier attempts in Fire Writing, what Hamilton doodles with her CD-ROM finger, pointing to what Deleuze refers to as "passage from the visible to the legible."

The expanded writerliness of the world manifests the human drive "to secure the perfect fitting of [the human] body to its environment, to represent the relations of external things among themselves--in short, to think matter," as Bergson posits in Creative Evolution. [28] In a world that is, for better or worse, increasingly comprised of man-made or man-handled pieces of the whole, those recombinant pieces increasingly communicate through Bergson's "threads which stretch from the periphery to the center, and from the center to the periphery"--because the pieces of our world are more and more decised from the whole and recombined by humans. Since we are always attempting to "think matter" more attractively, but always less convincingly, than matter is "thinking us", the artistic and critical exploration of collage and its machines is increasingly vital. [29]

J. RONALD GREEN teaches film studies in the Department of History of Art at Ohio State University. His book on Oscar Micheaux, Straight Luck, is forthcoming from Indiana University Press.


(1.) Henri Bergson, in N. M. Paul and W. S. Palmer, trans., Matter and Memory (New York: Zone Books, 1991, orig. 1908), p. 45.

(2.) Charles Simic, "The Puppet Show," in Hotel Insomnia (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1992), P. 39.

(3.) Mary Lucier, "Light and Death," in Doug Hall and Sally Jo Fifer, eds., Illuminating Video: An Essential Guide to Video Art (New York: Aperture, 1990), p. 458. Lucier's reference to "the methodology of writing" must be taken loosely. Lucier may have a method but it is not writing; writing is a theme in Lucier's work, not a method.

(4.) Alexandre Astruc, "The Birth of a New Avant-Garde: la cam[acute{e}]ra-stylo," orginally published in L'Ecran Francais, No. 144, 1948, and translated in Peter Graham, ed., The New Wave (New York: Doubleday, 1968), p. 22.

(5.) Robert Stam in Robert Burgoyne and Sandy Flitterman-Lewis and Robert Stam, eds., New Vocabularies in Film Semiotics (New York: Routledge, 1992); p. 26.

(6.) Rosalind Krauss, "Video: The Aesthetics of Narcissism," in Gregory Battcock, ed., New Artists Video (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1978), reprinted in John G. Hanhardt, ed., Video Culture: A Critical Investigation (Rochester, NY: Visual Studies Workshop, 1986), p. 90.

(7.) Gregory L. Ulmer, "The Object of Post-Criticism," in Hal Foster, ed., Anti-A esthetic Essays on Postmodern Culture (Seattle: Bay Press, 1983), p. 102.

(8.) Ulmer, p. 84.

(9.) From Edward Fry's Cubism, quoted in Ulmer, p. 84.

(10.) "Discourse" is not an adequate term; it tends to confuse the idea of collage with "story." My use is closer to Foucault's "discursive formations,"--"i.e., the linguistic practices and institutions that produce... knowledge claims, usually correlatable with a disseminated power, within which we exist socially [Stam, New Vocabularies, p. 211]"--but it is not clear that collage is such a discourse; what are its knowledge claims? What would be its relation to power? Maybe "working method" or "formal method" or "mode" would be clearer; Ulmer uses "formal innovation" but collage is no longer an innovation.

(11.) Jon Burris, "Did the Portapak Cause Video Art? Notes on the Formation of a New Medium," in Millennium Film Journal, no. 29 (Fall 1996), p. 28.

(12.) Christine Tamblyn, "Significant Others: Social Documentary as Personal Portraiture in Women's Video of the 1980s," in Illuminating Video, p. 414.

(13.) Margaret Morse, "Video Installation Art: The Body, the Image, and the Space-in-Between," in Illuminating Video, p. 153.

(14.) Ibid., pp. 153-54.

(15.) Bergson, Chapters 1 and 2.

(16.) Bergson, p. 53.

(17.) Burris, p. 28.

(18.) See Cynthia Chris, "Video Art: Stayin' Alive," in Afterimage 27, no. 5 (March/April 2000), pp. 10-12.

(19.) I use "machine" loosely in the spirit of two definitions from Webster's Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary. "la. archaic: a constructed thing whether material or immaterial... e (1). An assemblage of parts that transmit forces, motion, and energy one to another in a predetermined manner."

(20.) Alesandra Stanley, "Power to Fascinate Intact, Turin Shroud Is Unfurled," New York Times (April 19, 1998), p. 1.

(21.) Ian Wilson, author of the best-seller The Shroud of Turin: The Burial Cloth of Jesus Christ? (New York, Doubleday, 1978), described it as "a literal 'snapshot' of the Resurrection."

(22.) Susan Sontag, On Photography (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1977); Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida, Reflections on Photography (New York: Hill & Wang, 1981); Andr[acute{e}] Bazin, "The Myth of Total Cinema," in Hugh Gray, ed. and trans., What Is Cinema? (Berkeley University of California Press, 1967), pp. 21-22. Bazin also mentions the shroud in his "Ontology of the Photographic Image" in What is Cinema?

(23.) "Sorting It Out: Shroud of Controversy," box insert, New York Times (April 19, 1998), p. 6.

(24.) Ibid.

(25.) Jean Baudrillard, "The Ecstasy of Communication," in Foster, Anti-Aesthetic, p. 126.

(26.) Ibid, pp. 130-31.

(27.) Stanley, pp. 1,6.

(28.) Henri Bergson, Creative Evolution, Arthur Mitchell, trans. (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1983, orig. 1907), p. ix.

(29.) This essay is dedicated to Paul Sharits and Hollis Frampton. This essay is a response to a series of presentations and exhibitions organized by Philip Armstrong, Lisa Florman, Laura Lisbon, Jan Maiden and Stephen Melville at the Jan Maiden Fine Art Gallery in Columbus, Ohio in the Spring of 1998. I am grateful to Armstrong and Lisbon for important readings.


Questia Media America, Inc.

Publication Information: Article Title: Maximizing Indeterminacy: On Collage in Writing, Film, Video, Installation and Other Artistic Realms. Contributors: J. Ronald Green - author. Journal Title: Afterimage. Volume: 27. Issue: 6. Publication Year: 2000. Page Number: 8. COPYRIGHT 2000 Visual Studies Workshop; COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group


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