Friday, April 23, 2010

Video Theory, Scott McQuire

Being asked to talk about theory, about the theory of video or the relation of video to theory is a problematic task. To suggest why, I want to begin with a quote from Sean Cubit's book Videography. Cubit writes:

There is no video theory in the way that there is a body of knowledge called film theory or, rather differently, television studies. There never will be. Not being really a simple and discrete entity, video prevents the prerequisite for a theoretical approach: that is, deciding upon an object about which you wish to know. (Cubit, 1993, p. xvi)

This is a viewpoint with which I have some sympathy. Cubit points to the vast range of activities the term "video" commonly covers—a minimal list would include feature films on video tape, music videos, home video recordings (both with the VCR and domestic video cameras), closed circuit video surveillance, corporate and information video, video used for legal evidence in the police and court systems and so on. I haven't yet mentioned television. And, in a forum like this, we shouldn't forget video art in all its manifestations.

So, we're faced with a problem. We can restrict video to specific objects or practices, say video tape or video cameras. But then the term is already bordering on archaic. Or we can extend it to the realm of "electronic imagery"—as I am inclined to do—but then we risk losing a sense of a specific object or practice to which it applies. This sense of the problematic nature of video is shared by many people. I am reminded of John Conomos, speaking at the first of these forums, where he argued persuasively that video is a hybrid art, or, rather, a medium characterised by hybridity. His opinion is close to that expressed by Jacques Derrida in an essay on Gary Hill where he concluded that the question of the identity of the medium—which generally revolves around the specificity or uniqueness of video compared to other media—is "badly put." (Derrida, "Videor", p. 178)

As I said, I have a lot of sympathy for these positions. But I think there is also another side to this issue. As much as there is a heterogeneity of practices which go under the name "video," the eagerness to acclaim video as a hybrid medium, or a medium of hybridity, needs to be measured against the transformations of theory which have occurred over the last twenty or so years—in other words, over video's life. In particular, I would point to the crisis of disciplinary boundaries, the sustained questioning of the value of totalising theories, of identifying the essential qualities of an object, and particularly of the practice of setting up rigid lines which divide what is "inside" a field from what is outside. These sorts of theoretical presuppositions have become increasingly suspect in the present. Derrida is one point of reference for this transformation—arguably a crucial point of reference given the manner in which the deconstructive critique of binary oppositions has become something of a template for the intellectual shifts associated with post-structuralism and postmodernism.

While there isn't time to discuss these shifts in detail here, the general effect has been to make the role of theory newly problematic. In a forum like this, I think we need to recognise that this current uncertainty about the role and nature of theory and particularly the security of disciplinary boundaries is linked to a broader crisis in knowledge. And this, in turn, is intimately linked to the growing displacement of the theoretical norms predicated on the traditional culture of the book by the rise of a spectacular image culture. None of this is particularly new—it has been going on for at least one hundred years since the industrialisation of photography and the invention of cinema. But it does suggest that as much as video offers a new kind of object for theory, it is also part of a profound transformation of the social and cultural conditions within which theory is produced. So if we are moved to term video a hybrid form, what does this tell us? Rather than simply accepting this as theoretical progress, we also need to look at the way in which certain, apparently entrenched theoretical problems, have been displaced by new ones.

Throughout the twentieth century, modernism in its various guises took it as a more or less explicit program that the highest purpose of art was to analyse and define the specificity of each medium. Probably the most influential advocacy of this aesthetic of pure form came in Clement Greenberg's defence of Abstract Expressionism in the 1950s and 1960s. For Greenberg, Abstract Expressionism was unquestionably the pinnacle of modern painting because it eliminated the concerns, techniques and problems inherited from other art forms: narrative was left to drama, representation to photography, while the delimitation of flatness finally removed painting from the field of sculpture. What this model implies is that art develops by a process of reduction, by the elimination of all extrinsic characteristics until you arrive at what is—presumably—a core. A centre, a pure essence.

I'm piling up these terms which are today so unfashionable, not to poke fun at Greenberg, but to underline the break that contemporary theory is seeking to make. Or, at least, claims itself to be making. In fact, while Greenberg's rather austere formalism often reads like an artefact from another world, many of his assumptions have survived that particular cultural moment. If we take a rather different moment—the development of screen theory in the 1970s and 1980s—the language is very different, brewed from a heady mix of Marxism, semiotics, feminism and psychoanalysis, but a concern for the purity of each medium lingers. Writers such as Stephen Heath talked at length about "specific signifying practices," and posed questions along the lines of: how is cinema different to photography or television? How are those differences manifested—materially, ideologically, theoretically, practically? Again, the assumption is that by stripping the medium down to its unique features, you will find its innermost core, its own proper identity. (If you hold on to this perspective, as some do, video inevitably seems rather shadowy: in his popular book Art of the Electronic Age, Frank Popper writes video is "still rather poorly defined halfway between TV and the museum." (Popper, p. 68)

I'm making these points in rather broad brush strokes because I want to contrast this trajectory—according to which the "proper" role of the artist, and also the theorist, is the exploration and delimitation of the purity and specificity of the medium—with what might be called the other history of art. It's not a secret history, so much as a parallel history, one which for a long time was kept outside the boundaries of mainstream art history but has returned in the present with all the vengeance of the repressed to envelop art and is currently in the process of dissolving its old hierarchies and borders—in short, putting the very existence of "art" into crisis. This other history, the one pioneered above all by Walter Benjamin's essay on technical reproducibility or mechanical reproduction, concerns the status and function of the image in contemporary culture.

And it is from this other history that we can trace a concern, not so much for delimiting the specificity of different media, but for understanding their interrelationships. In other words, an interest in hybridity rather than purity, in transformation and intersection rather than discrete and stable boundaries, and so on.

Anyway, having raised this point, which I will leave for discussion, I now want to switch my attention more firmly to video. One of the problems, even for those theorising video as a "specific signifying practice" was that, while it was clearly different to photography and cinema, it was not entirely new. Moreover, I would argue that the arrival of video around the 1970s didn't make nearly as radical a break or cultural rupture as photography had in the 1840s or cinema in the 1890s. Nevertheless, it did stretch existing paradigms in a number of ways. In what follows, I want to trace this impact under three headings:

1) Instantaneity
2) Architectonics
3) Plasticity


The most obvious departure the video image makes from its cinematic cousin is that it can be instantly available: recording and broadcasting can be simultaneous, and this technological possibility has offered a wide variety of uses from broadcast television to remote sensing, from the proliferation of security and surveillance cameras in the urban environment to various artistic experiments.

I'll take Dan Graham as a useful point of departure to discuss the latter, not because he was unique—many artists undertook similar explorations in the 1970s—but because he can serve to index this trajectory. I'll begin by reading a piece from Graham's book Video-Architecture-Television. He writes:

Video is a present-time medium. Its image can be simultaneous with its perception by/of its audience (it can be an image of its audience perceiving). The space/time it presents is continuous, unbroken and congruent to that of the real time which is the shared time of its perceivers... This is unlike film which is, necessarily, an edited representation of the past of another reality... for separate contemplation by unconnected individuals. Film is discontinuous, its language constructed, in fact, from syntactical and temporal disjunctions (for example, montage). Film is a reflection of a reality external to the spectator's body; the spectator's body is out of frame. In a live video situation, the spectator may be included in frame at one moment or be out of frame at another moment. Film constructs a "reality" separate and incongruent to the viewing situation; video feeds back indigenous data in the immediate, present-time environment or connects parallel time-space continua. Film is contemplative and "distanced"; it detaches a viewer from present reality and makes him [sic] a spectator. (Graham, p. 62)

Clearly what Graham is describing is a particular possibility rather than a necessary consequence of video technology. In his own work he used this possibility to undertake series of experiments into space, architecture, perception and memory. For instance, he constructed rooms which staged contrasts between direct perception, mirror reflections, live video and delayed video.

Describing the piece Present Continuous Past(s) (1974), Graham wrote:

The mirror reflects present time. The video camera tapes what is in front of it and the entire reflection of the opposite mirrored wall. The image seen by the camera (reflecting everything in the room) appears 8 seconds later in the video monitor.

This means that the camera will tape the reflected image of the monitor, setting up an infinite regress of time continuums (always separated by an eight second delay). Further:

The mirror at right-angles to the other mirror-wall and to the monitor wall gives a present time view of the installation as if observed from an objective vantage exterior to the viewer's subjective experience... It simply reflects present time.

Graham also made a series of "time delay" rooms. In Time Delay Room 1 (1974), spectators in room A could see those in room B live on one monitor and on an eight second delay on the other, while those in room B could see audience A live and themselves on delay. Spectators could walk between the two rooms, which was timed to take about eight seconds. These time delay rooms constituted a series of quasi-psycho-sociological experiments in which Graham used live video as a tool to explore consciousness. His project is reminiscent of Dziga Vertov's 1929 film The Man With The Movie Camera which used cinematic reflexivity to similar ends. Graham was particularly interested in the relationship of consciousness to philosophies of reflection and transparency. Interestingly, while his writings often seem to accept the equivalence of perception with self-presence, his experiments point elsewhere—to the continual implication of so-called "direct perception" with the deferred effects of memory. In this way, he cross-hatches phenomenology with a more psychoanalytic perspective. While I find his rooms fascinating, I must admit that I also find them rather unnerving—they seem too close to all those contemporary spaces dominated by surveillance cameras. (And, of course surveillance video footage is increasingly appearing as art in a gallery context.)

Graham's idea of using video as part of a closed system or feedback loop was common to many artists—Gary Hill has been quoted as saying "Video's intrinsic principle is feedback." (Hill, 1993, p. 65) It fitted in nicely with the rise of systems theory and cybernetics being advanced by those such as Norbert Weiner at the time. It also marked a time when the idea of participatory art started to be channelled towards interactive art—a term which has been such a buzz word in the 1990s. In video works by artists such as Nam June Paik, the presence of the audience—whether as an image registered on a monitor, or as a sound event reproduced through an electronic feedback system—began to play an increasingly important role in providing the content and shaping the experience of the art work.

Paik also constructed some of the most hauntingly beautiful examples of video as feedback; for instance the various versions of his TV Buddha. Here the enigmatic relation between the immediacy of the live image and the materiality of the object is brought to a pitch. The Buddha, who sought to keep himself free from all external impressions by immersing himself in mystic contemplation, sits confronted by his own image. The resulting ambivalence in the status of both object and image reminds me of Maurice Blanchot's suggestion that there are at least two interpretations of the imaginary, the realm of images. (Blanchot, 1982, 254-263) There is the ordinary interpretation, according to which the image follows the order of reality as its mirror or re-presentation. But there is also the path where the image points to the absent thing, not by a strategy of mastery but by evoking its presence as absence. What Blanchot underlines—and what Paik's Buddha confirms—is that, in fact, there is no either/or choice between these two possibilities—faced with the image, we always experience an ambivalent mixture of presence and absence.


By architectonics I simply mean the way in which video has often been used by artists not simply to provide an image, whether live or delayed, but the video monitor has been incorporated as an object into a physical space blending sculptural and representational concerns. Video as installation raises interesting problems. Gary Hill has argued: "I think the most difficult aspect of using video in an installation is decentralising the focus on the TV object itself and its never ending image,: (Hill, 1993, p. 68) In other words, if the installation functions merely as pseudo-cinema or pseudo-television, habitual forms of fascination with the image can overpower the work as a whole. However, if the installation is able to place both the image and the viewer in a relation of otherness, there is the capacity to establish a new trajectory for "art," somewhere between the ubiquity of broadcast media and the melancholy situation of the fine arts lingering around the authority of the painted tableau.

Artists have adopted a number of strategies to this end. One is to render the familiarity of the domestic TV set strange, by foregrounding its physical-sculptural elements. Nam June Paik's work, from his "prepared" television sets of the early 1960s to the far more elaborate "stations" of the late 1980s, has been a leading edge.

Another strategy is to construct a scene of watching which plays explicitly with the norms of the cinematic spectator—for example Bill Viola's Passage where the viewer encounters the projected image via a long narrow corridor. But when you reach the image, it is too large, you are too close to it, you can no longer see all of it at once. So the dynamics of the spectator's body becomes an important element of the work and a very ordinary image, shot at a child's birthday party and projected in extreme slow motion, becomes heightened, almost abstract, uncanny. Rather than presuming a static observer who communes primarily with the screen, this use of video explores a kinaesthetic relation to the image in which each viewer's experience depends upon variations in their positioning. Lyndal Jones' recent video installations in her From the Darwin Translations series have explored a similar terrain.


The third area I want to address concerns the plasticity of the video image. As United States video pioneer, Woody Vasulka put it in 1969: "There is a certain behaviour of the electronic image that is unique... It's liquid, it's shapeable, it's clay ..." (Popper, p. 62). One of the things that attracted artists such as Peter Callas, who spoke at the first of these seminars a few months ago, to work in video, was the fact that you could not only do things to the image, but you could also immediately see what you had done. Before video, even the simplest dissolve on film had to go to the lab, and you had to wait days or even weeks to see what it looked like. The emergence of video imaging tools like the Quantel Paintbox and the Fairlight CVI started a trajectory which has subsequently seen the image subject to increasingly sophisticated manipulation and ever more detailed control. With digital technology it no longer really makes sense to talk about this as a fundamental difference between video and film—all these processes can now be done in the digital domain and then output to film, if that is what is desired and can be afforded.

What I wanted to talk about briefly is a shift in the aesthetics of the image: its increasing density and malleability. I wanted to approach this by considering the changing function of the frame from painting to photography to cinema to video. The frame becomes crucial in painting around the same time that painting begins to detach itself from architecture; it corresponds to the moment in the Renaissance when painting is being reconceptualised by those such as Alberti as a "window to the world." The function of the frame is firstly to demarcate the inside of the image from its exterior; but the stability of the frame also serves as guardian of the stable and centred position of the spectator.

This system continues in photography, with its inheritance of painting's visual language and its aspirations to be considered an art. But it does so with difficulty. The crux of the matter is that, with the number of "views" which begin to be made, the authority of the one "ideal" view which painting represented becomes increasingly tenuous. The shift towards an active frame, and by implication a mobile, decentred spectator, becomes more explicit with the arrival of cinema, and more, particularly, with the development of a cinematic language based around camera movement and montage. From this moment on, the frame delineates a point of view which is inherently unstable, shifting and highly mobile. The philosophic, political and social ramifications of such a shift are still being felt.

What happens with video belong less to this external axis of framing than to its internal dimensions. As the interior of the image becomes increasingly fluid, there are new possibilities for what might be called "internal montage." One aspect of this is the proliferation of internal "windows"—frames within frames—which can be seen in the work of a filmmaker such as Peter Greenaway. It's worth remembering that while, eight or nine years ago A TV Dante (1989), and then Prospero's Books (1991) looked radically different, their techniques are now becoming commonplace via broadcast television, computers and CD-ROMs.

This ability to treat the image as infinitely scalable, to manipulate individual parts and to combine different picture elements into complex, densely layered images can also be seen in the work of Peter Callas. Callas selects images from a wide variety of sources—cartoons, photographs, paintings, films, books—and "redraws" them into these distinctive graphics. He constantly cycles them through a varied colour palette and uses these oscillations to produce a nervy, unstable image composed of multiple layers—akin to a virtual puppet theatre.

In fact, none of these plastic possibilities could really be said to be unique to video. You could do similar things in cinema, only it was much more laborious and expensive. And, obviously, you can vastly extend these trajectories in the digital domain. This returns us to our "problem" with theorising video: it borrows from everything else, including writing. In this regard, it is interesting to speculate on video's role as screen technologies moves away from purely visual concerns to become a combination of image and text—a data screen for the information society. There is a profusion of theories beginning with Adorno and Benjamin which link the "compulsion" to process information to the perceptual stimuli of big-city infrastructure (and I think this background is one way of reading the "overloaded" videos of those such as Greenaway and Callas).

Probably the most legitimate historic claim we might make for video is that it formed an important way station in the movement from the chemical—physical image of photography and cinema to the ubiquity of digital effects—and its characterisation as a "hybrid" medium perhaps reflects this transitional status. We might add a second claim. In his essay "The Double Helix," Raymond Bellour suggests that the increasing tendency to decompose the image has been supported by the everyday use of video, by generalised access to the remote control, the fast forward/rewind functions, and so on. In other words, video has been a laboratory for the information society to come—and one crucially located at the heart of the contemporary home.

Blanchot, M. The Space of Literature (trans. A. Smock). Lincoln & London: University of Nebraska Press, 1982.

Bellour, R. "The Double Helix" in Passages de l'image. Paris: Centre Georges Pompidou, 1990.

Cubitt, S. Videography: Video Media as Art and Culture. Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1993.

Derrida, J. "Videor" in Passages de l'image. Paris: Centre Georges Pompidou, 1990.

Graham, D. Video-Architecture-Television: Writings on Video and Video Works 1970- 1978. Halifax: The Press of Nova Scotia College of Art and Design; New York: New York University Press, 1979.

Hill, G. "Interviewed Interview" in World Wide Video, Art & Design profile no. 31, 1993.

Popper, F. Art of the Electronic Age. London: Thames and Hudson, 1997.

Scott McQuire is a Senior Lecturer in the Media and Communications Program at the University of Melbourne. He is the author of several books including Visions of Modernity: Representation, Memory, Time and Space in the Age of the Camera and Maximum Vision: Large Format and Special Venue Cinema, as well as numerous articles and essays. "Video Theory" was originally presented in 1998 at the "Videor" seminar at the Centre for Contemporary Photography in Melbourne, Australia.

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