Friday, March 19, 2010

Preliminary Problems in Constructing a Situation, Situationist International #1, 1958

“The construction of situations begins beyond the ruins of the modern spectacle. It is easy to see how much the very principle of the spectacle — nonintervention — is linked to the alienation of the old world. Conversely, the most pertinent revolutionary experiments in culture have sought to break the spectators’ psychological identification with the hero so as to draw them into activity. . . . The situation is thus designed to be lived by its constructors. The role played by a passive or merely bit-part playing ‘public’ must constantly diminish, while that played by those who cannot be called actors, but rather, in a new sense of the term, ‘livers,’ must steadily increase.”

—Report on the Construction of Situations

Our conception of a “constructed situation” is not limited to an integrated use of artistic means to create an ambience, however great the force or spatiotemporal extent of that ambience might be. A situation is also an integrated ensemble of behavior in time. It is composed of actions contained in a transitory decor. These actions are the product of the decor and of themselves, and they in their turn produce other decors and other actions. How can these forces be oriented? We are not going to limit ourselves to merely empirical experimentation with environments in quest of mechanistically provoked surprises. The really experimental direction of situationist activity consists in setting up, on the basis of more or less clearly recognized desires, a temporary field of activity favorable to these desires. This alone can lead to the further clarification of these simple basic desires, and to the confused emergence of new desires whose material roots will be precisely the new reality engendered by situationist constructions.

We must thus envisage a sort of situationist-oriented psychoanalysis in which, in contrast to the goals pursued by the various currents stemming from Freudianism, each of the participants in this adventure would discover desires for specific ambiences in order to fulfill them. Each person must seek what he loves, what attracts him. (And here again, in contrast to certain endeavors of modern writing — Leiris, for example — what is important to us is neither our individual psychological structures nor the explanation of their formation, but their possible application in the construction of situations.) Through this method one can tabulate elements out of which situations can be constructed, along with projects to dynamize these elements.

This kind of research is meaningful only for individuals working practically toward a construction of situations. Such people are presituationists (either spontaneously or in a conscious and organized manner) inasmuch as they have sensed the objective need for this sort of construction through having recognized the present cultural emptiness and having participated in recent expressions of experimental awareness. They are close to each other because they share the same specialization and have taken part in the same historical avant-garde of that specialization. It is thus likely that they will share a number of situationist themes and desires, which will increasingly diversify once they are brought into a phase of real activity.

A constructed situation must be collectively prepared and developed. It would seem, however, that, at least during the initial period of rough experiments, a situation requires one individual to play a sort of “director” role. If we imagine a particular situation project in which, for example, a research team has arranged an emotionally moving gathering of a few people for an evening, we would no doubt have to distinguish: a director or producer responsible for coordinating the basic elements necessary for the construction of the decor and for working out certain interventions in the events (alternatively, several people could work out their own interventions while being more or less unaware of each other’s plans); the direct agents living the situation, who have taken part in creating the collective project and worked on the practical composition of the ambience; and finally, a few passive spectators who have not participated in the constructive work, who should be forced into action.

This relation between the director and the “livers” of the situation must naturally never become a permanent specialization. It’s only a matter of a temporary subordination of a team of situationists to the person responsible for a particular project. These perspectives, or the provisional terminology describing them, should not be taken to mean that we are talking about some continuation of theater. Pirandello and Brecht have already revealed the destruction of the theatrical spectacle and pointed out a few of the requirements for going beyond it. It could be said that the construction of situations will replace theater in the same sense that the real construction of life has increasingly tended to replace religion. The principal domain we are going to replace and fulfill is obviously poetry, which burned itself out by taking its position at the vanguard of our time and has now completely disappeared.

Real individual fulfillment, which is also involved in the artistic experience that the situationists are discovering, entails the collective takeover of the world. Until this happens there will be no real individuals, but only specters haunting the things anarchically presented to them by others. In chance situations we meet separated beings moving at random. Their divergent emotions neutralize each other and maintain their solid environment of boredom. We are going to undermine these conditions by raising at a few points the incendiary beacon heralding a greater game.

In our time functionalism (an inevitable expression of technological advance) is attempting to entirely eliminate play. The partisans of “industrial design” complain that their projects are spoiled by people’s playful tendencies. At the same time, industrial commerce crudely exploits those tendencies by diverting them to a demand for constant superficial renovation of utilitarian products. We obviously have no interest in encouraging the continuous artistic renovation of refrigerator designs. But a moralizing functionalism is incapable of getting to the heart of the problem. The only progressive way out is to liberate the tendency toward play elsewhere, and on a larger scale. Short of this, all the naïve indignation of the theorists of industrial design will not change the basic fact that the private automobile, for example, is primarily an idiotic toy and only secondarily a means of transportation. As opposed to all the regressive forms of play — which are regressions to its infantile stage and are invariably linked to reactionary politics — it is necessary to promote the experimental forms of a game of revolution.


“Problèmes préliminaires à la construction d’une situation” originally appeared in Internationale Situationniste #1 (Paris, June 1958). This translation by Ken Knabb is from the Situationist International Anthology (Revised and Expanded Edition, 2006). No copyright.

The Sound and the Theory: Intermedia as Construct, Intermedia as Category, Peter Frank

Excerpted from a paper given at the Sound Art conference, Neues Museum Weserburg, Bremen Germany, fall 2005

Intermedial artwork does not exist in a form divisible by its components. There is no music, no sound to be taken out of a sound sculpture to allow the object to stand on its own. Like any musical instrument, there is no artwork if the object is not operating, there is only equipment. Nor is there any artwork if there is no experience of the object. In a work of sound poetry, the sound is the poetry, the poetry is the sound; everything else is notation on the one hand, just un-organized sound on the other. Intermedia requires not simply co-dependency of effects, but the thorough integration of disciplines, that is, of formal practices.

Indeed, intermedia is, if anything, a formal rather than a subjective condition. Intermedia dissolves traditional disciplinary praxis, and only incidentally confounds the sensate response of the audience. The graphic score, for instance, cannot be heard until it is played, but it inheres the tradition of musical notation at the same time as it inheres the praxes of drawing, writing, and/or graphic design; it is thus an intermedium because it manifests visual and musical praxis and infers the production of sound. Concrete poetry conflates the praxes of formal verbal and visual disciplines – and, of course, can also function as a score for sonic realization.

In his Projections of 1950-51 Morton Feldman was the first composer to devise a graphic notation relieving performers of responsibility for playing precise sounds, giving them instead the responsibility for choosing sounds within generalized parameters. Earle Brown was the first to give the performers responsibility for defining what those parameters themselves might be, by presenting an entirely instruction-free image as a score, “December 1952” from Folio. The score bears no instructions, only marks, and can in fact be played in any direction (although the presence of the composer’s signature in one corner betrays the score’s double life as a drawing). John Cage, however, was the one to determine an overarching method and philosophy out of this condition of indeterminacy, engaging extensive chance methods (especially incorporating the I Ching) and a broad vocabulary of non-traditional notations. Cage’s scoring methods ultimately came to straddle the boundary between score and visual artwork.

Cage’s first ventures into non-traditional notation predated his friends’ by several years, with the new system of marks he needed for his prepared-piano compositions in the 1940s. His further extension into graphic scoring coincided with Feldman’s and Brown’s in the early `50s, but – except for the radical notation employed for 4’33” of 1952 – it was in the mid-1950s that Cage created his first entirely note-free scores, appropriate to his first investigations into electronic music, his increasing interest in extra-musical gesture, and his residencies in Europe. Cage opened up even further in the 1960s to non-musical graphic sources, including poetry, cartography, astronomy, and other visual and quantifiable disciplines.

As theorist and practitioner Cage provided the post-war avant-garde with the clearest philosophical and practical model for the expansion of artistic disciplines into full cooperation and even fusion with one another – within, that is, a context of coherent formalization. Cage’s most notorious composition does precisely that. As its instrumentalist is not supposed to produce any sounds, 4’33” effectively superimposes a strict chronometry – two very short outer movements and a long central movement, all of which are defined by precise timings – on the sonic (and by extension visual and kinetic) phenomena that happen to occupy the same time and space as the presentation of the piece.

The development of the graphic score after the innovations of the group around Cage quickly took on international scope, especially as interest in aleatory compositional methods emerged in Europe (in dialectical antithesis to the serial methods derived from the Second Viennese School). By time Cage first visited Europe in the later 1950s he found a network of composers and musicians, and artists and writers, sympathetic to the indeterminant approaches and graphic methods he and his New York colleagues had developed.

The emergence of concrete poetry and its sonic equivalent demonstrably paralleled and intermixed with experimentation in musical notation, particularly in its parallel and equivalent forms in France, including Lettrism and poésie sonore. The Franco-Italian movement le Nouveau Réalisme, with its concentration on the object, would seem to have little practical commonality with these other early manifestations of intermedia. But a strong performative aspect running through New Realist praxis, and a strong intellectual bond with the gestural social radicalism of the Situationists, brought the New Realists close to the expansive intermedial projects of the Americans. By time the New Realists emerged as a group around 1958 they had already forged notable associations, collaborations, and cross-practices with their sound-poetry and electronic-music counterparts.

In this regard the most notable, not to mention ambitious, New Realist was Yves Klein, whose fearlessness and restless imagination led him to realize some of the most spectacular public manifestations of his day. Among his best known are his “nude paintbrush” demonstrations, which were usually accompanied by a musical ensemble playing a single held chord. This 45-minute-long Symphonie Monotone was evidently conceived by Klein himself, but composed by the ORTF-associated composer Pierre Henry. Klein, and Henry, regarded the one-chord “symphony” as a serious musical work, in the vein of Cage’s 4’33”. But the fact that the musicians (and for that matter Klein himself) were dressed in full concert regalia – tuxedos, black gowns – clearly indicates that the conditions of performance parodically mirrored those of the concert hall. In this, the Symphonie Monotone also anticipated Fluxus.

Fluxus was not an intermedium like concrete poetry; for that matter, neither was Nouveau Réalisme. Rather, these movements can be seen as rubrics under which the process of intermedialization could more easily and coherently be undertaken. The movements coordinated the efforts of diverse artists who shared common aesthetic goals and overlapped in their techniques, but differed in their means. Their intermedia may have been different, their attitudes towards intermedia may have been different, but their purpose remained the same: to expand artistic practice by interfusing the disparate disciplines, precisely and skillfully, so that the original disciplines were not betrayed, only reinvented.

While Le Nouveau Réalisme was defined by a critic and theorist, Pierre Restany, the Fluxus movement was organized by an erstwhile architect and art dealer, the Lithuanian-American George Maciunas. It was in Europe that Maciunas introduced Fluxus as “neo-Dada in music.” From the start, Maciunas conceived of Fluxus as a global phenomenon, and as a musical phenomenon with resonance in the other arts. This was true equally in the work of Fluxus and Fluxus-related artists who were trained as musicians -- LaMonte Young, Benjamin Patterson, Yoko Ono, Philip Corner – and those who were not – George Brecht, Al Hansen, Alison Knowles, Robert Watts. Performances more often than not took the form of concerts rather than proscenium displays; musical rather than theatrical or literary conventions were more likely to be burlesqued; and even the terminology of musical scores dictated the wording of the brief verbal instructions that typically functioned as notation for Fluxus events. Thus, purely verbal notation was introduced as common graphic practice by Fluxus composers. The 1962 George Brecht composition Concerto for Clarinet, for example, consists entirely of a single small card on which is printed the title and the one-word instruction, ”nearby.” This “score” functions not as a delineation of action or sonic organization, as do Cage’s or Earle Brown’s scores even at their most open-form, but as a provocation to interpretation. To judge from actual Fluxus practice (of Brecht and others associated with the movement in the 1960s), the performance of Concerto for Clarinet need not even rely on the implied parameters of “concerto,” “clarinet,” and “nearby,” it need only evoke them. A verbal or even optical reading of the score could constitute its performance.

If Fluxus musical performance continued the liberating mode of musical thinking set in motion by Cage, it also extended Cage’s expansive influence on the practice of musical notation into typographic structuring that derived from or at least suggested theatrical, poetic, or prosaic rather than musical models. This directly anticipated the more or less purely verbal propositions of conceptual art, and modes of interpretation associated with Fluxus and Cage alike helped give rise to the varied conventions of performance and video art as developed in the 1970s. At the same time, Cage’s practice, and that of Fluxus, encouraged the dilation of the sound-producing instrument, expanding the source and the arena of sonic experience into the room, the air, and even the airwaves.

The legacy left by the Cage circle, concrete poets, the New Realists, the Fluxus artists, and other groups of intermedialists came to full fruition in the 1970s. This decade was dominated not by isms or styles, but by modes of intermedia –praxis-oriented rubrics such as video art, book art, installation art, and performance art that presumed a conflation of traditional artistic disciplines into new intermedial forms that, finally, could only be delineated by their physical components. Painting need no longer be just painting, and when it was, it was notable as such. Theater was no longer limited to the stage, or poetry to the page. And musical characteristics – the generation of sound and the formal practices of music-making – were to be found throughout artistic practice, thanks to the universal appeal of rock, but also to the liberating example of Cage and his acolytes. Everything we did in the 1970s was, among other things, music. And, despite the resurgence of praxis in traditional disciplines, which is not at all unwelcome, theater still takes place, all the time, wherever one is, as Cage once said. It can be a theater of the ear, or simply of the performative gesture. But everything we do now is still at least music.

above copied from:

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Still Making a Salad: Ecology, Yoko Ono and the Fluxus Score, David Berridge

In 1964 Yoko Ono self-published Grapefruit, a collection of short texts she called “instructions.” In an exhibition currently at the BALTIC in Newcastle, Ono has made objects and performances that interpret some of those instructions, as often in the last forty years she has written new instructions, or re-interpreted old ones in a variety of forms. But if the “instruction pieces” - or scores as they are often known - have been a valuable medium for Ono throughout her career, is there a broader contemporary relevance for the form itself? In the context here, is there something ecological about scores, or something of use when it comes to approaching ecological issues?
Art that speaks directly about ecological issues is clear about its intent, even whilst its structures and methods of production might be decidedly un-ecological. If we shift “the ecological” onto the level of thought and attitude then we run the risk of becoming general and vague. But something about the form of the score suggests the connection with ecology each time I encounter it, on the page or in the gallery, and it is this intuitive connection that this essay will explore.
So what were scores and why do I claim there is something ecological about them? Here is a score by Ono, dated Spring 1964:
What strikes me immediately is how the score focusses on the environment, our relationship to it and ourselves, as well as addressing issues of distribution, resources, and invention. But there are broader issues of what such a piece of writing is, and how to read and respond to its puzzling form.
Ono’s scores were only one example of a whole range of work often known as “event-scores”, whose practitioners included LaMonte Young, Dick Higgins, Emmett Williams, George Brecht, Alison Knowles and Ben Vautier. Ono’s relationship with John Lennon and ensuing super-celebrity gave her work a prominence not experienced by other Fluxus artists - the initially self-published GRAPEFRUIT was later reissued by Pantheon. But the last few years has seen a range of other score-practitioners getting their book and exhibition dues.
For example, parallel to the Ono show, BALTIC also has a show of Fluxus impresario George Macunias, whilst a self-styled “heterospective” of George Brecht filled the galleries of MACBA in 2007. Last summer Alison Knowles performed her score MAKE A SALAD at the Tate Modern when she, yes, you guessed it. There was also a somewhat riotous night of fluxus films and scores at the Rio Cinema in London’s Dalston and, most comprehensively, FLUXUS SCORES AND INSTRUCTION was exhibited at Roskilde in Denmark, and has been made into an excellent catalogue by Jon Hendricks, who is compiling a catalogue raisonée of scores in the Gilbert and Lila Silverman Fluxus Collection archive in Detroit.
It is to the various essays in this catalogue that we can turn for some basic definition of the score form, all the time remembering that different artists often had varying definitions of the score - even about what to call it - and that the act of definition was itself an anathema to many fluxus practitioners. From the following descriptions what do you imagine scores to be?
Alison Knowles: Event Scores involve simple actions, ideas, and objects from everyday life recontextualized as performance. Event Scores are texts that can be seen as proposal pieces or instructions for actions. The idea of the score suggests musicality. Like a musical score, Event Scores can be realized by artists other than the original creator and are open to variation and interpretation... [p9]
Jon Hendricks: There are sound scores and graphic scores (which might or might not involve sound). There are recipes for trouble and recipes for solutions. There are in-structures, and event scores. There are propositions, and compositions. There are examinations, reading works, and commands. There are instructions for set-ups, or just a thing to do in your mind. In fact, some scores are not possible to actually do, but are easy to do conceptually. [p15]
Eric Anderson: Somewhat roughly you can divide Scores into 3 sets: the ones that instruct you to do something, Event Scores that are both an object and an activity ,and the ones that carry a maximum of implications. The first ones are pretty conventional, relying on established notation, interpretation and perception. The Event Scores still to some extent carry the orthodox apprehension of the oeuvre while the third set rather tells you nothing. A fine point of departure. [p22]
Robert Watts: Some events are just things to think about. Others are actions that can be carried out, sometimes before an audience or persons. Some are actions to be performed in private. Some are instructions for actions, for attitudes, positions, or stances. Some are impossible, some inconsequential. [p34]
The scores by George Brecht, for example, are minimal texts that Brecht often hand wrote on blank postcards and mailed to friends who might perform them. A few examples:
• ceiling
• first wall
• second wall
• third wall
• fourth wall
• floor


• eating with
• between two breaths
• sleep
• wet hand
• several words
Ono’s scores were also often minimal and postcard- fitting, but tended to unfold into a series of actions that comprised a small narrative. The catalogue for Ono’s BALTIC show reprints scores from the painting section of Grapefruit. Two examples will give a flavor of how Ono used the score to utilise, disrupt and expand existing categories of art, such as painting, often hoping to instigate new social encounters, thoughts, and objects:
Look through a phone book from the
beginning to end thoroughly.
List all combinations of figures
you remember right after that.
1961 winter

Drill two holes into a canvas.
Hang it where you can see the sky.
(Change the place of hanging.
Try both the front and the rear
windows, to see if the skies are
1961 summer
Ono’s scores could also deal explicitly with the connections of violence, the body, anxiety and trauma that recurred elsewhere in her work. The score offered a way of working with strong emotions, containing them within the neutral, objective appearance of the score form itself:
Use your blood to paint.
Keep painting until you faint. (a)
Keep painting until you die. (b)
1960 spring
Fluxus Scores and Instructions - both exhibition and catalogue - sought to broaden the understanding of scores beyond such tiny, postcard-fitting texts. Some scores were more maximal than minimal, as in the detailed, temporal specificity of Robert Filliou’s Poi-Poi Symphony No.1, France Drawn and Quartered (ca. 1962), one movement of which reads:
5th Movement:
The three musicians slowly shake their containers that are now almost empty, and finally, completely empty. The diminishing noise is soon followed by silence.
1- (alone) 1 minute
2- (alone) 1 minute
3- (alone) 1 minute
The musicians, at least dead tired after handling such a weight (53 kg.?) for 20 minutes fall to the ground;
don’t move. [p77]
Scores, of course, were intended to be realised as performances or sculptures. Ono’s BALTIC catalogue shows a variety of responses to her own scores. So a recent score Wish Tree for Bielefeld (2008) - “Write your wish/ Hang it on a tree” - appears alongside a black and white photo of Ono doing exactly that. Visitors to the BALTIC will also be able to experience a somewhat abbreviated version of 1962’s Riding Piece: “Ride a coffin car all over the city.” Scores such as Sky Event for John Lennon, meanwhile, gain poignancy from the way their initial proposals for social events - where people gathered to look at the sky - have become silent, static, peopleless agglomerations of ladders in the gallery.
So why do I think there is a connection of all this to ecology? It is because of what scores do to our understanding of activities such as writing, reading, responding, and performing: collapsing the divisions between different activities and setting up a web of ever-changing relationships and interdependencies that position the self as both constituted by and constituting the environment.
Take the act of writing a score such Ono’s Piece for Nam June Paik No.1 and its one word “Water.” Such a piece embodies a host of contradictions. It’s a written text, and a visual art work; a performance in itself and a script for a performance that will follow. It is precise, but not prescriptive; a gift for a friend that also asserts an ecological dependency transcending the particular.
A similar web of possibilities effects the reader of the score. The text is self-contained and complete, yet such cryptic minimalism seems to invite a response to complete it. That response is subjective, yet also seems an objective response both to a word - water - and a substance. Here a text seems to be becoming its own organism, both word, nature and not.
All of which, I suggest, parallels the kind of expanded relationships and identities proposed by, say, a whole range of eco- disciplines in economics, literature, economics and philosophy. Furthermore, a history of the context in which fluxus originally emerged would have to touch on ideas and figures central to an emerging (American) environmental consciousness, be it systems theory and cybernetics, the writings of Gregory Bateson, early American naturalists, Thoreau, Buddhism, the Whole Earth Catalogue, or, even, Marshall McCluhan.
Of course, a far more direct connection is the environmental focus of many of the scores themselves. Ono’s work, for example, as in Sky Event for John Lennon, often playfully returns to human relationships to the heavens. For forty years, Alison Knowles has written and performed scores as a way of researching beans, outlining a suggestive model of how scores can be part of an artist’s method of researching the natural world.
Knowles’ 1983 artists book A Bean Concordance presents the most comprehensive collection of this work, by herself and others, drawing connections between the score, beans, and a variety of other forms including recipes, shopping lists, nursery rhymes, newspaper cuttings, and folklore. Take, for example, her bean-derived Mantra for Jessie (some help in sleeping) which begins:
Brown, brown, brown
Red, green, green, green, green
Green, green, white, white

White, green, red, red, red
White, green, brown, brown, brown
White, white, brown, brown, brown
Or compare Ono and Brecht’s short, somewhat gnomic scores with some of the short folklore fragments Knowles collages into Bean Concordance, such as:
On Ryuku Island the Shamen are all women called “Miko.” They study ecstasy for the benefit of the community.
Some travel some don’t.
Or, too, the found text poem of Knowles’ Bean-see also Bein for George Macunias, with its careful listing of the all the Beans in the 1978 New York City phone book.
Or the four lines of arabic calligraphy, contributed by Patria Ramsey, with its accompanying poem-translation:
he knows beans
full of beans
full of beans
Knowles’ wonderful book is a collection of scores; of sources for scores; of performances; and a performance in itself. Ongoing bean-fascination found another form when friends and family sat around a table laden with just such slips of scores and folklore - as well as homemade musical instruments comprising bean filled rain sticks and shakers - to improvise her 1982 radio piece Bean Sequences.
These, then, are some examples why scores, on the page and performed, always suggest to me their ecological relevance. And yet... and yet... there’s always the risk of forcing a link, or making the connection too tidy. Unlike the slick art world professionalism of Ono’s BALTIC show, events like Flux Night at the Rio Cinema make clear that, forty years after its appearance, Fluxus retains a strange, awkward, troubling presence through its combination of Dada vaudeville and the neo-monastic. Attempts to claim for it a contemporary relevance should prioritise this awkwardness to avoid turning scores into a bland form of workshop exercise.
Two other points are worth highlighting. Whilst the score has not been written about in precisely ecological terms, it has been thought about in terms of its radical pedagogy, and this, too, links into ecology. Hannah Higgins, for example, concludes her 2002 study Fluxus Experience by focussing on the experiential qualities of Fluxus works as a model for a particular kind of pedagogy. Higgins quotes Howard Gardner and his model of multiple intelligences - linguistic, logical-mathematical, musical, bodily-kinesthetic, spatial, interpersonal and intrapersonal - seeing the score, and Fluxus work more broadly, as engaging all of these. As Higgins concludes:
The pedagogical model offered by Fluxus... includes direct experience, conversations, collaborations, and a liberation of means. Fluxus encourages us to look at, to listen to, and feel the environment, to learn from that experience and to remain open to new perception.[p206-7]
More broadly, the current re-assessment of fluxus, along with a broad range of other sixties art practices, has prompted a desire to connect the methods and assumptions of avant-garde art to the those of radical educationalists such as Paulo Freire and Ivan Illich, thinkers often connected to environmental education.
In their 2008 book Spectacle Pedagogy: Art, Politics and Visual Culture, Charles Garoian and Yvonne M.Gaudelius suggest that using avant-garde methods and techniques can be a way of critically engaging with the environment around us:
Because the postmodern condition is pervasively mediated by visual culture, our awareness of its dominating assumptions and our ability to expose, examine, and critique the spectacle of visual culture make the critical pedagogy of collage, montage, assemblage, installation, and performance art all the more imperative. When students understand the critical and paradoxical relationships between their art-making activities and the habitus of institutionalized schooling, between the images and the ideas that they create through art, and the spectacle pedagogy of visual culture, then a liminal in-between space opens that enables the potential of art-making for transgressive and transformative experiences.[p1]
But can the score really obtain contemporary relevance? One recent project that answers in the affirmative is Hans Ulrich Obrist’s Formulas For Now (2008). Obrist asked a range of contributers to “contribute an equation for the twenty-first century.” The resulting Thames and Hudson book is very much like what a catalogue raisonée of scores would look like: a rag bag of short gnomic phrases on postcards, diagrams, texts scribbled on napkins, mathematical formula, cartoons, detailed prescriptions, instructions, and comic asides.
Take a few examples of the most score-like: Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster contributes a photo of a gallery wall on which she has roughly scrawled the phrase "TROPICALISATION!" Liam Gillick, meanwhile, provides a bare white page at the foot of which is a text that reads:
Seven tons of industrial production divided by eight weeks of management stasis multiplied by two days of complete stagnation added to twelve months of reduced demand
...whilst Carsten Höller contributes a cryptic, funny note that reads:
Dear Habil,
I don’t think doubt has a formula.
Whilst sharing many techniques and forms with fluxus scores, Formulas for Now highlights some of the differences between 1968 and 2008. Firstly, the idea of culture has transformed with Obrist’s contributers no longer impoverished, largely Manhattan-based experimental artists but a more globe-spanning mix of high profile architects, scientists, mathematicians, and artists. The texts they create resemble scores, but, partly because of the nature of Obrist’s invitation, no longer have the same simple sense of being for performance, and perhaps this tells us something about our historical moment.
Many texts, too, are both prescriptive and descriptive, and who is being addressed is deliberately ambivalent. Scrawling “TROPICALISATION!” on a wall, for example, is a direct form of address, but who or what is supposed to be tropicalising, and how and when and where? Perhaps it already happened. Perhaps it only happens in the gallery. Perhaps it is supposed to be impossible.
Nonetheless, like their sixties counterparts, the work here is “ecological” in the way it asks us to re-think relationships of writing, reading, self and environment.
It suggests the score as a contemporary practice, a way of processing information, embracing not removing contradiction, and a cottage industry of sometime-romantic philosophers re-buffing learning outcomes amidst a blizzard of policy documents.
None of Formulas for Now contributers would be identified directly with environmental issues. It’s noticeable, however, that in their grapplings with the contemporary, many use the score/formula to explore knotty interconnections of science, urbanism, language, and the environment. Many align with what Sanford Kwinter - in his book of essays Far From Equilibrium - has written of as an urgent contemporary imperative:
... to conceive of human subjectivity, the body it is formed in, the ecstasy it is capable of, and the trajectory it is moving along, within a broad ecological model still sensitive to the untapped revolutionary possibilities that remain enfolded within past worlds and objects.
If nothing else, such a model would at least permit us better to see and to judge the unprecedented mediocrity of our present aspirations, and indeed as well, the possibly dire importance of what we currently seem all too willing to give up. [p19]

So where does all this leave us? This essay proposes the score as a form appropriate for the exploration of such possibilities. This might involve instructions on postcards, text messages, or “formulas for now.” It might be a private or public form; argument or doodle. It might, like Emmett Williams, prefer the term “language happenings” to “score,” although it will likely not be that bothered about using either term. Whatever, it will be a way of re-configuring relationships of reading, writing, thought and action; self, environment and community; in ways playful, urgent, trivial, and perhaps also slightly crazy and incoherent.
Ono, meanwhile, continues to offer her own brand of scores for our consideration. This New Year she provided an opinion piece for The New York Times, comprising some white space in the middle of which was a single handwritten word:

Above copied from:

Monday, March 15, 2010

Immersive Contemplation in Video Art Environments, Tiffany Sutton


This essay examines a form of video art -- what is called a "video environment" -- that calls upon as much as it departs from familiar conventions that are bound up in museum display. I argue that the way that works in this genre are housed in museums enables them to give rise to a form of contemplation, one involving immersion, that is, if not unique to this genre, then certainly demonstrated by it. My examples of video environments make a case for the coherence of this rarely experienced immersive form of contemplation, the value of which, in turn, makes a case for the genre's further development.


immersive contemplation, proprioceptive immersion, video environments, video art, video art environments, video installation, media-saturated environments, aesthetic contemplation, aesthetic engagement

1. Prologue on Video History[1]

In the early 1950s, video technology was used primarily for television broadcast by the major studios. With only a few exceptions, such as Nam June Paik's electronic Fluxus sculptures made out of magnetized television sets, first exhibited in 1958, the artistic development of video awaited the Sony Portapak's introduction to American consumers in 1965. Arguably the first time-based artwork in video came in the youth-driven documentary form of the street tape (paradigmatically, Les Levine's Bum in 1965), which employed the Portapak to advantage. And throughout video art's brief history, artists have been drawn to the medium in search of such unique opportunities to ride the wave of a developing technology, in the avant-garde spirit of defining a medium and finding new modes of artistic expression.

The moment that digital video became possible around 1990, for example, artists sought ways to exploit "light speed" (Avid™, E=MC2™) editing systems. The resulting "on-the-fly" editing techniques (editing in the process of recording from a source disk, with no rewinding or previewing involved) did not, however, produce work that (for the most part) outlasted the momentary fascination with the new, though it has become a staple for live-news show editors. Some of the most deeply moving and admired artistic work in video -- such as work by Mary Lucier, Bill Viola, Tony Oursler, Joan Jonas, Chris Marker, Dan Graham, and Gary Hill -- has molded the technology to its own purposes, all but disregarding the state of the technology, though often incorporating new devices. In particular, artists working in the "installation" format ("video sculpture") have conceived of their work in terms that are continuous with more traditional forms of visual art, such as painting and sculpture, and their modes of display.

This essay will examine a form of video art that is called a "video environment," which calls upon as much as it departs from familiar conventions that are bound up in museum display. I will argue in Sections 2 and 3 that the way that works in this genre are housed in museums enables them to give rise to a form of contemplation -- one involving immersion -- that is, if not unique to this genre, certainly demonstrated by it. In other words, video environments make a case for the coherence of this rarely experienced immersive form of contemplation, at the same time that the value of the kind of contemplation they enable makes a case for the further development of the genre. By discussing relevant examples of them in Section 4 and thus illuminating video environments as a genre, I will then be in a position to make a case for the possibility of contemplation that is immersive in the foregoing sense, which, in turn, will help me to show how works in this genre can perform the social function that gives them unique value.

2. The Museum Context, Defamiliarization, and Contemplation

At some point in the late 1970's, when video artists began to reach a consensus that the medium had been defined, attention turned to the choice among viewing contexts. It turns out that one's choice of viewing contexts in video makes all the difference, given that there is such a range of them, from traditional cinema viewing to living room viewing to computer display. Choosing to display video in a museum brings it under a set of conventions and expectations that are raised no matter what work is introduced. The one that I am thinking of in particular is the defamiliarization of the familiar. Taken with certain forms of video art, this is a convention for responding to the museum that can be put to new uses that respond to our technologically saturated world.

Pioneered by the Louvre when its doors were first opened to the public in 1793, the convention I am speaking of should be familiar. Think of your own body as you enter an art museum. There is a palpable transformation that occurs as you cross the threshold after having been immersed in the everyday, to which Arthur Danto counter-poses the "merengue," which stands for everything extra-museal: You begin to feel more aware of your own presence in space, and you might even begin to feel more upright in relation to the objects you encounter.[2] At the very least, you encounter yourself in relation to unfamiliar objects; thus your body is defamiliarized and your proprioceptive sense is transformed.

The defamiliarization of the familiar is also the principle driving Cartesian meditation. Contemplation, in Descartes' view, occurs when customary relations with the everyday are suspended, and thinking turns in upon all that it once took for granted.[3] In a museum, I propose, the spatialization of this method of eliciting contemplation, the method of radical doubt, turns Cartesian thought on its head and is allied with strains of thought developed in the twentieth century, such as pragmatism and ordinary language philosophy, that take the physical world as a given and not open to radical doubt.[4]

As philosophers began to theorize telerobotics and other forms of electronically transmitted knowledge-at-a-distance, including video, Hubert Dreyfus predicted that electronic technologies raising questions of telepistemology would turn around the longstanding triumph of the physical world of science in philosophy, opening consensus once again to radical doubt.[5] Instead of being brains in a vat, the doubting Thomas now says, we might all be metazoans running around in a world like the matrix (of The Matrix), creations of an evil genius programmer. Dreyfus thought that either thought would go this way, or else the stark contrast between actual and virtual worlds, perhaps just our incorrigible preference for hugs over e-mails, were we ever forced to choose, would fend off the re-emergence of scepticism in philosophy and in popular culture as well. But maybe it is not so far-fetched to hold that global-scale behavior, 'as if' bodies did not exist might subtly, over time, weave beliefs, even in evil genius programmers, that silicon is as dubious a substance as flesh, and that, as Descartes speculated, an evil demon might be masterminding the modern sense of dysfunction that plagues the cogito otherwise known as humanity.

Doubting not that I think and exist, and that there are similar others in the world who must all somehow dwell on a planet with limited natural resources that we should continue to learn something about, is no dissolute disposition. Being optimistic about the capacity of the human intellect to learn its own nature, similarly, is not a disposition that falls easily into "sceptical paralysis" because, knowing where scepticism leads, one can stop before ever "counterbalancing" beliefs, that is, before entertaining the Cartesian posits (such as evil demons) that are mutually exclusive with one's beliefs about one's beliefs' origins.[6]

By the mere effort at learning where scepticism leads, does one, against one's will, fall into sceptical paralysis for having counterbalanced? In that case, from a position of sceptical paralysis, I can decide with William James, wishfully thinking, that it is best to behave as if my belief that I am embodied is true, because behaving otherwise would not serve any vital function. However, does mere counterbalancing amount to falling into sceptical paralysis? I fail to see that it does, in cases where one of the two counterbalanced beliefs tips the scales, and the attempt at counterbalancing fails, for example, if I fail to imagine a world in which an evil demon is the source of all of my beliefs about the physical world, newly revealed to be false.

Catherine Wilson's alternative framework for worrying about behavior as if bodies did not exist, is modeled on Heidegger's thinking about the dangers of technology and, accordingly, borrows and revitalizes his terminology.[7] On Wilson's view, sceptical thinking and behavior are represented as a kind of wholesale "immersion" in the use of technologies that provide "inauthentic" and "vicarious" access to the "thingliness of things" and also of people that we cannot meaningfully or fully incorporate into our everyday, embodied lives:

"Heidegger assumed that a cultural preference for the mediated over the proximal, and the emotionally complex, excessive, and useless over the concrete and instrumental signified a move away from the 'thingly element of things.' But does not our capacity to produce vicarious experiences bring us ever closer to the thingly element of more things?"

And, indeed, this becomes the criticism:

"Heidegger did not foresee that a problem about technology, if not 'the' problem, might arise not from its monstrous opacity and its inability to function as anybody's 'equipment' but from the effortless access it provides to the 'thingliness of things.' "[8]

I will discuss not the "telefictive" kind of experience Wilson problematizes but the representation of the conditions of telefictive experience (of what I will call the technological order) in museums. My discussion will hedge Dreyfus's bets, as well, by suggesting that in the contemporary arts we already have a means of showing ourselves to ourselves with respect to the technological order, in the form of the video environment.

3. Video Environments in Museums

When Nam June Paik took a television set in 1958 and magnetized the top of it and set it in a gallery, an unfamiliar relation between the television and its viewer arose in stark contrast to the familiar living room experience. Later in video history, Mary Lucier took an interest in schematizing the living room experience itself, setting it in the museum, defamiliarizing it, and redefining our sense of dwelling in the spaces we daily inhabit. She was thus among the first to explore the concept of the video environment as distinct from the video installation (c.f., respectively, Mary Lucier's Asylum, A Romance and Chris Marker's Silent Movie.) (Click for illustrations.)

A video environment such as Asylum is a display in a museum or gallery that is encompassed by a divide of some kind (so that it is not subject to juxtaposition with other works). The parts are related intentionally, either as a whole completed in the artist's conception, or as a proposed whole to be judged in the viewer's experience of the work.[9] Quite different from projecting oneself into the space of a painting, one is invited bodily into the space of the work.[10] And, through defamiliarization, one is invited to contemplate, in the Cartesian sense of the transcendence of the everyday, one's bodily relation to technology in a space marked out for temporary habitation.

Thus we find, in a way that Descartes could not have considered, contemplation without bodily dissociation, contemplation that is possible only in an immersive state; immersion, again, not in the sense of drowning out the senses in pure thought about thought (the theoria Aristotle distinguished from poiesis and praxis that would later be taken up by the theologians), nor in the sense of looking at something through something else, such as a window pane or a picture frame (the modern mode of thinking on thinking by framing thought with the conditions of cognition), but rather in the sense of being inside the chamber of a camera obscura, experiencing the ontological difference between the image on the far wall and all else that the chamber contains, including one's bodily self.

The video environment functions like the camera obscura in that it defamiliarizes what is familiar (the technological order), yet unlike it in that it links the body with the other contents of the room, so that one's thinking is immersed in the conditions for dwelling made palpable, if not always visible.[11] A successful video environment is one that makes some aspect of the technological order, i.e., the way our lives are mediated, organized, or routed by technology, more transparent to those who experience the work as it was intended to be experienced, through immersive contemplation.[12]

In everyday experience, we conduct and experience our lives in positive ways or in negative ones (as Wilson describes), but we do not have at our ready disposal a facilitating framework for contemplating an aspect of experience. Artists devise these out of ordinary experience in the arduous process of creating their art, and the museum furnishes the setting for contemplating their creations.[13]

It is one thing, for example, to live in a "smart house" (to be immersed or to dwell in it) and another to bracket and represent an aspect of it. Consider the following hypothetical case of a "smart house" represented as a video environment: One enters, unaware that the display's walls are rigged with equipment that caters to one's every need, and that one's needs are being continually monitored. Only by playing along and pretending to dwell in the space does one find the first clue: lamps that light over one's head as one moves, a refrigerator that asks whether one really needs to eat at two o'clock in the afternoon, and if so, whether what one really needs is a hunk of cheese: "Wouldn't a glass of milk do nicely? You don't want to lose your girlish figure!"

Suppose you're a man of age thirty-eight. Would the success of the environment, in your estimation, depend upon the accuracy of its judgment of your figure, your goals for your figure, your further discovery of the relation between your actual particulars and the utterances of the smart appliances? Would it depend upon your knowledge of how well or wittily the environment corresponds to smart houses you've visited? Or would it depend upon the condition of your memory of the interactive computer you played with at the "Iterations" exhibit at the International Center of Photography, New York City?[14] You're stuck. This isn't like Bill Viola's room of projected angels. (Click for illustration.) This is more like a smart house! But it's not . . . very smart. You forgot to look at the title of the display. There it is. It says: "Smart Aleck House."[15] Well, you think, if this work was intended to scare me, it's been a success.

In the next section I will delineate the conditions under which contemplation can become immersive (in the above sense) in the museum through the in(ter)vention of a certain kind of artist and the respective video genre, and not through other genres and mere experiences.

4. Video Environments as Occasions for Immersive Contemplation

It seems initially plausible to hold that the proprioceptive link between the body and the objects surrounding it is guided by the dispersal of light in a room. So I turn to consider whether immersive contemplation in a video environment requires that light be present. Take Tony Oursler's System for Dramatic Feedback (Click for illustration). The gallery is darkened, as in a movie theater, and one is met at the threshold by a rag doll with a face animated by video projection. The doll, reminiscent of television's Mr. Bill, cries out, "No! No!," signaling that something is going on inside that is dreadful and that one enters at one's own risk.

Inside, in the immediate foreground, one sees a conical heap of quilts interspersed with rag dolls similar to the "Mr. Bill" figure, each with a tiny projected video face. From the ceiling, a giant projected video hand sweeps down to repeatedly "spank" a bent-over male figure on top of the pile, who responds by screaming. Other dolls in the heap have different actions that they repeat, as in the compulsive loop of a traumatic childhood memory. Projected on the back wall of the gallery is an image of a movie theater audience. Its members chew popcorn and look on passively at an implied screen. Oursler thus brackets the cinematic mode of regard, and sets it in comparison to the mode of regard of the gallery visitor. Further, by darkening the room and illuminating only the rag doll heap, he establishes a comparison between the traumatic episodes enacted by the dolls and the implied diegetic events on the implied movie screen.

Whether the subject of contemplation is the media's creation of a feedback loop of the spectacle of human suffering or the passive memory of trauma represented by the looped actions of the dolls and by the daze the movie spectators are in, darkening the gallery invites a proprioceptive comparison of the visitor's body and mode of regard with bodies and modes of regard represented in the display, thus occasioning an immersive experience of bodily self-in-relation.

More typically, the dispersal of light throughout a room occasions immersion by making it more like a prototypical everyday space in which humans and other animals immerse themselves, such as a home, as in Lucier's Oblique House, Valdez and Last Rites, Positano, or a natural habitat, as in Lucier's Asylum, a Romance and Noah's Raven. (Click for illustrations.) When an immersive state has been occasioned, giving rise to contemplation without disrupting the immersion becomes the artist's subsequent challenge.

Oblique House is an ideal example of how this works. In the work, the illuminated video environment is actually devised as a house haunted by ghosts of two different disasters, an earthquake and an oil spill, a century apart, that struck Valdez, Alaska. Faces are seen and voices heard on monitors in the room's four corners, each belonging to a denizen of Valdez, each describing a personal loss incurred as a result of disaster. The monitors have sensors that visitors set off as they pass, and the sensors can be set off simultaneously, in orchestrated ways, if visitors experiment and contemplate possible responses to the testimony. As active temporary inhabitants, visitors can thus symbolically "help" the victims join together, mourn, and recover. And in this way, illumination and interactive technology help Oblique House bring about the immersive contemplation of a place and a people, and their loss as a result of man-made and natural disasters.

Employing interactive technology is no more a necessary condition for a work to succeed in this genre than is illumination, however. Arguably, Asylum, A Romance, succeeds without it. Asylum contains one video monitor that has been hoisted on a forklift in a section of the room thematized as a junkyard. It displays junkyard images and emits grating, industrial noises, but is not set up to be interactive. The success of the environment as a dysfunctional whole depends upon the visitor's contemplation of aspects of the environment that can only be noticed through immersion, specifically by noticing the different kinds of partitions in the space. These are thematized by different kinds of gates, from industrial steel to loosely latticed wood plaits, that divide a cultivated sculpture garden from an antique tool shed and from the junkyard. Only through immersion can one notice these things, and thus be positioned to contemplate the question the exhibit foregrounds: the habitability of a world in which the different kinds of partitions in question are in place or absent.

All along I have been assuming that a video environment must be constructed literally out of technology. Yet surely there are cases that should be included in this genre where the constructed environment is about video or an aspect of the technological order without containing any of what it represents. In the simplest case, imagine a museum display of a contemporary living room in which video technology is nowhere in sight. The display is about video technology if only because it foils strong expectations that video be present. Assuming, then, that the living room is clearly contemporary, and that the work is clearly somehow about some aspect of video technology that is expected but missing from sight, as an elliptical sentence can be about the part of it that has been left out, it seems unproblematic to pronounce this a video environment.

The crux of pronouncing something like the above a "video environment" is that aboutness is notoriously difficult to establish (i.e., the "somehow" might be difficult, though I see no reason to think it impossible, for an artist to fill in); for it is highly contingent on established expectations and the conventions governing them, or so we learned as the history of abstract art began to develop in the twentieth century. What is a mere white cube presented by Robert Morris about? We say that there is no knowing without knowing the history of minimalism, and so on back to impressionism.

In contemporary art, lines of interpretation are even more difficult to establish, for there are so many lines cross-hatching. For example, the swarms of butterfly cut-outs presented by Bennie Flores Ansell might be said to be about an aspect of the technological order, though materially they are no more than inkjet photographs on transparencies, not the digital technology itself. A Filipino-American obsessed with Imelda Marcos and her personal style, Ansell has plied the digital arts intending to raise eyebrows at Marcos's spending habits or, rather with her spending habits given her political position (this is what the artist actually told me after a presentation of her work). She crafts butterflies from Photoshopped™ digital snapshots of the stiletto-heeled Ferragamo shoes that fill Marcos's closet. By covering walls in museums, galleries, and department stores with swarms of these creatures, she creates environments that are beautiful and even faintly menacing.[16] Unquestionably, she creates immersive environments; it is only a question of what her works are about, for without the understory about Marcos, one cannot detect anything especially menacing about her shoe-flies. They simply look beautiful, even when bending around corners and spilling onto the ceiling.

The intended criticism of the effect of Marcos's style on her constituency is nowhere apparent because cutouts of digital photographs are removed from what they take critical aim at: there is nothing especially menacing about shoes, even stiletto-heeled ones photographed and morphed into butterflies, and considered apart from their owner's behavior. A history of conventions linking shoe-flies to a media-induced culture of envy is simply not firmly in place. Thus, Ansell's work is not clearly about the technological order, as against nature or fashion, and it could certainly not be called a video (or even a digital photography) environment.

Bill Viola's Five Angels for the Millennium (click for illustration) introduces the inverse possibility: that an apparent video environment might be about something other than the technological order. Viola projects on the walls of a gallery five sequences with angelic figures, surrounding the visitor with staggered sound and visual effects. In this darkened gallery, unlike a movie theater, one becomes aware of the 360 degree moving arc of one's eyes, then head, then body, contemplating the relation between the projections; and it is difficult not to be aware of one's body, softly illuminated, in relation to the life-size angel projections before one. Without question, one contemplates these figures and the work's meaning with proprioceptive awareness. Every demarcating feature of the video environment genre seems present, every one but the representation of the technological order.

How can one tell what this work is about? First one sees that Viola's video sequences are representational in that they contain humanlike figures. The action, however, is non-diegetic: There is no represented world like our own, causally ordered and inhabited by fully-defined characters. In short, there is no world order. We might then suppose that, since they are called "angels," these figures are, in fact, symbols, but of what? They are rendered nearly tangible, more than symbolic paintings can make them, anyway, for here they loom before one, life-sized, moving, and audible. In representing angels, figures that by convention symbolize something, namely, a spiritual order, media technology is made to serve as a medium of an order quite other than itself.[17]

In some sense, then, it is about the technological order. However, the otherworldly aspect of it strains the lines I want to draw between video environments,where one might dwell, and, say, video visitations. What makes Angels so interesting is that it sticks a toe over every line I want to draw. Is it a video environment? If not, it comes close on every vector.

Finally, what kind of environment does a video environment have to be to occasion immersive contemplation? The definition in Section 3 bears repeating because it highlights the bracketing aspect of an environment:

"A video environment is a display in a museum or gallery that is encompassed by a divide of some kind (so that it is not subject to juxtaposition with other works), the parts of which are related intentionally, either as a whole completed in the artist's conception, or as a proposed whole to be judged in the viewer's experience of the work."

In paragraph two of Section 3, above, I add that we tend to find an environment immersive if and only if it is "like a prototypical everyday space in which humans and other animals immerse themselves" or dwell. Could an everyday dwelling space satisfy both conditions, that is, be immersive and yet bracketed, artfully arranged and presented to viewers without being presented in a museum? Outside of the museum, people are seen dwelling in media-saturated environments constantly: Digital cameras hidden in homes can be accessed on the Internet by anyone with the requisite technology who knows the websites to visit. As a result, it cannot be claimed that the museum alone can bracket everyday experience or set dwelling in relief from the flow of experience. For, if an audience as widely drawn as the museum-going public were directed to one website, this would seem to be the equivalent of what a museum can achieve.[18]

If my language is tentative, it is because I register a difference between what can be experienced at a desk in front of a computer and what can be experienced at a museum. Only at a museum, or at a desk in front of a computer in a video environment at a museum, does one become bodily immersed in the environment one contemplates. By taking in a scene with one's eyes only, what one gains in enjoyment of the spectacle one loses in immersive appreciation of it. Perfectly immersed, the star of the Reality TV show in question knows what it is like to dwell in that environment, assuming that the star is aware of the level of media saturation he or she is faced with, while the voyeur, not immersed, can only contemplate in the more limited pictorial mode. What it is like to be the star of a Reality TV show, where one lives every aspect of one's domestic life in the public eye, I could not convey here by phenomenological description and, at the risk of circular argument, must defer to artists who create immersive video environments for museum display.[19] Thus, I can only conclude that a video environment must be displayed in a space to which those who would appreciate it can have physical access.

But what is so limiting about the pictorial mode, after all; or, conversely, what is so special about bodily immersion? The 2004 remake of The Stepford Wives depicts smart people living in smart houses in an affluent Connecticut suburb; Brazil also, more futuristically, depicts people living in smart tenements, surrounded by smart appliances. Given that both movies and video environments have the bracketing necessary to give rise to contemplation, what differentiates the value of these films from that of "Smart Aleck House," in Section 3, above, as criticisms of the smart aleck aspect of the technological order? The film's degree of remove from experience that qualifies as "bodily immersive" can count for or against its valuation. As a complex narrative case against smart aleck technology based on the story of individuals represented by actors depicting fictional characters, it is almost categorically impossible for a film to compare with a video environment.

On a Platonic view, according to which a representation of something exists at a compromised level of reality, a video environment might seem to have more direct personal relevance to its audience. Though a representation, bracketed and in that sense like a narrative film, it is less removed than a film is from what it represents. Accordingly, the closer a representation is to being actually lived, the more moving it can be; and the more moving, the more valuable. The conditions for reception are also a factor; immersion goes beyond mere bodily presence in the space of the work. In a video environment, one is free to probe and to discover the order created by the artist in any order one chooses. One is confined to something like a diegesis (the narrative world of the film) only insofar as the technological order represented in the environment is a representation of the world we recognize as our own, with the same causal laws and, perhaps, similar human values. One can experience the environment in a way that fails to make narrative sense, or argument, or criticism, of the artist's intentions, but it cannot be said that a video environment coerces the understanding by adhering to narrative conventions as mainstream films do.[20] Rather, its force derives from its nearness to lived experience; for it is, as a narrative film cannot be, a representation of the technological order that is, in the above (more active) sense, immersive.

At the very least, one might argue, in order for the viewer of a film, or a painting or photograph, to pass from voyeuristic to immersive mode, provisions for a more immersive reception than is traditional would have to be made by the curator. It was asked, when I read an earlier draft of this paper at the University of Washington, Seattle, whether a painting would become a different kind of work if a painter were to require that a magnifying glass be hung next to it in the museum so as to encourage the spectator to experience the surface and frame as three-dimensional. Granted, the added spatial dimension invites the mode of regard belonging to sculpture, and the moving frame of the magnifying glass brings a temporal dimension to the experience that is like the mode of viewing video installations. However, to claim that the experience of the painting is then fully immersive would seem to require something more.

In a passionate argument for an "engaged" mode of viewing paintings and of experiencing both art and everyday life, Arnold Berleant argues that, indeed, when we look closely and actively at representational paintings, we can enter their perceptual space, thus dissolving the boundaries between subject and object, and engaging with the work.[21] It seems, however, that to deny the distinction between the space of the viewer's body and the space represented in the painting would be to accept that space is not the space of Newtonian science and, commensurably, linear perspective, and that the experience of space(s) can be coherently conceptualized in more than one "natural" or naturalistic way. A phenomenologist, for example, would make this argument, but anyone committed to making a physical distinction between the space of the museum and the space of the painting, whether merely for convenience or out of some dogmatic physicalist commitment, would grant that literal "immersion" within the museum is possible only in the space of the museum: one can sit on a chair in the museum, but not on the chair in a painting. So it seems that while there might be gradations of invited engagement with works, such as paintings, photographs, and films that jog the memory of actual dwelling more than others, true immersion begins and ends in whatever space is occupied by the body, the space that, because of walls and such, can actually compel and legislate experience.[22]

5. Conclusion: The Value of the Video Environment as a Genre

In summary, one can contemplate something immersively only if one can be immersed in it and, moreover, only if contemplation is possible in an immersive state. I hope, in this essay, to have illuminated the conditions under which both of these conditions can be satisfied.

The value of the video environment, I have further argued, is that it shows us powerfully and directly our mediated lives and the possibilities for them in ways that facilitate and require the proprioceptive immersion in question. By confronting the represented technological order with the body, and vice-versa, the work assaults the everyday mode of dwelling that we now or could in the future take for granted, punctures it with our presence, and shows us how the body shapes and is shaped by technology in everyday life. The overarching value of such a genre, despite its relative expense, is that it allows us to more fully grasp aspects of the relation between our embodied needs and technology and to judge the humanity or inhumanity of the seemingly endless variety of ways in which our lives are technologically mediated. In order to evaluate a dwelling condition, one must be in a position to know what it is like, and this is the primary challenge of the video environment, whereas traditional art has often served, conversely, to prove dwelling conditions that may once have seemed beneath notice to be worthy of recognition (Vermeer's art is exemplaryof this).

In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, one art form has given way to another, painting to photography, photography to film, and film to video, in the quest for the more perfect, more fully immersive way of representing reality, physical or mental, and the way it is constituted, as this essay has described it.[23] Has this essay been an argument along those familiar lines, an argument that video is the culmination of the momentous movement toward one comprehensive medium? I have argued that video environments make use of conventions developed in museums for the display of paintings and sculptures, but for a new purpose that does not supplant the old ones. I have also shown how video environments compare with narrative films, and have demonstrated that one cannot be seen as an improvement over the other in all ways. Therefore, this should not be mistaken for an argument that video environments supplant other art forms or genres.

A third challenge inherent in the genre under discussion is that the artistic status of a video environment, as in the case of any artwork, depends upon how well the proposed work fits within a frame of tried and true works that are also, one hopes, witty and prophetic.[24] Since they occupy physical space and tend to be made out of technology that represents itself, however, video environments correspond more to lived experience than to other artworks in museums, and thus are mainly comparable with other video artworks. Moreover, as environments as opposed to installations, they defy juxtaposition that facilitates interpretations that lead to the classification of mere things as works of art. Thus, the question of their status and value as art may seem, at best, an afterthought.

This does not make video environments something other than art, but it does put them at the other end of the development that conceptual art opened up: the obsessive testing of the boundaries between art and non-art. The genre's function, its social purpose, has outstripped the need for it to contend for a place in the art museum, as opposed to any other kind of public display space, and now it finds itself between one kind of museum and another. Its permanent home, typically, is on videotape or in the artist's space, but a video environment at its best, ultimately, is an immersive, contemplative, and transformative experience like no other that we take home with us and keep in memory.


[1] This paper was first read as part of a panel that I organized entitled "Video in the Museum" at the October 2003 meeting of the American Society for Aesthetics. Other panelists, whom I thank for their participation and their comments, included: Linda Norden, Federico Windhausen, Christopher Eamon, and Ivan Gaskell. I also thank audience members, Arnold Berleant in particular, for their input at the session.

A revised version of the paper also benefited from comments when I presented it to the Philosophy Colloquium at the University of Washington, Seattle (January, 2005). I wish to thank that audience for many attentive comments, and Andrew Light, in particular, for inviting the reading, and for helping me put together a slide show presentation that was important for my visually-based argument. Finally, I also thank Arnold Berleant, again, and two anonymous reviewers for this journal for their close commentary and their willingness to work with me through extensive revisions to the original paper that I wrote in 2003.

[2] Arthur Danto, "Museum and Merengue," in Embodied Meanings: Critical Essays and Aesthetic Meditations (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1994).

[3] "First Meditation: What Can Be Called into Doubt," in The Philosophical Writings of Descartes, Vol. II., trans. John Cottingham, Robert Stoothoff, and Dugald Murdoch (New York; Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1984), pp. 12-15.

[4] See John Passmore, A Hundred Years of Philosophy (New York: Penguin Books Ltd., 2nd ed., 1966). Also, or alternatively, see Juliet Floyd and Sanford Shieh, eds., Future Pasts: The Analytic Tradition in Twentieth-Century Philosophy (New York; Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2001).

[5] "Telepistemology: Descartes' Last Stand," in Ken Goldberg, ed., The Robot in the Garden: Telerobotics and Telepistemology in the Age of the Internet (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2000).

[6] "Counterbalancing" and its consequence, "sceptical paralysis," are terms that Peter Unger uses to describe the bind of the sceptical argument. See Peter K. Unger, Ignorance: A Case for Scepticism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002).

[7] Martin Heidegger, The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays, trans. Lovitt (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc., 1977).

[8] Catherine Wilson, "Vicariousness and Authenticity," in The Robot in the Garden, 86. 88. (See note 5, above).

[9] Melinda Barlow has written of Lucier's thematization of dwelling in her work, in "The Architecture of Image and Sound: Dwelling in the Work of Mary Lucier," in Melinda Barlow, ed., Mary Lucier (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, Art + Performance Series, 2000). She discusses Lucier's Antique with Video Ants and Generations of Dinosaurs (1973), Asylum, A Romance (1986/1991), Oblique House, Valdez (1993), Noah's Raven (1993), and Last Rites, Positano (1995).

[10] Chrissie Iles discusses the Postminimalist decentering of the viewing subject and the "new language" of the representation of space it created for artists working in projected film, video, slides, holographs, and photographs in which "the images appear in the darkened gallery space in a radically different form from those experienced in cinema." Chrissie Iles, Into the Light: The Projected Image in American Art, 1964-1977 (New York: Publications and New Media Department, Whitney Museum of American Art, 2001), pp. 34-5.

[11] Iles also notes Catherine Wilson's reflections on contemplative space, which they both discuss in terms of the amount of illumination present in a room, whether of the camera obscura or of an installation space, and its metaphorical link (initially made by Nicolas Malbranche) with inner illumination. (Ibid., p. 35).

[12] There is an operative assumption in creating video environments that an artistic rather than a nuts and bolts approach to reducing the mystery of technology, an approach focused on representing technology's effects rather than understanding its workings, can help us face down what Heidegger refers to as the "danger of technology" in The Question Concerning Technology. (See note 7, above.) Not all artists and curators who construct or curate media environments would agree that our technological order poses the dangers described here or by Heidegger in his essay.

For example, Iles, also curator of the film and projected media program, "Dream Reels: Video, Films, and Environments by Jud Yalkut" (Whitney Museum of Art, 2000), has written in catalogues and programs about works that might satisfy my understanding of a video environment, but she describes them as creative experiments in perspective and subjecthood, stressing their originality. (See note 10, above).

[13] Need the museum environment be an art museum? The answer must be open-ended. Since the immersive mode of contemplation includes questioning the nature of the environment one is immersed in and how it might have been constructed otherwise, the environment in question can be considered as a work of art in an art museum, but need not be. Displays of other kinds in other museums are constructed as well, after all: for example, museums dedicated to the history of man as slave to technology, or of man as prisoner, or of man as animal, though they do not ask to be thought of within the history of art, nor as works of art. The answer and level of contemplation therefore depends upon how the designer of the environment, artist or not, relates the work to other works of art. For the purpose of putting on trial a selected mode of dwelling in relation to technology, there may be no reason to weigh the experience down with the question of its art-worthiness. The argument that art status depends upon the framing context for it can be found in Tiffany Sutton, The Classification of Visual Art: A Philosophical Myth and Its History (New York; Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000).

[14] I refer to Grahame Weinbren's "new cinema" interactive work, Sonata (1991/1993). "Iterations: The New Image," International Center of Photography, New York City (1994), curators Timothy Druckery and Charles Stainback.

[15] Julie Iovine, "Why Smart Houses Turn Smart Aleck," (click for article), January 13, 2000. This article was not an artwork and didn't inspire one, to my knowledge; nor do I base my example on any immersive video environment or artwork that I know of.

[16] Bennie Flores Ansell, "Fashion To Forgeries," Feminist Caucus, American Society for Aesthetics, Houston, 2004.

[17] Relatedly, an immersive environment employing video could be made to represent a marvelous world in which causal laws such as we know them do not apply, where, for example, people turn into mushrooms when as they pass a video camera, which morphs the subject's image into the shape of a mushroom when they pass in front of it. More on the subdivisions of the marvelous can be found in an as yet unpublished paper: Tiffany Sutton, "The Marvelous and Méliès," the American Philosophical Association, Seattle, 2002. A referee for this journal suggested that I consider a castle environment, and I am not sure whether that would be more like "Smart Aleck House" or "A Trip to the Moon": futuristic or marvelous.

[18] It is well known, for example, that the White House hosts a website ( that shows us the White House Christmas festivities through a camera attached to Barney, the President's dog.

[19] Of how much help would it be, for example, to say that an immersive video environment might contain the means of finding out what it is like to live one's life as the star of a Reality TV show; and that part of experiencing life as the star of a Reality TV show might be learning what it is like to be scrutinized by total strangers who are seeing one through hidden cameras and who are judging one according to schemata that cannot, at first, be anticipated? Does this include the other links in the chain of experience, the totality of which is accessible only within the immersive experience, for example, the initial discovery of a reason or reasons for believing that there are hidden cameras or audio transmitters, and one's judgment of the effect of one's discovery of the equipment and its uses on the schemata according to which one is estimated by the voyeurs.

[20] Grahame Weinbren's Sonata was a work that allowed the audience to shape a narrative out of visual sequences that were stored as files under provocative labels with representative images. (See note 14, above.) One could assemble the story by opening the readymade files and linking them end to end, as in a parlour game.

[21] Arnold Berleant, Art and Engagement (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1991).

[22] Berleant writes, "Art does not legislate experience, it invites it," thus limiting the notion of engagement to a mode of experiencing an artwork, as opposed to claiming that some work is made to engage us and that other work is not or cannot. (Ibid., p. 74).

[23] Hugo Münsterberg staked the first claim for film's "comprehensive" mimicry of the path of consciousness, and Maya Deren was to echo him, as did many others subsequently. See Hugo Münsterberg, The Photoplay: A Psychological Study (New York: Dover, 1916); also see Maya Deren, "Cinematography: The Creative Use of Reality," in Daedalus (Journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Boston, Winter 1960). Arnold Berleant also has marked the importance of film by saying that it "does more still than render reality: it constitutes it" more fully than other media, in Art and Engagement. (See note 21, above).

[24] I here lean on the definition of art in my book, The Classification of Visual Art. (See note 13, above).

Tiffany Sutton

Plymouth, Mass.

Published June 22, 2005

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