Cher Ami and the Lost Battalion of World War I - Home of Heroes

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    Perpetual Inventory

    Rosalind E. Krauss

    An OCTOBER Book

    The MIT Press

    Cambridge, Massachusetts London, England

? 2010 Massachusetts Institute of Technology

    All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form by any electronic or mechanical means (including photocopying, recording, or information storage and retrieval) without permission in writing from the publisher.

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    This book was set in Bembo by Graphic Composition, Inc. Printed and bound in the United States of America.

    Library of Congress Cataloging- in- Publication Data

    Krauss, Rosalind E. Perpetual inventory / Rosalind E. Krauss. p. cm. “An October book.” Includes bibliographical references and index. ISBN 978-0-262-01380-2 (hardcover : alk. paper) 1. Art, Modern20th century. 2. Art, Modern21st century. 3. Art criticism. I. Title. N6490.K73 2010 709.04dc22 2009028899 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

    Video: The Aesthetics of Narcissism

    1It was a commonplace of criticism in the 1960s that a strict application of symmetry allowed a painter “to point to the center of the canvas” and, in so doing, to invoke the internal structure of the picture- object. Thus, “pointing to

    the center” was made to serve as one of the many blocks in that intricately

    constructed arch by which the criticism of the last decade sought to connect art to ethics through the “aesthetics of acknowledgement.” But what does it

    mean to point to the center of a TV screen?

    In a way that is surely conditioned by the attitudes of pop art, artists‟

    video is largely involved in parodying the critical terms of abstraction. Thus when Vito Acconci makes a videotape called Centers (1971), he realizes the

    critical notion of “pointing” by f lming himself pointing to the center of a

    television monitor, a gesture he sustains for the twenty- minute running time of the work. The parodistic quality of Acconci‟s gesture, with its obvious debt to Duchampian irony, is clearly intended to disrupt and dispense with an entire critical tradition. It is meant to render nonsensical a critical engagement with the formal properties of a work, or indeed, a genre of works—such as “video.”

    The kind of criticism Centers attacks is obviously one that takes seriously the

    formal qualities

    First published as “Video and Narcissism,” October, no. 1 (Spring 1976).

    I The Post-medium Condition

    2of a work, or tries to assay the particular logic of a given medium. And yet, by its very mise- en- scène, Centers typif es the structural characteristics of the

    video medium. For Centers was made by Acconci‟s using the video monitor

    as a mirror. As we look at the artist sighting along his outstretched arm and foref nger toward the center of the screen we are watching, what we see is a sustained tautology: a line of sight that begins at Acconci‟s plane of vision and ends at the eyes of his projected double. In that image of self- regard is conf gured a narcissism so endemic to works of video that I f nd myself wanting to generalize it as the condition of the entire genre. Yet what would it mean to say “The medium of video is narcissism”? For one thing, that remark tends to open up a rift between the nature of

    video and that of the other visual arts. The statement describes a psychological rather than a physical condition; and while we are accustomed to thinking of psychological states as the possible subject of works of art, we do not think of psychology as constituting their medium. Rather, the medium of painting, sculpture, or f lm has much more to do with the objective, material factors specif c to a particular form: pigment- bearing surfaces; matter extended through space; light projected through a moving strip of celluloid. That is, the notion of a medium contains the concept of an object- state, separate from the artist‟s own being, through which his intentions must pass.

    Video dependsin order for anything to be experienced at allon a set

    of physical mechanisms. So perhaps it would be easiest to say that this apparatus both at its present and future levels of technologycomprises

    the television medium, and leave it at that. Yet with the subject of video, the ease of def ning it in terms of its machinery does not seem compatible with accuracy; and my own experience of video keeps urging me toward the psychological model.

    Everyday speech contains an example of the word “medium” used in a psychological sense; the uncommon terrain for that common- enough usage is the world of parapsychology: telepathy, extrasensory perception, and communication with an afterlife, for which people with certain kinds of psychic powers are understood to be mediums. Whether or not we give credence to the claims of mediumistic experience, we understand the referents for the language that 4

Video: The Aesthetics of Narcissism

1.1 Vito Acconci, Centers, 1971. Courtesy the artist. 5

    I The Post-medium Condition

    describes it. We know, for instance, that conf gured within the parapsychological sense of the word “medium” is the image of a human receiver (and sender) of communications arising from an invisible source. Further, this term contains the notion that the human conduit exists in a particular relation to the message, which is one of temporal concurrence. Thus, when Freud lectured on the phenomenon of telepathic dreams, he told his audience that the fact insisted upon by reports of such matters is that the dreams occur at the same time as the actual (but invariably distant) event.

    Now these are the two features of the everyday use of medium that are suggestive for a discussion of video: the simultaneous reception and projection of an image; and the human psyche used as a conduit. Most of the work produced over the very short span of video art‟s existence has used the

    human body as its central instrument. In the case of work on tape, this conduit has most often been the body of the artist- practitioner. In the case of video installations, it has usually been the body of the responding viewer. And no matter whose body has been selected for the occasion, there is a further condition that is always present. Unlike the other visual arts, video is capable of recording and transmitting at the same timeproducing instant feedback.

    The body is therefore centered, as it were, between two machines that are the opening and closing of a parenthesis. The f rst of these is the camera; the second is the monitor, which reprojects the performer‟s image with the immediacy of a mirror.

    The ef ects of this centering are multiple. And nowhere are they more clearly named than in a tape made by Richard Serra, with the help of Nancy Holt, who made herself its willing and eloquent subject. The tape is called Boomerang (1974), and its situation is a recording studio in which Holt sits in a tightly framed close- up, a technician‟s headset on her ears. As Holt begins to talk, her words are fed back to her through the earphones she wears. Because the apparatus is attached to a recording instrument, there is a slight delay (of less than a second) between her actual locution and the audio feedback to which she is forced to listen. For the ten minutes of the tape, Holt describes her situation. She speaks of the way the feedback interferes with her normal thought process and of the 6

    Video: The Aesthetics of Narcissism

    confusion caused by the lack of synchronism between her speech and what she hears of it. “Sometimes,” she says, “I f nd I can‟t quite say a word because I hear a f rst part come back and I forget the second part, or my head is stimulated in a new direction by the f rst half of the word.” As we hear Holt speak and intuit that delayed voice echoing in her ears, we are witness to an extraordinary image of distraction. Because the audio delay keeps hypostatizing her words, she has great dif culty coinciding with herself as a subject. It is a situation, she says, that “puts a distance between the words and their apprehension—their comprehension,” a situation that is “like a

    mirror ref ection . . . so that I am surrounded by me and my mind surrounds me . . . there is no escape.”

    The prison Holt both describes and enacts, from which there is no escape, could be called the prison of a collapsed present, that is, a present time which is completely severed from a sense of its own past. We get some feeling for what it is like to be stuck in that present when Holt at one point says, “I‟m throwing things out in the world and they are boomeranging back . . . boomeranging . . . eran- ging- ing . . . an- ginging.” Through that distracted

    reverberation of a single wordand even word fragmentthere forms an

    image of what it is like to be totally cut of from history, even, in this case, the immediate history of the sentence one has just spoken. Another word for that history from which Holt feels herself to be disconnected is “text.”

    Most conventional performers are of course enacting or interpreting a text, whether that is a f xed choreography, a written script, a musical score, or a sketchy set of notes around which to improvise. By the very fact of that relationship, the performance ties itself to something that existed before the given moment. Most immediately, this sense of something having come before refers to the specif c text for the performance at hand. But in a larger way it evokes the more general historical relationship between a specif c text and the history constructed by all the texts of a given genre. Independent of the gesture made within the present, this larger history is the source of meaning for that gesture. What Holt is describing in Boomerang is a situation in which the action of the mirror ref ection (which is auditory in this case) severs her from a sense of text: 7

    I The Post-medium Condition

    from the prior words she has spoken; from the way language connects her both to her own past and to a world of objects. What she comes to is a space where, as she says, “I am surrounded by me.”

    Self- encapsulationthe body or psyche as its own surroundis

    everywhere to be found in the corpus of video art. Acconci‟s Centers is one

    instance; another is his Air Time of 1973. In Air Time Acconci sits between

    the video camera and a large mirror which he faces. For thirty- f ve minutes he addresses his own ref ection with a monologue in which the terms “I” and “you”—although they are presumed to be referring to himself and an absent loverare markers of the autistic intercourse between Acconci and his own image. Both Centers and Air Time construct a situation of spatial closure,

    promoting a condition of self- ref ection. The response of the performer is to a continually renewed image of himself. This image, supplanting the consciousness of anything prior to it, becomes the unchanging text of the performer. Skewered on his own ref ection, he is committed to the text of perpetuating that image. So the temporal concomitant of this situation is, like the echo ef ect of Boomerang, the sense of a collapsed present.

    Bruce Nauman‟s tapes are another example of the double ef ect of the

    performance- for- the- monitor. In Revolving Upside Down (1968), Nauman f

    lms himself through a camera that has been rotated so that the f oor on which he stands is at the top of the screen. For sixty very long minutes, Nauman slowly moves, turning on one foot, from the depths of his studio forward toward the monitor and then back again, repeating this activity until the tape runs out. In Lynda Benglis‟s Now (1973), there is a similar leveling

    out of the ef ects of temporality. The tape is of Benglis‟s head in prof le,

    performing against the backdrop of a large monitor that is replaying an earlier tape of herself doing the same actions, but reversed left and right. The two prof les, one “live,” the other taped, move in mirrored synchrony with one

    another. As they do, Benglis‟s two prof les perform an autoerotic coupling, which, because it is being recorded, becomes the potential background for another generation of the same activity.

    1.2 ( facing page) Vito Acconci, Air Time, 1973. Courtesy the artist. 8

Video: The Aesthetics of Narcissism 9

    I The Post-medium Condition

    Through this spiral of inf nite regress, as the face merges with the double and triple reprojections of itself merging with itself, Benglis‟s voice is heard either issuing the command “Now!” or asking “Is it now?” Clearly, Benglis is using the word “now” to underline the ambiguity of temporal reference: we realize we do not know whether the sound of the voice is coming from the live or the taped source, and if from the latter, from which level of taping. We also realize that because of the activity of replaying the past generations, all layers of the “now” are equally present.

    But what is far more arresting in Now than the technological banality of

    the question “Which „now‟ is intended?” is the way the tape enacts a collapsed present time. In that insistence it connects itself to the tapes by Nauman and Acconci already described, and ultimately to Boomerang. In all

    these examples the nature of video performance is specif ed as an activity of bracketing out the text and substituting for it the mirror ref ection. The result of this substitution is the presentation of a self understood to have no past, and as well, no connection with any objects that are external to it. For the double that appears on the monitor cannot be called a true external object. Rather, it is a displacement of the self that has the ef ect—as Holt‟s voice

    has in Boomerangof transforming the performer‟s subjectivity into another, mirror, object.

    3It is at this point that one might want to go back to the proposition with which this argument began, and raise a particular objection. Even if it is agreed, one might ask, that the medium of video art is the psychological condition of the self split and doubled by the mirror ref ection of synchronous feedback, how does that entail a “rift” between video and the other arts? Isn‟t it rather a case of video‟s using a new technique to achieve continuity with the

    modernist ambitions of the rest of the visual media? Specif cally, isn‟t the mirror ref ection a variant on the ref exive mode in which contemporary painting, sculpture, and f lm have successively expressed themselves? Implicit in this question is the idea that autoref ection and self- ref exiveness refer to the same thing; that both are cases of consciousness doubling back upon itself in order to perform and portray a separation between forms of art and their contents, between the procedures of thought and their objects. In its simplest form, this question would be the 10

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