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SOUNDING THE SUBJECT

Daniel Birnbaum and Mechtild Widrich, Curators

VIDEO TRAJECTORIES
Caroline A . Jones, Curator

With introductions by Jane Farver and Pamela and Richard Krarnlich

6 9

Introduction Jane Farver Introduction Pamela and Richard Kramlich

SBUNDINC 'T'HE SUBJECT

12 Sounding the Subject: An Introduction Daniel Birnbaum and Mechtild Widrich 14 Sounding Subjects: Echoes, Delays, Taped Conversations Daniel Birnbaum 24 Stars und Dilettantes: On the Voice in Video Art Mechtild Widrich

3 3 Artists in the Exhibition

VIDEO I'KAJECTOKIES

50 Video Trajectories Caroline A. Jones


72 Biographies

7 8 Exhibition Checklist

Sounding the Subject: An Tnrroductlon

Even a man's exact imztation o f the song o f thc nightingalc drspleases us when wc disrover that it is a mimicry, and not the nrghtingule Irnmanuel I<ant, Preface of 7'he Critiquc o f Judgement

Daniel Birnbaum, Mechtild Widrich

In conceiving this show, our initial interest was in sound. This dimension of video art is surprisingly under-explored in writing on the subject, with its attention on the self, viewed by the camera (described as an attitude of narcissism), or issues of the moving image in time. If Kant reminds us that the singing of a nightingale delights us only if we believe in the authentic origin of the twitter from a present bird-hence the disappointment if someone else imitates it-the technique of video Opens up many ways to destabilize assumptions of the self through its auditory layers. Sounding, in its double meaning of emitting a sound, and locating a body in space, seemed the ideal term to broaden this initial theme to the complex formations of identity. Sounding the Subject presents a selection of works that explore subjectivity in relation to the voice, to noises, music, or to ambient sensations. Pipilotti Rist shows the instability of her own role in an act of identification with a Beatles' Song in her video I J m Not the Girl Who Misses Much. In Stan Douglas's Hors-champs music becomes an important factor of identity construction, while voices seem uncannily detached from their protagonists in Eija-Liisa Ahtila's installation The House (Talo). In David Hammons's Phat Free, the aural trace comments acerbically and abstractly on the stereotyped role of black men in public space. Nam June Paik's TVBuddha, however, takes a different road: the Composer confronts the audience with the closed-circuit image of a Buddha Statue on a TV monitor and ostensive silence. In all cases, the "self" surfaces as staged rather than given, articulated in the works through a contested dialogue between

the acoustic-sometimes, anthropomorphic voice-and the visible. The sound can be delayed or detached from the images, sped up or down, sampled, or bottled to an uncanny surround almost below the threshold of hearing. The effects of interiority produced are the object of our investigation and juxtaposition. When Jane Farver, Director of the MIT List Visual Arts Center, invited us to curate an exhibition drawn from the Pamela and Richard Kramlich and New Art Trust collections, we considered the structure of this university-based contemporary art institution an ideal setting to take on more than the curatorial challenge of presenting a selection of this extraordinary collection to our viewers. From the beginning of the project, Professor Caroline Jones of the History, Theory and Criticism program in MIT'S Department of Architecture was enthusiastically involved, hatching a plan to teach a course on video art with works in the exhibition. This soon gave rise to the idea of a wider, historical overview, and at the beginning it was unclear whether this was to be a study room or a separate Part of the exhibition. Given the fact that the Kramlich and New Art Trust collections include many of the milestones of new media art since the 1960s, we hope to have established a structure for the exhibition that affords the audience at least a glimpse into this enormously rich field: apart from the main gallery with the abovementioned work, the Bakalar Gallery, conceived by Professor Jones, invites the viewers to pursue a more historical trajectory through our theme, from early black-and-white experiments to more recent engagements with subjectivity and sound. This project posed profound and unforeseen challenges due to the simple fact that new media art does not always have set size conditions, and often has a challenging need for specific, sometimes outdated, equipment. List Visual Arts Center Exhibition Designer Tim Lloyd provided the technical guidance through this jungle, painstakingly reconstructing the technical apparat u s and redrawing floor plans according to new discoveries. We would like to thank Pamela and Richard Kramlich for their perspicacity i n collecting these works and their generosity in sharing them. Christopher Eamon, curator of the Kramlich Collection, has helped us gather the necessary information, and answered questions that arose over the course of many months' work on the exhibition. New media art allows and demands a reorientation of our established views of how technology impinges on human life, and we are thrilled to work i n the media-friendly and knowledgeable environment of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Stars and Dilettai~tes: On rhe Vsice 111 Video A r t

Mechtild Widrich

In a short fable by Franz Kafka entitled "Josephine, The Songstress or, The Mice Nation," the narrator is ambivalent as to whether the leading character Josephine has any true abilities as a singer. "Those who have not heard her sing do not know the power of sang,' it is announced at the beginning of the Story, although, as we gather later, the sound she produces in her performance is undistinguishable from the "general popular squeaking," which 1s she is "one of [the mouse nation's] more thoughtless habits.lT2 a uniquely talented and admired singer, uniting the nation in times of danger and distress, or a dilettante, narcissistically and dictatorially insisting on the importance of her performance for the well-being of her audience? The narrator is unwilling to decide her ultimate merit, but whatever Josephine's abilities, she is obviously able to channel social energy for and through her audience. "Maybe it is the Same way with Josephine's singing; we admire in her that which we do not admire at all in ourselves."3 This moral splitting allows no place for reciprocal interaction with her listeners:
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In this type of live performance, the separation between the performer and the audience must be strictly maintained, and the meddler made to steal away "in fear and harne.''^ What if it were otherwise? What if Josephine's performance or her encounter with the squeaker in the audience had been recorded? Would she lose her appeal (because we would have realized that she is an imposter), or would her power be multiplied? How do the instabilities and tensions between performance and

reception differ in a mediatized society that intertwines notions of celebrity with those of technical mass dissemination? I will take these questions as a starting point for reflection on how subjectivity in a mediatized world is being "voiced" by artists working in video.

I will Start at the beginning: Around 1970, artists working with video had to adapt quickly to new technologies, and most pressingly to the dislocated "presence" of their audience. In contrast to TV, the instant feedback and portability of the video camera generated an unprecedented intimacy of mediation. Artists often were their own first audience. It was at the intersection of performance and video that these issues were most fruitfully confronted, e.g. in Dan Graham's piece Performance/Audience/Mirror (1975),precisely because in this context the live and the recorded seemed a priori at odds. The "voiceV-that which seemed the closest and most authentic characteristic of the nonalienated subject-soon occupied a precarious position. Many of the artists in Sounding the Subject play out different layers of cultural references that can be described by "mixing," "overdubbing," or "riffing." They work within the productive tension of authenticity and mediation, encouraging in turn complex modes of reception. One artist at the intersection of performance and video incorporates the receptive frame of mind demanded by pop music very literally: In Vito Acconci's Theme Song (1973),Acconci addresses a (female?)'jobject of desire in a more than half-hour-long monologue, while playing Songs by the Doors, Bob Dylan, or the Velvet Underground on a tape recorder. Acconci is sprawled on the floor in front of a zebra-pattern sofa with his face close to the camera. He is both the typical receiver of "canned" music from a rapidly commercializing subculture, and the performer himself. His soft but insisting voice is both self-involved and coercively outgoing. "The new model for public art is pop m ~ s i c ,Acconci "~ later declared. Indeed, he is playing the music for himself and for us, interacting with the tape by sometimes singing or hum-

Vito Acconci

Theme Song, 1973 Video, black-and-white, sound, 33 minutes 17 seconds Courtesy of Electronic Arts Intermix

ming along with the songs, but mostly using lyrics as riffs on the theme of seduction. This is a case of both conceptual and literal overdubbing: the piece is a n audio mix tape overdubbed Let ~ us try to by an "amorous" performance recorded on v i d e ~ . untangle the possible interactions in the piece. The absence of Bob Dylan and Van Morrison, the fact that they are inaccessible to Acconci (and us-this is why we buy their recordings) indicates that Acconci is encountering mass culture primarily through the recording, as consumer. If we look into the hierarchies between the recorded material in the video, and the recorded video, we See that even though we are presented with one "coherent" piece, the interaction works on several levels: the taped music is the materialization of the intimacy that pop songs try to produce, and also of a private past moment, in which they have been strung together on tape i n a specific order. Acconci's embodiment of this music and his posturing towards a dislocated single spectator, do not constitute a re-enactment nor a n additive process (as in the overdubbing), but a jolting oscillation between performer and audience. Part of the appeal of this piece, and its slight discomfort, lies in his use of bad-quality music tapes rather than professional material and the intimate appearance of his "home" video. It is this dilettantism which creates the porosity that still allows u s to interact either with the music (we can take on Acconci's role), or with the artist's performance (we take on the role of Acconci's audience). It remains largely unresolved who sings for whom. Similarly, the distinct options for performative interaction and self-expression both for the artist and the audience remain Open and if anything, suggestive. The performance can remain ambivalent even in the most desexualized works of Conceptual art. At the beginning of the video Baldessari Sings LeWitt (1972), the artist with big glasses and untidy hair, dressed in an informal shirt, sits down at a table that looks like the cheap simulation of a TV news studio, and announces the coming attraction:

Baldessari seemingly uses all the means at his disposal to popularize LeWitt's artistically influential manifesto. First, through the transfer from written text to lyrics sung to the melodies of popular songs such as Yankee Doodle and the national

John Baldessari
Baldessari Sings Le Witt, 1972 Video, black-and-white, sound, 12 minutes 50 seconds Courtesy of Electronic Arts Intermix

anthem, in a vain attempt to render the sentences charming, funny, and memorable; and second, through the medium of video, which stands for magical, instant access to a vague notion of "public." However, Baldessari is obviously not deceived by the promises of new media (whether his voice or the camera). He ironically undermines the concept of reaching a broader public through the choice of performing incompetence. Taped with a steady camera, without Crew, like many early video pieces, his stiff performance is as uncompelling as his monotonic modulation, which obscures LeWitt's "idea" and reduces the sentences to an inchoate mumbling. Worse still, when one actually succeeds in making out the tunes, attention to the words evaporates altogether. The performance is slapstick at its best, with Baldessari's effort eventually shifting into what might be called a liturgical mode, a "public service by a citizen," perceptible in the strained way in which the artist dutifully repeats some of the sentences for the purpose of improved reception ("this one was too fast"). The longer he tries, the more he restates the impossibility of reaching his audience, of freeing the "Sentences" from the confines of the art world; ultimately, the work collapses into a n ironic document of the binding obligation of artists inside avant-garde circles to state and restate their artistic heritage and theoretical positions. In the video, text and its performative reanimation struggle for primacy, and although Baldessari's humble performance seems to play second fiddle to LeWitt's text, the popular melodies supplant it. Part of the humor lies exactly in the contrast between the "popular" Songs and the "recondite" theory, and the begging of the moralistic interpretation that media popularization inevitably compromises the "idea." More importantly, Baldessari is playing the dilettante for the knowing art-world, intentionally failing to fulfill his "role," and confirming its prejudice that broadcasting "difficult art" does not add up to the utopian dream of reaching the masses. Acconci's and Baldessari's works both point towards the instability of subject, object, and the difficulty of using the taped voice for authentic expression. This should not be mistaken as an exemplification of the impossibility of voicing as such: both succeed in opening up the question of subjectivity and authenticity in more than just one direction, while acknowledging the mediated condition-the "recorded" and documented-of video and their own selves.

Swiss artist Pipilotti Rist is often described as a child of the MTV generation, who appropriates the style, ambience, and the immersive strategies of Hollywood musicals and "music ~ i d e o . " ~ The influence of pop music on the production of art video has troubled scholars who are committed to the dichotomy of culture industry (regressive audience) versus avant-garde strategies (attacking the dominant structures). Rist does not allow this neat opposition. Her early work, I'm Not the Girl Who Misses Much (1986) presents u s with blurred images of the artist, wearing a tight black dress that Comes up just below her naked breasts, performing an alienated scrap of the Beatles' Happiness is a Warm Gun. She performs the Song fragment for the camera, shaking her body wildly in front of the lens. The speed and the audio pitch of the tape are manipulated; the music gets faster and is then slowed down again. Just before the video almost collapses i n a succession of still images and the artist's high-pitched caterwauling, a snippet of the original Song by the Beatles is allowed to surface, while Rist continues her ecstatic movements to John Lennon's voice. What makes this work interesting is the dizzying frame of references: we have the "canned" version of the pop Song Rist grew up knowing, we have the staging of her own subjective reaction to it as audience, and we have the gallery audience now watching her video piece. She combines the immersed audience and the charismatic entertainer in her own performance, working through layers of received and constructed cultural references like Beatlemania, fashion, and the aesthetic of the music video. Cliches of the naive audience and the cynical performer are thus unsettled, without Rist herself posing as critical interloper. She allows a glimpse of seduction, and encourages the wish to See more of this blurred half-naked female body, which sometimes slides entirely out of the camera view, the wish to get her i n focus, to enter her world. In watching her perform, we become aware our own ambivalences vis-a-vis the familiar Song, Rist's reinterpretation, and our own desires. Do we dismiss her as dilettante or take her for the star? Art video-in the video-saturated mid-eighties-was a medium perfectly calibrated to keep the professional and the amateurish in suspension. Almost ten years later, Rist returned to the problematic of her early video work with I'm a Victim of This Song (1995). Here, she purports to give herself again, this time entirely, to the fashions of the pop industry. Her video re-performs Chris Isaak's Wicked Game, a Song that rose to subculture fame due to its incorpora-

tion in David Lynch's film Wild at Heart (1990). To some extent, Rist lets the settings of Isaak's music clip inspire her own setting:1 both clip and video include dramatic cloud formations; the beach, which serves as the Stage for Isaak's dealings with a sparsely clothed beauty, reappears through pixilated photographs of women (Rist herself?) in bathing suits floating over the Scene in a digital pastiche. Rist's video is adorned with rudimentary Computer graphics, and we hear her taking on Isaak's Part with her high, semi-professional voice, backed by the flat bass of a male friend. While mocking the atmosphere of her source, she is also inserting scenes and images personally meaningful to her, however abstruse: we See goings-on at the Cafe Prckel in Vienna, a hangout for intellectuals just opposite the Institute of Applied Arts, where Rist studied. One sequence shows a folder with the labe1 "Pipi" on its back, undoubtedly stuffed with steamy documents about the singer. Rist's piece resembles the painstaking yet awkward redoing of a clip by an obsessed fan, who cannot help blending her intimate memories with her object of desire. The instrumental parts of Isaak's recording are directly incorporated, and although Rist sings the piece we do not see her perform it for us. She only juxtaposes her voice and the video collage, which seems like the history of some past event, the delayed moving images appearing oddly retrospective, as if video's mediatized condition is being made manifest. 1s there anything authentic about her experience, or does it only become so through mediation? 1s Rist exemplifying the feminist voice, loud, aggressive, and "real"? And, where exactly lies the difference between the two concepts? Maybe the authentic lies in the act of collecting, in her personal file? Or are we witnessing the collapse of personal experience into the commercialized product-is she the ideal audience, a conditioned "victim"? Let us remember Kafka's Passage in which the girl mouse in the audience begins to squeak, not with the intention of disturbing, but because she is herself immersed in Josephine's performance, spontaneously adding to the performance in her own way. Could such a disruptive live encounter be envisioned in the transference from one video to another? Towards the end of the video piece, Rist overdubs her own voice with a desperate squeak, frantically screaming the main line of the Song: "I don't Want to fall in love!" Hoarse, upset, and angry, she yells this mantra a t the Song she has been singing. She wills her personal affairs to be a certain way, by "voicing" them very differently from the dreamy conformity of the lead singing. I say it, thus it will be so. The scream tries tobe the performative blade through the medi-

ated haze. Yet by its very urgency we r e a l i ~ e that it is caught in the same logic of mediation: it is too late, everything has already happened, and been recorded, and the unsettling voice disappears in the background. Rist's scream, like Kafka's squeak, has pathos of its own. The scream has a physical force: we can hear Rist's voice breaking, from the the mike oL7erloading,the \.iolent sound r e ~ w b e r a t i n g walls of the studio. The recording captures the scream in its contingency, and the audience, in t u r n , must interpret this encounter as a past, j7et authentic perforiiiative encounter.

For the first two minutes of David Hammons' Phut Free, we only hear sound. The screen is black, and the metallic din evokes a jazz druni solo by Mai< Koach, whose work was once memorably compared to a drum-kit falling down a flight of stairs. Onlj. when the image appears do we See the sound's producer: a man (the artist) kicking a meta1 bucket do\z.n the streets of New York at night. The camera follows him at a respectful distance, crossing and re-crossing streets, capturing him from behind, moving to his side, while random passers-by gape. The song we might be awaiting neL7erStarts, and the piece ends rvith Hammons kicking the bucket up to his hands and catching it gracefullj-. What is usually referred to as Hamiiions' only video piece is described in the documentation of the work as a performance.l1 Indeed we See here elements of earlier street performances by Hainmons that were concerned with the presence of African American men in urban space like Bliz-uurd Ball Sule from 1083, during which the artist sold snowballs in Cooper Square. How does the perforrnance in the street, parodying the stereotypical and "allowable" beha\.ior of African American men in public (sport, music), and observed by a street audience, connect to the video? The 1iL.e audience becomes part of the work, not just because people happen to appear in the video but also because Hammons addresses issues of life in urban neighborhoods, sounding out possibilities of street life without losing his skepticism about their mythification. That the performance takes place on the s t r e e t a n d not in the studio-makcs it more than a subjective experience. The confrontation with the street audience is constitutive for the piece, particularly because the aL7eragereaction seems unengaged. Hoar does mediation affect this reciprocal effect'? Of Course, a performative interaction also takes place once \Te, the audience

in art gallcries, watch the video. The dense layers of context that are embedded in the piece might indeed come into full bloom here, but I would argue, thc new audience canilot dispense with the original one. Neither a transparent view into the utopian of an organic subculture somewhere in the street, nor a circuit between Hammons and his gallery audience, Phat Free unfolds in the interstices between these two layers of meaning, at the point of mediation bi, the camera that gi\.es us a glimpse into both imagiiled worlds. There is a layer of documents as well as one of performance, and the subject of performance, while not split or schizophrenic, can only be sounded out from both of these directions at once. In performances for the camera, the problem betrveen the represented and the "authentic" self-and it should be ob\.ious at this point that I a m not advocating a clear split-comes to the forefront. Artists activate precisely the tension between the mediated and the immediate, and they acknowledged their own mediated condition. This conception does not simply encompass the construction of a self, but also a process of audience formation. The presumed split between authentic and represented subject is thus transferred into a more complex model, in which different levels o f mediation arc at play. In this process, the roles of the performer and the audience became porous, taking on diwrse positions. The title of this show can be taken \>eryliterally then: As "sounding" suggests both making a sound and using sound to locate a body in space.

I ivould like to thunk Carolitie Jones und Andrei l'op for their udvice on this n~anuscript.
-hl.\V-.

Mechtild Widrich is a Ph.D. candidate in the History, Theory, and Criticism section of the Department o f Architecture at MIT. She holds an M.A. (Mag. Phil.) in art history from the University o f Vienna, Austria; a State Diploma (M.A. equivalent) frorn the University of Linz, Austria; and a University Diploma in rnuseology frorn the Universita Internationale dell'Arte in Florence, Italy. She has received an Avalan Travel Crant, a Hyzen Travel Crant, and a Schlossrnan Research Award, all from the MIT Departrnent o f Architecture. She was a MIT Presidential Graduate Fellow, is the recipient of a Fulbright Scholarship, an Emanuel and Sofie Fohn Scholarship from the Fohn Foundation in Austria, as well as a pre-doctoral fellowship from the Max Planck Institute, Berlin. She contributed an essay to Memosphere: Rethinking Monuments that was published on the occasion of the exhibition Low-Budget Monuments at the Rornanian Pavilion of the 52nd Venice Biennale in Venice, Italy, and is preparing an essay on the role of photographs in re-performances that will be published by the University Press Leuven.

Franz Kafka, "Josephine, The Songstress or, The Mice Nation," Partisan Review, (May/June 1942): 213. This early translation is by Clement Greenberg. The text was originally published a s "Josephine, die Sngerin oder Das Volk der Muse," in Prager Presse, 20 April 1924, 213. Ibid. 215. Ibid. 214. Ibid. 215. Ibid. 215. "Female" needs to be in parenthesis, because, a s Amelia Jones has shown, Acconci's gendered body must be considered unstable, and accordingly the gendered bodies of the audience of the piece. See her chapter, "The Body in Action: Vito Acconci and the 'Coherent' Male Artistic Subject." See Amelia Jones, Body Art/Performing the Subject (Minneapolis/London: The University of Minnesota Press, 1998). "Acconci Studio: Interiors, Buildings, Parks," DVD by Julia Loktev, 2004, accompanying the catalogue, Vito Hannibal Acconci Studio (Barcelona: Museu d'Art Contemporani de Barcelona/ACTAR, 2004). Overdubbing is a technique used since the 1930s: "Inaugurated in the 1930s, re-recording only became common practice in the early 1950s, when most studios were abandoning direct-todisc recording in favor of magnetic tape." Olivier Julien, "The Diverting of Musical Technology by Rock Musicians: The Example of DoubleTracking," Popular Music, 18/3 (1999): 358. Pipilotti Rist points toward the fact in several interviews that MTV was not available for her in Europe until the late 1980s. Video clips were indeed rarely

shown on German-speaking TV at that time, and if, mostly in weekly top-forty shows. The term "music video," though it has entered common parlance, obscures the fact that these works are often shot on film. 10 The music clip was directed by photographer Herb Ritts in 1991 and won several MTV awards. 11 The credit line, I learned, should read: "Phat Free. A Performance by David Hammons; Production Alex Harsley; Editing David Hammons and Alex Harsley." Archive of the Pamela and Richard Kramlich collection.