l'art d'être · laureen andalib

PERFORMING THE SELF

ITHACA

 

Your ego can become an obstacle to your work. If you start believing in your greatness, it is the death of your creativity. – Marina Abramovic

In an all-encapsulating space of black [1], the appropriated prisoners in the tale of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave [2] demonstrate that, in being blinded from reality, a claustrophobic situation transforms human helplessness into a disarming revelation: a revelation of self-reflexive madness in the form of hallucinatory instability. In the realm of electronica, this same hallucinatory instability exists such that this “darkness” becomes an unstructured, unpredictable, and (enthusing) virtuality of liberation in video. Transforming the artist’s instability into lust, this new lust repositions the artist to identify themselves within this “darkness,” and, in turn, the shape-shifting qualities of video now allow the artist to harness the new qualities of temporality, experiential tension, sensorial propagation, and even, the imprisonment of an ongoing reflexion within real time. Pixelation becomes metaphorized with the texture of paint, sinking imagery becomes equated with the aesthetic illusions of color theory, and movement is either trapped within the conventional aspect ratios of television or released, re-purposed, and disjointed into the immersive spaces of installation.

 

As video art thus presents an objective for the viewer to experience art as an exposition, the classical defiance of inaction (or the static gesture of traditional self-portraiture), as a result, poses a further interesting situation in regards to propagating narcissism. In provoking the discourse between the experiential aspect of the work versus the artist’s intentions, self-reflection, the ever-so changing self-portrait, the challenging of reality, and the manipulation of creativity all become platforms upon which narcissism is proliferated yet is not deliberately intended by the artist– it is consumed in being the product of helplessness, curiosity, frustration, and reinstatement of using the video in understanding oneself and one’s relation to a changing reality. Whether this is through allocation, appropriation, or remediation, the medium now principially exists as a psychological situation (Krauss, 52): a limitless and impeccable metaphorical experience for the artist to translate self-reference (both implicitly and directly) as the medium itself becomes the virtual, subliminal, and impending signal in the consciousness of the artist.

 

What allows the medium to be a flexible platform for asserting the artist’s self-reference is dependent upon the success of simultaneity in allowing the medium to exist as the artist’s consciousness. This can be clarified by identifying the variations of narcissism in the form of (I) reception and projection, (II) self-encapsulation, (III) mirror-reflection (in re-purposing one’s position to offer different perspectives), and (IV) the human psyche (as a conduit). During the 1960s and 70s, the electronic freedom of video liberated artists to challenge themselves, for example, by using the medium of the body of the camera as an extension of the human body itself– perhaps as an unpurposed, moving limb [3], or, on the contrary, as a vital “third eye” [4]. In various ways, the artists not only imposed challenges on themselves, but also imposed challenges on the viewer; whether this was through the form of a complex gaze, the strain of constructed performance, the notions of surveillance, or in re-questioning the (changing) relationship of the artist to the viewer through the duration of a work.

 

Yet, before understanding how the medium of video capitalizes on simultaneity in strategically generating self-reference, it is crucial to understand the context of video art itself as a revolutionary medium in exploring identity (in comparison to other art practices) and how it is specifically successful in its potential of being able to manipulate the object-state. As described in her essay,  The Aesthetics of Narcissism (52), Rosalind Krauss describes this as a condition which separates the artist from their own being in which “his or her intentions must pass.” As Krauss further explains, the definition of the medium is thus inevitably re-contextualized in this sense: “In video art, medium becomes a psychological sense, like everyday speech…”– a world of parapsychology in which “psychic powers” are understood to be mediums, and video can seemingly be seen as being dependent upon on archaic form of communication– one that is signaled between a human receiver and a sender (53).

 

However, in regards to narcissism, this concrete transfer and attribution of roles between the artist as viewer is not always clear. Because of the compelling variations of narcissism found in video art, the medium does not limit itself in encapsulating the artist’s self-reference successfully in a specific style more than others. These variations refute the notions that the success of self-reference is dependent upon the medium in ratio to self-reference: a proportional manner (or vice versa), by, more or less, that of the medium itself which is separate from self-reference. Rather, the medium and artist’s self-reference is an equated sensorial [sensorial?] experience, a situational condition which exists in the following variations [5]:

I. RECEPTION AND SELF-PROJECTION

The human body becomes an instrument centered between two machines: the camera and monitor, re-projecting the performer’s image with the immediacy of a “mirror.”

In Bruce Nauman’s Art Make-Up (1967), Nauman sits himself in front of the camera, and in a simple ritual, brushes different colored paints on his upper body. As the perspective is strictly focused on the upper-half of his body, Nauman positions himself just as one does before a vanity: a half-length reflexive portrait of the body waist-up. As the studio lights dramatize the glazes and aesthetics of the colors, the irony is that makeup is ultimately never even applied, and at the end of the performance, Nauman just stares into the lens of the camera with an emotionless gesture.

In elevating the notion of self-experience, Nauman uses his own body as a platform for observing the self. Through the process of a specific action, here, the medium acts as a mirror in regards to self-reference because Nauman’s reflection is not a declaration of presence but a literal reflection of routine activity as the self-portrait. In this way, the ritual of applying paint becomes the language of interaction between the viewer and artist, as Weibel writes, “The construction of reality takes place not only through images but above all through language. Perception of the world is thus always tied to the human body” (6).

Additionally, the notion of the viewer’s changing relationship to the artist is raised through Nauman’s work. As Nauman’s overall image changes accordingly with the more paint he applies, his identity becomes muffled and masked. For the viewer who is seemingly more and more intrigued by the ritual as the work goes on, access and intimacy to Nauman becomes lost by the end of the piece, and only his sudden his gaze justifies a brief consultation between the viewer and artist. Thus, Nauman almost presents himself as an object of observational sculpture, almost like an animal in a cage, in which the condition of the material, or medium (as re-contextualized by Krauss), captures the artist’s self-reference in the sense of simultaneous reception and self-projection.

 

II. SELF-ENCAPSULATION

Through both the expansive and limiting forms of installation, video artists are able to create experiential situations that metaphorize a state of their emotions, perspectives, and consciousness through the fragmentation and appropriation of the medium of video. Because this medium becomes a part of a larger digital and virtual experience within a concrete space, the active presence of the medium itself becomes blended and camouflaged into the total experience for the viewer. For example, by re-constructing a space in the form of a maze, re-purposing the implications of perspectives, or distorting the conventions of vision, installation is thus able to serve as a platform for the artist to use his or her psyche as its own surround: in other words, the form of disposing (digital) bodies and images in a certain time and space, overlaying images and creating transparencies, creating experiential passages and hallways, or presenting the reflexive and psychological implications of walking through a space, all become a part of the process of  self-encapsulation, also discussed in Morse’s essay, The Body, the Image, and the Space-in-Between. In Gary Hill’s installation, In As Much As It Is Already Taking Place (1990), various-sized screens raise the investigation of relationships between the fragmented parts of the body and re-contextualization of the holistic bodily aesthetic in regards to self-reference in “parts” that questions the role and implications of male identity.

The medium here is not existing as an aesthetic process, but as a technical exploration of multiple perspectives as a display recessed into a wall. Because the videos are looped, the viewer is displaced as he or she follows the relationships, follows new meanings, and experiences constantly changing imagery as a result of the juxtapositions of different parts of the human body. Though fragmented, the installation becomes its own surround through the continuous, loop of experience. In reference to Morse, this installation exploits the artist’s identity through the experimentation of space in a “bracketed” manner– “enclosed by a matching process of breaking down the composition into its elements again” (557). In Hill’s own work, Morse’s assertion of “bracketing” is relevant to the narrow niche in which Hill’s multiple monitors are crowded inside– raising  questions about claustrophobia, self-consciousness, and personal assignment, yet seamlessly combining the medium, the artist’s consciousness, and self-referential intentions as one.

 

III. MIRROR-REFLECTION

The self and reflected image are deliberately separate.

As video artist Nam June Paik constantly humanizes technology in art within a global context, in the 1970s, he identified television’s emerging popularity as a commodity (a mass-entertainment platform) which gobbles society in almost rendering an invisible cloak on television’s potential as an artistic medium. In TV Buddha (1976), however, narcissism is explored by re-designating a pluralized role of the self to a larger audience of criticism: ourselves. Furthermore, Paik transforms the viewers from passive gazers into active spectators by making them have to circulate around the installation and explore the implications of the negative space between the Buddha and the TV monitor (installation: a figurine of a Buddha, the “self,” is isolated from a TV monitor; the gaze is isolated in reference to the “deliberation of separation in mirror-reflexion” as mentioned above, because, at the end, the reflexion of the self is in fact disconnected and lost in the signals of the TV monitor itself). Though the historical and religious implications of the uncanny placement of the Buddha which metaphorizes  meditation and contemplation, the conflict posed by the notion of mirror-reflection can be described as one of the growing indifference towards the sacredness of religion and culture in a rising digital age– posing tensions between a changing reality, the position of oneself in that reality, and the constrictions being made upon organic human interaction. In this way, the careful staging of the medium encapsulates self-reference through allocation and re-appropriation.

In addition to Paik, another artist who challenges the notion of mirror-reflection by deliberately segregating the self from the self’s projection is Sadie Benning, who began making videos as a teenager with a Fisher-Price camcorder in the 80s. Benning’s teenage videos can perhaps be described as the “pioneers” of the now-viral concept of the video log, in which one turns the camera on oneself in discovering, documenting, and constantly learning something new.  By using the video almost as a moving-image diary, Benning’s purpose of “video logging” was often not a statement of self-portraiture. Instead, she placed the camera on objects other than herself in many of her earlier works for example, alluding to self-referentiality through self-relation, juxtaposition of the self to the environment, and creating associations for her experiences. The medium here– pixelated, grainy, nostalgic, and documentarian –serves purpose to Benning’s self-referencing because her videos were personal, a sense of indirect reflexion, coming-of-age, and archival.  By also combining defiance with a childlike innocence and vulnerability, Tamblyn writes, “Omnivorously, or even cannibalistically, the video medium seems to be capable of accommodating any synthetic aesthetic strategy, production method, or format that artists have managed to devise… By exercising their right to function as speaking subjects, the feminist artists who made autobiographical videotapes were thus using the medium for both aesthetic and political purposes” (406). Most importantly, Benning often avoided direct consultation with the viewer but would hint comical gestures or “teases” with quick and harsh movements of her eyes, challenging the weakened and submissive feminist gaze [6] in adolescence in regards to feminist theory: “This privatized space, along with the uncompromising focus on the artist’s own body as both a the subject and object of her gaze, made these tapes intrinsically narcissistic” (406).

 

IV. THE HUMAN PSYCHE

“Feedback coil” allows the artist to question, understand, and see themselves within a specific condition, context, and state of time, almost as an instant reflex (psychoanalysis theory).

In Kathy O’Dell’s analysis of Claim from 1971, she explicitly states that the piece “spells out psychological drama engendered by performance-based video art.” When viewing the piece, the documentary quality of the video medium acts as a simultaneous second perspective in elevating Acconci’s self-referentiality. Although he seems to be ironically addressing no one, he repetitively recites his “humble threat” almost as a part of his conscience: “I don’t want anybody down here with me… I’ll keep anyone from coming down here with me…” Furthermore, in swaying his head and a bat and unable to make eye contact with the viewer as he is blinded, he is pathetically helpless and  incapable of social interaction, and though one may not feel threatened, the viewer has to become empathetic.

Known to revolutionize the question of what the viewer’s relationship is to the subject of video (Centers, 1971), interestingly enough, Acconci also constantly poses the question of whether there needs to be a viewer in Claim. For example, when one watches Claim, the viewer may feel like a mere passerby of an event on the street as a passive spectator. In other words, and ironically, no one feels obliged to follow his commands— commands which become more and more powerless with redundancy, especially evoked from his  “powerless” role of being a blinded man. As O’Dell also references Jacques Lacan in describing [since it’s not Lacan who describes Acconci but O’Dell]  Acconci’s “emphatically enacted move from the ‘imaginary’ to the ‘symbolic’” (137), one can wonder what universal symbolism is recreated from Acconci’s chant— does this mean  insecurity is correlated with self-consultation?

Just as in creating the notions of the camera obscura and linear perspective in painting, the vanishing point in temporal forms such as video art, essentially becomes existential: in creating a constant psychological condition that is always impending, video artists are able to embrace the medium of electronic imagery and sound to produce art as an ongoing experience involving durations and evolving tensions in time and space. By simultaneously becoming the medium and vice versa, video as an artistic material gives raise to various psychological cues and sensatorial elements in expanding the mediums use in referencing oneself both indirectly and directly– a condition which separates the artist from being, in which intentions are passed, as described in Krauss’s theory of the object-state. As the medium of video becomes the viewer’s mind and conscience through reception and projection, self-encapsulation, mirror-reflection, and the human psyche, the liberation of such a sensorial world provokes the very re-invention and lust to challenge the notions of art experience, disperse conventions, and activate the role of the viewer into an active spectator from a passive gazer through this blended consciousness. As stated by Gary Hill in Artbeit Am Video (1995), “I must become a warrior of self-consciousness and move my body to move my mind to move the words to move my mouth to spin the spur of the moment– Imagining the brain closer than the eyes…”.

 

 

NOTES

 [1] Conceptual notion of the theory of black, in regards to Bill Viola’s essay, “Video Black— the Mortality of the Image” (1990). Extending on his proposal of black as a form of fleeting encapsulation, black also perpetuates a sense of self in the form of fear and blindness, and in regards to The Allegory of the Cave, a thirst to identify with another being in space when robbed of vision, as a full activation of consciousness produced from a situation of psychological insecurity.

[2] The Republic, Plato. In this allegory, Plato argues that, just as in the way of living life in a cave, reality can be described as a ‘reflexive presence’ that is constantly being backed by a wall; the subject of the present faces another wall and takes for granted that the projections they see before them are seemingly the current occurrences of reality. In turn, these “beings” (projected as the shadows of mere puppet-play in front of the prisoners, who are unable to look behind them), are simulations made behind their backs— i.e., a world of “fantasy and ideas.”

[3] Stelarc, The Body is Obsolete (1990). In this performance, Stelarc attaches various mechanical and industrial metal-parts to his body, as well as multiple pinhole cameras to activate the roles of his body parts in having personified “perspectives.” He challenges the notion that the eyes of the face are not the only eyes of the body, but rather, a concretist and anatomical attribution of what the traditional definition of the “set of eyes” have been in history and medicine.

[4] Reference to Nam Jun Paik’s TV Buddha (1976) and Sadie Benning’s collection of earlier works as a teenager.

[5] These theories extend upon those proposed in Rosalind Krauss’s essay, Video: The Aesthetics of Narcissism (1976)

[6] Laura Mulvey, Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema (1975). An essay in which Mulvey explores the notions of the female gaze, the role of the male as a spectator, and the evolution of the cultural attributions of the gaze: from the gaze of fear and psychological dislocation such as in Alfred Hitchcok’s Psycho to the sexualization of the gaze in the 1970s.

 

PERFORMING THE SELF

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